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Universal themes: Bringing Asian literature to Western readers

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Among the foreign participants in February’s Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay were a handful of literary agents and authors interested in exploring ways to introduce the works of Myanmar writers to a wider audience of English-language readers.
While not all of these visitors had direct experience with Myanmar, many were well-versed in the challenges of pitching Asian stories to British and American publishers, and they were under no illusions that the situation here would be any different.
Hong Kong-based literary agent Kelly Falconer – who describes herself as representing “Asian authors, experts on Asia, and writers living in Asia, be they Asian or not” – said she looks for works that will sell in the English-language market and have appeal to Western readers.
“I’m looking for fine writing, something that really captures my heart and takes my breath away, and that I hope will have a similar effect on anyone who reads it in the UK or the USA,” she said.
Falconer – whose clients include poet Ko Ko Thett, co-editor and translator of the 2012 anthology of Myanmar poetry Bones Will Crow – said that while she thinks the appeal of Asian literature is growing in the West, there are many challenges to overcome, including the tendency for agents, editors and readers to “reach out for the familiar”.
“I think there are editors and agents who are looking for something to confirm their prejudices … Readers in the West often want something that’s very familiar. They’re reading about the Cultural Revolution in China and are still trying to understand how China has reached the point it has today,” she said.
“But my fiction writers are writing about what’s going on now, and I’m finding it challenging to convince the West that these are the fresh voices of Asia.”
Michael Vatikiotis, a writer and journalist who has published several fiction and nonfiction works on Southeast Asia, agreed that the world of publishing often relies on perpetuating stereotypes.
“A publisher will fixate on something that’s worked – the Harry Potter of India – and everything else just falls off a cliff,” he said.
He cited Indonesia – the subject of much of his writing – as an example of a country that can be a hard sell to Western readers.
“Indonesia is probably one of the most colorful and interesting countries in the world … [but] there’s a rather bleak view of Indonesia – that it’s a dark, forbidding place that people do not really enjoy reading about.”
Writer Dipika Mukherjee, whose 2011 novel Thunder Demons is set in Malaysia, said she constantly struggles with the issue of how to connect with readers in the West.
“Malaysia is not a country that is very big in the American imagination. I think places like Thailand are a lot larger in terms of what people know about it,” she said. “So although there is interest, I think I have a much larger following in Malaysia, where they really get what I was trying to do with this book.”
Kerry Glencorse, a literary agent based in London who represents Golden Parasol (2013) author Wendy Law-Yone, said many readers prefer being “spoon-fed” stories that are easy to digest, making it difficult for books about unfamiliar cultures to break out of a small niche.
“But there are books like [Chinese author Jung Chang’s] Wild Swans from other cultures that have gone on to be huge successes. They can be really big. It’s just trying to find the right one,” she said.
“If you happen to hit upon a story that really works for whatever reason, then I think there’s great opportunity because there is a hunger and appetite for literature from these places and for a different point of view – especially one like Myanmar that has been closed for so long.”
Marysia Juszczakiewicz, who founded the Peony Literary Agency in Hong Kong, said she tries to find stories that “speak to an international audience” and that “are not so steeped in that culture that people outside have no comprehension of it”.
One of the writers she represents is Duncan Jepson, the Hong Kong-based author of the novels All the Flowers in Shanghai (2012) and Emperors Once More (2014) and former managing editor of Asia Literary Review.
“You do end up thinking, ‘We can’t publish this because it’s too esoteric.’ It’s a story about Laos or some aspect of Cambodia that people think is too arcane,” Jepson said of his work at the literary review.
“But I was interested in communicating to a broad audience about things that are happening, so that there is greater awareness and understanding. It’s a slow process.”
For many Asian authors, regional idiosyncrasies manifest themselves not only in subject matter but also in writing style, which only adds to the challenge of cross-cultural publishing.
Myanmar author Ma Thanegi – who has written several English-language nonfiction works, including the travelogue The Native Tourist (2005) and the prison memoir Nor Iron Bars a Cage (2013) – said the format and characteristics of English and Myanmar literature are very different.
