The Best Asian Short Stories: Stories from a Changing Continent
Ed. Monideepa Sahu. ISBN 978-951-14970-2. Kitaab. 2017
A son worries whether his mother, who is travelling alone, will be able to haul her luggage down from the conveyor belt. An elderly couple from Karachi holds hands for the first time in broad daylight when crossing the road together in Atlanta. Window cleaners perching outside the 15th floor without proper safety equipment sing to “get rid of” their fear. Distinctly familiar and relatable moments such as these are exhilarating to find in any book, and the Best Asian Short Stories contains many.
The first in what is planned to be a series, with a name reminiscent of the Best American Short Stories, this edition stretches from Japan to Jordan in longitude. No one region foreshadows another. However, unlike its North American equivalent, this collection did not have the luxury of cherry-picking from stories published in already acclaimed literary magazines and instead, these tales had to be curated from direct submissions. At a time when the Asian label is still usually misunderstood to be East Asian, and we are more accustomed to seeing the word Pan-Asian in restaurant tag lines than in literature, this collection offers a mélange of nuanced stories that go beyond the usual tropes. While it may be ambitious to divulge the intimacies of an entire continent's people in one 450-something paged volume, it is worth studying the intricacies of the resulting mosaic.
Even as the South Asian oeuvre is increasingly recognized, when it comes to Asian literature in English, the spotlight shines disproportionately on diasporic writers in English-speaking countries or on a handful of better-known names. Here, the stories set outside Asia by writers residing in America blend seamlessly into the broader thematic arcs of migration and the exploration of evolving identities. In “The Spaces Between Stars,” the Indian-American protagonist grapples between embracing each side of her hyphenated upbringing. Being raised a vegetarian, she feels horrified while going fishing. She also finds herself reluctant to go on a ski trip—a treat she had been denied while growing up. “Perhaps Shyamma had not been preparing her for anyone but herself,” she realizes, when remembering how her aunt had insisted on showing her recipes, including one for aloo paratha. She had dismissed that as a vestige of the practice of preparing girls for marriage. In “Jellybeans,” the elderly Pakistani couple overcomes their initial prejudices, to find happiness with their white daughter-in-law and her child from a previous marriage. These stories also share the common narrative of women who build a life for themselves in America when traditional South Asian plans do not pan out.
As Asia changes, so do the choices available to women. “Free Fall in a Broken Mirror” is dramatically symbolic of that conflict between traditional mores and tempting ways to break free. In “Chitrangada,” the central character wakes up to find that she has transformed over night from a dusky beauty to one with a“peaches and cream” complexion. In “The Muse,” the eponymous heroine decides against neutering her own existence.
The continent's version of toxic masculinity is also examined. Bullied in school, and at home by his father, a Filipino boy takes revenge. A young man trains as an alpha lady killer to compensate for being hurt during his adolescence. As the queer community takes steps towards greater visibility in Asia, the neighbors share their nosy judgments when one such unusual couple turns up to live in their compound.
Linked by shared histories—by that of Partition, for example—the countries where many of these ideas originate are as similar as they are unique. Migration among these lands, along with one-way journeys to the West, has been a common denominator. Tales of Partition have almost come to the be the modern equivalent of classics to the imagination of the communities that the process fractured. On Independence Day 1947, a Sindhi refugee laughs hysterically, and then wails at the sight of a girl child dressed as Mother India for a school pageant. Just weeks earlier, her classmate looked for Sindh—her homeland, on the map only to find that it was no longer there. A Sindhi couple from Taiwan strikes up a conversation in Toronto with a restaurant-owner who is of Chinese origin, but has grown up in Mumbai—their camaraderie as fellow intergenerational nomads drawing them together. “Samar” by Amir Darwish depicts the most painful recent migration of all, from Syria to Europe—fleshing out the human details of the multiple tragedies that three-year-old Alan Kurdi gave a face to, when his small, helpless body was washed ashore.
In a continent that is home to both established and emerging economies, booming megacities with exacerbating inequalities, more and more people are entering the middle class. A high school student aspires to a better future, so he pins his dreams on finishing his education and maintaining a clean legal record. Yet in “Ladybugs Fly from the Top,” degrees and certifications fail as means to the white-collar job market and a decent life in Seoul. Under such circumstances, concerns for workers' safety are easily overlooked.
Visible in this panorama, too, are the etchings Bangladesh has made on the horizon of Asian literature. Farah Ghuznavi's “Big Mother” is the tale, in parts, of a village girl named Lali who finds herself employed, along with her lover, in a factory housed in what has now become the infamous Rana Plaza. Memorable is the presence of a towering and abusive matriarch, who gives the story its name. The loving, supportive and protective elder brother is becoming rarer in real life as it is in fiction. A labourer's body killed in the collapse remains contorted in pain even as he is being laid to rest—one of the manufacturing sector's innumerable casualties. This creates a heartbreaking and haunting image.
It is perhaps telling that one of the most famous movies to come out of the continent in this decade is Slumdog Millionaire. Moinul Ahsan Saber writes about Moyna, who escapes from her husband's clutches in one slum to seek refuge with her aunt in another—only to be dragged back. Her husband beats her, forcing her into sex work, but when a crisis arrives, Moyna takes matters into her own hands. Brought up once again are a woman's individual choices and the patriarchy that polices them. In the end, the reader is left with a delightful sense of irony.
The only representation that remains incomplete in this offering is that of Central Asia, from where more stories would have been welcome. But this collection is a good stepping-stone to some of these writers' other work, a platform for the continent to speak for itself on the world stage and reassert the power inherent in its own lore. This is agency not always granted to Asia, especially in a Western language. As an inaugural taste, what has been put together here will have readers eagerly awaiting the next iteration—especially those who have not come across enough books featuring either mynah birds, or the indomitable persona of Moyna the survivor in them.
Mayeesha Azhar works with environmental management, and has been the assistant editor for a Dhaka-based business bi-monthly. She wades in stories by reading, listening to podcasts and performing monologues for theatre.