Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Twenty-Two: New Asian Short Stories

by Paoi Hwang


Mohammad A. Quayum (editor), Twenty-Two: New Asian Short Stories, Silverfish Books, 2016. 284 pgs.


In the introduction to his first collection of Asian short stories, A Rainbow Feast, Mohammad A. Quayum explained why he wanted to gather English stories by Asian writers: he saw few publishing opportunities for writers from Asia, especially for the young and unknown, and felt that the space for Asian works written in English was a niche fraught with problems. Do writers using their second language get accused of pandering to a certain audience? Are there any readers interested in a large conglomerate of writers talking about widely different and diverse cultures? What is the standard, if there is to be one, used to measure the worthiness of a writer's labour of love in this particular context? Is it the execution of perfect language skills? A cast of uniquely Asian characters? Or a plot so cunning it is out of this world? 

Quayum took great pains to explain the relevance of Asian writers as both borrowers of a Western language and practitioners of a foreign literary construct. As he stated, "English and the short story form are relatively new to Asians and Asian cultures, and both are of Western construction" and "it was not until after the Second World War that the tradition of writing short stories in English began to develop in Asian cultures."[i] This argument is troubling on two levels: it inadvertently narrows the meaning of what constitutes Asian, and it also creates the expectation that a short story should conform to rules that have been created and set by Western writers.

Let's begin with the meaning of "Asian." Is it the colour of your skin, the culture of your parents or a matter of geography? Should an "Asian" writer growing up in the "West" feel uncomfortable writing about Asia in English? Alternatively, would a "Western" writer living in Asia be the best person to capture Asian life using his/her "native" language? The selected works in A Rainbow Feast and in Twenty-Two: New Asian Short Stories prove that "Asian" is a fluid concept that refuses to be tied down. It does not matter if a writer is from India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Hong Kong or the Philippines; it is clear from both collections that all the writers share a common intention to portray life as they see it to an audience that may not have access to or a good understanding of their existence.

Secondly, these stories question the boundaries of the short story. According to my literary handbook, a short story should be short, fictional, a narrative and written in prose; have a plot, or something resembling it, and a surprise ending and show "a firmness in construction" and reveal "itself to be the result of conscious, skilled work."[ii] Besides being vaguely broad in some of its requirements—how many words is "short"? what does "firmness" refer to and how is any piece of grammatically correct writing not the result of "conscious" and "skilled" work?—the definition is surprisingly specific in terms of "fiction," "plot" and "surprise ending." Why is it almost a given that stories falling under a certain number of words are expected to follow, or at least show an understanding of, the above rules?

This is where Quayum's collections come into their own and are invaluable for their thought-provoking content. Every story forces the reader to question the Eurocentric vision in an Asian context. I felt a profound need to reiterate the fact that a short story can be told in any language. In fact, the oldest written record of one was by the Egyptians in 4000 BCE. Subsequently, the form was used in the Bible, and sometime during the nineteenth century Western writers decided to whip it into shape. So, maybe, there is a particular format developed in the West that is often held up as a template to the world's aspiring short story writers, but really do we all need to be measured against it?

In Twenty-Two: New Asian Short Stories, we can see that Quayum's tone has changed. The no-fuss title is a sign of the confidence he has gained since A Rainbow Feast; here is an editor who is relaxed and unapologetic about Asians choosing to write in a language that others do not see as belonging to them. The stories in this collection are relatable in their treatment of the universal subjects of wealth, health and happiness. Issues with money lurk behind every relationship and betrayal. For example, "The Walking Women," "Hidden Riches," "Bishnumati Blues," "Dragon Girl," "Bonti" and "The Mollah's Revenge" focus on poverty, charity and the desire to live with dignity. "Mango," "The Makeup Man," "Just a Wife," "The Sisters," "The Girl and the Snake," "Unnecessary Fictions," "Light is Something Which…" and "Hilltop" are about love, marriages, affairs and their emotional and physical impact on people. "Ghost Dreams," "In Search of God," "The Mollah's Revenge" and "My Friend Faith, 1977" are stories about religion and how that affects our quest for happiness. Language in this instance becomes secondary, allowing culture and context to take centre stage. Love? Betrayal? They are universal. But, how does love and betrayal fare in an Indian family or a Singaporean home? Is that a valid question? Experimenting with form or structure is a useful way for someone using the only language they know to challenge themselves, for the Asian writer this does not have to be the focus. For them, language is the new tool and how well it manages to convey their world is the new game.

If some of the stories lacked "firmness in construction" by Western standards and had typos and grammatical errors, they did not hinder my enjoyment. I finished reading the book with a great sense of enrichment. What really struck home when I read Twenty-Two: New Asian Short Stories was the idea of beauty. I hadn't realised until I read "The Sisters" exactly how stilted the image of beauty in English as the blue-eyed blonde or the vivacious brunette had become. I thank Mahendra Waghela for reminding me that there is no contradiction in seeing Adam's Eve as an Indian goddess with raven-black hair wearing a mini-skirt. Womanhood is everywhere, it does not have to be white even if it's in English. Each of the stories contributed to a vibrant patchwork that spoke to me, moved me, disturbed me and opened my eyes to things I had not thought of before as a consumer of English fiction. Had Quayum not brought all these voices together in one book and under one language, I and readers like myself would have lost the opportunity to glimpse the kaleidoscopic life of a vast continent. Let this collection be testament to the fact that "Asian literature in English" is a beautiful, free-spirited beast that is alive, exuberant and untameable.

[i] Mohammad A. Quayum, A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2010) 11, 15.

[ii] C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature (New York: Macmillan, 1992) 442–3.

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