Non-fiction
The Guard © Sundeep Keramalu

From the Editors - Winter 2017

This issue of the Asia Literary Review explores lives on the fringes of Asian societies. A number of our authors write about ethnic minority groups who toil against discrimination (or worse) by a dominant majority. Myanmar features prominently: the British Council and curators Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum compile stories that illuminate the lives and frequent conflicts involving some of the 135 ethnic groups that comprise the jigsaw puzzle of this nation, while Francis Wade plunges directly into reporting on the ongoing violence involving the Rohingya. Away from Myanmar, we feature an essay by Wen Yourou, a minority (Taiwanese) resident struggling for acceptance in one of the world’s most homogeneous countries – Japan.

But the lives that we depict on the fringes are not simply about ethnic or geographic delineations and the victimisation of certain populations. We at the ALR recognise that, in our post-modern world of atomised information and perspectives, many individuals find themselves on society’s fringes through personal choice or action. Avant-garde artists, revolutionaries and innovators constantly strive to challenge social norms and express their individuality by unshackling themselves from anodyne conventions. Some people dash off to foreign lands – in certain cases to seek cultural adventure, in others to start life afresh after a personal tragedy. Author Alec Ash reminisces about his life in Beijing’s labyrinth of hutong alleys, inhabited by an unlikely mix of young foreigners and old-timer locals who collectively cling to nostalgia. Kim Ae-ran’s Korean protagonist in ‘Where Would You Like to Go?’ finds isolated refuge in faraway Edinburgh following the sudden death of her husband. Neel Mukherjee narrates a story of alienation and tragedy that befalls an emigrant father who returns to India as a tourist in his own country and realises too late that ‘making a life in the plush West had made him skinless’.

By far the most disturbing fringes are those consumed by darkness and violence. In too many places around the world – the Middle East, the US, Indonesia and Europe, to name a few – marginalised and vulnerable young lives are seduced by radical ideologies. Al Qaeda’s foothold in Indonesia is one such troubling case, as Michael Vatikiotis describes. More often, however, the unrelenting tide of modern life creates shadowy eddies – some squarely in the mainstream – that swallow individuals who are lonely, abandoned or mentally ill. Georgie Carroll narrates the chilling story of a psychopath who conflates romantic notions and violent acts, and who can’t help but see desire as something ‘to be pickled in generous jars, sticky, full and seedy’. In a technological age where ubiquitous social media are ostensibly meant to connect people (but perhaps achieve the opposite), the proliferation of these isolated fringes is deeply disquieting.

But fringes are phenomena that are seldom immutable. The most powerful of them defy the bounds of space or time. In fact, it is difficult to point to any significant human advancement throughout recorded history – whether in philosophy, science or art – that did not involve the shattering of an accepted reality or tradition by a revolutionary fringe idea. That idea then became the mainstream, encouraging other disruptive seedlings to germinate around the edges. From humble Palestine, Christianity came to supplant the mighty Romans’ polytheism and dominate Western civilisation. Unconventional writing voices such as James Joyce’s and Hemingway’s shook up and redefined how writers everywhere approach their craft. More recently, non-heterosexuality, which has long and broadly been considered a taboo, is gaining wider global understanding. In this issue of the ALR, Sandip Roy, an India-based writer who lived for twenty years in gay-friendly San Francisco, writes about this openness as he makes an unexpected friend in the conservative Indian Muslim community.

Naturally, there has been a price to pay for such ‘progress’. Some long-enduring traditions and forms have tumbled out of the mainstream and been relegated to history’s dustbin or, ironically, to the domain of fringe enthusiasts. In Vrinda Baliga’s poignant story, for example, an Indian katputli puppet laments the slow death of its art form, as puppeteers face a shrinking audience and have little choice but to perform for peanuts in remote villages at the edge of the desert, exiled by Bollywood’s glitz and glamour. ‘Tell me, O Puppet, to whom should your strings be tied? Who will you dance for?’ It would be a shame to see such subtle and timeless crafts disappear forever.

Through vehicles such as this magazine, the editors of the ALR urge constant dialogue between the fringe and the mainstream. We don’t view the fringe as the kind of disturbed world imagined by David Lynch or Park Chan-wook, populated with weirdos, misfits and malevolents. Rather, the fringe is a realm where genius, originality, and transcending beauty also abound. Its face is honestly human – by turns determined, complex or frail. Its ground is fertile with fresh, if sometimes prickly, ideas. By not engaging with it, the mainstream misses opportunities to avoid stagnation and revitalise itself. A close-minded mainstream also imperils itself by living in a space that might be resource-rich but is starved of diversity and self-awareness. To fail to examine Otherness, to ignore the perceived ‘enemy’ is to exist in a poorer, more fragile place, one destined to shrivel at its core. To paraphrase a wise axiom from a classic film, we serve ourselves well by ‘keeping our friends close and the fringe closer’.

 

The ALR Editorial Staff

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