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Found in translation


Sara Veal

Much like Indonesia itself, the vast Asian region is rich with culture and full of voices, all of which translate into a storytelling goldmine, be it through prose, poetry, comics or films.

Unfortunately, the region’s strengths are also its weaknesses — the linguistic and cultural differences added to relatively low literacy rates and lack of promotion for new authors, means that many intriguing voices are in danger of never being heard.

In recognition of this ongoing dilemma, this year’s 13th biennial Singapore Writers’ Festival (SWF 2009), which took place between Oct. 24 and Nov. 1, aimed to promote Asian literature, with a particular focus on Singapore and Malaysia, and stimulate reading and writing in Asia more generally.

“Our festival focuses on Asian writers, especially Asian writers who have just started writing, new writers and new translations, in order to provide a sense of discovery and help people to get to know more Asian writers,” said Khor Kok War, deputy CEO and director of Literary Arts at the National Arts Council.

SWF 2009 was co-organised by the National Arts Council and The Arts House with official sponsorship from Singapore Press Holdings Ltd and Singapore Press Holdings Foundation.

SWF 2009’s theme was “Undercovers”, which evoked a myriad of meanings, such as the notion of children reading a book under their covers with a flashlight or the discovery of new authors.

Accordingly, SWF 2009 featured more than 100 writers from 20-plus countries and aimed to explore the variety of genres that the Undercovers theme evoked, from horror and thriller through to children’s literature and up-and-coming writers.

The festival’s itinerary consisted of intimate Q&As with authors, writing workshops, film screenings and interactive galleries, most of which took place in The Arts House, an 182-year national monument that was once Singapore’s first court house, as well as parliament house, and is now dedicated to showcasing arts and heritage.

There were almost 70 Singaporean literary luminaries directly participating in events, including established writers like Catherine Lim (The Bondmaid, 1995), a self-described “incorrigible, unstoppable storyteller”, and de-facto poet laureate Edwin Thumboo (Ulysses by the Merlion, 1979) to emerging talents like Wena Poon, who won the Singapore Literature Prize for her debut novel Lions in Winter.

Poon, who also found time to enjoy other authors’ contributions, said her favorite event was Chinese writer Dai Sijie’s presentation of his film Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

“In our post-show dialogue, he told us interesting behind-the-scenes details about this autobiographical film and novel of the same name, and I translated his Mandarin words into English for the international audience, laughing all the way because of his dry humor.”

Southeast Asian literature received strong representation, with Indonesia’s own Lily Yulianti Farid, author of Makkunrai (2008), showcasing her play The Kitchen and headlining a discussion on cultural and ethnic identity. Timor Leste’s Naldo Rei discussed his book Resistance: A Childhood Fighting for East Timor, while multi-Malaysia Literary Prize winner Anwar Ridhwan, prominent Thai writer Chart Korbjitti, 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize winner Miguel Sujuco from the Philippines, offered candid Q&As and participated in several provocative discussions on Asian literature.

One of the festival’s most pertinent discussions was “In Conversation with SEA Write award winners”, where past recipients of the award, which has been presented annually to poets and writers in the Southeast Asian region since 1979, Korbjitti, Rama Kannabiran and Wong Yoon Wah discussed the challenges facing writers in the region, citing local preference for foreign writers and the need for more translation in both English and other languages.

“As Southeast Asians, when it comes to the literary world, we are perhaps over-generous with our foreign guests… if we see two books, one by our own writer, and one by a foreign writer, who is a guest in our country, we would buy the foreign writer’s book,” said the event’s moderator Dr. Kirpal Singh, an associate professor at the Singapore Management University (SMU) and also a literary critic.

“Perhaps Southeast Asia should start to look at itself as more like the EU, as a real regional grouping so there will be Southeast Asian writers, rather than just Malaysian or Singaporean.”

Beyond Southeast Asia, many of wider Asia’s brightest literary stars were on show, including Mohammed Hanif, a Pakistani journalist whose first novel, the hilarious and politically astute A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) rose to international prominence, attracted several award nominations, and Taichi Yamada, one of Japan’s most respected writers, and author of atmospheric ghost story Strangers (2004).

As part of SWF 2009’s aims to reach out to a wider audience and create a greater interest in the literary arts, several international writers were invited, such as John Ajvide Lindqvist from Sweden — a former magician and stand-up comedian whose first novel Let the Right One In became a global bestseller and garnered him comparisons to Stephen King — and John Boyne from Ireland, whose 2006 World War II tale The Boy in the Striped Pajamas sold more than 5 million copies worldwide before it was adapted into a Miramax feature film.

