by Zafar Anjum
I was not supposed to be the editor of this volume of short stories that you are holding in your hands. As the founder and series editor of the Best Asian series, I was happy to remain active behind the scenes—curating the content with the help of a guest editor. Over the last three years, we have had three brilliant editors to helm the editions and every time it worked smoothly. It was only this year when we had a situation of a chosen guest editor dropping out at the last moment because of some personal matters. Consequently, I had to step in and play the role of the editor too.
Nevertheless, I wished to have an outsider’s perspective on the stories that we had selected for this particular volume and I requested well-known novelist, poet, and critic Tabish Khair to write a Foreword for us. Being a gentleman that he is, he agreed to oblige us. And that’s why, this year, we are breaking away from our tradition of having a guest editor, and for the first time, we also have an insightful “foreword” from one of the most respected contemporary writers, working out of Europe with deep roots in Asia.
The stories gathered in each volume of The Best Asian Short Stories reflect the taste, preferences, and aesthetic proclivities of its editor. In my case, I must admit, my main concern was readability of the story besides the literary levity that it displayed: how uniquely it was told and what it talked about.
Take, for example, Scott P. Salcedo’s Mud-bound Country. It’s a finely crafted story that takes us to a time when the American colonial rule was at its height in the Philippines. In such a time, a man bets all he has on a patch of untamed and remote land whose bounties he thinks he will profit from. More than a century later, we see the remnants of his dreams and his struggles to fetter nature’s wildness.
Similarly, Moazzam Sheikh’s Sunshine deals with the perils of parenting in an increasingly racist and violence- ridden world. It reflects on a father’s emotions towards his young son who he cherishes spending playtime with—nerf guns and wrestling—in the evening before bedtime; and yet the father cannot overcome his anxiety or fear, for his child’s safety when he faces the outside world, informed by the political and economic reality as it exists within a racist world.
Set in picturesque Thailand, Darryl Whetter’s Turquoise Water, White Liberal Guilt is a story of travel and so-called race. Like COVID-19, the story asks whether we really need to travel and, more importantly, what love requires.
This time, the writers from Singapore have a strong presence in the anthology, and many of them have a connection with the MA Creative Writing programme at LASALLE College of the Arts. It is very exciting to see a young crop of writers emerging from this little red dot to fashion remarkably well-wrought narratives.
One of them is Seema Punwani. In her story, Spin, we enter into the beautiful world of father-son relationship that gives us a glimpse into a very unfamiliar world of Singapore.
Adeline Tan’s Babel is also imbued with the themes of familial ties and relationships. It introduces us to a situation in which when a father dies, his three estranged siblings are pulled back together to deal with the family flat, which could fetch a tidy sum in land-scarce Singapore. Donna Tang conjures up a dream-like world around a couple in her story, How She Knew, that flits between Singapore, Paris, and Batam.
In Kim Phong Huynh’s As Legal As We Get, we meet Ajay, a gay expat in Singapore, who leads a double life as a meth addict. The story narrates a dinner party where Ajay re-encounters his love interest Aiden, who also happens to be a policeman. As night goes on, his secrets slowly unravel in front of Aiden.
Set against the contrasting backdrops of contemporary Edinburgh and Singapore’s bygone kampongs, Sarah Soh’s Lingua Franca tells the story of a young Singaporean university student who is caught between her past and present worlds. The story considers the issues of language, identity, race, and the things we leave behind in order to move forward.
Kelly Kaur’s Singapore Dreams yet again engages us with the issues of migration and how one gets torn between the charms of a new land and the emotional pull of the land and people left behind. In this story, the characters are all trapped by their notion of migration, whether by choice or forced upon them.
How can an anthology of Asian stories be complete without a few large and complicated families? Jasmine Adam’s A Women’s Place (there is a reason why the title appears wrong!) spans four generations of women, who are migrants from China and Indonesia. It is a story of how women tackle challenges even though they may not have the upper hand, and how they too can win battles in their own way.
Yap Swee Neo’s In Towkay Lee’s Mansion describes the daily activities of a wealthy Peranakkan household seen through the eyes of Rositawati, a young Indonesian girl whose mother worked for the Lee family. Lee is lecherous and has a complaining wife. We wonder what an educated Indonesian woman is doing in this house? Well, this is a story that carries a sting in its tail.
Farah Ghuznavi depicts a similar world of deceit, skulduggery, and racial cross-connections in her story, Saving Grace, which is set in a hotel in a Dubai-like Middle Eastern Emirate, Al-Nourain. It is quite an unusual tale as the story switches narrators after a certain point, making the narrative more layered and complex.
Writing from America, just like Moazzam, Murali Kamma’s Route to Lucky Inn also reflects on a contemporary theme: migration and the politics around it. In his story, Kamma explores how an immigrant should react to the demonization of undocumented migrants. Weaving a Raymond Chandler–like world of intrigue and mystery, the story brings out many aspects of this human tragedy: borders, inequality, responsibility, grit, compassion, the media, and perseverance.
Among all these pieces, Sudeep Sen’s Gold Squares on Muslin stands apart like a whiff of fresh air, as a work of imagination, of speculative fiction, of dream tales. It is a very satisfying read on various levels as it beautifully uses filmic devices such as dissolves, inter-cutting back and forth in time, using a varied poetic cadence.
In our Call for Submissions, we had mainly invited stories on the themes of migration and climate change for the 2020 edition. We already touched upon the narratives of migration earlier. There are at least three stories in this anthology that highlight the hazards of climate change. Areeba Nasir’s Bench (set in the mountains of Uttarakhand, a northern state in India, the story revolves around the lives of Rukhsana and Prakash who left Delhi long ago where their marriage was unaccepted), Karen Kwek’s Borungurup Man (how do we lay claim on our environment, or does it in fact possess us? The story is set in a particular red-gold Western Australian outback), and the closing story, John Gresham’s Dog at the End of the World (it provides a canine perspective on dystopia).
Besides these selections, we have also chosen three stories (by Eric Wee and Prachi Topiwala from Singapore, and Sohana Manzoor from Bangladesh) as Web specials. You will be able to read these amazing stories at the tbass. org website in due time. The website will also feature interviews with all the authors of this anthology, where they will share with you why they wrote these stories.
Each story gathered in this anthology managed to touch me as a reader and did something to my spine (who said that? Nabokov? Or was it Marquez?). They engaged my attention, transported me into their world, and kept me engrossed until I reached the last word written by the writer. Some stories took me to the lands and times I had no idea about, some magically brought immediate concerns and challenges of our lives into a sharp focus, while others amused me either with their mesmerising narration or a clever turn of events. I hope when you read these tales, you too get pulled in into the imaginary worlds that these narrators have so lovingly rustled up.