Review of 'The Best Asian Short Stories'
I am a big fan of short stories. Even when the stories are a collection by a single author, short stories allow readers to travel from one place to another, from one idea to another.The Best Asian Short Stories really piqued my interest. Editor Monideepa Sahu writes, “These stories come from within the heart of Asia .... ” and indeed, despite the diversity of themes, Asianness is a common thread running through the entire anthology.
With 32 stories by different writers, this is a voluminous anthology. With stories from 12countries: Bangladesh, China, India, Japan, Jordan, South Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Syria, and Thailand—which include four translations—this sounds like a diverse mix. However, around 15 stories are from India i.e. nearly half of them. While the editor writes that the collection aims to be inclusive, it clearly leans heavily toward Indian contributors. For an anthology that intends to showcase the best from Asia (Asia has 50 countries), it is hard to believe that there were only 12 countries that produced stories worth publishing. Absence of stories from Sri Lanka or Russia is particularly noticeable.
I couldn’t find a specific mention of it, but the cover page references a series editor and the back cover says The Best Asian Series. I hope the future anthologies, if any, are more inclusive.
Several stories in this collection stand out, for both the storyline and the craft. Here are some that have captured my imagination.
“The Skeleton Lock” by Srinjay Chakravarthi (India) is about a young boy who wonders why a golden lock exists—a golden lock that can be opened by any key. Much like this anthology, the golden lock has an infinity of possibilities and impossibilities.
Another story features a young boy named Rod, who is bullied at school in “Pigs” by Francis Paolo Quina (Philippines). Rod breaks down in tears at school when his classmates tease him about his shoes and clothes. But at home, he is fascinated by the bloody and disgusting stories shared by his brother who works at a slaughterhouse. His favorite story, the one where his brother slaughters a pig for the first time, comes to him when he decides to fight a bully at school.
In “Girls’ House” by Clara Chow (Singapore) a granddaughter wishes her grandmother, who grew up as the daughter of a wealthy merchant, had left something for her descendants. On the night of her wedding, the narrator receives a box that belonged to her grandmother, and discovers a love letter her grandfather wrote—a letter that reveals the truth of the girls’ house.
“Jelly Beans” by Soniah Kamal (Pakistan) uses the much-explored trope of Asian (here, Pakistani) parents who find it hard to come to terms with the fact that their beloved son in America is going to marry a divorced white woman. When the parents decide to visit their son in America to dissuade him from marrying this woman, they discover that he has married already, and his wife has a four-year old daughter from her previous marriage. With a heart-warming end, the story leaves you wanting more.
“Samar” by Amir Darwish (Syria) is a heart-wrenching story of the painful journey undertaken by a mother and her little boy. Escaping Aleppo to go to “the land of liberty, Europe,” the journey has unanticipated consequences.
Women are at the center of two powerful stories from Bangladesh: “Big Mother” by Farah Ghuznavi, and “Powerless” by Moinul Ahsan Saber. “Big Mother” explores the fraught relationship of a young woman with her boroma, big mother (the first wife of her polygamous father),and how the young woman transforms when she experiences the freedom that comes with working in Dhaka, away from the small town where she grew up. In “Powerless,” the husband sells his wife every night, to a new man. His fate takes a sharp turn when he goes blind as a result of a fight.
“Flash Fiction” by Loh Guang Liang (Singapore), “Offspring” by Subrata Sengupta (India), “Ammulu” by Poile Sengupta (India), and “The Yakuza under the Stairs” by Mithran Somasundaram (Thailand) are also stories to watch out for.
Stories like “Free Fall in A Broken Mirror” by Hisham Bustani (Jordan) or “Dirty Hands” by Jyothi Vinod (India) didn’t speak to me. In “Chitrangada” by Shoma Chatterji (India), a dark-skinned girl wakes up one morning to find that her skin-tone is now peach. She worries if the transformation from dark to peach will change her identity, change who she is. The end is undoubtedly tragic—because it does change her. I worry that it could be misinterpreted to read that lighter skin is better than dark skin. In “Water on a Hot Plate” by Murli Melwani (India/USA), a couple from the Sindhi diaspora in Hong Kong visits their son in Canada. They also happen to come across a Chinese immigrant from India who has now moved to Canada. Discussing their loss of homeland, and how immigrants need to stand up for each other, I wish the story had brought out the perils of immigrant life more strongly. “After graduating from the Wharton School of Business in the U.S, Anand had joined the marketing team of Nokia Canada,” says the husband about their son. This and other lines such as “there would be enough admirers for her classic Sindhi charm” or “her tall, svelte figure, glowing skin and aquiline nose would appeal to many,” do little to fight Sindhi stereotypes, coming across as rather patronizing.
Anthologies are always a mixed bag: some stories move you, and some do nothing for the reader. A good short story pulls you in with fewer words than a novel would need. And with a novel, one could simply quit reading it if one doesn’t like it. But with short stories, there is always hope—hope that the next story will be better.The Best Asian Short Stories offers everything from a page-long flash fiction to a short story of 20-30 pages. Do read this anthology if you want a panoramic view of Asian identities, and a taste of its multiple subcultures.
Sarita R is a freelance content writer with a passionate interest in literature. She lives in Mumbai, India, and has worked in INGOs and NGOs for nearly a decade.