Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet  (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)
Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)

Joseph Conrad’s favored destination was Asia, the bustling transit port of Singapore, the remote islands and ports of the Dutch East Indies. It was from Singapore that he made four voyages as first mate on the steamship Vidar to a small trading post which was forty miles up a river on the east coast of Borneo. A river and a settlement which he described as “One of the last, forgotten, unknown places on earth”. His Borneo books—Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rescue and the latter part of Lord Jim—were all based on the places he visited, the stories he heard, and the people he met during these voyages.

Catherine Menon’s debut novel, Fragile Monsters, is a beautifully written story of one Indian Malaysian family’s history, entwined with secrets and hidden heartbreak, told through the fractious relationship of Durga and her Ammuma, her grandmother Mary. When Durga, a mathematics lecturer returns home to rural Pahang after ten years away in Canada and in Kuala Lumpur, to spend Diwali with Mary, the pair are forced to untangle the mystery of their past. “Stories twist through the past like hair in a plait,” Durga says.

To some extent, all one needs to know about The Java Enigma is that it has been called, more than once, “Da Vinci Code”-like. This will either intrigue or repel, depending on how one feels about Dan Brown’s genre-creating blockbuster. Neither reaction would however be entirely warranted, for—while there are certainly similarities—Erni Salleh’s debut novel is quite a different animal. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter.

Timor-Leste has been just about the most geographically and politically remote corner of East Asia, a distant second to Macau in Portugal’s one-time East Asian possessions, diminutive compared to the Dutch East Indies and later Indonesia. And the Chinese community there, as far as the Chinese diaspora goes, one of the less substantial. Perhaps for those reasons, the development of Cina Timor—the Timorese Chinese—offers a case study in intra-Asian immigration and identity.