The need for more diverse representations of Asians and how to increase literary exchange within the Asia Pacific region and with the rest of the world were two of important running themes in this year’s Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association (APWT) conference, which was hosted by the School of Foreign Languages, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China, 25-27 November 2016.
Participants came from all over Asia, Australia, the US, and Europe—brought together by love of literature and the passion for getting to know stories being told in the Asia Pacific region and the people writing them. In addition to panel discussions, the conference also offered workshops in translation, travel writing, editing, and poetry writing.
Nury Vittachi, chair of APWT, opened the conference by sharing encouraging statistics on the growing impact Asian creative industry has had on the world: “For movies, audience size in Asia has surpassed that in the West. Currently the number one Intellectual Property in the world is from Asia: Pokemon. Recently I was in a book industry meeting in Jakarta, and they reported that 180 titles by Indonesian writers have been purchased by foreign companies in the last 12 months. Western products coming to Asia, that’s always happening—now Asian products are coming to the West, that’s exciting.”
Yet how are Asian people being portrayed in literature and popular culture? The question came up during various discussions. The panel Creating the Asian Male in Literature asked how representation of Asian masculinity, or lack of it, affects how Asian men are perceived and how they live their lives.
Nury said men in Asia often behaved in ways that might seem non-normative to Western eyes, mentioning as examples heterosexual men in India who hold hands and nap side by side. Yet this is not often seen, especially in Western movies or books.
When asked how to portray Asian men correctly, author and screenwriter Benjamin Law said, “We never ask what’s the correct way to portray a white person—I think it’s because there are many representations of them. The question isn’t about the correct or incorrect way to portray your characters, it’s have you written them as complex or simple? Have you dug deeper than your preconceptions? Do your characters have or do things that surprise you?”
This lack of visible representation can affect a person’s life deeply. “My friend had been dating this white Australian girl for several weeks,” continued Benjamin. “When he wanted to take it to the next level, she said, I don’t think I can do this anymore because you’re Asian. His first reaction was, When did you realize that? There was no template or precedent, she couldn’t even extend her imagination to what a long-term relationship would be like with an Asian man. In seeking a relationship, my friend started with a deep disadvantage that he didn’t even realize he had.”
After a long discussion, panelists and audience members agreed that we need more, and more diverse, representations of Asians in literature and other media, if we want to shatter stereotypes and the perception that heterosexual, white masculinity is the normal or the ideal.
Launching her collection of short stories Portable Curiosities, Julie Koh read an intriguing story about a yellow man leaping out of a movie screen and becoming an expert in Italian neo-realist cinema, but people keep seeing him primarily as a yellow man. The story, among other things, is a sharp and funny comment on race relations in Australia.
“It was particularly surprising for me as an adult to realize that I had a skin color that was limiting my opportunities,” Julie said. “A lot of my adult life was working out how to get out of the stereotypes that people in Western countries have about Asian people. It’s been a long struggle. I don’t like the definitions put upon me because of my race, not that I don’t embrace my Asian-ness.”
In her keynote speech, novelist and scriptwriter Qaisra Shahraz talked about the hurdles women had to overcome to write and to be respected as writers—in the past and in the present. “Inequality relating to women is a running theme in my literary works,” she said, “I want women to have access to quality education, I want them empowered.”
Qaisra also talked about how Muslim women are constantly stereotyped in the media and about her work to counter those stereotypes. “Each Muslim woman is a product of her culture, her circumstances, and her mind,” she said. “Not all of us are passive or oppressed or can be bullied about what we must do or what we cannot do. We can speak for ourselves.”
The discussion on women telling their own stories continued in the panels Women Writing Asia and Indonesian Literatures. Author Maribel Kawsek spoke about writing the lives of Chinese-Filipinos, who are still invisible in the Philippines. When asked about what women are writing about in Indonesia, novelist Eliza Vitri Handayani reminded the audience that there are no limits on what women can write, and the challenge isn’t finding a subject to write about, but claiming space, fighting for equal opportunities, and getting wider audiences and appreciation not only from women readers.
The concern of being trivialized was also voiced in the panel Writing for Young Adults. Christopher Raja, author of The Burning Elephant, talked about initially being embarrassed and disappointed that his novel was marketed as a YA novel, but he was happy with how the book has been received. Author Jane Houng said that while YA was a label invented primarily for marketing purposes, writing for young people meant writers had to explore what it means to be young—the challenges of finding yourself, going through your first love, experimenting with new things. Because of that, she added, many books written for teenage audiences often have the same themes or characteristics, for example first-person narrative and fast-paced actions. Eliza Vitri Handayani said the problems faced by teenagers in Jakarta reflect the problems of society at large—such as schools that are oppressive rather than nurturing and enmity between various schools or religious groups. Just as women’s rights are not just the concern of women, those problems can’t be brushed off as just teenagers’ problems.
