Ramona Galardi

From the Editors - Autumn 2018

Haven’t we seen this before?


Throughout 2018, the news from Asia has taken on a distinctly ‘déjà vu' or Groundhog Day circularity. In Malaysia, the dynamic duo of Mahathir Mohamad and his on-again-off-again-on-again partnership with protégé Anwar Ibrahim have been back on centre stage after over a decade in the political wilderness, promising to restore a national pride that rival political parties have degraded through scandal and abuse of power. Meanwhile further north, the extraordinary images of the leaders of North and South Korea meeting for the first time since the peninsula’s division after World War II, embracing each other, and standing side-by-side with signed declarations herald yet another attempt at Sunshine Policy–like rapprochement rather than verbal sabre-rattling. As in the past, the spectacle of a tiny number of long-separated family members from across the divide tearfully being briefly reunited after sixty-plus years is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. Elsewhere in the region, the resurgence of strongman-style leadership continues to stamp its imprint. Xi Jinping presses forth with his twenty-first-century version of a Mao personality cult. The state-endorsed terror and martial law under Rodrigo ‘Duterte Harry’ lengthens its dark shadow over the Philippines, decades after the dictatorial Marcos era was washed out by a yellow-ribbon tide of People Power democracy. 

No country’s history moves in a straight line. Progress – as ‘development’ might be characterised – is a series of twists and turns, fits and starts, and dead-end detours, some with devastating consequences. But Asian nations over the past half century have experienced particularly pronounced, head-spinning loops of forward then regressive movement. Naturally, such turbulent histories are inevitable when tradition-bound, patriarchal societies rush headfirst into globalised economic policies and the promotion of Western-style democracies. Social and interpersonal hierarchies and family relationships cannot help but be radically transformed, sometimes faster than the collective eye can blink. As dislocation, misallocation and alienation take hold, people often tend to look back rather than forward, seeking answers in what is familiar. Traditions will always form a bedrock on which societies flourish. However, though Faulkner’s assertion that ‘the past is never dead; it’s not even past’ enduringly rings true, nostalgia alone is hardly an adequate prescription to deal with a world in constant flux. 

Several of the writers in this issue of the ALR have contributed pieces that directly reflect the historical circularity characterising their home countries’ politics. Miguel Syjuco’s essay laments the returning spectre of martial law to the Philippines and implores his fellow citizens to stem the bleeding of his country’s moribund democracy. In an excerpt from her recently published debut novel Once We Were There, Malaysia’s Bernice Chauly reimagines the violence that Dr. Mahathir wrought on the public when he was first in power some twenty years ago, warning us that the latest version of the Mahathir/ Anwar show might be fraught with overly high expectations. 

Other articles in this issue depict ordinary lives trapped by the polarities of tradition and modernity, resulting in endless loops between futility and small triumphs. Paul French’s new book City of Devils brings back to life the seediness of 1930s Shanghai and the enterprising spirits who forged storied lives plying the vice trade, evoking the modern remaking of Macau as a cosmopolitan id of the Wild East. Tales of romantic relationships by Xu Xi and Shilpi Suneja depict ways that lovers’ chemistry is both fuelled and deceived by faith and trust. Nicholas Gattig’s ghost story set in post-tsunami Japan reminds us that modernity and its conveniences cannot assuage age-old psychological ailments such as survivor’s guilt. 

Our three stories from India hum with portrayals of destiny that are simultaneously unique to the subcontinent and yet universal in their resonance. Murzban Shroff’s lead character Major Anirudh Sood struggles to maintain self-respect as a former military man relegated to expending much effort in his current job quieting the cacophonous griping of nouveau riche women in an upscale Mumbai apartment block. On the other end of the economic spectrum, a young Indian woman in Kamana Srikanth’s poignant story is named Mausam, meaning ‘seasons’, but her life knows only the bleakness of being born an unwanted village girl whose only glimmers of warmth are the memories of a lost childhood friend and the pride in eventually giving birth to a son. Finally, the young puppet-maker in Kunwar Narain’s story believes that love and happiness must be as easily manufactured as her puppets. ‘Happiness isn’t something that happens: it’s made’, she proclaims. We can only wish that our expectations might be as optimistic and trusting as hers. 

The two stories set in Korea – one in the South and one in the North, by Jung Young Moon and Zach MacDonald, respectively – starkly contrast the plight of people living on either side of the border. The South’s affluence and consumerism have bred nihilism and a debilitating ennui, while the North’s desperate circumstances elevate basic necessities to the status of unattainable luxuries. 

Kunwar Narain also features in our selection of poetry for this issue. His work makes history intimately present. Our other selections similarly convey intimacy across time and cultures that both acknowledges and contradicts the alienating impulse of our lives today. 

In Jeff Hu’s whimsical story set in China’s Hou village, the locals cannot seem to figure out if when Fourth Great-Granny periodically loses consciousness, she has in fact died. Each time, the villagers arrange a funeral for her, only to then find her resurrected and as feisty as ever. In a similar way, the profound upheaval that Asians across the region tussle with are partially due to never being sure how much of the past still lingers as they try to move forward. But while the tumble of past, present and future often confuses the issue of whether any progress is truly being made, the indomitable human qualities of imagination and perseverance occasionally coalesce to snap the pattern. The breakouts, we hope, may then lead to a future that is brighter and, dare we hope, more fulfilling. 

The ALR Editorial Staff 

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