This anthology challenges the stereotypical image of women, particularly Asian women, as passive and sub sive. While the women in these stories come from diverse cultura rounds, their voices give poignant expression to many issues which are common-motherhood, family dynamics, economic deprivation, sexuality-questioning the patriarchal authority under which they lead their lives. Drawing upon the work of over sixty authors-from China, Mongolia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Macau, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and many others-the book offers a filigree of existential concerns and overlapping cultural patterns reflected in the literatures of these nations, transcending political boundaries.
The creativity of the women writers represented in Speaking for Myself poses an alternative image of the Asian woman-strong, innovative and inspiring-and opens possibilities for dialogue across borders through literature.
The new edition of Speaking for Myself has something more: a small, pertinent new section of women's poetic utterances that chronicle their tragic heroism of survival and reconstruction in the shadows of past. The new section 'Beyond Borders' has poems by women writers who have transited from several countries and are constantly struggling to build new lives.
After our book Speaking for Myself: An Anthology of Asian Women's Writing appeared in 2009, the geopolitical conditions in some regions have been violently struck by physical change and forced border crossings. Refugees, exiles, migrants and homeless people have been captured in media reports from many parts of the world but particularly from Asia. The washed-up bodies of women and children denied entry through the sea, the emaciated walking bodies with bundles on the head, the overcrowded camps with minimal sanitation, the weeping faces of separated families-we see such images from Syria, Lebanon, Myanmar, Cyprus, Bangladesh and Tibet, just to name a few locations. In these circumstances, our anthology seemed to fall short of doing justice to the representation of the recent crisis in Asia and to the women's creative voices that build strategies for survival while at times uttering a cry for succour.
Rather than remaining in a literary cocoon, in this expanded edition of our anthology, we decided to bring attention to the new writing about the razor edge of violence: where experience and recollection jostle for space, where home and community are suddenly unclaimable, where the movement towards a horizon has neither aim nor purpose. Our anthology had earlier been structured according to regions and carried the names of Asian countries. Now, many of those boundaries have become sites for human rights violations and political questioning. Citizenship claims are being scrutinized and ethnic identities reconfigured. Where, in all of this, was the vision of a greater Asia or a civilizational history, we wondered.
Moreover, when violence overruns societies, and affects women in particular in brutal ways, is there room for poetry? We held on to our faith in creativity and,believed there would be the terrible beauty of words born of angst, images wrested out of pain. Thus began our search for new material from women who had witnessed the suffering of scattered communities stumbling across Asia, perhaps hoping for security in lands beyond Asia. Our anthology needed such voices across borders, beyond citizenships, forging new identities somewhere, somehow.
We started writing to friends who were poets, editors of journals, media persons, university faculty in countries that had been affected by displacements. And help came, willingly and promptly, as the word spread about our search. We wish to record our thanks to Christopher Merrill, Natasha Durovicova, Hugh G. Ferrer, Stephanos Stephanides, Marilyn Hacker and indeed all the poets themselves who helped us put together a whole new section for this volume in such a short while. Here, then, in this edition, we present eleven additional Asian women poets of extraordinary calibre. We honour their sensitivity and courage.
There has been a fairly sustained and continuous debate on whether there is a specific entity called 'Asian civilization and culture'. While some scholars have clearly identified a coherent body of thought-philosophy, political theories and cultural expressions-called 'western civilization', there have been doubts in regard to Asia. The geographical span of Asia is vast-extending across Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Asia-Pacific. Each of these nomenclatures is an indicator of some natural boundaries, but is recognized today as a political unit comprising many nation states. The dominant discourses in regard to these nation states or countries have largely been in the context of socio-economic developments and sometimes in regard to political affiliations. Seldom has there been a serious effort to identify the diverse roots of communication between and amongst these countries for centuries.
Today, understandably but not necessarily convincingly, these countries are grouped as either the developing world or members of the developed world. There is scope for reinvestigating the socio-cultural fabric of the groups as also the countries within these groups. Has there been a continuity of dialogue transcending political boundaries? Has there been communication across borders at the very moments of war and conflict or peace?
It was with a view to exploring these dimensions outside the forums of international organizations where these countries are represented as member-states that the India International Centre (IIC) launched a modest project called the IIC-Asia Project. The project did not address itself to answering the major question whether there is an Asian civilization' or not; rather it focussed in the first phase, under the leadership of Dr Karan Singh, on India's relationship with Central Asia, West Asia, countries of South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Asia-Pacific. The seminars brought together eminent scholars and specialists on current affairs, and six volumes based on the discussions have been published. They have been well received.
