From the Editors - Summer 2016

Politics, as George Orwell famously wrote, gives ‘an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. If that holds true, 2016 has been particularly blustery. Unsettling gusts have blown in from the extremes of right and left to fill the vacuum of a middle ground hollowed out of once widely-accepted doctrines – capitalism, globalisation and representative governments. Though the storms are geographically distinct – Brexit in the UK, Trumpism in the US, Localists in Hong Kong and Hell Choseon in Korea, to name a few – their turbulent consequences have merged into a jet stream of disillusionment and alienation sweeping across the world.

The debate over the merits and shortfalls of prevailing socioeconomic policies is a complex matter that is not easily packaged into tidy remedies. Nevertheless, the prevailing popular agitation has given rise to political campaigns presented in snappy, binary terms. Us or Them? In or Out? White or Non-white? EU or not EU, China or not-China? Law-and-order or Chaos? Arguments are offered in sound bites or 140-character tweetstorms that epidemically attention-deficit audiences can easily digest. The Internet has always furnished the means to disseminate opinions and democratise debate, and Google and social media provide easily accessible megaphones. But instead of celebrating diversity, populations cluster into self-reinforcing echo chambers. Polarisation freezes out nuance.

Particularly troubling about the abuse of slogans in shaping government policy is the attendant application of labels to individuals in a group. No person will ever be less than a unique and complex nation-state in micro­cosm. True friendships and rivalries can only be built day by day through delicate and fluid diplomacy, much of it more subconscious than rational. Labels are useful shorthand, but they become obstructive when they cross over from descriptive to definitive. Asian. White. Muslim. Jewish. Female. Male. LGBTQ. Conservative. While each label can be an invitation to open a door to explore a wider world, it can also shut its community into a prison of ignorance. Even the language of political correctness can erect walls by closing off discourse.

Pieces in this issue of the Asia Literary Review explore a variety of forms of politics between individuals – identity, gender, love, loyalty. In ways that only literature can, the writings examine the fragile, fraught nature of interpersonal relationships that defy labels. Three of the fiction pieces are excerpts taken from the winner and finalists of Singapore’s 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, a privately-funded competition that celebrates literary excellence from the island state. The stories are refreshingly different from one another, and in a country often labelled as an autocratic ‘nanny state’, it is encouraging that such diverse talents can thrive. Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao! is a Singaporean Midnight’s Children of sorts, and it pushes the boundaries that define gender. Now That It’s Over explores the calamitous impact of the 2004 tsunami on the lives of a few young professionals. Sugarbread lays out a piquant offering of personal dramas and food inside a Sikh temple.

In ‘Underground’, South Korean author Seo Jin delves into the anguish of losing one’s own identity, as his main character finds himself trapped in a loop of amnesia while riding the New York City subway. Hong Kong’s Xu Xi and her That Man in Our Lives distils the evolving geopolitics between China and US into the power play between a few long term friends. Catherine Menon’s ‘Watermelon Seeds’ is a touching story of two young Asian girls that demonstrates how idealistic expectations can undermine even the closest of childhood friendships.

Though human nature has not fundamentally changed in millennia, our perceptions of one another (not to mention our efficiency in manifesting compassion or hate) are morphing at ever-increasing speed. The 2016 Man Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian, written by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith (whose essay on Korean contemporary literature appeared in ALR 30), illustrates that a thorough portrayal of any individual is possible only through a close scrutiny of multiple facets and perspectives. Sadly, the frequency of terrorist acts and hate crimes, and the pervasiveness of fascist rhetoric suggests that such empathy does not feature prominently in the mood of the day.

There is no Matrix blue pill that can return us to nostalgia’s idyllic but illusory world of clear and prescriptive ideologies. Political philosophies, once so clearly delineated in an array of distinct colours, lie crumbled before us as grey rubble. As the UK politician Michael Gove recently declared, even the ‘experts’ struggle for new paradigms – and expertise is now widely derided. Given these uncertainties, trite slogans and catchphrases shouted out from flag-draped daises provide no lasting remedy for society’s ills. Without substance or deep thinking behind them, the words are simply blasts of hot Orwellian air. Or worse, in times when lives are increasingly dislocated, they can fan the flames of rancour.

The need to address the social inequality that fuels so much dysfunction has reached a critical point. Endless debate may be tiresome, and not all responses are to our liking. However, without the steady, stiff breeze provided by sincere dialogue, stagnation and rot are inevitable. And good literature, such as that presented in the following pages, always serves as an essential catalyst towards promoting understanding. With luck and effort, the winds of change that blow can act to refresh the old, rather than sweep out so much good with the bad.

Phillip Kim

Martin Alexander

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