MLA 2023 Southeast Asian History in Literature Part II: Contesting Nations in Fictional Pasts

Southeast Asian History in Literature Part II: Contesting Nations in Fictional Pasts

Modern Language Association Convention. San Francisco, Jan. 2023

Sponsored by the MLA Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian Diasporic Forum

Description: This session is paired with Southeast Asian History in Literature Part I on general topic of history in literature proposed by the Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian Diasporic Forum. This session’s speakers examine how nationalism and national identity are negotiated and contested through literary representations of key or formative historical periods and figures in a particular country’s past. The range of Southeast Asian texts considered goes beyond historical fiction to include works written in different languages and genres. Our paired sessions expand the scholarship on Southeast Asian literature, which often occupies a minor place in established formations of postcolonial and global Anglophone literatures. In Nationalism and Southeast Asia (2004) Nicholas Tarling observes that “nation-, state- and regimebuilders share a desire to use the past” to establish their new postcolonial countries, and “a comparative regional approach” (239) is needed to analyze nationalist uses of history and highlight how cultural producers employ history and historiography to critique the often ethnocentric narratives and processes of nation-building. 

Our session examines how history is represented in comparative, regional, and transnational ways by Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian diasporic writers. Although Benedict Anderson’s references Southeast Asian fiction in his groundbreaking conceptualization of nations as Imagined Communities (1983), our speakers depart from Anderson’s emphasis on seriality and print culture, instead focusing on histories as contested narratives in Southeast Asian writing. Pheng Cheah’s Spectral Nationality (2003) also looks at some Southeast Asian texts to make the philosophical case that nationalism is a spectral rather than a vivifying concept. Our speakers take a different approach by examining formal elements of literary language, style, and narrative perspective that, taken together, envision alternative ways of constituting a nation and other modes of belonging beyond state-centered patriotism in Southeast Asia and its diasporas.

Jasmine An’s “Crafting/Contesting Thainess: Polyvocality in Contemporary Thai Fiction” examines contemporary Thai novels grappling with Thailand’s unique political history, where literary production is sometimes associated with the unimpeachability of the Thai monarchy. Veeraporn Nitiprapha’s The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth (trans. Kong Rithdee 2015), Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain (2019), and Sunisa Manning’s A Good True Thai (2020) all contain multiple narrators and recount key political moments in Thailand’s history such as student protest movements and subsequent government repression. The polyvocality of these texts dramatizes the ongoing negotiations and contestations of defining Thainess that are obscured by the hegemonic narrative of Thailand’s three pillars: nation, religion, and monarchy.

William Arighi’s “Coasts and Waves: Baybayin, Wave Theory, and Canonicity in Ilustrado Thought” looks at late-nineteenth-century Filipino nationalist intellectuals who wished to recuperate a precolonial past through baybayin, a script derived from a Sulawesi script based on Sanskrit that was used to transcribe Tagalog before the Spanish arrival. Baybayin’s presumed association with Southeast Asian backwardness ultimately thwarted the Ilustrados’ desire for a medium for grounding their nascent national consciousness. The Ilustrados’ reflections on orthography in this period oriented Philippine intellectuals away from Southeast Asia and promoted a “literariness” inherited from Europeans based on ideas of universalism, permanence, and transparency.

Eunice Ying Ci Lim’s “Intuiting Shōnan-tō through Technologies of (Il)literacy” analyzes Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared (2019) as intergenerational and self-reflexive historical fiction. Shifting between Singapore during its World War II Japanese military occupation and its postcolonial present, Lee’s novel shows how the remembrance of imperialist history and the repurposing of a foregone modernity (represented by the short-lived vision of a Pan-Asian Shōnan-tō) is complicit in Singapore’s present-day modernizing and nationalizing agendas. Through linguistic illiteracy and narrative incoherence, the novel confronts and resists the implicit demands of national literary canonization and the global literary marketplace.

Hannah Ho Ming Yit and Rommel Curaming’s “Fictive Historical Identities of Enrique de Malacca in Novels” looks at a range of multilingual fiction about Enrique de Malacca, who was Ferdinand Magellan’s slave of Malay origin. Harun Aminurrashid’s Panglima Awang (1958), Carla M. Pacis’ Enrique El Negro (2002), and Danny Jalil’s Enrique the Black (2021) offer fictional biographies of Enrique that contribute to nationalist imaginations and contestations in Malaysia and the Philippines. While the earliest novel consolidates state discourses of Malay/sian identity, subsequent novels reconstruct Enrique’s identity apart from state-sponsored understandings, dispute and critique dominant discourses of gendered Malay identity and neocolonial power structures, and envision a culturally inclusive national body.