ANOTHER red thread running through various discussions is the challenges facing writers in Asia, for example how to achieve international recognition and how to increase literary exchange within the Asia Pacific region.
The panel Hooking an International Publisher brought together Neeta Gupta—publisher of Yatra Books and curator of Jaipur BookMark, Rachel Edwards—editor of Transportation Press, Alexandra Büchler from Literary Across Frontiers (LAF), and David Lopez-del Amo, a European literary agent based in China.
Neeta works to encourage and promote translation of international books into Indian languages and Indian books into other Indian languages. Like India, literature in Europe is written in many languages—some more well-known than others. Alexandra said that LAF’s work has been guided by the principle of reciprocity—getting writers writing in “bigger” languages and markets translated into “smaller” languages and markets, and use the opportunity to also translate and promote writers writing in the “smaller” languages into the “bigger” languages. The panel also acknowledged the role played by independent presses who take risks in bringing new talents from Asia into key markets, such as Europe and the US.
The panel Indie Publications in Asia introduced several initiatives that writers can engage with: Cha, an online literary journal, represented by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, Transportation Press and Open Road Review represented by Rachel Edwards, Kyoto Journal represented by Suzanne Kamata, and The Script Road, Macau Literary Festival represented by Hélder Beja, who also highlighted the need for literary festivals designed to benefit the local community and to promote local authors to wider audiences.
In his keynote speech, Professor Nicholas Jose asked what it meant when Asia Pacific writers and translators get together at events such as APWT conferences. “What we engage here is not something defined simply by geography, language, ancestry, or ethnic background, but something creative—forms and practice and expression that is special and valuable.” He noted a new level of awareness of creative writing in the region, and an increase in the teaching of creative writing and the acknowledgement of the role of translators. Prof. Jose then pointed out several initiatives that could help promote writing from Asia Pacific beyond the region: Time Out Beijing published a list of best Chinese novels, although many important novels from the Chinese world were left out because they haven’t made the journey of translation. Cordite Poetry Journal published a special issue featuring works of contemporary indigenous Australian poets translated into an array of non-English languages of India, coordinated by Mridula Chakraborty. InterSastra opened a space for defiant writers in its new translation series.
“Literature is made available through reviews, discussions, criticism, and debate. It has its audience and supporters. It happens in all our communities everywhere, but I think it happens much less across the different literary cultures in our region, and it happens not enough between the Asia Pacific region and the rest of the world. APWT exists to change that. It’s a work in progress,” said Prof. Jose, who ended his speech with a message to conference participants: “We don’t advocate enough for the work we’re producing, we don’t write criticism or engage in debate enough, or create the opportunities to do so. By being here, by being a part of this community, we already recognize our uniquely rich and significant literary potential. The next stage is to engage as advocate, to tell people who we are, what we do, what we have, and what we stand for.”
Of Eliza Vitri Handayani’s novel, Professor Jose said: “The lived experience of new generations in changing parts of our world that are increasingly connected demands translation into new forms of expression—and those expressions demand the freedom to move, to communicate with others, including online. One of the best examples recently is Eliza Vitri Handayani’s novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different. The author wrote a version in Bahasa Indonesia and then produced her own English version, published by Vagabond Press last year. As the title declares, this taut and intense novel depicts a moment in a society, and in two lives, when the hope that everything can be different is real, when it partly happens, a revolution experienced through the lens of a photographer, a young woman who, as author, offers us her own new writer’s voice. Handayani’s commitment as a writer is continuous with her work as a translator and also as an advocate for freedom of expression.”
OTHER highlights of the conference include a captivating performance by poet Sholeh Wolpé who read her interpretation and translation of the mystic Sufi Persian epic, The Conference of the Birds. There was also a panel with Chinese authors from different generations talking about the subjects that mattered to them and their writing life. After a memorable dinner at Kesmido Yunnan Restaurant, participants headed to Loft 345 where they were treated with fantastic performances and readings by Joshua Ip, Omar Musa, Osamah Sami, Ravi Shankar, Tim Tomlinson, Sally Breen, Eliza Vitri Handayani, other conference participants and Guangzhou’s spoken word poets.
Also of note was Robin Hemley’s keynote speech on traveling and the responsibility of travel writers. He mused on the concepts of nationalism and patriotism, about the stories he picked up along the way and the stories he wrote for audiences beyond the places he visited, and how traveling had pushed him to self-interrogation, questioning preconceptions, and asking difficult questions about himself and others.
That weekend in Guangzhou, we were all travelers, bringing our stories and sharing them with others, and eventually taking home even more stories on which we can reflect and write about.
As in previous APWT conferences, during that weekend we encountered some of the most innovative, courageous, and committed writers from the region, and many participants returned with a renewed spirit for making their voices heard and for working together.