In her introduction to the Best Asian Short Stories 2017, editor Monideepa Sahu offers a number of notes and considerations into some of the questions that might be asked of this volume: What is this book about? How did it happen? What is Asia and the stories from it?
The 32 stories themselves reveal some of the answers. Sahu has selected stories (and two pieces of flash fiction) from Japan to Jordan, from Korea to Pakistan. There’s a deliberate attempt to be inclusive and, in Sahu’s words, to focus on “stories [that] come from within the heart of Asia”. The Asian perspective—as vast and diverse as it might be—is always present, even if stories are set outside of Asia.
As such, readers are given the opportunity to explore a number of themes—characters seek refuge from war and displacement, they struggle between tradition and a global world or are pulled between cultures.
Opening the anthology is Fits and Starts by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, who writes about a night-time delivery rider at a 24-hour McDonald’s in Singapore, a lone female among her male colleagues.
Lilly pulled over a chair and sat between Rashid and Zul, facing the four Malay riders. She was wearing thick-soled, rainbow-striped shoes, dotted with diamantes, that looked like something outof a teenbopper Korean music video.
Rashid turned to her. “How’s your customers tonight?”
Lilly shrugged, peeling open the wrapper around her burger. “Ang moh teenagers, American School that kind.”
Through Rashid’s relationship with Lilly and through their petrol runs to Johor Bahru, the reader learns Lilly’s story and some of the daily struggles she faces.
Soniah Kamal’s Jelly Beans opens with Mr. and Mrs. Hafeez receiving a letter at their home in Karachi from “their own obedient son in America”. The premise of the story arrives at the end of the opening paragraph: “As soon as Mr. Hafeez slit open the envelope a photo fell at their feet: Jamal with a white woman.”
Kamal follows Mr and Mrs Hafeez, as well as a cousin who was supposed to be engaged to Jamal, as they travel to Atlanta to confront Jamal before it’s too late. It’s a different take on the child bringing a spouse back to the home country and Kamal’s version is thoughtful, at moments humorous, and ultimately touching.
Poile Sengupta’s Ammulu was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth short story prize. A story about a father who feels a responsibility to arrange a marriage for his first-born daughter Ammulu, Sengupta talks about family, tradition and relationships, before delivering a sharp and unexpected ending.
The anthology includes a few stories in translation, an important and necessary part of trying to achieve the anthology’s goal of inclusiveness. But with just four translations, these stories also raise a larger question of how little is available in translation and, if one is to really tell the stories from Asia, how this can be addressed.
As with any anthology, there are opportunities for readers to dip in and out, to be moved by one story, to linger on another and then be spun in a completely different direction. The anthology succeeds in bringing together a multitude of voices between the covers.
And as eye-catching and marketable as it is, the title also raises questions. Although the foreword attempts to answer some of a reader’s questions, perhaps a larger question remains. What is “the best” and, when dealing with a region that is, as Sahu writes “vast and complex as Asia” how is one certain that the best has been found? In making “the best” the common thread that links the stories, it can be difficult to read each piece without trying to evaluate it against what the best could or might be.
But ultimately it’s a title that attracts interest—a good thing when exploring new authors, whose voices can leave you wanting more.