Sunday, February 11, 2001

REVIEW: Asian Writers Meet Debating "Asian-ness"


Asian Writers
Published in the Kathmandu Post, Feb 11, 2001

This event took place at the New York Times building in NYC, and was sponsored by that newspaper.

It was a toss up between Derrida and Jumpha Lahiri, and I chose Jhumpa. It was the seventieth year for the Father of Deconstruction, and the philosopher sat patiently in a crumbling synagogue with Gayatri Spivak generating random, disconnected sentences on one side, and another woman, fashionably attired in bobby pins and rhinestone glitter on her hair, talking about her new book called Stupidity, on the other. It looked like the old man would not even get a word in edgewise, keeping with the best traditions of deconstruction. So I made a quick decision to jump on the subway and head uptown, where the New York Times was holding a panel on new Asian writers called Asian Voices. Jhumpa might be able to provide more insights on life, truth and reality than the panel on deconstruction could at this moment in history.

Jhumpa Lahiri, the celebrated author of The Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1999, was present along with Chinese authors Ha Jin and Anchee Min, and Cambodian author Loung Ung. Ha Jin’s collection Ocean of Words won the PEN/Hemingway award in 1997, while Anchee Min’s memoir Red Azalea was an international bestseller with translations in twenty-seven languages. Somini Sengupta, a Calcutta born metro reporter working for the New York Times, moderated the panel.

Ms. Sengupta opened the panel by pointing out that the concept of "Asian" writing itself was a contested term, with some people choosing to embrace it while others rejected it. Jhumpa Lahiri said that this politics of identity was a recurring question. She could not get away from the many labels that people attached to her. Some people perceived her as Asian, while still others thought of her as American, Bengali or Indian. "If I proclaim myself as one thing, people will debate and say that I don’t have the authority. If I proclaim myself Indian, some people will say I am not. But people in the US immediately think I am Indian." She said. Ha Jin pointed out that the question implied a predicament. "We are on the margins." He said.

So why were all these Asian writers choosing to write in English? Ha Jin, who grew up in China, said that writing in Chinese would be suicidal for him in the US. Ha Jin immigrated to the US after the Tiananmen Square massacre and received a Ph.D in English from Brandies University. He couldn’t find a job after graduating and finally turned to writing for a English speaking market. What was the reaction to his work in China? Ha Jin’s book has characters with bound feet, which is a sign of the shameful, backward, feudal traditions that led to the Cultural Revolution under Mao. The book has no translations in mainland China. "Even my mother asked me: what did you put in your book. But a character with bound feet is very common in the countryside."

Anchee Min is a bubbling, energetic woman with a slight trace of an accent. The words fall out of her mouth as if she can barely wait to say all the things that she is feeling. Anchee Min came to the US at the age of twenty seven without knowing a word of English. Min’s first job was as a waitress in a restaurant. "‘May I take your order’ was my first English words. When I had to fill out the forms for immigration, I could not find the translation for "man" or "woman" in my communist Chinese-English dictionary," she says, laughing. Anchee Min worked in a labour collective under extremely harsh conditions for a number of years. A talent scout finally recruited her for the lead role of Madame Mao’s future propaganda films. With the help of a friend Joan Chen, Anchee Min came to the US. The anecdotes about this difficult time in her life come out of her with vivid force and the same unquenchable humour with which she talks about her move to the States.

Ung, who was five years old when Pol Pot’s genocidal regime overran Cambodia, and who eventually settled as a refugee in Vermont, said that English was her forth language, after Cambodian, Chinese and French. "The English language has exceptions, and then exceptions to the exceptions." She said, laughing. Ms. Sengupta asked Ung: "You are working full time as a human rights activist to tell people about a horrible inhuman moment in history. What happens after you tell them? What then?" "Then I get on the literary panel of the New York Times and scream some more." Ung answered. "I want to push people so they can’t say they didn’t hear about it. I want to put the Khmer Rouge in trial for crimes against humanity. Humanity starts with one person. I am writing to serve a bigger purpose than myself." Asked about whether she would have written her book without her family’s approval in Cambodia, Ung says: "No. My country has gone through genocide. If I didn’t think about my family, I could not write. My family goes about in fear of their lives. The fear might be psychological, but I would never write anything that would put them in danger."

Jhumpa Lahiri, who grew up in the US, also said that English was not her first language. "My parents were insistent about only speaking Bengali at home. I learnt English from Sesame Street, I learnt English when I went to school at the age of four." Asked about whether translating Bengali concepts in English was a challenge, Jhumpa Lahiri answered: "Writing anything is a challenge. Even when it’s an artificial way of making people speak, making a line of dialogue true is a challenge." Did she get any inspirations from Bengali writers? "I don’t really read in Bengali, only very slowly and painstakingly." Did she ever think of whether people would approve of her writing? "That would be a recipe for lifelong neurosis. For me, it’s not important what people’s reactions will be."

It is encouraging to see how the publishing industry in the US is beginning to publish authors beyond the conventional, Anglo-Saxon staple fare. But did these four authors manage to represent the totality of "Asian" writing, or was this Asian writing a very specific cross-section of a disrupted, globalized world which ends up representing a larger whole known as "Asia"? Migration, political upheavals, genocide and the refugee crisis are big parts of what the world is, at the end of one millennium, and the beginning of another. But there are other realities waiting to be discovered, smaller and more mundane, maybe, but nevertheless the sum total of lived experience. And these smaller Asian voices will not be discovered until the globalized apparatus of the publishing industry shifts to allow more localized voices to emerge, and be discovered in all the diversity of languages and cultures that make up Asia. We wait the day when the power of the market and the gods of small things will finally allow Asians to be published in numbers beyond the token.

(Sushma Joshi is a student at the New School of Social Research in New York)