Southeast Asia – the place I call home.
This tenuous connection is remarkably fragile in Toronto, where most care little for the distinctions between the regional and national places of Asia, except perhaps, in the case of restaurant cuisine.
Cue Heat, one-third of a spectacular series of anthologies published by Fixi Novo, a Malaysian publisher.
I picked up all three: Heat, Flesh, Trash while visiting Malaysia last summer, and finally cracked open Heat a few months ago.
Short fiction is not a genre I read extensively in, as I usually prefer poetry collections, graphic novels, novels and even non-fiction collections.
A Southeast Asian anthology was too enticing though, and the book didn’t disappoint.
From Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to the diasporic movements of writers from places like New Zealand, London and the USA, the writers featured in the anthology cover a geographical range that is difficult to generalize. Imagine my surprise and delight when the sleepy city on Borneo that half my maternal family resides in – Kuching, houses the entirety of a story.
Land in these short stories change and shift with the cities that characters move through. To me, they are remarkably familiar, and yet also incredibly unfamiliar as literary landscapes. From the sweltering heat and humidity that cloaks the entire region, the lush and heavy rains, to the winds and vegetation holding in and against it, the intimate connections between these things and the bodied experience of moving through it are all present and dominant in the Heat collection.
Here are the subtleties of displacement, of urban development and loss of land, of navigating queerness and relationships, of spirituality, of violence, of sexual trauma, of urban dysphoria, of speculative presents and futures, all largely framed through an engagement with heat as a concept. After all, heat is the one thing all of Southeast Asia has in common.
Heat in the anthology is bodily, it is fantastical, it is sweltering, it is simmering, it sits in the throat, burns through the nose, it sticks to the skin. Most particularly, it is ubiquitous, everywhere, inescapable, seeping through the landscape and atmosphere in the text.
The choice of a durian as the cover image also makes intuitive sense to those of the region: durians are considered to be fruit of immense heat (an East Asian medical concept), and if consumed too much, cause a bodily imbalance that leads to things like sore throats, nosebleeds, coughs etc.
That I carried this anthology back from Malaysia to Toronto is an event of interference. Here are voices seemingly marginal in my context of Toronto, speaking themselves in centred narratives of their own, for readers of their own contexts. The land and its inhabitants are not constructed for exotic, Othered consumption. They mirror the grounded realities and contexts of the writers.
It is a gift for me to be able to have access to these texts, as someone who has to fight unceasingly to maintain a real grounded connection to the places I call home, especially in my writing; especially in my representation.
To conclude with lines from the back of the book:
“We’ve tried to select the more unexpected, thoughtful and risk-taking from the available pool of writing, forging from them a compendium of twisted, tender visions of our region.”
Key word: “our”.
What a refreshing possessive pronoun.