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The Writer Who Challenges the Notion that ‘Asian Novels’ Are a Monolith

By Hillary Kang

 
 

Southeast Asian literature is often seen as a monolith — this, despite the fact that the subregion consists of 11 countries, each bearing an immeasurable number of unique cultures and languages.

Indonesian writer Erni Aladjai is deeply familiar with the discourse. She says that the lack of distinction between literature within Southeast Asia is due to a lack of awareness.

“The problem is that Asian countries don’t really know each other’s literary works very well, aside from Korean and Japanese literature,” says Aladjai. “In Indonesia, I’ve read novels from Poland, Latin America, Sweden — but it is difficult to find novels from neighbouring countries. We don’t really know who the upcoming writers are from nearby countries, or what novels are most influential there.”

As Aladjai explains, there is value in exploring work from other countries — even ones that geographically neighbour your own — because their lived experience can be vastly different from yours. For one, the theme of colonialism, though common in novels throughout Southeast Asia, take on different forms and connotations in different countries.“Every writer cannot be separated from the context of their society and culture,” says Aladjai.

Two of Aladjai's published novels. Themes in her works often include her experiences growing up on a remote Indonesian island, and folklore told to her by her grandmother.
Two of Aladjai's published novels. Themes in her works often include her experiences growing up on a remote Indonesian island, and folklore told to her by her grandmother.

Aladjai would know. Born on a remote island located in an archipelago off the eastern end of Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province, Aladjai’s four novels and various short stories often revolve around the experiences and stories she grew up with, both good and bad.

In Aladjai’s 2014 novel “Kei”, she examines the real-life Maluku sectarian conflict through the lens of star-crossed lovers on either side of the divide, while her short story “Mariana” explores the small-town ennui of a bullied child.

Last year, Aladjai was a speaker at the 2020 edition of the Singapore Writers Festival. One of the panels she was on was the aptly named “The Southeast Asian Novel Is A Thing.”There, Aladjai and authors Glenn Diaz and Ameena Hussein discussed the semantics of just what makes a novel Southeast Asian, and how it differs from its counterpart, the so-called “Asian novel.”

In "Kei", Aladjai explores the 1999 Maluku sectarian conflict through the lens of star-crossed lovers and close friends caught on either side of the divide.
In "Kei", Aladjai explores the 1999 Maluku sectarian conflict through the lens of star-crossed lovers and close friends caught on either side of the divide.

Aladjai is also careful to note that literature within the region and should not be limited by its bittersweet past. “We must not forget to narrate the issues we face today, like environmentalism, women’s issues and mental illness,” she says.

Still, Aladjai says that it is only natural for creatives around the world to want to explore their nation’s history through their own works. She raises the Holocaust as an example, which remains a common theme and touchpoint in many modern-day creative works: “Historical events like the Holocaust are still being produced in creative works because there is a rereading and reassessing of historical sorrow.”

“Every generation needs to reread and rethink their past narratives and their nation’s wounds,” says Aladjai, “and to rewrite them within their own literary framework.”