According to New Asia Now contributor Sheng Keyi, there is a saying in China: “If a Chinese person wants to learn about China, they have to learn English.” And the author of speculative novel Death Fugue points to the heavy censorship in the Chinese media and publishing industry.
Keyi should know, Death Fugue has been banned in mainland China.
Many Asian writers have difficulty expressing themselves as a result of either oppression or corruption in their countries.
A common atrocity among the nations of Miguel Syjuco, Annie Zaidi, and Sheng Keyi was the levels of corruption in their societies. They each chose to write openly about the dark, and rarely scrutinized, aspects of particular Asian countries.
They are all part of New Asia Now, a Griffith Review collection of work from young Asian writers, all born after 1970. It is the journal’s most ambitious edition, according to the Griffith Review editor and session chair, Julianne Schultz.
The session began with the three authors reading excerpts of their work, and then they leapt into discussing the socio-political climates of their respective countries.
Filipino author of Illustrado, Syjuco, believes that it is his responsibility, as an artist from the Phillipines, to tell the world about the corruption evident in his country.
When a writer sits down to write they often ask why they are writing, said Syjuco, particularly when they are politically engaged. He hopes his writing will reach out to the next generation so they can take on some of his ideas.
Syjuco’s essay in New Asia Now, Beating Dickheads, shows the parallels and contrasts between Australian and Filipino politics. He talks about how Australians will sit down at breakfast, read the newspaper, and become disillusioned with the state of parliament.
“What a dickhead!” is the usual response to the daily political disgrace, writes Syjuco.
This is, he says, a “defence mechanism” responding to a feeling of helplessness among the electorate. You can elect parliamentarians, but yet not feel any positive shift in society, or that parliamentarians provide an accurate representation of the needs of citizens.
Similarly, in The Phillipines, people feel this way about their governments. The difference, Syjuco said, is that you can go to jail for expressing such beliefs. He believes it would be unlikely that his essay would be published in his country, as it would be considered defamatory.
In her essay, Embodying Venus, Zaidi writes about the rape of schoolgirls in Ajmer, Rajasthan. The perpetrator took so-called ‘compromising photographs’ and used them to blackmail the victims and their supporters into remaining silent.
Zaidi, who lived a sheltered youth, was taught to be ashamed of nudity, and the rape case galvanized the belief that “this is what happens to girls who go out to meet boys”.
A woman’s body is incessantly commodified, scrutinised, and ultimately shamed, Zaidi said.
She writes that the media gives “fresh reminders of the power cameras have over a woman’s body”.
This was another similarity between India and the Phillipines, Syjuco noted, although he pointed out that one in three women worldwide have been victims of abuse – so this is not only an issue evident in third world countries.
Keyi said, through translator Martin Merz, that while Syjuco and Zaidi were debating which of their nations were more corrupt, she was looking at which of the three – Philippines, India and China – is more rotten.
She said that instances of sexual abuse in China aren’t particularly notable, but there are cases of officials abusing their positions of power to enact violence on women and children.
“The situation for women in China is terrible,” said Keyi.
She read an excerpt from A Little Life, a story based on one of her relatives. It revolves her relative, who despite being unmarried falls pregnant, a fineable offense in China. Keyi said that an impoverished single mother cannot hope to survive in China.
Although A Little Life ends positively, such an outcome could never occur in reality in China, said Keyi.
The authors were asked if the rise of social media has allowed for a democratisation of their messages in the midst of oppression.
“Social media is one of the best tools we have to force freedom of speech and challenge the dogma,” said Syjuco.
Zaidi partly agreed with Syjuco, but pointed out that access to social media is restricted in India, with less that 10 percent of the population having access to the internet.
In China, Keyi believes there is no plurality in her country’s news media as it is dominated by a handful of state-run organisations. Money is frequently used to silence people and journalists are pressured to present a purely positive story.
“Some of what goes on in China can only be reported on when sourced outside of China,” Keyi said.
New Asia Now is clearly providing such a platform for writers and activists to do just that.
Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.