on 10 November, 2012

Three nights in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster

by Varuna director David White

“It’s a lonely, miserable existence, writing,” said Morag Fraser, sometime Miles Franklin award judge, to us at one stage.


But hanging out with a lively bunch of writers and translators from across South East Asia turned out to be neither lonely nor miserable.


With generous support from the Australia Thailand Institute, I was able to attend “Reaching the World” at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok in early November this year. Reaching the World was jointly organised by Asia Pacific Writers and Translators, and the South East Asian Writers Award (known as “S.E.A Write”), and was hosted by the Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn.

Photo (left): The elegant façade of the Faculty of Arts building, Chulalongkorn University Bangkok.

Bangkok has been designated UNESCO’s “World Book Capital 2013”, and this event was the kick-off for that year. Reaching the World was Bangkok’s first international writers’ showcase, bringing together authors, translators and publishing professionals from around Asia and the Pacific to share their work.

The finer details of writing awards and literary translation don’t cross my horizon very often, but I took two interesting insights out of the conference.

Firstly, while there may be the occasional minor controversy over writing awards in Australia, we don’t suffer from either corruption or political censorship in our prizes. A number of countries in South East Asia suffer from flawed, biased or gerrymandered processes. And writing about the wrong subject matter can mean you won’t even be considered for an award.

Secondly, writing in English is a privilege we may well take for granted. We don’t need to have our work translated to achieve success. For others, while writing in a European language brings some logistical difficulties, translation into English is at least an established pathway. However, writing in an Asian language (particularly a regional tongue like Thai, Indonesian or Vietnamese) involves major challenges if you want to tap the potential markets and audiences available through English. Reading Thai literary works in Indonesian? Almost impossible. If achievable at all, it would probably have to go through English.

We should appreciate our blessings as writers in English. Fortunately there is a gifted and dedicated bunch of literary translators who are working towards a wider dissemination of some of the remarkable output of Asian writers.

conference2 The most moving parts of the program were without doubt the readings by the showcased authors and poets. Powerful writing, powerfully read. Even those work read in first language, untranslated, made connections with the audience. Gutsy poetry, deft short stories, intriguing novel extracts, incisive political rhetoric encased in clever characterisation. No-one who heard it will forget the reading by Mr Jang, once the poet laureate for Kim Jong Il, who defected at great personal risk. His intense verse, read first in Korean and then translated, wrenched everyone’s guts.

Photo (left): Varuna director David White with indigenous poets Lionel Fogarty and Ali Cobby Eckermann, a Varuna alumnus

This has already been identified as the “Asian Century”. Australia writing can only be enriched by continuing contact with the literary strength in South and South East Asia. At Varuna we will be actively looking for opportunities to benefit our Varuna alumni and other Australia writers by exchange programs and other initiatives to tap this rich vein of talent and inspiration.