There are many novels by Western authors sojourning in Asia. Stories that go the other way around are as rare as hens’ teeth.
My books all begin with photos, photos from my collection that show Hong Kong in the late 19th and early 20th century. I choose each photo for the stories it has to tell—some obvious, others that need a closer look to uncover.
It was 1675, and Londoners were eager to see the King’s Company production of the latest play by John Dryden, playwright and Poet Laureate. Aureng-Zebe, for so it was titled, was a heroic verse-drama written in rhyming couplets based on near-contemporary events in India. It featured an exotic combination of eastern despotism, lust and dynastic rivalry, together with an invented love-story, all of which was bound to satisfy an audience still in the throes of an “oriental” craze.
Dressed like Rajput princesses in bangles, rhinestones and brocade tightly fitted over their svelte bodies, the young women created a stir when they entered the elevator of our nondescript apartment block in Singapore. Only later did I learn that these were bar dancers, dispatched by their needy families in rural Bihar to earn 200 hundred dollars a week in the clubs on Circular Road. 100 years earlier these women might have aspired to become elite entertainers, tawaifs, for the aristocrats of Benares or Lucknow. Saba Dewan’s magistral work explains the decline and fall of this storied tradition.
In 1942, Jewish refugee Max Faerber opened Paragon Book Gallery in Shanghai. Faerber had worked for a newspaper in Vienna before he fled the Nazis for the brighter shores of Shanghai. During his first few years in China, Faerber put his newspaper skills to use and managed a German Jewish newspaper, one of many publications produced in the refugee communities in Shanghai. But when the Japanese occupied the whole of Shanghai in December 1941, Max looked for another profession. He turned to bookselling.
Few contemporary works of fiction from Uzbekistan are translated into English directly. Those that have found their way into the English language are usually classical texts or themselves translations of Russian translations of the Uzbek originals. Given this scarcity of accessible modern Uzbek literature, the casual English language reader could be forgiven for not knowing upon what basis to judge the relative worth of a novel like Gaia, Queen of Ants by Hamid Ismailov.
Justin Marozzi starts his survey of Islamic civilization by noting that the Arab world hasn’t had the best of press lately. “Everywhere you look there’s chaos, fighting, bloodshed, dictatorship, corruption, injustice, unemployment,” a Tunisian friend of his tells him.