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VIRTUAL LOTUS: Modern Fiction of Southeast Asia, edited by Teri Schaffer Yamada. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002, 332 pp., $29.95 (paper).

Though novels are not unknown in Southeast Asia, it is the short-story form that has been chosen here to represent the area. Neither novels nor stories are, however, indigenous. They are largely Western inventions, and it was the colonial experiences of most of these countries that determined the directions their fiction would take.

In Singapore, for example, English was in many schools the medium of education. Thus “the writing did not reflect a Singaporean sensibility but European and American literary influences.” Only when fiction began to be written and taught in the vernacular Singaporean did life and locale begin to be reflected.

This proved true in most of the countries of Southeast Asia. Vietnam had a literary template, the didactic short-fiction genre known as xiaoshuo. But this influence, as the name indicates, came from China. When Vietnamese was for the first time romanized in the late-19th century, the French colonial period was on its way and, with it, new Western models. And after this, the Americans.

One of the results was a politicization among writers who took critical positions. Indeed “some dissident writers’ work is still banned for being too outspoken and writers are frequently harassed or jailed.”

Myanmar (also known as Burma) is another example of the paradigm experienced by many Southeast Asian writers. After having unwillingly hosted first the British and then the Japanese, the literature was, after 1962, subjected to the establishment of the Revolutionary Council’s Press Scrutiny Board, which organized the first National Literary Conference to discuss the government’s proposal that literature “support the building of a new socialist society.”

The resulting censorship has much affected Myanmarese writers. “Some practice self-censorship out of political necessity or stop writing, while others resort to allusion and irony to conceal a political subtext.”

The Philippines had an even more complicated imposed colonization: Spanish, Japanese, American — all but swamping the various attempts to launch a native-language literature. And, in 1901, the Sedition Laws, enforced by the United States, prohibited Filipinos from even discussing independence, much less writing about it.

Contemporary Filipino writers use the mediums of Spanish, English, Filipino, Tagalog and other vernaculars, but it is interesting that all of the Filipino selections in this collection were composed in English. (The same is true of the Singapore selection.)

Thailand has the distinction of being the only Southeast Asian country to have avoided direct colonial rule. As a consequence, traditional literature is still respected in Thai society and continues to be more generally appreciated than more modern genres.

Here the templates were the traditional Buddhist stories known as nithan. They served as a base for the first modern efforts encouraged by early magazines and their publishers — at least until the 1932 coup, organized by some Western-oriented politicians, rendered the government into a constitutional monarchy. At that point “a rift quickly developed between the civilian bureaucrats and the military, a tension that continues today.”

Thus the countries of Southeast Asia have shared similar problems and, in some instances, have reacted in similar ways. This collection offers insights into the various difficulties that have resulted and is straightforward about some of the consequences.

The major problem might be distilled into a major question, one with which the West is not unfamiliar: Should literature represent society or should it represent itself, that is, art? If the former, it soon slams into politics; if the latter, it sometimes attenuates to the unintelligible.

And is the question of any importance? Rainer Maria Rilke somewhere says that it makes no difference where a writer comes from, that if he or she is an honest person the truths reflected are universal ones. Such an artist is above politics and, at the same time, not interested in art as such.

Such an artist may also not exist, since we are all prey to the limitations of our various languages. What the editor of this interesting collection gives us is material to think about — not only from the various stories themselves but also in the very informed introductions to each country. We are able to see the native form shining through the adopted vehicle — or, occasionally, the native impulse being strangled by literature from abroad.

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