By far, the international participant attracting the most attention was English writer Neil Gaiman, who is regarded as a literary rock star, and is listed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of the top 10 living post-modern writers. Accompanied by his musician girlfriend Amanda Palmer, best-known as one-half of the Dresden Dolls, a Brechtian punk-cabaret duo, the author of The Sandman comic book series and American Gods largely dominated the closing weekend of the festival.

The couple’s events, which included a joint presentation of their lavish coffee table book Who Killed Amanda Palmer, featuring faux death shots of Palmer accompanied by prose by Gaiman, and a special Graveyard Party gig for Halloween night, were fully packed, with many hardcore fans dressed up as the novelist’s characters or in tribute to Palmer’s gothic-punk style.

Gaiman generously subjected himself to several mammoth autograph signing sessions, with the final one lasting for more than five hours.

“I had to queue up really early [to get a ticket for the event] and wait an hour in advance on the very first day tickets were announced… I’ve come as Death, Sandgirl [from The Sandman comics],” said Yi Xuan, a 22-year-old SMU student, who was clad in black and pale make-up, and poised about halfway in the five-hour queue.

SWF 2009 came to a close with a “Dissecting the Merlion”, a light-hearted debate on Singapore’s definitive tourism symbol, a figure of both fun and adulation, which emphasized the talents of several silver-tongued Singaporean writers like Alfian Sa’at and Desmond Kon.

As guests finally filtered out of The Arts House, Phan Ming Yen, assistant general manager of the Arts House, was exhausted but satisfied with the outcome of the event.

“The best way to program any festival is to pick people you like… if you like the people, you can market them and you can get excited about them… but the main thing is that people were happy. Personally, I’m happy, the attendance was generally good, and so was the feedback. The challenge is doing it better the next time around.”

Dr Singh, who has been involved in the event from its inception in 1986, concurred that SWF 2009 had been a success.

“This year set a high watermark, as we’ve got lots of people from everywhere. Even though the international representation is not as diverse as it has been in other years, this time it’s very much focused and sustained… now we are concentrating on people nearer us… One suggestion I’d make, is that we could use more women participants next time,” Singh said.

“As well as the promotion of youth, this festival was about Southeast Asian legends. We would have had Mochtar Lubis here if he was still alive.”


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Stories with bite


Sara Veal

Since the first vampire appeared on the silver screen in 1913 (The Vampire, Robert G. Vignola), the fanged ones have been immortalized on screen every decade.

Recently the obsession with the undead has hit biting new heights, mostly thanks to the meteoric Twilight phenomenon. You can’t turn on the TV or pick up a magazine without coming across vampires, with the proliferation of shows such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, and the tabloids’ endless fascination with the love life of Twilight star Robert Pattinson, who plays vampire Edward Cullen.

What is particularly notable about the latest breed of vampires is the emphasis on their looks and brooding qualities, especially in the case of Twilight’s Edward Cullen and True Blood’s Bill Compton (played by Stephen Moyer), which likely explains their wide appeal.

These lads are the ultimate bad boys and are guaranteed never to get receding hairlines or beer bellies – an addictive combination. Sure they’re still lethal killers, but these days they’re more likely to break your heart than suck your blood – which undoubtedly makes them all the more terrifying and alluring to their teen girl target audience.

All these angsty, de-fanged vampires are enough to make a true horror fan long for monsters with real bite. Luckily, here in Indonesia, you don’t have to look far. The Southeast Asian region is rife with folklore about its own vampires, all of which would likely have the boy-band bloodsuckers cowering in their coffins, and provide equally compelling material for the silver screen.

The most common versions across Southeast Asia have disembodied heads with entrails hanging from the neck, with a particular appetite for souls and infant blood. Such vampires are known, to name a few regional and local variations, as tanggal and leyak in Indonesia, ap in Cambodia, phi krasue in Thailand, phi kasu in Laos, ma ca rang in Vietnam and penanggalan in Malaysia.

These gruesome creatures have many reported origins, from apparently being midwives that made a pact with a devil to women who were startled while praying, which caused their heads to detach from their bodies. According to several tales of the panggalan and regional counterparts, these monsters are capable of appearing as humans during the day, but usually have to soak their innards in vinegar before switching between appearances – so if you’ve noticed a colleague has a rather sharp scent, you may want to hide your baby from them.

While these floating heads are usually of beautiful women, the Myanmarese kephn, found among the Karen tribe, tend to be male, and are also sorcerers to boot, maintaining a human form during the day and unleashing their intestinal terror at night. Beware the bodily fluids that drip from these creatures, as the mere splash could make you violently ill.

Also in Myanmar, the Thaye, also known as Tasei and Tase, are evil people who are condemned to be disembodied spirits. They appear as tall, dark people with huge ears, long tongues and tusk-like teeth, and are associated with the spread of plague and disease.

However, most Southeast Asian vampires do seem to be female. Women who have died violent deaths related their sexuality or reproductive qualities, such as during a sexual attack or childbirth, often revive as vampires with succubi tendencies.

