Show of solidarity
LEKHA J.SHANKAR covers the Seawrite Awards, ASEAN's premier literary prize.
Dr. Haji Hashian
SOUTHEAST Asia's best-known literary award, the Seawrite Awards, were distributed in Bangkok recently, to nine writers from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Singapore. This is the 25th year of the awards, which is significant because this is one of the few occasions where literary exchanges between the writers of the region are made possible. The Seawrite Awardees this time included many multi-dimensional personalities who were more than just writers.
The key note speakers over the years have been celebrity authors like V.S. Naipaul, Iris Murdoch, Pico Iyer, all of whom were attracted as much by the literary awards as by being the guests of the host-hotel, Bangkok's legendary Oriental, where the Who's Who of the world have passed through, including writers like Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad.
The keynote speaker this year was the British biographer Victoria Glendinning, who, after a spate of award-winning books, is now working on a biography of Virginia Woolf's husband, Leonard Woolf.
Duan Was Pimwane
The Southeast Asian authors present were familiar with the large number of Indian writers, from Arundathi Roy to Jhumpa Lahiri. They wished there were more English translations of their works so that they could "understand" each other better and also reach out to world-readers. If there was one common point they all made it was that their writings should be translated into a language like English, so that they could understand the ideologies and the attitudes of each other and establish a cultural unity among themselves.
Given the divisions in the world today, based on political, social and religious differences, their desire to create a "cultural unity" was relevant and significant.
As Phillippino writer-actor-activist Domingo Landicho stated, "Let's collect the writings of the Seawrite Awardees of the last 25 years and publish them in a volume to serve as a collective voice and conscience of literature of Southeast Asia." But he also agreed that writers needed to be "distanced" from the social and political conflicts of the time.
"How right is right?" asked the highly awarded Philippino writer, a poet, novelist, dramatist, journalist and essayist who has published more than 35 books. Another multi-dimensional figure was Malaysian awardee Dr. Zakaria Ali, a professor, novelist, painter, with a doctoral degree from Harvard University, who confessed that the "written word" had limited readership today, thanks to the all-encompassing abundance of the electronic and cyber media. He confessed that the writers of the region had to keep their "balance" in today's divisive world of religious and communal extremities which was why awards like the Seawrite were a great binding force.
Lawyer-novelist Phillip Jeyaretnam from Singapore agreed that the Seawrite Awards were important, for retaining the "cultural links" between nations of the region. Being half-British and half-Tamilian, his cultural confusions found an outlet in his writing while he had a normal day-time lawyer's job. Cambodian awardee Kim Pinum led a "double-life" too, being the Vice Dean of the faculty of Choreographic Art in the Royal University of Fine Arts, as well as being a stage artiste, thanks to his Master's degree in Stage Directing from Czechoslovakia. He said the Seawrite Awards were invaluable because books were a "priceless heritage."
Dr. Domingo Landicho
"Literary works are not the means of recreation and escapism any more. They are committed to a true portrait of life," said Brunei awardee Dr. Haji Hashim bin Haji Abdul Hamid, a prolific writer with numerous prize-winning novels and anthologies to his name.
Agreeing with him was 34-year-old Thai awardee Duanwas Pimwana, the youngest in the group. The articulate journalist-turned writer was one of the Finalists of the 1996 Seawrite Awards and said that her age or sex had nothing to do with her potent writing which was based on the realities of the farmer's family she was born into in the rural town of Chonburi.
Dr. Zakaria Ali
"I can even write on a stone," said the Laos-awardee Theap Vongpakay with passion. His award-winning book was based on the "real-life" rags-to-riches story of a rural family, one of whom had gone on to become a top diplomat of the country.
The second female awardee in the group, N.H. Dini from Indonesia confessed that she was one of the rare "determined" breed of full-time writers. She confessed that it was not easy which was why she was full of praise for the Seawrite Awards. "The Awards show that there's a country in Southeast Asia that cares about its art-workers in the literary field and the fruits of their work," she stated.
Vietnam's awardee Bang Viet, a dynamic Law graduate, literary editor of the Hanoi Association of Literature and Arts and award-winning novelist said it all when he described the Seawrite Awards as "A powerful literary front of ASEAN members, full of high reciprocal values and sharing an awareness of solidarity and mutual support."
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