* Weihsin Gui. University of California-Riverside (presider)

* Jasmine An. University of Michigan. “Crafting/Contesting Thainess: Polyvocality in Contemporary Thai Fiction”

* William Arighi. Springfield College. “Coasts and Waves: Baybayin, Wave Theory, and Canonicity in Ilustrado Thought”

* Eunice Ying Ci Lim. Penn State University. “Intuiting Shōnan-tō through Technologies of (Il)literacy”

* Hannah Ming Yit Ho and Rommel Curaming. Universiti Brunei Darussalam. “Fictive Historical Identities of Enrique de Malacca in Novels”

Questions? Contact Weihsin Gui ( or Ryan Ku (

MLA 2023 Southeast Asian History in Literature Part I: Transnationalism, Immigration, Diaspora

Southeast Asian History in Literature Part I: Transnationalism, Immigration, Diaspora

Modern Language Association Convention. San Franciso, Jan. 2023

Sponsored by the MLA Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian Diasporic Forum

Description: In traditional terms the part of the world between China and India, Southeast Asia lies at a global crossroads where its powerful neighbors, the giants of the continent, have historically spread their influence and where the East met the West in the European scramble for “the (East) Indies.”

This intermediary position has led the region to be conceived, even prior to post–World War II globalization, as a transnational contact zone, thereby to be defined in reference to or from the perspective of external actors—whether South or East Asia or European colonizers. Given this not only geographical but also geopolitical overdetermination, this session (the first of two) seeks to tell the history of Southeast Asia from the literature of subjects who come from the region. How might an autonomous history of Southeast Asia be told? How has this history been told in literature from the region and its diaspora, given literature and history’s shared narrative structure and incommensurability? How do transnationalism, (post)coloniality, im/migration, displacement, gender, and sexuality complicate the relation between history and literature and give rise to alternatives to the discourse of the “motherland” written by the “fathers” of Southeast Asian nations?

Against hegemonic Western or Asian accounts, this session’s participants extract different aspects of Southeast Asian history from regional or diasporic literary texts that tend to be ignored or illegible in the West or that adopt Western forms to subvert them. 

Against the “global Malaysian novel”—a contentious category of successful novels often set in British Malaya but written in the U.S., Britain, or Australia—Brandon K. Liew focuses on Chin Kee Onn’s Ma-rai-ee and Lee Kok Liang’s London Does Not Belong to Me to foreground the ways in which colonial Malayan authors drew on a transnational readership to publicise local counter-discursive histories. Ying Xin Show reevaluates the significance of Sinophone literature in the history of Malayan independence through the work of Jin Zhimang, who practiced “literature as revolution” while also transcending revolutionary doctrine to write “good stories.” This dialectic between politics and aesthetics in Jin’s work is rooted, Show argues, in Jin’s part in the establishment of Mahua (Chinese Malayan) consciousness based on the rejection of diasporic ties to China in favor of building a new nation (Malaya) in which women and indigenous tribes were included. Turning to the King of Siam Rama VI’s translation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera The Mikado, Jakapat Koohapremkit examines the ways in which Rama VI represented Chinese immigrants in Siam antisemitically to distinguish the “civilized” Siamese from the “yellow peril” in America. Rama VI does this, Koohapremkit argues, with a wink, satirizing the idea of the modern woman and calling out European civilization for its antisemitism to suggest that Chinese immigrants can assimilate into Siamese society as long as they contribute to Rama VI’s nation-building project. Against the patriarchal depiction of Indo (Eurasian) women in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s This Earth of Mankind, Jennifer Goodlander highlights the way in which Nh. Dini’s Departures portrays Indo women to offer an alternative narrative for subaltern hybridity in the context of transnationalism and postcoloniality. Christos Kalli reads the toxic substances (e.g., isopropyl acetate and tetrachloroethylene) that permeate contemporary Vietnamese American poems—specifically, Ocean Vuong’s “The Gift,” Cathy Linh Che’s “Dress-up,” and Paul Tran’s “Dry Clean”—as traces of the Vietnam War in the psyche of those who lived through it as well as of their descendants. Presented as unwashable, eminently harmful, and assaulting, these toxic substances, Kalli argues, reinscribe the traumatic histories of the war as well as the diasporic condition to which it gave rise.

These panelists not only focus on a variety of areas and literary genres but also employ a diverse, if also related, set of critical strategies in an attempt to unearth and interrogate history as it informs, seeps into, or is (re)imagined in literature. The diversity of the region itself, however, made us unable to represent all nations in the region in a single session; thus we are also organizing a second session (Southeast Asian History in Literature Part II). Our session would be of interest to MLA attendees working on area, postcolonial, diasporic, race, comparative, gender and sexuality, and interdisciplinary studies, not to mention on historicism and Southeast Asian literature. 


* Ryan Ku. Swarthmore College (presider)

* Brandon Liew. University of Melbourne. “Global Markets, Local Stories: A History of Malayan Literature as a Literature of Malayan History”

* Ying Xin Show. Australian National University. “Reassessing a failed revolution: Revolutionary Sinophone literature in Malaya”

* Jakapat Koohapremkit. University of Texas at Austin. “Performing Orientalism: Rama VI’s Rewriting of Siamese History”

* Jennifer Goodlander. Indiana U, Bloomington. “Transnational Identities: Rethinking Indo Women Literatures as Subaltern Histories about the Birth of the Indonesian Nation”

* Christos Kalli. University of Texas at Austin. “ ‘tetrachloroethylene launches on to the stain’: Chemicals and the Aftermaths of the Vietnam War in Contemporary Vietnamese American Poetry”

Questions? Contact Weihsin Gui ( or Ryan Ku (