Penman No. 21: Literary Networking in Bangkok

Penman for Monday, November 19, 2012

BENG AND I had hardly stepped off the plane from weather-beaten New York when we were off again to sunny Bangkok, this time to attend a conference of writers and translators from all over Asia and the Pacific. I asked Beng to come along because we hadn’t visited Bangkok in a few years and had always enjoyed the place. Here, again, we were helped by the fact that our unica hija Demi works in the hotel industry, and she was able to find us a nice place in Sukhumvit—the Aloft, Bangkok’s iteration of a global chain of smart boutique hotels. More on the Aloft in a bit.

I was there to take part in “Reaching the World,” billed as Bangkok’s first international literary showcase, under the auspices of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association (AP Writers for short) and the South East Asian Writers (SEAWrite) Award, hosted by the Faculty of Arts of Chulalongkorn University. I sat on the 2010-2012 board of AP Writers with fellow Filipino professor and STAR columnist Isagani Cruz, who served as its chairman.

A sizeable delegation represented the Philippine literary community in Bangkok, aside from Gani and myself: writer and scholar Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, who now divides her time between UP and UST; UP English department chair and Southeast Asian literature expert Lily Rose Tope; poet and UP professor Isabel Mooney; fictionist and UP Mindanao professor Jhoanna Cruz; poet and DLSU professor Dinah Roma; essayist and UP professor Jeena Rani Marquez; and UST literature professor Timothy Sanchez. Novelist Charlson Ong, this year’s SEAWrite awardee from the Philippines, joined the Bangkok conference in its last couple of days, coming from the Singapore Writers Festival which I had attended last year.

AP Writers emerged out of an earlier organization, the Asia-Pacific Writing Partnership founded by Jane Camens who had also helped establish the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. Jane, an Australian writer who has lived, studied and worked in the US, the UK, China, Macau, and Hong Kong, has been an indefatigable spirit bringing writers from all corners of the region together, and she will now serve as AP Writers’ general manager. The Sri Lankan-born but Hong Kong-based humorist and essayist Nury Vittachi will serve as AP Writers’ new chairman, backstopped by the Chinese-Indonesian-American fictionist Xu Xi, who runs the MFA low-residency program at the City University of Hong Kong, and by the translator Shirley Young-Eun Lee, who has roots in Korea but who read Classics and Persian at Oxford.

As you can see from just that small corner of the organization’s membership roster, AP Writers is both as regional and as global as you can get. This reflects an increasingly obvious fact in today’s literary world: international and inter-cultural exposure has become vital for writers, to expand both their perspectives and their networks. By “network” we mean here that web of connections that emanates from the writer and his or her work to the other people involved in the process of literary production and dissemination—agents, editors, translators, publishers, critics, booksellers, critics, reviewers, teachers, researchers, and, of course, students and general readers.

This year, in Bangkok, AP Writers paid special attention (and gave formal recognition, in its full name) to a vital but largely neglected member of that network, the translator. A literary work can’t be read beyond its original market unless it’s translated into another language, and that requires the skills of a very small group of specialists around the world. Literary translation isn’t just the kind of word-for-word interpretation you might get from a software program or even a live person—it involves the understanding and translation of one culture into another, the conveyance of nuances that, paradoxically, will never be perfect but will achieve interesting effects of its own. (I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Salman Rushdie, about the most interesting words of a language being the untranslatable ones.) In Bangkok, we were privileged to be in the company of some of the world’s best translators, including the Australian Henry Aveling, who has undertaken many translations from Indonesian and Malay.

We were also treated to a tour of the stately and historic Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the Chao Phraya River, probably the only hotel in the world where writers are revered. AP Writers held its business meeting there, after being regaled by Harold Stephens, an American expat and raconteur who’s written 30 books on travel and adventure and who also happens to be married to a Filipina, with stories of the old hotel from the days when the likes of Joseph Conrad (then still a ship captain), W. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, and Graham Greene stayed over. There’s a room and a lounge now maintained in their honor at the hotel—where, fittingly enough, Charlson would receive his SEAWrite Award later in the week from Thai royalty).

Readings and socials are an important part of any literary conference, and while some readings can be interminable (let’s face it: authors love to hear themselves), now and then you come across an entirely original voice. This time around that voice was that of Jang Jin-sung, one of Kim Jong-il’s favorite poets who defected when he could no longer take what was going in in North Korea.

The gut-wrenching hunger and desolation that Jang spoke of in his homeland contrasted, ironically, with the culinary and visual opulence of Thailand, which makes every visit there worthwhile. Beng was landing in the new Suvarnabhumi airport for the first time and was awed by the experience, even more so when the sleek commuter train took us from the airport to the city center for a mere 20 baht (about 30 pesos). We dropped our bags off at the Aloft—a jazzy, upbeat hotel with free wi-fi, a great buffet breakfast, and an iPod stereo player in every room—and dashed off in a cab to catch the weekend market at Chatuchak.

Thailand is a shopper’s and diner’s paradise but Beng and I contented ourselves with a bag for her and an iPhone case for me—and lots of fresh fruit, spicy chicken rice meals, and heavenly foot massages. It may not have seemed too auspicious when the printed menu in one streetside restaurant offered us “Steamed Crap,” but we survived the typo.

We came away much impressed by the Thais’ devotion to culture and literature, good reason for Bangkok to be named the World Book Capital for 2013 by Unesco (a distinction that, I bemoaned, Manila would probably earn by 2053). At the welcome dinner, Bangkok’s urbane and genial governor, M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, ducked out of his busy schedule overseeing preparations for an upcoming world indoor football championship to break bread and share jokes with writers and translators. I’d like to believe we were well worth his and each other’s time.

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