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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.”


Interview with writer Wendy Law-Yone

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Wendy Law-Yone, author of Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir or Burma, will appear at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival at Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay from February 14 to 16. I had the chance to interview her in Yangon last week for a story for The Myanmar Times, posted below. (Full disclosure: I also have a personal interest in the book, as I appear in the “Prologue” as the “English-language editor” whom Wendy meets during her first visit to the Myanmar Times office back in 2011.)


Wendy Law-Yone in Yangon

The years immediately following a dramatic change in government are dangerous and confusing times for any country.

In Myanmar, the 2010 election was a hopeful step toward democracy and away from the decades-long nightmare of military rule.

But there are also many new uncertainties, including questions about the extent to which the government should exercise control over the lives of its citizens; about the ability – or willingness – of authorities to quell sectarian violence; and about the sincerity and motives of some elected politicians, from ex-military officers to figureheads of the pro-democracy movement. 

This is, of course, not the first time the country has faced a major democratic transition: In January 1948, Burma gained independence from autocratic British rule, kicking off an exciting but chaotic period of attempted nation-building and democratization.

As writer Wendy Law-Yone points out in her book Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma (2013), such times are also exhilarating for journalists. During the post-independence period, “news-gathering … was an exciting, free-wheeling no-hold-barred business” that also had its downside: “[J]ournalists were often perceived as troublemaking scum or bad-news messengers that deserved to be snuffed out.”

Wendy’s father, Ed Law-Yone, knew about these hazards firsthand: In July 1948 he launched an English-language newspaper in Yangon called The Nation. He printed 2000 copies of the first issue but sold only 20. Despite these modest beginnings, the paper was destined to become the most influential English-language daily in Burma at the time.

Golden Parasol tells the story of Ed’s life, which was in turns fascinating and frustrating. He was acquainted with U Ne Win through the 1950s – he was sometimes invited over to the general’s house to play chess and Scrabble – but ended up in jail soon after U Ne Win took power in a military coup in 1962.

Released five years later, Ed moved to Thailand to help form the People’s Democratic Party, whose aim was to organize a revolt against U Ne Win and restore democracy in Burma. A widespread revolution failed to materialize, and Ed eventually moved to the United States to spend his remaining years with his family.   

His daughter Wendy had been born in 1947 and grew up spending evenings in the office of The Nation while her father worked at his desk. She was arrested in 1967 while trying to leave Burma illegally but was released after 10 days and allowed to move to Thailand, where she started working as a newspaper journalist.

Toward the end of his life, Ed entrusted Wendy with the manuscript containing his own written account of his life. For more than 20 years after her father’s death, Wendy couldn’t bring herself to read her father’s papers. When she finally did, she wasn’t certain how to approach the writing of his memoirs.

“In the beginning I was asked to write a book of my father’s memoirs, but I knew instinctively that this was something I couldn’t do and probably didn’t want to do,” she said in an interview in Yangon last week.

“It was such a big story and his voice was very forceful, but it was a book that was written in kind of a white heat toward the end of his life. Most memoirs are self-serving. He had a different agenda. This last spurt of journalistic urge came out, like, ‘I’ve got to get down this story that I lived through.’”

Wendy finally came up with the idea to write her own memoir based on her father’s written account, and thus the seeds of Golden Parasol were sown.  

“[My father’s manuscript] would be the foundation, but I would tell what I remembered. The editors also said the book needed to be my story but about my father, and that was a very big hurdle,” she said.

“Even though I was resolved to do it that way, I hadn’t realized how daunting and intimidating my father’s voice was. My older brother read the first draft and said, ‘When it’s your voice it’s fine and interesting, but when you start to channel dad’s voice the effect is grotesque.’ It was a bit harsh but I realized it was true.”

By the time Wendy started working on Golden Parasol, she had already published three novels – The Coffin Tree (1983), Irrawaddy Tango (1993) and The Road to Wanting (2010) – and she expected writing nonfiction to be easier.

“My novels always covered difficult subjects to confront. I thought, ‘Nonfiction is factual. It’s all there. All I have to do is write it,’” she said, quickly adding that this turned out not to be the case.

“I realized the subject matter didn’t matter. It all had to do with an intrinsic problem I had, which I related to the influence of my father: Somehow I got infected with the idea that I needed to be able to stand by every word and defend it, either grammatically or factually or politically,” she said.

“I always thought that maybe this was because it was fiction, but when I started to write nonfiction I thought, ‘Now it’s about the country, politics and history, and how much more so.’ There was a fundamental fear of needing to get it right.”

What helped Wendy get beyond this impasse was the understanding that she could not possibly write the definitive book about the politics of her father’s era.

“I realized that it had to be just about things my father saw and things related to him,” she said.

Nevertheless, the resulting book has been criticized in some quarters for not containing enough material about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the current pro-democracy movement.

“The book does deal with what’s happening now. I touch on the changes that I myself had been a part of, but many, many people have asked why I haven’t talked more about Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said. 

“But Aung San Suu Kyi simply wasn’t a part of the history. General Aung San was, and so I wrote about him.

“I was trying to show that many people think Aung San Suu Kyi’s was the first project to restore democracy, but it’s not true. There was already one such project back in my father’s time, which is now forgotten.”


Written by latefornowhere

February 10, 2014 at 3:04 am