For those who haven’t yet heard or managed to miss any of my previous posts on the topic, May is Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month! As part of my ongoing posts throughout the month, I will be recommending some books for AAPI Heritage Month. The first recommendation list focused on Pasifika authors, and this week is focused on South East Asian authors.
This list was particularly difficult to compose. Whilst some countries, such as Vietnam and Malaysia had a lot of authors to choose from, other countries like Laos and East Timor didn’t have many books which have been translated into English and/or aren’t written by Westerners. I have made every effort possible to include at least 1 book for each country and ensure that they are all #ownvoice authors as much as I can. Please do let me know if there are any errors or if you have any recommendations.
Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hô Xuân Huong. Translated by John Balaban
Hồ Xuân Hương — whose name translates as “Spring Essence” — is one of the most important and popular poets in Vietnam. A concubine, she became renowned for her poetic skills, writing subtly risqué poems which used double entendre and sexual innuendo as a vehicle for social, religious, and political commentary.
The publication of Spring Essence is a major historical and cultural event. It features a “tri-graphic” presentation of English translations alongside both the modern Vietnamese alphabet and the nearly extinct calligraphic Nôm writing system, the hand-drawn calligraphy in which Hồ Xuân Hương originally wrote her poems. It represents the first time that this calligraphy—the carrier of Vietnamese culture for over a thousand years—will be printed using moveable type.
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
Binh, a Vietnamese cook, flees Saigon in 1929, disgracing his family to serve as a galley hand at sea. The taunts of his now-deceased father ringing in his ears, Binh answers an ad for a live-in cook at a Parisian household, and soon finds himself employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
Toklas and Stein hold court in their literary salon, for which the devoted yet acerbic Binh serves as chef, and as a keen observer of his “Mesdames” and their distinguished guests. But when the enigmatic literary ladies decide to journey back to America, Binh is faced with a monumental choice: will he, the self-imposed “exile,” accompany them to yet another new country, return to his native Vietnam, or make Paris his home?
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.
At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.
Mother’s Beloved by Outhine Bounyavong
This book presents 14 of Outhine Bounyavong’s short stories in English translation alongside the Lao originals, marking his formal debut for an American audience. It is also the first collection of Lao short stories to be published in the English language. Peter Koret’s Introduction explores the history of modern Lao literature and considers Outhine’s writing within this broader context.
When the Sky Turns Upside Down by Doung Champa and Dūangdư̄an Bunnyāvong
This book brings together the work of two remarkable women who have followed in the footsteps of their illustrious father Maha Sila Viravong, one of the most significant Lao literary figures of the 20th century. At the same time they have been pioneers in their determination to write and bring the voices of women to the fore.
One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of five. Then, in April 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, forcing Ung’s family to flee and, eventually, to disperse. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, her siblings were sent to labor camps, and those who survived the horrors would not be reunited until the Khmer Rouge was destroyed.
Harrowing yet hopeful, Loung’s powerful story is an unforgettable account of a family shaken and shattered, yet miraculously sustained by courage and love in the face of unspeakable brutality.
The Rice Fields by Santel Phin
There’s not enough water in the rice field. The rain doesn’t
come. Sim wants to buy a pumping machine. She goes to Phnom Penh looking for Sam, her husband, who doesn’t send money back home for 3 months. Sam loses a lot of money in soccer’s bets. To pay back his debt, he becomes a hit man.
The Rice Fields is a fresh contemporary fiction that will update you on what’s happening in Cambodia after the killing fields.
Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Sightseeing is a masterful new work of fiction, a collection of stories set in contemporary Thailand and written with a grace and sophistication that belie the age of its young author. These are generous, tender tales of family bonds, youthful romance, generational conflicts, and cultural shiftings beneath the glossy surface of a warm, Edenic setting. Rattawut Lapcharoensap offers a diverse, humorous, and deeply affectionate view of life in a small Southeast Asian country that is inevitably absorbing the waves of encroaching Westernization.
The Judgement by Chart Korbjitti
This is the story of a young man who took as his wife a widow who was slightly deranged…
Fak is the humble janitor of a provincial temple school. A former novice with the prospect of an outstanding career as a monk, he defrocks to help his ageing, struggling father. While Fak is in the army, his father takes a wife. When the old man dies, Fak shares his hut with the widow. As he repels her advances and protects her from a hostile community, he falls prey to prejudice and misunderstandings from his neighbours, and there is nothing he can do to overturn the people’s judgment. He finds solace in alcohol, which ‘liberates’ him by providing oblivion…
Bones Will Crow: An Anthology of Burmese Poetry ed. James Byrne and ko ko thett
This is the first anthology of contemporary Burmese poets published in the United States and it includes the work of Burmese poets who have been in exile and in prison. The poems include global references from a culture in which foreign books and the Internet are regarded with suspicion and where censorship is an industry. The poets have been ingenious in their use of metaphor to escape surveillance and censorship, writing post-modern, avant-garde, performance, and online poetries.
