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Friday, 30 October 2015

Lontar - Edition #5 - The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction

Today on the blog I’m looking at something completely different to the standard literature in translation, yes I occasionally dabble in poetry reviews, however this time I’m looking at a journal, “Lontar – The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction”.

Issue number five was released earlier this month, and given my recent forays into Indonesian literature I thought a read and a review of other writers from the Southeast Asian region could be in order, using the publication as a starting point to learning a little more about writers on the fringe and possibly exploring some of their other works in a little more detail at some later stage.

Issue number five contains works by thirteen writers, five short stories, six poets, one nonfiction piece and a single “sequential art” (Graphic art) entry. The publication weighs in at 104 pages and opens with an editorial talking about the male/female representation in their publication to date, with women writers constituting 41% of the works published to date. An interesting aside is that for their unsolicited submissions female writers make up 46% up the works received so at least one journal out there is ensuring a balanced approach!

The fiction kicks off with a short story “No Man Is” by Singapore poet, fictionist, playwright, journalist and activist Ng Yi-Sheng. It is the story of a young man who decides to become an island – literally. He floats in the ocean attempting to find a place to remain, to grown, take root, but like all islands he is plundered and corrupted. A tale of identity with an environmental message this mixes folklore and fantasy to open a world of thought about our connection to the land we walk on.

The non-fiction entry is “Let The Stupid Ones Die” by Massimo Morello an Italian Thai journalist, who travels to the Thailand/Laos border and lives with a Buddhist monk, a retreat of sorts. However instead of the usual romantic tales we normally read about such journeys, we have the reality of living simply, the tepid water, the dirty surroundings, the rats, and the fear of living in the rainforest:

The positive aspect of this experience, as on certain trips to the rainforest earlier in my life, is the progressive disappearance of individual needs. A kind of psychophysical Occam’s Razor. According to the 14th century Franciscan friar by the same name, the simplest explanation to a problem is usually the correct one, so more complex and less probable hypotheses can be eliminated. This reducing down to the essentials applies to one’s lifestyle – if we eliminate everything but the indispensable, the body no longer feels the need for anything else. According to the venerable monk – and especially according to Buddha – this means closing the six doors of suffering, i.e. the five senses plus the mind. The doors lead to desire, which should be eliminated in order to be free from dukkha, or suffering. But if you begin to analyse the Four Noble Truths at the heart of Dharma, Buddha law and teaching, things get too complicated. Let’s just get back to the Razor.

This is a Westerner’s view of the East, and the East feeding off of the Westerner’s view – an interesting take on what we normally see as a romantic retreat with a Buddhist monk.

“The Woman In The Coffee Shop” is a poem by Christina Sng from Singapore. A mysterious woman with a “neck like the pale white/inner bark of a young tree” and her hair onyx “held only/by a single wooden chopstick” avenges the writer’s mother’s death.  “Moulding” by Cambodian poet Sokunthary Svay explores the mysterious apsaras of Angkor, the communist bullets and the foreign tourists all in a one page poem. The introduction taken from ‘Angkor:A Guide to the Angkor Monuments’ “...the apsaras always appear on the stone in the same pose derived from that of a flying figure…standing isolated from the world on a lotus blossom or flying in the open air, they are the divine symbols of joy.”

The graphic comic by Benjamin Chee from Singapore is about eating mushrooms in an apocalyptic future. Joel Donato Jacob from the Philippines, who is a mountain climbing vegan and a member of the Phillipines’ longest standing literary organisation has two poems, “A Marriage of Hybrids” which involves a wedding of a ‘Tikbalang’ a mythical monster with the head and hind quarters of a horse and the torso of a man, who abducts and through sorcery, marries young women. The other poem is “Lambanâ” about a spirit that manifests as motes of light that lead forest travellers astray and into peril.

We also have Gord Sellar (Canada/South Korea) presenting a short story “The Spurned Bride’s Tears, Centuries Old, In The Rain” based on Indonesian ‘Wayang Kulit’ (shadow puppet theatre) and the play ‘Mahabharata’. The story is reimagined in the future between a street kid and a wealthy woman. Will karma force the scornful fate?

The contributions I have mentioned above are only a smattering of what is on offer and the Southeast Asian culture is always to the fore in each of the works, with a melting pot of different themes and folklore (for example a South Korean writing about Indonesian shadow puppet themes!!!). A useful work in that exposure to different writers and styles is available without having to purchase a full work of theirs before finding out it is not your thing. I will personally be looking out for a number of writers whose work was featured in this publication.

Source. Personal copy.

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