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 (