It occurs to me that I haven’t been a very good ambassador for fiction writing happening in my part of the world. One of the major hurdles with this is that a lot of Vietnamese writing translated into English is actually Viet Kieu writing (written by members of the Vietnamese diaspora). The same is true for Cambodia and Laos. Thailand does have some prominent Thai novelists, but like contemporary novelists writing in Vietnam and Cambodia, they are seldom translated into English.
As you’d expect, some of the most famous Vietnamese novels translated into English focus on the “American War” as the Vietnamese call the ‘Vietnam War.” Two titans on this topic are Bảo Ninh, who wrote The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without A Name. However, Duong’s best novel, in my opinion, is Paradise of the Blind. A deeply immersive piece of writing following the lives of three generations of Vietnamese women, grandmother, mother and daughter. It taught me more about women’s position in Vietnamese society than anything else. To say that Vietnam is a patriarchal society is to tell a big fat lie.
Another book I would highly recommend is the anthology Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction From Vietnam, edited by Đinh Linh. Although all the stories aren’t of equal merit, and some are structured in a way that might be unsatisfactory to the Western reader, it contains haunting stories of beggars who drug babies to earn more money, a man so scarred by fire that only his sister can love him, incestuously, and a beautifully quirky tale which reminded me of Soviet era speculative fiction (The Master and Margarita) about a man who invites his factory boss home for dinner, only to find out he’s turned into a pig.
There are some recent novels – in Vietnamese only – that I’d love to read, but my Vietnamese is just not up to it. One is a semi-autobiographical novel of a trans-woman. The other is a wonderfully lurid tale of a daughter-in-law who takes her place in her husband’s family home, only to be raped by the ghosts of his ancestors. I suspect there is probably a rather unique brand of magical realism in Vietnamese fiction that no one has written about yet. One can only hope that with the rise of e-Books, translations will be more frequent in the future.
Meanwhile, there are a number of expatiate writers in Southeast Asia I would like to recommend. They all write in the crime/thriller genre.
The first is John Burdett, who has written a series of novels set in Bangkok, featuring a wonderfully complex police detective named Sonchai Jitpleecheep. The first in the series is called Bangkok 8 and is a tasty, elegant mystery featuring a fearsome kathoey (ladyboy). Burdett is the only writer I’ve come across who manages to really capture the strangely permeable membrane between the layers of society in Bangkok. Unlike most other places, where there is a clear social and legal demarcation between the ‘normal’ world and the sex trade, Bangkok’s illicit side pushes constantly at the edges of everyday life in the city. There is also a deeply Buddhist ethos running through all these novels and Burdett lulls you into an half-light world of luck, superstition and ghosts before you even notice you’re there. More in my area of writing, Burdett also has a short erotic story in the anthology Best Asian Erotica 2, and a new erotic novella, Freedom Angel, which hasn’t had very good reception. Certainly, it’s got an awful cover! I’ve just bought it but haven’t read it yet. I’ll let you know what I think.
Not as good nor as sociologically meaty as Burdett, Timothy Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series are nonetheless engaging thrillers. Told primarily through the eyes of an American in Bangkok, they don’t quite offer the alien headspace of Burdett’s novels, but they are gritty, sensitive and deeply empathetic.
My current favourite expat writer in the area, though, has to be Colin Coterill, for his funny, touching and absurd detective series featuring Dr. Siri Paibun, a Laotian coroner working in the sweltering insanity of paranoid, post-war Laos. Not only are the mysteries truly unpredictable, but his characters are ludicrous and endearing. Evolving through the series is probably one of the most beautifully written middle-aged romances I’ve ever read, between the detective and a soup lady.
I wish I knew more about fiction written and set in other Southeast Asian countries. If you know of any, please let me know.