“I can be irreverent in English, but the written word is taken very seriously by the Burmese – especially for a woman who is no longer young and ‘should be dignified’ – unless it is an all-out complete satire, which is also rather rare. Burmese satirical books often have the subtitle ‘satire’ just in case a reader misunderstands and gets angry,” she said.
Juszczakiewicz, who represents Chinese writers such as Su Tong, author of Raise the Red Lantern (1990), and 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, said Chinese novels are often constructed differently from Western works.
“[Chinese novels] are often third-person, and there often isn’t the development of character or psychological analysis to the same level that you would get in an English-language or European novel. This is simply the difference in cultures,” she said.
Glencorse said one of the big challenges for Asian writers is keeping the style “simple enough” for Western readers.
“We are accustomed to a slightly more straightforward prose style,” she said. “That’s where the good translators come in because they can capture the atmosphere, lyricism and story … while also making it palatable to a Western reader who is accustomed to a slightly different way of reading.”
Like Glencorse, nearly everyone interviewed for this article brought up the thorny issue of translation, which Vatikiotis described as a “fine art”.
“It’s not just about rendering the story comprehensible,” he said. “A lot of dialogue is highly idiomatic, and how do you translate that idiomatic sense of dialogue into something that’s conveying the sense but also conveying meaning in a bigger sense of what the author is trying to get across?”
He said the shortage of good translators in Asia was a big deterrent to providing the rest of the world access to the region’s literature.
“I have nothing but respect for good translators because they are the people who are bringing the gift of literature into the wider world of comprehension. There’s a great wealth of writing out there that is not made available enough across the boundaries.”
Ma Thanegi has done her own small part by translating 25 short stories by Myanmar authors into English and anthologizing them in the 2009 book Selected Myanmar Short Stories.
“I translated the stories over a period of 40 years. Right from the start I chose the stories carefully so that the style or format would not be too different in a foreign language,” she said.
One difficulty Ma Thanegi faced was with editing. In her introduction to the anthology she notes that some editing was necessary for the sake of clarity, for which she asks the forgiveness of the writers, “since unlike in the publishing houses of the West we do not have a tradition of another person editing an author’s work”.
Falconer said there was a similar tendency in China’s publishing industry.
“Chinese writers tend to write and then they’re published. There isn’t a whole lot of editing that goes on. But I think a lot of them do appreciate being edited. I think that any writer should appreciate a good editor,” she said.
“The writers who refuse to be edited are usually the worst and most egotistical … The editor’s job is to make it the best it can possibly be for everybody’s reputation. It’s all for the better of the book.”
As for increasing the English-language readership of Asian literature, Ma Thanegi said that would require writers, translators and readers “to open their minds to consider the ‘newness’ of other cultures and not dismiss them out of hand”.
“They need to be curious with a positive attitude. And for us [in Myanmar], we need not to think that every Western thing or idea is ‘decadent’,” she said.
Juszczakiewicz said that in the end, good stories with universal themes have the power to overcome cultural differences.
“Though Asia is very much the future, at the end of the day selecting a work is the same as everywhere else: There’s only so far you can go with being culturally interesting. It’s got to have a good story, be it set in Burma or Vietnam, and the characters have to spring out from the pages,” she said.
“A good writer is able to speak to a wide audience, and on universal themes that affect us all, mainly through the beauty and strength of their writing.”
Glencorse agreed, citing as an example Myanmar writer Nu Nu Yi’s novel Mya Sein Pyar Kamaryut (Emerald Green Kamaryut), which received Myanmar’s National Literature Award in 1993 and is expected to be translated into English soon.
“In a small extract that I have read from Nu Nu Yi’s novel, there’s lots about the petty bickering between neighbors and the relationships, the jealousies, the friendships of all the different people living in this apartment block, which are the same as any apartment block anywhere in the world,” she said.
Nu Nu Yi, whose other works include the novel Smile as They Bow, which in 2007 was shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize, said a good story told from the heart would always find an audience.
“A writer’s creation is dependent on her inspiration and her own feelings,” she said. “I don’t think there is much difference between the way Myanmar authors and Western authors tell their stories. If the story is good, it doesn’t matter where the author is from.”