The website of Dr. Zachary Abuza
Southeast Asia Analysis
Selected Contemporary Literature
of and about Southeast Asia
Zachary Abuza, PhD
If you want to understand a country, studying their history, politics, economics, and language are all important. But to really understand the culture you have to study its arts, literature, and of course their food. And in authoritarian societies, literature and the arts are completely political; they are the realm of dissent and social commentary. This is not an exhaustive list, but I think it is a good first stab of the best contemporary literature of and about Southeast Asia, with a few memoirs thrown in for good measure.
Indonesia's literary culture is smaller than one would expect from such a large and diverse culture. Little has been translated into English.
The most important historical novel is Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s, The Buru Quartet, a sweeping epic that takes the reader from the colonial era through the anti-colonial struggle. Pramoedya was branded a communist following the 1965 coup and sent to the penal island of Baru (Indonesia’s Gulag Archipelago). The epic is based on stories that he told fellow prisoners in the evenings. Think of it as a Wayang-style narrative history of Indonesia, of how the PKI suspects ended up on the penal island.
I also recommend Pramoedya’s novella The Girl from the Coast. His autobiography, The Mute’s Soliloquy, is a fascinating intellectual history of modern Indonesia.
I would be remiss not to recommend The Year of Living Dangerously by Peter J. Koch about the events that led to the 1965 coup. It is absolutely riveting. Peter Weir’s wonderful 1982 film adaptation of the novel, stars Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Lynda Hunt, and is very faithful to the novel.
Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory (2005) follows the Akiho Kurasawa model of telling a bio story of post-colonial Malaysia from the point of view of three different protagonists.
Tash Aw's Five Star Billionaire is a wonderful novel of interconnected lives across all social strata in the dog eat dog world of contemporary China, though the key protagonists are all Straits Chinese from Malaysia.
A Company of Planters: Confessions of a Colonial Rubber Planter in 1950s Malaya is a fascinating memoir by John Dodd, a British rubber plantation owner, in the post WWII era, through the Emergency. It traces his roots from a contract employee, to becoming one of the more established plantation owners, and in the process, he has his own Orwell (Burmese Days) moment.
The most famous quote about the Philippines is that it had 300 years of life in the convent followed by 50 years of Hollywood. This has had an impact on literature.
The most famous novelist in the country is F. Sionil José, and the best - or at least most famous - of his many novels is Dusk.
One of the country’s independence heroes, Jose Rizal, also penned novels about the Philippines under Spanish colonial rule, for which he was executed. His two most famous works are Noli Me Tángere, and its sequel, El Filibusterismo.
The Vietnamese are one of the most well read and versed culture that I can think of. The tragedy of some 30, if not 40, years of continuous war has created great fodder for literature, but it builds upon in already rich literary tradition.
There is a huge body of literature, memoirs and poetry from US military personnel who served in Vietnam. I would recommend Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and If I Die in a Combat Zone. He has also written a few novels. There is also a body of poetry from US servicemen. I love the work of Phil Caputo. His A Rumor of War is one of the classic war memoirs.
What is less known is the body of work by their Vietnamese counterparts that really infuriated the Vietnam Communist Party and pierced the veil of Socialist Realism. The first and arguably most important of this genre were Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name. These are absolute must reads and should be read together. They absolutely pierce the veil of the VCP’s narrative of the war. Bad Ninh’s work, is written in almost a stream of consciousness, as he clearly suffered from terrible PTSD, something that the government largely denied existed. He has written little since then.
Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind and Memories of a Pure Spring got her expelled from the Communist Party. She now resides in France. Her second to last book, No Man’s Land, is a real heartbreaker, a novel of love and obligation in a paternalistic and communist society. I had to put it down the first time I started it; It was gut wrenching. Yet the conclusion has a wonderful and refreshing feminist perspective. Her most recent novel, Zenith, takes on the sacred cow of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, a man basically held captive and used by the Communist Party. Why she has not won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I do not know. She deserves it.
My personal favorite novels about the early reform period and the break out from Socialist realism are Ma Van Khang’s Against the Flood (2000) and Le Luu’s A Time Far Past. I love the latter, such a scathing attack on the VCP's oppressive domination of society in post war Vietnam.
Vu Trung Phung’s Dumb Luck, written in 1936, is an absolutely hysterical take on the bourgeois elite in the French colonial era. It is scathing in its treatment of the petit bourgeoisie and the comprador capitalists. It was banned in Vietnam until 1986. I cry laughing every time I read it.
Nguyen Huy Thiep’s two volumes of short-stories, The General Retires and Other Stories (1992) and Crossing the River (2002), are scathing in their criticism of the early years of the economic reform program, the corruption and the crassness of life in semi-capitalism.
A bunch of other novels and short-stories has captured the political and social contradictions of the post-1986 reform era. These include: Le Minh Khue, The Stars, The Earth, The River: Short Stories (1997), Da Ngan, An Insignificant Family (2007), and Wayne Carlin and Ho Anh Thai, eds., Love After War (2003).
There are several volumes of beautiful Vietnamese war-time poetry: Mountain River: Vietnamese Poetry from the Wars, 1948-1993 (1998) and Poems from Captured Documents (1994).
And how could I pass up the classic by Graham Greene, The Quiet American? It all but predicted the American quagmire.
Red Earth is one of the most important colonial era novels.
The newest inclusion to this list is Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel, The Sympathizer. This is absolutely brilliant, and the best thing that I read in 2016, by far. It is absolutely scathing social commentary.
Cambodia & Laos
Such a tragic history has not been good to literature and the arts.
I would recommend Christopher J. Koch’s Highways to a War about a journalist who disappears while covering the Khmer Rouge rebellion.
The storied journalist Michael Swain’s autobiography (of The Killing Fields), A River of Time, is one of the most beautiful accounts of the tragic era, of the early to mid-1970s. This is one of my most favorite memoirs.
Frank Stewart and Sharon May edited a volume of fiction and non-fiction, In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia (2004).
You should read Haing Ngor's autobiography, A Cambodian Odyssey, with Roger Warner. He was an obstetrician in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge came to power, and is known for his portrayal of Dith Pran in The Killing Fields.
The Burmese remark that three of George Orwell’s most famous books were all about Burma at various stages of its political development, Burmese Days (based on his experience as a colonial administrator), Animal Farm (life under Ne Win) and 1984 (life under the SLORC/SLPD).
The most famous Burmese novel is Ma Ma Lay’s Not Out Of Hate: A Novel of Burma (1991).
Another classic about Burma is The Burmese Harp by Micheo Takeyama, about the spiritual/religious transformation of a Japanese soldier at the end of WWII.