One of the seven criteria on which SEA Write judges must base their decisions reads as follows: Works must have some relevance to the nation or region in which the authors live. Beyond Borders: The 35th Anniversary SEA Write Award Anthology, a collection of 35 works from past winners of this Asean-wide literary prize, reveals a region united in the struggle to come to terms with a changing political and cultural landscape.
BEYOND BORDERS: The 35th Anniversary SEA Write Award Anthology Launching today at the SEA Write Award Ceremony. Available in leading bookstores this month.
"Each piece seems torn between the rice paddies of remote villages and the congested streets of big cities, reflecting a struggle to not get lost in today's materialistic concrete jungles," the introduction to this anthology suggests.
The majority of the narrow range of prize-winning pieces included in this selection portrays exactly that _ and not much more. It appears that the collective subconscious of these Southeast Asian writers revolves around the threat of modern society to cultural traditions, as if the two exist as dichotomies. The serenity of village life stands in contrast to the "money/medal/atrocity/greed" of modern life, as Haji Hashim bin Haji Abdul Hamid from Brunei writes in his poem Credential. In the speaker's village, "the grazing ground gave way to golf course".
In The Capital by Vanich Charungkij-Anant, who received a SEA Write Award in 1984, the chaotic traffic of Bangkok leaves the protagonist yearning for the simplicity and peace of his home in the countryside. A folk tune brings tears to his eyes.
In Malaysian writer Isa Kamari's The Architect, the protagonist longs to build a village as opposed to a skyscraper. To him, the modern-day individual is "a complex man: a man who considered issues more important than awareness; a man who stressed policies rather than harmony; a man who fussed over ways and means of living but neglected life".
A wife's yearning for a BMW car and a Bulgari necklace is compared to Indonesian folklore deity Lara Ireng's request for "a divine chariot pulled by the rainbow buffaloes which have been bred by the gods and for the music of the Lokanata gamelan, the gamelan from heaven, to be played" _ in Umar Kayam's Parta Karma.
Most of the featured writers navigate through a range of conflicts in a similar way, attempting to come to terms with contemporary or urban society through the maze of history, drawing parallels or divergences, often verging on being overly sentimental or overly moralistic. Something always brings tears to someone's eyes. The plight of the working man has been, and will always be, a subject to tackle. Corruption is always a concern.
In A Five Kyat Note, by U Kyaw Aung, a poor working-class gambler steals ("borrows") from a sleeping beggar on a street in Rangoon.
"Yes, if one has a lot of money," he muses, "Rangoon is a paradise."
Other stories draw on past or current conflicts within the region. The promise of buried treasure in a Cambodian village morphs into an exploding land-mine in a story by Sok Chanphal.
"Sahaifai" (pen name for Bounthanong Xomxayphol) writes of the ongoing process of reconciliation in Laos as state soldiers work with Americans to reclaim the bodies of US troops who died during the war in Indochina.
Prabda Yoon's fantastical tale Shallow Or Deep, Thick Or Thin stands out in this collection of works that are, more often than not, heavy-handed in their social message, whether or not they offer definitive answers.
In his story, "There is no secret in the world", but a man finds the secret of the universe while trekking through a forest. Prabda's piece, unlike the others in the anthology, is not situated in a specific place or time.
While the anthology serves to illuminate the foundation that glues the people of our region together _ our belief in age-old values, in tradition, in kharma, in family, it does so at the expense of offering a wider array of themes for our consideration. If the works presented in the anthology were taken as giving an all-encompassing look into the mindset of people in Southeast Asia, it would reveal us as a generally melodramatic bunch who think modern city life is ultimately depraved and who are obsessed with the impact our roots are having on our current identity. The rapid economic development throughout Southeast Asia in the past few decades is uneven, both within each country and within the region as a whole, and it has resulted in endless social issues _growing inequality _ for people to live through, to ponder, to fix, to write about. The anthology suggests a fixation on coming to terms with this new Southeast Asian society through the past, through our spiritual roots.