From the Editors - Spring 2015
Whether Sheep, Goat or Ram, it is that year. Because the yang in the Chinese zodiac could refer to any of these animals, precisely which of them is being represented is a topic of debate in the English-speaking world. In any event, those who follow the Chinese calendar consider a defining characteristic of the year to be mild manners – sheepishness, so to speak. It’s been widely reported that mothers across China chose to deliver their babies in the last days of the Year of the Horse, with all its auspicious associations, rather than risk giving birth to a meek and vulnerable lamb. Such planning might be as much a result of prudent pragmatism as wild superstition. After all, even the most rational in other cultures avoid walking under ladders or undertaking risky enterprises on Friday the thirteenth. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive C. Y. Leung greeted the New Year with a plea to citizens that they should be like ‘mild and gentle’ sheep, and ‘pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.’ This message didn’t go down well with those who spent the latter half of the Year of the Horse refusing to be reined in to docile obedience.
Elsewhere in the region and around the world, much of the last year has seen clashes between stridently independent voices and those who prefer the sound of bleating sheep. Many in Thailand and Burma have bridled against regimes that deny them a voice, a denial that remains widespread. Keyword blocking on Weibo (the popular messaging service) and other censorship pressures in China have intensified. North Korea took exception to the portrayal of the assassination of its leader in The Interview and lashed out by hacking into Sony Pictures’ email servers. In the United States, people suffering prejudice protested that they ‘can’t breathe’. And, of course, there was the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France.
Writers have a special duty to seek truth as they examine the human condition: to record experiences faithfully and fancifully as fact and metaphor, to question underlying beliefs, and to speculate about the consequences of real and imagined events. Their voices help make sense of the world as it is. Though not necessarily intended to be so, the written word can become political when truths are proscribed by terror, religion or government. Atrocities committed around the world to stifle freedom of speech are all too horrifyingly real. Thus, the special duty of shedding light and seeking answers requires a great deal of courage, not least in the difficult act of speaking out for peace in the face of fear.
This issue of the Asia Literary Review is an eclectic collection of writing that reflects the striving of people to make their voices heard.
The most extreme example is in The West Sea Battle, Jang Jin-sung’s account of his debriefing of North Korean sailors after a skirmish with the South Korean navy. In a country where nobody dares to speak the truth to anyone, his task was to persuade the sailors to risk saying what they had genuinely thought and experienced, rather than what they believed was expected of them.
James Tam tells a harrowing tale of sexual slavery in World War II, the larger truths of which are denied by many even today. In Nathan Lauer’s novel extract, he dares to offer a disturbingly contrarian view of Tibet and the aura of the Dalai Lama, a perspective focused on subjugation rather than liberation. Namgay Zam introduces us to nuns in Nepal and Bhutan who have exuberantly cast aside the constraints of tradition by mastering kung fu.
Mona Dash and Phillip Kim take us to more intimate family settings, where people fail to acknowledge their histories and fictions, to themselves and each other. Jeremy Tiang’s protagonist in Beijing Hospital has a macabre change of heart in a story that reveals an uneasy marriage between commerce and justice, and where the central characters are forced to live with the consequences of their complicity.
Other contributors allow us to consider seemingly familiar topics from a fresh perspective. Boaz Rottem’s photographs invite us to see what lies behind Asia’s exotic façades. Bill Tarrant warns of what may be Jakarta’s fate as he watches the city sink into the wetlands from which it had risen. Meanwhile, Shin Kyung-sook’s protagonist loses his sense of self in a capricious and inscrutable world, and Clara Chow’s vision of Singapore is of a city encased in ice and snow, victim to catastrophic climate change.
From Britain, the poet Imtiaz Dharker celebrates the joyous muddle of her identity as a Pakistani Glaswegian – but in Drummer, an elegy to Lee Rigby, she has no doubt about where she stands. ‘Hack at you,’ she says to him, ‘and the city bleeds.’ In her poem we hear the drum that ‘speaks the difficult name, the name of peace.’ We at the Asia Literary Review believe in the vital importance of beating that same drum in the pursuit of original ideas and authentic voices.
We don’t wish to debate whether this is the Year of the Sheep, Goat or Ram. We simply acknowledge the virtues of the animal – gentleness, consideration, persistence, thrift. We also note that the pictogram for yang (and the animal depicted on our cover) has horns. We therefore draw energy from the notion that, whether mild sheep, wily goat or cantankerous ram, each of us has the means to take a stand.