“You are what you eat,” or so goes a well-worn adage. But what if “you” are an 18th-century Brit and “what you eat” is exotic fare from the Orient? The implications are explored by Yin Yuan in Alimentary Orientalism: Britain’s Literary Imagination and the Edible East.
“Humankind, I like to believe, can be divided into two groups: one group swears by science fiction, the other cherishes only mysteries. I belong to the latter.” Thus begins C. M. Naim’s homage to the writers who once provided generations of Urdu-speaking mystery-lovers hours of sleepless delight.
Literature tends to be defined by language and place. For instance, Japanese literature is written in Japanese, or translated into another language, and written by Japanese authors. Chinese literature is however a little more complex because writers may also hail from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. In most of these places, citizens—a significant minority if not the vast majority—speak, read, and write Chinese. In the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, ethnically-Chinese writers may also read and write in English. But Malaysia is a case apart. Despite the Chinese being a minority that speak a variety of languages and dialects, there has been a robust Chinese literary tradition from Malaysia for almost a century. Cheow Thia Chan’s new book, Malaysian Crossings: Place and Language in the Worlding of Modern Chinese Literature, discusses the history and complexities of Mahua, or Malaysian Chinese literature, to show how it has developed and endures stronger than ever today.
India and China share a physical border. Indeed, that is the element of their proximity that stands out the most thanks to the 1962 war, briefly revisited in the form of border skirmishes in 2020. But the two great nations also share common ground in veneration of the Buddha and trade exchanges that span centuries. The Chinese learned about the message of the Buddha from India and, to their immense credit, they also preserved it through translations of the ancient Buddhist texts whose records did not survive in India. This history of healthy spiritual and commercial exchange has more recently been shadowed by increasing distrust and even contempt. Politics and commerce is not however the only way in which two countries have interacted.
In an interconnected world, literature moves through transnational networks, crosses borders, and bridges diverse cultures. In these ways, literature can bring people closer together. Today, as hopes for globalization wane and exclusionary nationalism is on the march, can literature still offer new ways of relating with others? Comparative literature has long been under the spell of circulation, contact, connectivity, and mobility—what if it instead sought out their antitheses?
South Asia is a literary universe unto itself. It is home to hundreds of languages intersecting in multiple ways with history, ritual, and traditions of the classical Sanskrit as well as vernacular orality. In Sensitive Reading: The Pleasures of South Asian Literature in Translation, editors Yigal Bronner and Charles Hallisey put together a set of texts from multiple languages translated by renowned Indologist David Shulman (along with works of music as well as a work of visual art). The chosen texts all to a greater or lesser extent deal with love—declarations of love, desire, longing, love for the divine, and the pain of separation. Their curation brings together the classics from the ancient and medieval periods in Indian history with a smattering of works closer to the present—19th and 20th centuries.
Do the portrayals of objects in literary texts represent historical evidence about the material culture of the past? Or are things in books more than things in the world? Sophie Volpp considers fictional objects of the late Ming and Qing that defy being read as illustrative of historical things. Instead, she argues, fictional objects are often signs of fictionality themselves, calling attention to the nature of the relationship between literature and materiality.