Known as phi song nang in Thailand, pontiannak and langsayur in Malaysia, pontianak in Indonesia and aswang in the Philippines, these femme fatales mostly prey on young men, or like the disembodied heads, feast on infants and pregnant woman, out of jealousy. These demons usually have long fingernails, holes in their back and the ability to transform into birds – adding a whole new level to the concept of henpecking.

They are incredibly seductive, often tricking their enraptured victim into marriage – although the big wedding day is usually when they first give themselves away, as they have a tendency to get so excited at the first big dance that they morph and end up flying into the trees.

Childbirth gone wrong seems a prime way to bring about vampires, as is the case of Malaysian bajang, a spirit that can apparently be coaxed out of a stillborn fetus by a practitioner of the dark arts with incantations. The bajang is often male and appears as either a cat or a dwarf-like human, with beady orange eye, a wide lipless mouth and claw-like hands and feet.

Bajang are usually kept in a tabong (bamboo vessel) by their summoner, and used to inflict harm on their master’s enemies. As well as blood, bajang require a constant supply of eggs and will turn on their owners if not fed sufficiently. The investment is worth it, as a well-maintained bajang can be handed down through the generations.

Yet another Malaysian spirit that can be handily kept in a container is the polong, a vampiric imp that can be created by bottling the blood of a murdered man and the performance of certain archaic rituals. Appearing as a tiny, nude woman, the polong will torment her master’s enemies with fatal madness and sickness, in return for being fed blood from her owner’s fingertip. The polong can also summon her own minion, the cricket-like pelesit, which can carve small holes in the flesh of human hosts and climb inside, causing the victim to become insane and eventually waste away.

So how does one arm oneself against such demons?

While stakes, sunlight and crucifixes are traditionally the way to defeat Western vampires, their Southeast Asian counterparts often require more unusual methods. The Thaye, for example can allegedly be defeated with drums and fireworks, while the polong are vulnerable to black pepper seeds. Male defense against succubi-like spirits often involves donning female clothing and makeup, in an effort to disguise their masculinity, as well as large wooden poles that are hoped to confuse and distract the man-eaters.

These bloodthirsty monsters make for excellent horror cinema.

Notable vampire screen outings include Penanggalan aka The Headless Terror, a 1967 Malaysian film by Tulsi Ramsay; Mystics in Bali (H Tjut Djalil), a 1983 Indonesian film about leyak that was originally banned but managed to find cult status among horror fans worldwide; Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (Malaysia, 2004, Shuhaimi Baba) about a vengeful woman; Nieng Arp (Lady Vampire, Cambodia, 2004, Kam Chanty), about a young woman who becomes a vicious ap who seeks revenge on the gangsters that attacked her; and Krasue Valentine (Ghost of Valentine, Thailand, 2006, Yuthlert Sippapak) a romantic-horror film about a nurse who occasionally turns into a fearsome krasue, much to the detriment of her love life.

Southeast Asian vampires are not limited to myth nor to the cinema, with frequent reports of vampirism and malevolent spirit attacks cropping up in the media throughout the region.

In 1999, the Associated Press reported that a 20-year-old Cambodian man, Pheach Phen, who was “accused of killing people and drinking their blood in the belief it would cure him of AIDS” was arrested and accused of murder. In 2007, several blogs reported the existence of a Cambodian boy with oversized canine teeth and a predilection for meat and little girls’ blood, although the case has yet to be significantly substantiated.

Anthropologist Mary Beth Mills, in her article “Attack of the Widow Ghosts” in the 1995 book Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, describes an incident in a northeastern Thai village in 1990, where, for about six weeks, rural communities throughout the Isan region came to believe they were under attack from phii mae maii (widow ghosts), entities similar to the phi song nang and pontianak. This belief was triggered by revelations in the national news that more than 200 Thai men had died mysteriously while working in Singapore since 1983.

Even today, in Bali, illness and deaths are often attributed to leyak, and balian (traditional healers) are required to conduct s*ances to discover the leyak/witch responsible, although vengeance against suspected leyak is strongly discouraged. In Vietnam and the Philippines, the enduring superstition in vampires has even been successfully used in psychological warfare programs as part of counter-insurgency campaigns.

This brief look at vampires across the region suggests these grisly incarnations have much to do with deep fears about women’s sexuality and about health in general, and the continuing beliefs today reflect the fact that blood-related epidemics like malaria and HIV/AIDS remain rampant throughout Southeast Asia.

Perhaps in the West where health is much less precarious, bloodsucking killers can be romanticized in a sterilized fashion – but for the time being, Southeast Asian vampires are unlikely to lose their bite.

Edward Cullen wouldn’t stand a chance against them.

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