The anthology reveals the transition of Burmese poetry from traditionalism to modernism, as well as the development of Burmese poetry over the second half of the twentieth century, as Myanmar has changed. Through their wildly diverse styles, these poems delight in the freedom to experiment with poetic tradition.
Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi
For the last decade of Burma’s traumatic history, Aung San Suu Kyi – winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize – has been the inspirational leader of attempts to restore democracy to her country. In these fifty-two pieces, originally written for a Japanese newspaper and begun soon after her release from house arrest, she paints a vivid, poignant yet fundamentally optimistic picture of her native land. She evokes the country’s seasons and scenery, customs and festivities, and describes an inspirational pilgrimage to the Buddhist abbot of Thamanya. She celebrates the courageous army officers, academics and actors who have supported the National League for Democracy, often at great personal risk, and she sets out a comprehensive programme for economic reform. A passionate advocate of better health care and education, and the need for ethical foreign investment in Burma’s future, Aung San Suu Kyi reveals an acute insight into the impact of political decisions on ordinary people’s lives. She examines the terrible traumas inflicted on children of imprisoned dissidents – children allowed to see their parents for fifteen minutes every fortnight – the effect of inflation on the national diet and of state repression on traditions of hospitality.
Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.
Straddling the worlds of the mundane and the magical, Spirits Abroad collects ten science fiction and fantasy stories with a distinctively Malaysian sensibility.
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
Set in Penang, 1939, this book presents a story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.
The recipient of extraordinary acclaim from critics and the bookselling community, Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel casts a powerful spell. Set during the tumult of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, The Gift of Rain tells a riveting and poignant tale about a young man caught in the tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits.
Islam on the Move: The Tablighi Jama’at in South East Asia by Dr. Farish Admad Noor
In this exhaustive examination of the rise and spread of the Tablighi Jama’at, which is arguably the world’s largest lay Islamic missionary movement, Farish Ahmad-Noor provides extensive research on the group as well as several conversion narratives from Tablighi members in a number of Asian countries. A key study of an important and complex movement, this volume locates the spiritual framework of the sect in the context of the national and political climate of the countries in which its followers live. Moreover, Ahmad-Noor analyzes the way in which Tablighi followers themselves see the movement, and he traces the way in which internal and external perspectives shape the religion. Islam on the Move seeks to create a more nuanced and variegated portrait of Islam than the reductivist narrative of the religion that became commonplace in the mainstream Western media after the events of September 11th.
Someone’s in my Head by Steven Steel
After a close brush with death, Jarod ends up in a hospital, traumatized but alive. He thinks he is lucky to get off with minor injuries, but he soon realizes that something is wrong when he starts behaving abnormally.
Eventually, Jarod finds out the truth behind his erratic behavior―that there is someone in his head. From that point on, he is launched into a series of fast-paced and heart-pounding adventures as he tries to find out the person’s identity. But, as he digs deeper, Jarod uncovers more and more shocking truths that have been buried for decades, and secrets that people would kill to protect.
Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe
Meet an over-the-hill Pop Yé-yé singer with a faulty heart, two conservative middle-aged women holding hands in the Galápagos, and the proprietor of a Laundromat with a penchant for Cantonese songs of heartbreak. Rehash national icons: the truth about racial riot fodder-girl Maria Hertogh living out her days as a chambermaid in Lake Tahoe, a mirage of the Merlion as a ladyboy working Orchard Towers, and a high-stakes fantasy starring the still-suave lead of the 1990s TV hit serial The Unbeatables.
Heartfelt and sexy, the stories of Amanda Lee Koe encompass a skewed world fraught with prestige anxiety, moral relativism, sexual frankness, and the improbable necessity of human connection. Told in strikingly original prose, these are fictions that plough, relentlessly, the possibilities of understanding Singapore and her denizens discursively, off-centre. Ministry of Moral Panic is an extraordinary debut collection and the introduction of a revelatory new voice.
It Never Rains on National Day by Jeremy Tiang
A woman fleeing her previous existence meets a fellow Singaporean on an overnight train in Norway. A foreign worker is decapitated in an HDB building site accident. A Singaporean wife must negotiate Beijing as her British husband awaits a heart transplant. And in different corners of the world, Singaporeans and exiles mark National Day in their own ways.
