I was lucky enough to be able to attend part of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) held in Singapore from 31 May to 4 June. I’ll have to admit that I was never a big fan of Asian literature. This preference of mine never had to do with the quality of Asian writing, but rather, it had to do with the time I had. Why make a special effort for a potentially obscure Asian title, when I am already struggling to keep up with the bestsellers. In my mind, those on the hallowed reading lists were the guaranteed good reads. Which may or may not be by Asian writers, but that was a side point. Lack of time meant efficient reading choices. The best bang for my (reading) buck.
This view of mine is certainly set to change after the conference. I see the value in supporting literature that reflects my own culture, or a culture closer to home. Reading Asian literature makes me feel less of an outsider. I say ‘less’ because Asia is not ubiquitous. In fact, the cultural disparities are so diverse within the continent that it can easily be like East and West. But we are all joined by the unifying belief that English literature does not need to be dominated by Western writers – it does not need to be dominated by anything. English is not just a language to access native English-speaking cultures. It has also become a universal language for us to access other cultures.
That said, please don’t read Asian literature because you think it is exotic. I feel the biggest insult to a culture is when you romanticise it. If there is nothing exotic about being a Westerner, then there is nothing exotic about a darker-skinned, darker-haired protagonist. (And personally, speaking about exoticism, I just do not get the hype about coconut trees and balmy sandy beaches.) Ultimately, the goal for me is to have literature without labels.
All this marks a maturity in shaping my own reading repertoire. I no longer feel defined by ticking off a bucket list of must-reads. After the AFCC, I’ll probably put off my next must-read juggernaut for Sampurna Chattarji’s Ela, the Girl Who Entered the Unknown once we get copies of it in the libraries. Have you heard of it?