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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 19, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 46

Hungry for Good Writing
Yes, but can an English literary journal survive in Asia?
By ANDREW SUN Hong Kong


Sussy Komala and Nury Vittachi try to cultivate writers through their literary journal, Dim Sum Ira Chaplain for Asiaweek
It's surprising humor columnist Nury Vittachi doesn't see the absurdity of it all. To his many activities (he is also an editor at the Hong Kong Standard and a popular speaker), Vittachi has added that of editing Dim Sum, a literary review launched earlier this year which brands itself as an Asia-Pacific journal for "good reading." Running an English-language literary magazine from Hong Kong, where a) 90% of the population are more comfortable in Cantonese, and b) keeping books usually means something other than literature, it is bound to be a struggle.

A foolhardy and economically non-viable dream? Not according to Vittachi. "The number of buyers we need to make this successful is relatively small," he says. Besides, there are more people studying English in China than the population of Britain. Add in readers in the Philippines and Singapore and "we're talking millions," he says. Vittachi insists it's "very possible" for the venture to work financially - that is, break even. "Nobody is under the illusion that this will make them wealthy," he adds.

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The little journal does not lack ambition. Instead of a conservative 1,000 copies, Dim Sum made its 120-page debut with a print run of several thousand. This confidence was not misplaced. "Good feedback," says Vittachi, has spurred the editorial team to put out a second issue that is twice as thick. A grab-bag of contributions from new writers as well as published authors, it includes short fiction, essays and poetry - with an Asian connection. The publication has been a catalyst for greater activity among writers in Hong Kong. Dim Sum participants present readings and try to organize the writing community through expanded networking. The journal also has a sophisticated website (www.dimsum.com.hk) that links a variety of literary groups. What's more, Dim Sum has drawn the attention of Miramax, the film company behind Shakespeare in Love. Its director of acquisitions for Asia has approached Dim Sum to look for sources of suitable material.

All involved in the magazine share a lively enthusiasm. Says editorial board member Shirley Lim: "English literary writing is increasing in significance in Asia because nations are developing as part of a global market and cultural community, and English is its lingua franca." It is a "very seductive language," adds Lim, now a professor of English at the University of Hong Kong. "The language is vast and imperial, yet it is also intimate and subtle; it is impressively organizational and quirkily idiosyncratic. Asian writers fall in love with the language before they begin to use it for expressive ends. And as long as it dominates the Internet and the info-tainment market, there will be publishers for the work of Anglophone Asian writers."

Fellow board member and author Sussy Komala feels even more strongly about writing in English. "I can't really write well in Chinese. But even if I could, I probably wouldn't choose to, given my time and place in history," says the Chinese-Indonesian, who uses the pen name Xu Xi. Much of the pop, legal and technological jargon in use today were coined in English, she points out. The language grew in different ways to adapt to the times, and literature benefited.

English is the medium of international business. But how relevant is it in literature, which is about personal expression and cultural reflection? Where in Asia is it really part of ordinary streetlife? English has a unifying force. But it is arguably a medium with historical baggage, that of colonialists and imperialists.

Some writers take a trenchant view of the dominance of English. "The Americans run the global economy right now. That's the only reason," argues Jean Yoon, a Korean-American playwright who has resided in China and America, and now lives in neutral Canada. "Language is the DNA of a culture, its history, its means to understand itself. Certainly, if Asian writers in Asia are writing good stuff in English, that's great. It makes sense in Hong Kong and India, both former British colonies. But I don't see why it is an imperative to an international presence."

Tell that to the Dim Sum team and to the would-be Arundhati Roys around the region. But despite the efforts of activists like Komala and Vittachi, the future of English-language literature from Asian writers is still suspect. Cultural implications aside, the infrastructure for such writing is not in place, even in a cosmopolitan confine like Hong Kong. "The mechanisms just don't exist in Asia," Vittachi says. "You don't just need writers but also literary agents, editors, a market, educated buyers. Otherwise, you might have an Asian Shakespeare but no way to get his words out." Compared to Hong Kong, says Lim, the literary scene in Singapore receives much more support from the state. "There are many Singapore writers from a variety of ethnic communities, and the government has been sensitive about supporting activities and publications in Chinese, Malay and Tamil." The paradox, of course, is the government actively encourages writers, but tightly controls the media and other modes of expression.

Dim Sum's goal is to develop writers, providing a forum where they can refine their skills. Eventually, Vittachi hopes, this will boost Asia's standing among the English international literati. "Timothy Mo once said the reason Asian writers haven't made an impression is because they're not very good," he says. "That caused a bit of a scandal but we do need to work harder." There are some very successful authors such as Roy and Salman Rushdie but, much as it hurts him, Vittachi admits a lot of the writing in Asia simply hasn't achieved world level yet. "It can't be helped," he says. "English is the dominant language of great literature and modern culture. Why should Asians be left out?"

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