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Spotlight on: Southeast Asian Literature

By Jane Bentham and Rob Tomlinson

Despite growing interest in translated books across the publishing sphere, literature from Southeast Asia is still frequently overlooked. Discover the abundance of cultures, languages and histories from this region with our selection of work from Southeast Asian authors. 

Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao

Sergius Seeks Bacchus is a collection of thirty-three poems that draw from the author’s personal experiences as an openly gay man of Batak descent (an ethnic minority in Indonesia) and a working-class Christian background. Coming from this religious and ethnic minority and marginalised by his community for his sexuality, Pasaribu investigates what it means to live on the fringes of society. His poems place the reader in an intimate position as he confesses his turmoils, incorporating religious imagery throughout to demonstrate his troubled faith. While depicting the continued ostracisation of the queer community in Indonesia, Sergius Seeks Bacchus ultimately emphasises the importance of self-love for LGBTQIA+ individuals, with raw, emotional reflections on love as a form of resilience. 

The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul

Strange situations proliferate in The Sad Part Was, a collection of twelve short stories that boldly depict the vivacity and absurdity of modern life in Thailand. With an underlying wit and humour, Yoon portrays various scenarios, ranging from a man discovering the secret of the universe in a bamboo grove to a female vampire who goes missing with her son. These stories incorporate elements of postmodern narrative, playing with the boundaries of genre, but also highlight key societal issues, including generational divides, police violence and rapid urbanisation.

Published by Tilted Axis Press in 2017, The Sad Part Was is one of the first contemporary Thai books to be translated into English. Yoon is an established and widely celebrated author in his homeland, having won Thailand's most prestigious literary prize. 

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, translated from Vietnamese by Phan Thanh Hao

Intimate and heartfelt, The Sorrow of War follows Kien, a North Vietnamese soldier in the Vietnam War, who is on a mission to find the remains of fallen comrades for burial. This moving novel is framed by Kien’s subsequent flashbacks as he reflects on his youth, his brutal experiences in battle and his attempts to readjust to normal life in the present day. Using a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness style, the author pulls no punches as he brings the reader face-to-face with the horrors and degradation of war while highlighting its detrimental psychological impact on survivors. 

This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated from Indonesian by Maxwell Ronald Lane

This Earth of Mankind is a hugely influential novel narrating the coming of age of its Javanese protagonist, the young Minke, and Indonesia emerging to nationhood from Dutch colonial control. Minke, identified from a young age as a talented writer, is brought into close contact with the Dutch colonial system, first through formal education and then through his relationship with the Indonesian concubine of a rich but mad Dutch trader. He learns about love and business in her company and falls for her daughter, Annelies. Yet his hopes of a happy and stable home life are thwarted by the machinations of the colonial legal system. 

A book that proved to be highly controversial. Pramoedya penned the novel while a political prisoner. When eventually published in 1980, it was banned the following year for its supposed Marxist-Leninist content, a concept not mentioned in the work. 

With its content and publication history, This Earth of Mankind offers an insight into the injustices of Dutch colonial Indonesia and the post-independence state.

Man Tiger: A Novel by Eka Kurniawan, translated from Indonesian by Labodalih Sembiring

Following the above recommendation comes a novel whose author is described in the introduction as being the successor to Pramoedya by historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson.

First published in English in 2015 by Verso, Man Tiger subverts the tropes and expectations of crime fiction to produce a lyrical and tightly woven novel that draws influences from the touchstones of world literature (García Márquez; Dostoyevsky), as well as the pulp novels of the author’s native Indonesia. The typical structure of a crime novel is undermined, gesturing towards the everydayness of death in a country where violence has marked much of the last century. The novel’s central conceit evokes the language of magical realism – the protagonist is a man who conceals within himself a supernatural white tiger – and the refusal to engage in a typical whodunnit structure means that the work is captivating and surprising.



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