10+ books that will transport you through Southeast Asia
Asia is a bookworm's dream, with some of the world's oldest languages, lively storytelling traditions, and a fascinating melting pot of cultures. On the world's largest continent, readers will find myths and tales, contemporary classics, comics, poems, novels, and memoirs in abundance.
The body of Asian literature is both large and profound, containing ancient hymns, modernist novels, chronicles of war and colonial cruelty, and intensely intimate narratives of love, family, healing, and identity from India to Japan, Mongolia to Sri Lanka, and beyond into the diaspora.
It's impossible to condense the vast quantity of Asian authors' novels into a digestible list where do you start?
But Meghan O'Dea, a writer for Lonely Planet, decided to give it a shot nevertheless, with these 11 books that she hopes would offer you a flavor of Southeast Asian countries wherever you find yourself curled up with a good book.
These novels will transport you to city streets and everyday houses, whether you're planning your next bucket-list trip or looking for a cure for the lingering pandemic lockdowns.
Home by Leila S. Chudori, translated by John H. McGlynn
Chudori's huge Indonesian epic, set in both Paris and Jakarta, finds its characters equally torn by the Suharto administration from 1965 onwards. Home delves into the daily lives of ordinary Indonesians who became political exiles, with a level of detail that belies Chudori's background as one of the country's most well-known female journalists – from street vendors selling sweet treats like putu to political factions and references to popular novels of the time.
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Early in In the Shadow of the Banyan, Raami comments, "Absence is more terrible than death." "If you vanish without a trace, it's as if you've never existed." So begins this PEN Hemingway Award nominee, which is based on Vaddey Ratner's personal experiences as a little girl growing up in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge dictatorship before fleeing to the United States in 1981. Before the turmoil, the author's imaginary counterpart escapes into pieces of time, place, and family – the stories, legends, and poems her father used to share with her.
Mother's Beloved: Stories from Laos by Outhine Bounyavong
Outhine Bounyavong is known for his intimate depictions of Lao culture, and he creates fourteen poignant portrayals of ordinary life with a fable-like elegance and simplicity. It's easy to see why Bounyavong has remained a staple in his home country through many transitions, from monarchy to communism to the present day, when the original Lao and translation are shown side by side.
The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke
The novel begins in 1878 and continues through the 1930s, as the colonial landscape transforms as Indonesia and Thailand break away from British Malaya, up until the decades leading up to WWII's Japanese invasion. Protagonist Chye Hoon wishes to go to school like her brother, but instead spends her time in the kitchen cooking spicy chilies, brinjal, and kuay-teow, passing down the stories of her Nyonyan origin to her ten children, who are also drawn toward westernization as Malaysia moves forward. This fascinating, exquisitely detailed novel is both a time machine and a tasty dish.
From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe
Pascal Khoo Thwe, a Padaung native from Pekon, was attending university in Mandalay and working at a Chinese restaurant when he met John Casey, a visiting Cambridge professor who shared Thwe's enthusiasm for James Joyce. Thwe escaped for his life to the Karen state near the Thai border a year later, swept up in the 8-8-88 Uprisings, and wrote to Casey in a desperate attempt to stay alive. This is one of those situations where the reality is stranger than fiction, and the author's personal experience becomes a riveting biography, history, and travelogue.
The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic by Nick Joaquin
Nick Joaquin has received numerous praises in his home Philippines, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa being compared to him. This book is a good introduction to his work, with stories about Filipino emigrants in Hong Kong, a drama set in Intramuros called "A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino," and other stories about Catholic liturgy, Manila socialites, the weight of Spanish colonial control, and Tagalog rhythms.
Ponti by Sharlene Teo
It's clear to see why Teo is so passionate about her work. Teo is often referred to as Singapore's Elena Ferrante. Ponti, Teo's smart, focused bildungsroman, focuses on female friendship, and the changes Teo's characters go through in their bodies, careers, and relationships serve as a lens for the rapid changes that Singapore has gone through over the last several decades, raising questions about the lengths to which one will go to achieve transformation.
Arid Dreams: Stories by Duanwad Pimwana, translated by Mui Poopoksakul
"I'd waited too long to come back. This place used to be my dream vacation spot back when I was a student, but now it bore so little resemblance to its former self that I had to question my memory." So starts Arid Dreams, a collection of thirteen stories set in working- and middle-class Thailand, all of which feature protagonists who are locked in some type of limbo, looking out at the changing world around them yet firmly planted in the side of Thailand that The Beach didn't show.
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
So frequently, place-based literature focuses on white viewpoints peering in on other countries and cultures – but in the story of Binh, a fictional Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1930s Paris, Monique Truong reverses that gaze. The Book of Salt portrays the Vietnamese diaspora's experience of dislocation by wandering between colonial Saigon and pre-WWII France, as well as looking into fictive representations of some of the period's most well-known figures, including Ho Chi Minh.
An Insignificant Family by Da Ngan, translated by Rosemary Nguyen
An Insignificant Family, which won the Union of Writers' prize for outstanding fiction in Hanoi in 2005, follows Nguyen Thi My Tiep, a former guerrilla warrior during the American war and later a writer, as she defies convention in her search for an authentic life. Nguyen Thi My Tiep's decision to pursue life on her own terms is reminiscent of that of author Da Ngan, who grew up in Can Tho, served in the Southern Liberation Forces, and has subsequently authored several books about Vietnam in the United States.
TRASH: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology edited by Dean Francis Alfar
TRASH is the first in a trilogy of anthologies, the other two being HEAT and FLESH. It features stories by authors from Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The authors dig through cultural and geographic ephemera from their home nations and the wider region, looking for what can be retained or repurposed in the future, as well as what has become obsolete. There's a lot to think about in this broad collection, from a woman concerned with cleaning her home to a mansion plagued by colonial ghosts, from squatters and immigrants to fantasy and fable.
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