In the second phase of the project, a different approach was followed. This time it was thematic, transcending groupings such as Central Asia, West Asia and East Asia; it endeavoured to discriminatingly identify movements which crossed borders, political or national. One of the first priorities was to explore the manner and method of transmission of knowledge within each unit and its transmission across borders.
Seminars and workshops were held to identify the very distinctive methodologies of transmission of knowledge through intra-generational dialogue, especially between mother and child. This brought forth the importance of oral transmission distinctive to Asia. Also, it made visible the importance of visual and aural literacy, known and refined in the region. This was true of communities lying as far apart as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, China and Korea, and even further, of communities in Australia and New Zealand.
This initiative of identifying the distinctive methodologies had far-reaching implications for evolving a more relevant pedagogy for education. The results of these deliberations were brought to the forums of international organizations, especially UNESCO. As a result a major international conference, 'Education through Art', was held in Lisbon. The conference discussed the many complex questions of introducing visual and aural literacy, as also involvement of the highly cultured, but not necessarily literate, sections of the Asian and African continents.
Over the millennia, there has been dialogue at the level of both conception and visualization which has manifested itself in the architectural monuments of Asia. Here too, there are shared trajectories, distinctive expressions and multiple histories. An important seminar was held to explore these aspects of the Asian dialogue. Resultantly, a volume entitled Sacred Landscapes in Asia: Shared Traditions, Multiple Histories has been published. This is a beginning, and it is hoped that departments of art history in India and elsewhere will carry forward the exploration of not only the unilinear chronological trajectory but also the multilayered histories of many of these architectural edifices.
Why writings? Why Asian? And then, why women?
We began with an exercise in self questioning. We dwelt on these philosophical enquiries if only for ourselves, to understand rationally the spontaneous impulse with which we were undertaking the 'natural' task of creating this book. A simple and outright response could have been: we were both Asian, both in the business of writing and reading literature, and that indeed we were both women, deeply engaged with issues pertaining to women's history, culture and literature. We had tried at various forums to understand the plight of women and the neglect heaped upon them by patriarchal generations. Like the proverbial tales of Scheherezade, there was always more recounting and reflection possible on such a subject.
But we paused to ask why there was such little familiarity with the writings of women except in our immediate region. Had the historical act of silencing women cut out the possibility of reading their words and hearing their voices across Asian countries? There seemed a troubling yet enticing void where their untold stories may have been waiting for articulation, or so we surmised. In our fervent search we made exploratory journeys to major libraries and book shops in the city, looking for stories and poems from Bangladesh, Iraq, Macau or Cambodia, and other countries in Asia. Perhaps it is a truism to report that the bookstores and libraries abound in publications from the West, in general, and the market readily offers to obtain more such material on demand. Canonical literature in the universities too seems to stress theoretical texts from Western academia. We found neither agents nor distributors willing to bring in books from Asian sources. As for women's writing, we had no bibliographies and references to guide us to a possible stockist. Too near, therefore inaccessible?! World politics dominating the book trade? Was thoughtless media hype responsible for the easy selling and buying of Western literature and the near-total indifference to the richness of literatures from the East? Or was it the constant lure of the Occident, the glamour of the language and literature of the so-called 'first world' that kept the market moving lucratively?
But then, it could also be an expected consequence of the oft-repeated lament that translation work in English, based on literatures in different Asian languages, is simply not undertaken adequately in most Asian countries. Is it then the lack of local interest in such material or the neglect of translations that makes Asian writing so difficult to come by? On such matters, our curiosity was aroused. As for the university libraries, it is quite understandable that Asian literature is often not on the shelves since most academic programmes in India do not include it in their curricula. All these factors reinforced our initial thought about compiling a single volume that would provide glimpses of the powerful writing by women in Asia. It is our hope that a book such as this one will encourage the academic world to make space for the inclusion of writing from Asia and provide an opportunity to think about cultural affinities and crossovers.
