For many years Wichita State University has been fortunate to attract students from both South and Southeast Asia, areas of the world not well known by most WSU students and alumni. Both Prateep Ungsongtham Hata fs ’84 of Thailand and Maha Al-Emam ’99, who was educated in Saudi Arabia, are familiar with a part of the world that offers a Westerner many reading pleasures.
Asian Literature, a course I teach, is intended to help students develop an awareness of the issues and concerns of some of the novelists from Asia. Among these are Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian (I cheat a little in calling Mahfouz an Asian writer, but I want to include him because of his insights into Moslem life), and Japan’s Kenzaburo Oe, both of whom are Nobel Prize winners for literature.
Other novelists are Pramoedya Toer, Indonesian; Bharati Mukherjee and Salman Rushdie, Indians; Gail Tsukiyama, the daughter of a Japanese father and a Chinese mother who writes about China; Nora Okja Keller, Korean American; and Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan expatriate.
Most college graduates are familiar with the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini. The fatwa, which encouraged the assassination of Rushdie, was a response to his novel, The Satanic Verses. However, few U.S. readers know about Midnight’s Children, a novel that deals with the birth of India in 1947.
Midnight’s children are those who were born within minutes of India’s freedom from Great Britain. In the novel, each midnight child is born with a magical gift. Rushdie plots their growth and development up to and including the government of Indira Gandhi. He also explores the Moslem-Hindu split, caste society, violence, love — all the ingredients that make a novel enjoyable and Rushdie a potential Nobel laureate.
Alexandria, Cairo, the Pyramids and the Sphinx are favorite places of tourists who wish to visit the home of a great civilization. Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy is the set of books to read to discover the changes in Egypt from its control by the British prior to WWI through WWII.
By tracing the members of an extended family in what is now called Cairo’s old quarter, Mahfouz shows how they deal with the strains of British occupation, nationalistic movements (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party), and the impact these have upon traditional Islamic practices.
A reader comes away from these novels with a better understanding of a world that has always been important to us — and is even more important now. Mahfouz was the victim of an assassination attempt in 1994, but survived and now spends his days drinking coffee with friends in Cairo.
The 2004 tsunami was started by an earthquake near Banda Aceh in Sumatra, one of the thousands of islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago and the largest Moslem country in the world. Pramoedya Toer (“Pram” as he is called), a potential Nobel laureate and the author of The Buru Quartet (four novels), is the novelist to read in order to understand the transition from a colonial country (Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch) to an independent democracy.
Toer leaves one with a lasting impression of the struggle for freedom from colonialism. Minke, the native narrator (his Dutch teacher called him a “Monkey” and that sounds like “Minke”), encounters a veteran of the ongoing struggle in Banda Aceh who explains the origins of that conflict as well as the welcome the Japanese received at the beginning of WWII. To some Indonesians, they were seen as Asian liberators who would free the area from Western control but who quickly became colonizers as well.
Sri Lanka was also struck by the tsunami, and relief efforts there were hampered by the civil conflict between the Tamils and the government. Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje, who also wrote The English Patient, may be the perfect introduction to the civil war and the toll it takes on ordinary people.
Anil, a Sri Lankan, returns as part of a UN team that is examining the bodies of the “disappeared,” much as Jill Cobb ’77 did in Bosnia. Anil encounters the conflict when she begins her search for the identity of one of the disappeared, a search that may cost her life.
The novels I have mentioned make great reading, all are available in paperback, and all can lead to a better understanding of Asia, both South and Southeast.
Suggested Reading List:
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (India)
Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (India)
Gail Tsukiyama, Women of the Silk (China)
Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy (Egypt)
Pramoedya Toer, The Buru Quartet (Indonesia)
Kenzaburo Oe, Teach Us to Outgrow our Madness (Japan)
Nora Okja Keller, Comfort Woman (Korean)
Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost (Sri Lanka)