To take a photograph, Susan Sontag tells us, “is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.” A photograph also preserves evidence and exposes the human condition, which the viewer then appropriates. Old photographs preserve worlds that are gone, but they also bring them back, because the moment which they record is there forever, and cannot be moved in time either backwards or forwards. David Bellis knows this, and he has given us a glimpse of a world that is still present in photographs, a world which contains stories that are also preserved.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its relatively small size, Taiwan has had a turbulent and diverse history that has seen it endure dictatorship during the 20th century, Japanese colonization, and being a minor part of the Qing Dynasty. But before all this, the island, then known as Formosa, was the prize of a mighty struggle between the Dutch and a Ming Dynasty pirate-nobleman almost 400 years ago. Lord of Formosa—first published in Dutch in 2015—is the story of Koxinga, or Zheng Chenggong, the son of a Chinese nobleman and a Japanese woman, and how he won Taiwan from the Dutch.

A Tokyo Romance is a memoir of living in Japan from 1975 to 1981 that immerses the reader in a world of avant-garde theatre and film. It serves as an interesting look at a time when Japan, not China was taking the world by storm. The author, Ian Buruma, currently editor of the New York Review of Books, meditates on living in Japan as a foreigner and how to approach being a perennial outsider. For Buruma, the experience is liberating and Japan is a catalyst for finding his own artistic voice.

Uncertainty, Anxiety, Frugality: Dealing with Leprosy in the Dutch East Indies, 1816-1942, Leo van Bergen (NUS Press, May 2018)
Uncertainty, Anxiety, Frugality: Dealing with Leprosy in the Dutch East Indies, 1816-1942, Leo van Bergen (NUS Press, May 2018)

In the early 19th century, the Dutch administration simply removed sufferers from public view: campaigns targeted anyone “looking ugly”. Towards the end of the century, colonial science considered leprosy a hereditary disease of tropical subjects, and therefore undeserving of the colonial government’s limited resources. The leprosariums were emptied.

Although “Subjunctive Moods” is the name of the second of the stories in CG Menon’s debut collection, it is apt for the entire collection. In grammar (albeit less so and increasingly rarely in English), the subjunctive is used when a condition of uncertainty or conditionality prevails; “if I were the author,” for example, “I might have chosen just this title.” Even a slight perturbation in reality can result in a different verb conjugation or, as it is called, “mood”. Most of Menon’s protagonists are none “too steady on their feet”, as two of them say of themselves, whether literally or as an existential condition: if lives could be conjugated, these would be in the subjunctive.