Friday, 24 August 2012

Why we love Asian novels

I am sadly remiss in this aspect. The first time I recall reading an Asian novel (written in English for an international audience, not one of your authentic realistic "local voices") I was ten years old. My mother for some strange reason made me rent an Amy Tan, goodness knows why because she never read Amy Tan. I thought the book not bad then (I was 10, remember?) but now I suspect I would find it dull and shallow. I do not like Amy Tan. She insists on stereotyping Asian-Americans. They are either old fogies or ultra-liberal young people. Why can't we have ordinary characters?  A lot of us are fairly similar inside, it is the structure of that culture that differentiates people of different cultures. And then you have the so-called isolated outside Asian protagonist who nevertheless counts Caucasians as their best friends (and is still very "Asian" according to the novelists' perception of Asianness). From personal observations these Asians are likely to be well-integrated and their sense of isolation is not as intense as these novelists would like us to believe. A genuinely existentialist-crisis ultra-Asian would not count these liberal Caucasians as their best friends to the omission of their fellow Asians. This is unrealistic characterisation, and even worse sin than stereotyping. (And many stereotypes are true).

But I digress. Has anyone noticed the popularity of works by Indian authors in particular? I know there's post-colonial theory and all that crap (heavens, can't we just have a story???) and racial equality and all that, but there's something more. I'm not going to argue these works are singularly profound and far more intellectual, but I do agree they make pleasurable reading. I've read a little VS Naipaul and parts of Vikram Seth (this was when my literary intellect was still undeveloped) and found it enjoyable. I hated modern literary fiction but I liked these books. I must confess to being very Victorian in literary tastes, so this is perhaps surprising.

Firstly you have to praise many Indian novelists for their super prose style. With bare minimalism, stark simplicity being in vogue in Anglophone countries, it is so terse and dull just reading the agonies and reserve of some modern character who refuses to reveal his true nature to you. By the way has anyone noticed that you never really describe a person's character nowadays? Victorian classics will say Mrs So and So was a good kind woman, almost never now, unless the person is obviously charitable or outstandingly kind. I suppose modern society has little time or energy to be kind, so naturally kind people don't act on their inclinations. We're less close-knit. On the other hand we don't mention selfishness so much. Well we do, but it's often to do with drunkards or career-frustrated people and such. Selfishness is the norm. No one has a true character.  We don't condemn a character for being bad (unless he does something illegal or abusive) because we don't get to know people well enough, and because badness is the norm. Sigh. Having been influenced by the colonial Victorians, it's not hard to realise one of the reasons why Indian novelists can be wonderful crafters of language. Typically colonies inherit many old-fashioned traditions, and take some years to be culturally modern (even though intellectually they may still be equal), which helps in writing.

Then you've got to consider the plot. The specialised nature of ethnic fiction means you have to go ethnic. No one wants to hear an Asian-sounding name write an ordinary realist novel. You have to show what it is to be whatever culture you come from. Hence the stereotyping of silly old grannies. But it also means to get an audience who are unused to the ethnic theme, you must have plots and interesting exotic scenery. Hence exoticising customs which aren't or weren't the norm in the culture you speak of.  I was reading Tan Twan Eng's new book the other day at Waterstone's (he's a Malaysian author by the way, but ethnic Chinese) and it was quite readable, but I rolled my eyes at the way he portrayed the heroine's tea-planting friends. If you read the book it has quite a bit on Japanese gardens (Japan invaded Malaya during WWII), racial stereotyping (actually this was common back then, so it's not historically untrue) and several interjections in Malay, which was quite unnecessary because it's not a widely-spoken tongue and only confusing international readers.  There was also a deliberate attempt to make every single race talk to each other on easy terms. I believe in racial unity and all that, but really trying to cram as many races in one chapter, while highlighting each race's own peculiarities is too much. It is not convincing. There's a Chinese heroine staying with a Dutch tea-planter's family, with an Indian maid, a Malay hotel-owner, and of course the Japanese gardener who once worked for the Emperor of Japan. I know racial unity was pretty good then, but still ...

Those with many friends of different races in those days were enlightened people, and not as stereotypically ethnic as the country bumpkins. So it is silly to portray them as stereotypically ethnic and over-attached to their own customs. This technique however has its merits, because the reader wants to read about as many different cultures in one book, as it's more exciting. Rather like David Copperfield encompassing almost every social class in Victorian England. It's nostalgic to reflect happier days when we were all united, and trade union riots were less common, race controversies non-existent (there was racism but it didn't make such a big press) and everybody was more personal. I can understand its appeal. The plot involved Japanese woodblock prints. In Chinese-American novels, I can be sure there will be Cultural Revolutions or WWII if it's intelligent, or if it's silly, some stuff pertaining to dragons, which either overexaggerates superstition or totally gets the facts wrong.