Jeremy Tiang’s debut collection weaves together the lives of its characters across the world—from Switzerland, Norway, Germany, China, Canada, Thailand, New York City and back to Singapore. These wry, unsettling stories ask how we decide where we belong, and what happens to those who don’t.
The Catharine Lim Collection
This book consists of three celebrated short story collections and an early novel, each reflecting Lim’s prowess as a storyteller chronicling a society in transit, where multiethnic characters struggle with their identities as the past and the present intersect, mingle and clash.
Potions and Paper Cranes by Lan Fang
A stark, honest portrayal of cursed love during the Japanese occupation of Java and the struggle for Indonesian independence.
Sulis is a young woman selling potions in Surabaya’s harbor district. She meets Sujono, a coolie with dreams of becoming a freedom fighter, and whose passion for Matsumi, a geisha called to Java by a Japanese general, is destined to ruin all of them. In Potions and Paper Cranes, each tells the story of their lives during the end of World War II and Indonesia’s transition from a Dutch colony to an independent republic.
The Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Translated by Max Lane
Minke is a young Javanese student of great intelligence and
ambition. Living equally among the colonists and colonized of 19th-century Java, he battles against the confines of colonial structures. It is his love for Annelies that enables him to find the strength to embrace his world.
Saman by Ayu Utami
Saman is a story filtered through the lives of its feisty female protagonists and the enigmatic “hero” Saman. It is at once an exposé of the oppression of plantation workers in South Sumatra, a lyrical quest to understand the place of religion and spirituality in contemporary lives, a playful exploration of female sexuality and a story about love in all its guises, while touching on all of Indonesia’s taboos: extramarital sex, political repression and the relationship between Christians and Muslims.
Saman has taken the Indonesian literary world by storm and sold over 100,000 copies in the Indonesian language, and is now available for the first time in English.
The Kite of Stars and Other Stories by Dean Francis Alfar
This book collects sixteen wondrous stories of fantasy, science fiction, horror and things in between from the imagination of award-winning fictionist Dean Francis Alfar.
Sugar and Salt by Ninotchka Rosca
An egg binds time in a place where lightning is a playmate of women and girls, but a gift of a mirror presages the destruction of what had been a haven for the female…
This modern fable is of such surprising juxtapositions, reflecting the seemingly trite but assuredly cruel twists of Philippine women’s history.
Pinay Power: Peminist Critical Theory ed. by Melinda L. de Jesus
This volume brings together for the first time critical work by Pinays of different generations and varying political and personal perspectives to chart the history of the Filipina experience.
The Crossing: A Story of East Timor by Luis Cardoso
East Timor hit the world’s newspaper headlines in August 1999 after its bloody, brave vote for independence from Indonesia—one of the great expressions of a people’s democratic spirit. Exquisitely crafted and evocative, Luis Cardoso’s personal history of his homeland takes as its central image a crossing—from child to adult, Portuguese to Timorese, tolerance to repression, colonialism to independence.
Four Kings by Sun Tze Yun
What happens when a history professor is drawn into a cat-and-mouse game with an ingenious killer who uses murders to distract the world from an intricate plot to overthrow the French government?
Find out in FOUR KINGS, a political thriller taken from today’s headlines.
James Hale, a history professor, finds himself pulled into a tangled web when Stephanie, the daughter of his closest friend, begs him to help her find her father’s killer. At first reluctant to get involved, Hale discovers a trail leading to a powerful banker – and to even more powerful forces hidden in the shadows.
As Hale digs deeper and deeper, he finds himself joining forces with a disgraced police inspector, and the two men race against time to prevent a catastrophic event from taking place which will change the entire political landscape for centuries to come.
Written in Black by K.H Lim
A darkly humorous coming-of-age novel set in Brunei on the island of Borneo, Written in Black offers a snapshot of a few days in the life of ten-year-old Jonathan Lee, attending the funeral of his Ah Kong, or grandfather, and still reeling from the drama of his mother leaving for Australia and his brother getting kicked out of the house and joining a rock band. Annoyed at being the brunt of his father’s pent-up anger, Jonathan escapes his grandfather’s wake in an empty coffin and embarks on a journey through the backwaters of Brunei to bring his disowned brother back for the funeral and to learn the truth about his absent mother. On a quest that takes him across the little-known Sultanate, past gangs of glue-sniffing poklans (Brunei’s teenage delinquents), cursed houses and weird shopkeepers, Jonathan discovers adventure, courage, friendship and, finally, himself.
As you can see the diversity of books available across South East Asia is huge but, sadly, often not recognized. It’s great that the book community is starting to do more to promote books by East Asian and South Asian but we also need to make sure that we are including South East Asian books in our lists.