One of the greatest things about Southeast Asia is the history and cultures that each country of the region have. There are an endless amount of historical and cultural stories that are so captivating, and definitely worth-telling. That is exactly what these Southeast Asian authors did — they take the readers into the history of the region as well as its myriad lives — with their books.
Presented in no particular order, for your consideration… Here are 6 novels that will take you into the myriad lives of Southeast Asia, and the way every country in the region has been changed over the last 100 years.
1. The Weight of Our Sky, Hanna Alkaf
Alkaf’s debut novel centres around a teen girl with OCD who is separated from her mother during the 1969 riots in Malaysia. This story brings the horrible side of a historical event in a form of well-crafted fiction. Although Alkaf claims this story to be a fiction, all the details included were facts based on careful and long research. The integration between cultural references, mental health descriptions and religious aspects made this book remarkable and won’t be very easy to forget.
2. The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen
Every story in The Refugees succeeds on its own terms. The Refugees comes at a time when Americans are being forced to reckon with what our country is becoming, what values we truly hold dear. It's hard not to feel for Nguyen's characters, many of whom have been dealt an unfathomably bad hand. It's an urgent, wonderful collection that proves that fiction can be more than mere storytelling — it can bear witness to the lives of people who we can't afford to forget.
3. Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco
Through a lens of half-autobiography and half-cultural criticism, Miguel Syjuco’s award-winning novel makes a genuine attempt to appreciate the diversity and eccentricities of modern Manila and the fabric of the contemporary Philippines. The story itself tells the story of a young writer’s apprentice tasked with the self-appointed mission of writing an account of his deceased master’s life. The action that follows takes readers on a journey of meta-criticism, which does well to entertain while asking some serious questions about the state of Filipino literature as a whole.
4. The Sorrow of War, Bảo Ninh
Equal parts poignant and gritty, The Sorrow of War is an uncompromising look at the effects of war and its aftermath. Bảo Ninh tells of a young man named Kien, and through nonlinear storytelling and hallucinogenic flashbacks, the reader learns why he volunteered to fight in the “American War,” what happened to him during the war, and how he is (un)able to readjust to civilian life in Hanoi. Don’t expect a happy ending here (or a happy middle, or a happy beginning), but do expect a compelling tale of innocence lost.
5. The Eaves of Heaven, Andrew X. Pham
“The Eaves of Heaven” is the story of Pham’s father, which Pham tells, with a good deal of literary flourish, in his father’s voice. This attempt at impersonation is risky: after all, writing about oneself is easy, but telling the truth about one’s father is a far graver affair. And yet Pham pulls it off. His descriptions are detailed, yet minimal, providing an excellent sense of time and place without embellishment. This book's fast pace and involving story is likely to appeal to a wide range of readers well beyond the genre boundaries of history and biography aficionados.
6. Dumb Luck, Vũ Trọng Phụng
A satirical and irreverent look at ideas of modernization in 1930s French Indochina, many of the jokes and issues are just as relevant to modern Vietnam. A street urchin named “Red Haired Xuan” scams his way into the new Westernized high society of Hanoi and climbs the pretentious social ladder by, well, dumb luck. A simple but intelligently funny book, Dumb Luck is rightfully a classic of Vietnamese literature.