During the time we were researching and collecting material for this book, a couple of fortunate academic visits to some institutions in Asia made us wiser to the limited availability, mostly local, of English translations of several stories and poems from the original Asian languages. We fail to understand why this literature does not enter the Indian markets and of course vice versa too, English translations of Indian writings are not visible in the markets of other Asian countries. Perhaps the creation of their demand will result in their supply. This book is only going to whet the taste for literature from Asia. The selections here are not necessarily representative writings from different Asian countries but it is hoped that they will serve as a take-off point for further explorations.
With no intention of constructing an alternative to the notion of 'Orientalism' which justifiably received a devastating critique from Edward Said, we bring Asian voices together in this volume, for one, to offer an opportunity to understand each other more through literature and also to suggest the range of affinities existent in the quality of the sensibility of Asian writers. Large regions of Asia share a common repertoire of myths and legends, epics and religions as well as similar traditions of storytelling. Physical proximity, many historical and cultural movements and socio-political contexts have contributed in creating a similar philosophical strain and temper in the peoples of various countries of Asia, while modernity and a pragmatic approach to the idea of progress and development have kept the West on a somewhat separate track.
In his book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said puts it very succinctly: `... studying the relationship between the "West" and its dominated cultural "others" is not just a way of understanding an unequal relationship between unequal interlocutors, but also a point of entry into studying the formation and meaning of Western cultural practices themselves.' (p. 230). Moreover, the 'West' is also equated with imperialism and a stubborn repository of economic and political power, causing simmering resentment amongst its erstwhile colonies. Western sensibility stands differentiated if placed against the Other. This 'other' includes a composite whole of the peoples of Asian countries, which unfortunately has not made sufficient efforts to get all its resources together to evolve a balance of power in the world. The first step towards this end is to get to know each other by sharing and reading each other's stories and poems, the language of the heart and mind! Undoubtedly, differences among cultures, faiths and beliefs, behaviour patterns and styles of communication surface significantly; but bridges of understanding are also constructed through empathy and points of identification.
There is no denying the tremendous heterogeneity of experiences, contexts and modes of articulation clearly evidenced in the writings from Asia. Literary representation as we understand it emerges from very specific and rooted experience and reaches out to the 'Other' by transcending into the realm of essential questions related to human existence. In that sense, any categorization, even that of Asian literature', appears quite meaningless. But then, we also realize, that unless the specifics are comprehended, the essence of the 'larger questions' of existence cannot be realized. For example, the anguish of the Cambodian protagonist in a story will inevitably have its roots in a specific socio-political context at a particular point of history; and, without the knowledge of that context, the nature of the experience of that anguish cannot be fully realized. Also, how a character copes with her existential predicament will have plenty to do with the society and culture she has been nurtured in. Even in her posture of rebellion, her social backdrop gets manifested.
Invisibility of literatures from each other's countries within Asia is a phenomenon that pains one all the more, when confronted with the much greater visibility of these literatures in the English dominated `West', in the bookstores and libraries of the US and the UK. This maybe so perhaps because of the departments and centres of Asian Studies present in most universities in the West. This does get to be a matter of concern. Such studies, when wrenched away from their own physical and sociological contexts, have the danger of getting essentialized. Without an ongoing dialogue with the living complexity, the heterogeneity of the ground reality could get sacrificed dangerously if there is an inadequate ongoing dialogue with those who are actually living the reality of the cultures being studied. This way the Oriental faces the threat of getting more orientalized! For the day-to-day dynamism of our cultures to be theorized upon, a day-to-day contact is necessary. Literature serves as a good medium for the articulation of vibrant reality and our volume is one small and modest attempt to bring the variety of lives in Asia together.
To come to the third and a very vital question regarding this volume: Why women? While on the one hand we certainly do not believe in 'ghettoizing' the voices of women and do not wish to suggest here a separatist world of women, we do want to present women's experiences in different regions of Asia as a perspective in this book. There is a conscious exclusion of male writers to allow the writer's 'experience' of being a woman to authenticate the presentation of female experience. Undoubtedly, the woman too, more often than not, gets to be an accomplice and a consenting agent of patriarchy, being herself very much a product of patriarchal socialization. It is certainly not enough just to be a woman biologically to speak as a woman. But for 'speaking as a woman', the required unlearning of male-centred institutionalized thinking is more possible for a woman as she is herself a victim of patriarchal oppression and may thus feel a greater compulsion to reinvent both, the language as well as the content of creative expression. It is not easy to break out of the unconscious imbibing of structures of gender identity set up over centuries.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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