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 (