‘The latest Asian fiction is no longer about differences – but what people share’

The panellists at the session New Pan-Asian Fiction held at Asia House

The panellists at the New Pan-Asian Fiction event held at Asia House

‘The latest Asian fiction is no longer about differences – but what people share’

02 June 2014

By Sue Lanzon

New Pan Asian Fiction, an Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival event chaired by Paul Blezard, brought together three authors, Roopa Farooki, Romesh Gunesekera and Xiaolu Guo, to discuss the current status of Asian fiction and to read from their latest novels in advance of publication.

Blezard began by asking, “Where do you think Asian writing is now?”

Farooki, born in Pakistan, raised in the UK and now living in France, said she felt Asian writing was less about the differences and more about what people share.

“It’s about trying to improve understanding between cultures,” she explained and Asian fiction could no longer be put in a box.

Echoing this, Gunesekera, from Sri Lanka and a resident in London, queried the definition of Asian writing.

“When people talk about it, it depends who’s talking. Maybe what’s changed is the idea of national literature….Maybe the taste is changing, which is exciting.”

Farooki’s novel The Good Children investigates the concept of filial obedience within a “game-changing generation” of Pakistanis, and the shape-shifting quality of the term ‘good’.

She is intrigued by the archetype of the monstrous mother. Opening in 1940s Lahore and spanning two decades and three continents, the book follows the lives of a family of four children and the consequences of their harsh upbringing. The mother beats her children in an effort to win their obedience and browbeats them to get them to conform to her expectations. The children respond very differently. The question that preoccupies Farooki is, in terms of family, what does one give up to pursue one’s passion?

“I admire the game-changers, the rule-breakers. I wasn’t one,” she said, before revealing that her own mother, (to whom the book is dedicated along with her children), was sitting in the front row.

Though her fictional characters always reflect her heritage, Farooki said that she rarely writes about religion or racism, as these are not significant in her own life.

Gunesekera’s novel, Noontide Toll, consists of a series of stories narrated by Vasantha, a Sri-Lankan van driver.

Initially conceived as a character in a short story, Gunesekera said of Vasantha: “I just liked the company of this guy,” and continued to use his voice to write further stories. As a van driver he is “a wonderful lens with which to view Sri Lanka.”

“How do you approach writing about Sri Lanka?” Blezard asked. “Do you feel a responsibility to how you portray it?”

Gunesekera said that, though the civil war ended five years ago, “…the hurt of that for everyone is tremendous, still there, still hurting,”

He said: “My responsibility is ultimately to language – that when you open the book you want to keep reading… Language is oddly time-bound, (although literature is usually timeless.) For example, the word ‘toll’ can relate to the extent of damage such as a body count in a tsunami, or a highway tax. In 10 years time, it may have a different meaning.”

Gunesekera’s first novel, Reef, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1994. Blezard asked him what it’s like to be a Booker Prize short-listed author.

“I desperately wanted a drink. Salman Rushdie came over and told me to stay sober. If drunk when you win, you will say something stupid. If you lose, you will cry.  So the dinner wasn’t very enjoyable.”

Chinese author Xiaolu Guo arrived in the UK in 2002, via Paris and Berlin, unable to speak English.  Within a few years, she had mastered the language and her first English language novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, was published.  As well as being a prolific writer, she is also an award-winning filmmaker.

Her new novel, I Am China, her fourth written in English, is a love story of separation. The main protagonists are two lovers separated by circumstance – Mu, in Beijing and Jian, exiled in a detention centre in Dover. Their story is unravelled by Iona, a translator, through 20 years worth of letters between the pair.

Guo is interested in alienation, separation and multiple narrative layers. She spoke of her dislike of the trend for realism in fiction, which she feels has killed literature.

Guo was one of the Granta Best Young British Novelists of 2013. On hearing the news, she asked, “What is Granta?”

“I don’t have the ambition to be on a list, but to be an intellectual,” she said.

Regarding the title of her latest novel, I Am China, she said that one could substitute the name of any powerful country. It’s about how you fit into the power structure. Power and myth are the underlying themes in her work.

During the Q and A, the authors spoke of their experience as writers.

“I care a lot about the line, the sentence,” Farooki said , having earlier described her writing schedule as 5 to 8 am, before her young children wake up, and more hours after they are asleep. “Two hundred words in three hours and then another three hours crafting them.”

Guo said: “I want to be understood by every reader, beyond religion, to belong to a collective voice.”

Gunesekera said: “The novel is the great conversation…a democratic art form. What attracts the reader can be the language, the story, the architecture, the quirkiness – one reader can enjoy many different types of novels.”

To watch a video clip of the event click below:


Sue Lanzon is a volunteer at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. Her first collection of short stories, Something In The Water & Other Tales Of Homeopathy, is published by Winter Press.