The cover of the short story anthology titled, The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 brings to mind the long running and prestigious yearly anthology, The Best American Short Stories and by association of its content, the O Henry Prize collection. As one with an avid interest in short stories, as a writer and reader, the collection from Asian writers was cause for much anticipation for me. While the process of selection of stories in the Asian format was quite different from that of The Best American Short Stories, the new anthology comes with the uniqueness of containing narratives from varied countries in Asia. As an attempt to capture the nuances of life from different cultures following diverse ideologies of life, but are Asian as per geographical classification –encompassing the deserts of the Arab world to the rain forests of Malaysia, the enigma that is China to the highly disciplined society of Japan—the stories were bound to be different in nature and scope. But while reading the stories, what comes as a surprise is that while the cultures may be different, the language of life in Asian societies follows rules that are not very different.
In Shikandin’s Patchwork and in Park Chan-Soon’s Ladybirds Fly from the Top, we see people dangling from ropes and ladders strung on buildings risking their lives to beautify the city so that they can put food on the table for their families. There are no safety nets to catch them if they fall, their lives resting solely on the goodness of the people working along with them. In Amir Darwish’s Samar, a poignant tale of a young mother running away with her child to escape the situation in her country and in Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath’s The Wetland, we see the aftermath of senseless violence that breaks up families. Clara Chow’s Girl’s House and Offspring by Subratha Sengupta, translated by Tanushree Ghosh Dhall, talks about the lengths people can go to, to attain the objects of their desire, offering startling insights into the mindset of people, whether Chinese or Indian.
Stories about women who are terrorised into submission through seemingly loving ways or by brute force finds place in anthologies, a frequent reminder of the treatment meted out to women the world over. In this collection too, grim stories recounting this unfortunate reality finds a place. What is heartening to note is that the women in these stories do not remain chained to their oppressors, whether it’s Poile Sen Gutpa’s Ammulu, or Moyna in Powerless, written by Moinul Ahsan Saber and translated by Shabnam Nadiya, they seize the chance to turn the situation to their favour and to write the script of their lives without fear. Stories by familiar authors, Farah Ghaznavi, Siddhartha Gigoo, Shashi Deshpande, O Thiam Chin, Usha K R, and others, offer a chance to the reader to once again traverse the worlds meticulously created by them.
The turbulence of partition, mental health issues, bullying, the search for identity in countries far away from home, the narratives in the collection cover a vast landscape. As expected in an anthology, some stories remain in mind long after reading them while others falter in capturing attention. However, the chosen stories without a doubt lend colour and depth to the collection.
The anthology, the first one in a proposed yearly series, definitely deserves applause for the thought and effort behind it. Editor, Monideepa Sahu writes in her forward about the intense effort that went into choosing the stories, “Reader’s block became as much a reality for me as writer’s block. I found that I could intensely scrutinize at most ten stories at one session before sinking into a glaze eyed stupor After the clearer choices were retained and the rest sent back to their authors, there were still a sizable number of stories. Far too many for a single book.”
The Best Asian Short Story collection published by Kitaab International promises to be an anthology that short story enthusiasts can look forward to every year. For the short story format that is forever dangling on the precipice of extinction, it is heartening to see this effort.
The Best Asian Short Stories 2017
by Monideepa Sahu (Editor), Zafar Anjum (Series Editor)
Paperback, First Edition, 454 pages
Published in 2017 by Kitaab International Pte. Limited