I think, however, the greatest advantage of the Asian Novel that makes it a classic is the community you get in it.  Contemporary fiction tends to be detached, reserved, unlikeable and oversexed. Sex, contrary to popular expectations, dehumanises and decreases the intimacy of a novel, because instead of emotional rapport we are seeing physical contact. The Asian novel, due to the nature of its exoticism, which includes writing of the culture 50 years ago (Tan Twan Eng said he can't write contemporary settings as there would be nothing to write about except shopping malls. I disagree, because all the political instability and scandals are fodder for novels but you see his point). Old-time Asia is wonderful because the family unit was close, and family units are wonderful sources for drama. You have many characters who are close so there are more people you can write about in depth, and how they are all connected. The modern realism novel can't do this because people aren't so close to their family now, it would be misleading to portray too many close families. You could of course write about the hero's friends, but then even the ideal of friendship is so shallow now that friends who are intensely attached are accused of having gay relations with each other (like Sherlock and Dr Watson.) Best friends then were really close, though nowadays they are more transitory and may not meet up so often as they used to. So you can't write a novel where all the characters are closely connected - they have to be detached subplots. An Asian family in the 1950s is a different matter entirely. This is why the Anglophone novel died out after the Victorians - masterpieces are rarely readable and do not give the warm feel-good feeling inside because there is little emotional intimacy. Even reclusive Lucy Snow from Villette is more close to the reader than many modern protagonists. She conceals, but at least she reveals a lot of her sentiments so an acute reader can guess her character well. Not so for contemporary novels. Victorian novels also tend to depict the hero's family or members of a community e.g. the Barsetshire Chronicles and link things together. You can't do that now because it's unrealistic.

We love Jane Eyre because she finds true love in the end, we love Jane Austen because of the social comedy (I notice people dream of the balls and the conversation in the Regency era, rather than the beautiful poetry it produced. They also tend to neglect the deeper aspects of Austen, which infuriates me). It's so warm-hearted. Exotic novels with unreal characters will indulge in happy endings (there is a novel by an Anglo-Indian author called oh hell I've forgotten his name). I enjoyed it though it was unreal. It left no emotional impact on me though and I won't read it again. But these happy-ending novels have a problem. They won't be taken seriously in the long run or become classics unless they're realistic. They will become pulp fiction, like the Gothic novels of the late 18th century.  On the other hand the unhappy dreary Asian novels will not end up being loved by generations. Especially if it's about being tortured by Communists. It is really horrid that highbrow Chinese novels in the international market have to be about Communism and the Cultural revolution and surviving in a smoky city. It has to be political. It is not warm-hearted or a golden story.

One of the contenders of a possible enduring classic is Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. It has character, lots of customs and yet not too exotic, realism and more than a dash of intellect. It also has family and its expectations, a common theme in the Victorian novel. Which reminds me, why do we love the Victorian novel so much? Why aren't 18th century books and even early 20th century regarded so much as cannon classics? There's Jane Austen but she's an exception. Unreal characters in 18th century fiction (even the intelligent ones) and detached, unfeeling protagonists of the 20th century (plus the fact you don't get a happy ending) aren't fodder material for TV adaptations. No one will love it much. Asian literature may still be relatively undeveloped in Anglophone countries but it is the future.

Speaking of which I got a copy of When Red Is Black by Qiu Xiaolong, as Chinese detective novelist.  It didn't make everyone a boring superstitious nut or a vacuous liberal. The characters were real, which is something for crime fiction. Of course they couldn't go so deep because it is still crime fiction, but still, the cultural insight was pretty good.  Qiu writes as he sees, not merely to pander to international tastes. That is his strength. And it was pretty enjoyable. There was enough detail so that those unversed with Chinese culture can get the picture, but not too much to make it an exotic fanfare. The individual's isolation from family is also a relatively new concept in Asia (well not that new, but it wasn't so bad before) and this is excellent stuff for novels. New values, new ideals - all these are overexhausted in the Western canon.

Many contemporary novels set centuries ago tend to make it bleak, isolated and a surprising lack of family relations. They have not captured the soul of the past. Reading up history doesn't help much. It gives you an idea about the issues you may explore, but to make a story a story with convincing characters (and you don't need much history to get Jane Austen) you must must must read the literature of that era, better still the biographies of persons living then and their letters. The Asian authors are better in this aspect, because they're more family-oriented. I wouldn't be surprised if they get the Victorian novels better.

If you get a really clever novelist, he or she is going to capitalise on the silly exotic stuff. Like taking parts of folklore and transplanting it in modern-day India, for example. It will be Gothic. Think of how Jane Eyre became an instant success. Nowadays literary fiction can't afford to be Gothic, but folklore still has some respectability. This is why though I love the Victorian authors, I prefer contemporary Asian authors over their Western counterparts. So screw the realists for making everything so dreary.

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