The Unfamiliar But Fascinating Literature of ASEAN
Written by Kang Dae-ho(Columnist)
In Korea, the literature of ASEAN is relatively unknown. One reason for this is because it isn’t readily accessible. In large bookstores in Korea, Southeast Asian literature is categorized under “Fiction from Other Countries” or “World Literature from Other Countries”, and in libraries, it’s classified as “Other Asian Literature”.
Only a few works have been introduced to the country, and many of these books were indirectly translated into Korean from English or French translations, which has limited Koreans’ understanding of ASEAN literature. To remedy this situation, I’d like to provide an opportunity for readers in Korea to become familiar with ASEAN literature through original translations of three locally famous works.
The Circus of Life, published by Thailand’s Arkartdamkeung Rapheephat in 1929, is one the first Thai novels. The author, who had an upper-class upbringing, began writing as a reporter for the London Times in the mid-1920s while studying in the UK, and later studied in the United States as well.
The book is an autobiographical novel that embodies his experience of overcoming childhood troubles and seeking a breakthrough in the outside world. The world he saw resembled a theatrical stage, and his introspection concluded that people may be actors performing on that stage.
At the time when the novel was written, Thailand was under the influence of Western powers. Through the novel’s protagonist, a journalist in the UK who travels around Europe and the United States, the author seems to have wished for Thai people to develop a sense of pride and work harder for the development of their country.
The Sinking of the van der Wijck is a novel by Indonesian author Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, published in 1939. Known by his pseudonym “Hamka”, he studied Islamism deeply and was awarded the title of “National Hero of Indonesia” as a leader in the War of Independence.
The main narrative of the novel is a love story between a man from out of town and a woman from the local aristocracy. It portrays discrimination against outsiders and the restriction of women in order to criticize Indonesia’s outdated customs. The novel demonstrates the author’s desire for harmony and development of the diverse Indonesian society.
At that time, the country was under the Dutch sphere of influence. The Dutch ship Van der Wijck was employed as a tragic device, serving as a negative symbol of the foreign power. The Sinking of the van der Wijck has become a must-read for Indonesian and Malaysian students.
These two works, written a long time ago, remind us of Korean literature written during Japanese colonial rule. Created during periods of foreign dominance, they similarly represent people’s determination to raise national awareness and fight for independence.
On the other hand, the Vietnamese novel Lord of the Earth is a contemporary piece of literature published in 2015. It was written by Do Bich Thuy, who served as the deputy editor of the Army Literature and Arts magazine from the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defence. In the foreword, the author remarked that she was inspired by stone pillars, which were means of execution of the Mon ethnic minority group, as well as the legends surrounding them.
The title of the novel refers to a king who rules a region. In the story, the king uses stone pillars to launch a reign of terror. The main narrative follows the people as they become awakened and stand up against his ruthless rule. It also depicts a time when women were considered possessions of men and argues that women are independent beings.
The novel, which represents the identity of Viet Nam as a nation that fought against unjust authorities and foreign powers to create a world of equality, was beloved by readers and became a bestseller.
All three of these novels are fascinating for their distinct identities as South Asian literature. Aside from these, ASEAN literary works of various genres and forms, from oral traditions to novels, have been introduced to Korea. Certainly, they are still limited in number. To broaden the accessibility of this unfamiliar yet inspiring ASEAN literature, I hope that more attention can be paid to their translations.