The best Asian books of 2015

Jemimah Steinfeld, Literature Festival Manager, shares her thoughts on the biggest books of 2015

Jemimah Steinfeld, Literature Festival Manager, shares her thoughts on the best books of 2015

The best Asian books of 2015

23 December 2015

By Jemimah Steinfeld

Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld reflects on the year, compiling a list of the best and most notable books and literary trends.

2015 has been a fantastic year for Asian literature, as reflected by the proportion of Asian writers making the Man Booker lists (more on that shortly).

If there was one word that sums up 2015 in terms of literature it would be topical. It was almost as if this year’s published authors looked into a crystal ball when they first put pen to paper and responded to the conversations that would dominate today.

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, which shot straight to the Man Booker shortlist, exemplifies this perfectly. The mathematician-turned-novelist looked at Indian immigrants living in Sheffield for his second book, and the story could not have resonated more with news coming from Calais. Asia House had the pleasure of hosting an event with Sahota up in Leeds on the eve of the book’s publication. Read about it here.

Sunjeev Sahota in conversation with Dr Katy Shaw at the Big Bookend

Sunjeev Sahota in conversation with Dr Katy Shaw at the Big Bookend

Then there was Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, another Man Booker nominee. Despite its ethereal name, this is a book looking at harsh realities – sexual abuse of women and children in India – and a conversation on the book at Asia House was framed around that very topic.  Read about that here. Also take a look at our interview with Roy that was published ahead of this talk.

Neither Sahota’s nor Roy’s books were light reads, but with their well-executed characters and moments of humour, they were certainly good reads.

Another topical book came out right at the start of the year from BBC journalist Anita Anand. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary is the story of an early twentieth century Indian princess who later became a leading suffragette in England. As the General Election approached in the UK in May, this informative read was a gentle nudge at the politically apathetic, reminding women in particular that there was a time, not too long ago, when people risked their lives to get the vote. Research was meticulous and the prose fluid, making it an enjoyable read before even considering the important message behind it. Read about her talk at Asia House here.

Over in China two themes dominated this year’s literature. Non-fiction was firmly rooted in the here and now as authors examined the current generation of Chinese youth. Xinran, who opened this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, came out of the literary shadows with Buy Me the Sky. While not quite pulling as many punches as her previous works have, it was still an interesting insight into an important topic. Read about it here.

Xinran signs a copy of her book 'Buy Me the Sky' at Asia House

Xinran signs a copy of her book ‘Buy Me the Sky’ at Asia House

First time author Eric Fish’s China’s Millennials: The Want Generation took on the same topic, offering a nice counterpoint to Xinran’s (Fish being an American male millennial, Xinran being a Chinese female mother). Both these books aimed to demystify Chinese youth and in so doing reveal truths about the world’s largest nation.

Over on the fiction side, the drama definitely moved from Berlin to Beijing as authors become increasingly aware of how superb China is as a setting for a thriller.

Two writers nailed this trend. Lisa Brackmann’s endearing but intensely frustrating character Ellie McEnroe had her swansong in Dragon Day, which had echoes of the Neil Heywood case Dragon Day got off to a tremendous start when Brackmann, talking through the signature wry voice of Ellie, acknowledged what a cliché it is to use dragon in the title of a book on China.

Then Adam Brookes, former BBC China journalist, took us even further into the heart of contemporary Chinese power politics in Spy Games, the follow-up to his successful 2014 book Night Heron. Anti-hero Philip Mangan, a UK journalist-turned-spy, starts off in Ethiopia looking at the Chinese influence there, before switching his focus back to China itself. Both these books are pacey, fun and best read as part of their respective series. See what Adam Brookes had to say when he spoke at Asia House here.

spy books

Dragon Day by Lisa Brackmann and Spy Games by Adam Brookes

However, not all of the best books of 2015 were contemporary. Fans of historical fiction were given a real treat with the final instalment of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, entitled Flood of Fire. This book takes the trilogy up to almost one million words.

No surprise then that he was nominated for the hugely impressive Man Booker International Prize, which recognises overall achievement in fiction. All three books in the trilogy – tied together by the historical thread of the opium trade – can be read together or separately. As the plot moved from India to China, Ghosh brought the 19th century empires vividly back to life. Read what Amitav Ghosh had to say about the book when he launched it at our literature festival here.

Turkey’s Nobel Prize in Literature-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk came out of the shadows after a six year hiatus with an epic about life in Istanbul over the past half-century told from the perspective of a street vendor. During these decades Istanbul’s population has increased from three million to 13 million and the narrator is perfectly placed to reflect on this change. A Strangeness in My Mind is a love song to the city, a novel that makes you want to book flights to Istanbul right away – to sample the foods and see the sights that the street vendor talks of.

It’s hard to add anything new to literature on the Second World War and yet that’s exactly what Susan Southard did with Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War. Southard, who teaches creative writing in the US, clearly understands that scale of tragedy is more understood and absorbed when, inadvertently, told through the lens of just a few people. She followed five individuals as research for the book, all of whom were teenagers on the day of the bombing. The result is a haunting read, which stays with you long after it’s finished.


Nagasaki by Susan Southard, A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk and Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh

Looking at a more recent war is Samanth Subramanian, whose book This Divided Island made the Samuel Johnson Prize shortlist. Only a few years after it ended, Subramanian provides an extraordinary account of the Sri Lankan war and the lives it changed. Through his travels and many conversations, he helps to explain how the war came about, how sides were picked and what its legacy is.

One final literary trend of 2015 was the growing popularity of the short story. Of the notable ones in 2015, Jonathan Tel’s tale from a remote nuclear base in Maoist China scooped up the Commonwealth short story prize. It can be read here.

For those who want something a bit lengthier (to fill a stocking perhaps?), Mahesh Rao’s collection One Point Two Billion really hits the spot. Barely a year after Rao won the Tata First Book Award for his debut novel The Smoke is Rising, this collection of 13 tales, all from different Indian states, is beguiling. It moves from India’s chaotic cities to calming tea plantations and yoga retreats via detention centres and Punjab canals. If The Smoke is Rising hadn’t already put Rao on the map as a master storyteller, these certainly do.

Join us for an evening that will celebrate contemporary Myanmar culture on 19 January with author Ellen Wiles. The evening will commence with a book talk and reading and will proceed with Myanmar performance art, delicious finger food, film and art. More information