Four Southeast Asian Writers Talk Language, Identity, and Culture

Gina Apostol, Jessica Hagedorn, Alfian Sa'at, Jeremy Tiang, and Harold Augenbraum participate in a discussion following a reading. (Ellen Wallop/Asia Society)

"If there's one thing that archipelagoes have, it's boundaries — natural boundaries," said Harold Augenbraum, the American writer and editor. "But there are different kinds of boundaries: administrative, familial, linguistic, racial — [and] even the concept of taste."

Augenbraum's words framed a discussion, one he moderated at Asia Society on Thursday, that explored the concept of boundaries at great length. Four award-winning writers — the Philippine-born Gina Apostol and Jessica Hagedorn, and the Singaporeans Alfian Sa'at and Jeremy Tiang — read excerpts from their work and then talked about their upbringings and creative processes. One theme expressed by all was the role of multiculturalism and the divisions within their respective countries. For Hagedorn and Apostol, these issues are further complicated by their residence in the United States.

"I was just murmuring to Gina," said Hagedorn. "Are we seen as American writers? Are we seen as Filipina-American writers? Are we seen as Filipina writers — and just as expats who have been here forever?"

For Sa'at and Tiang, the identity issues surrounding their Singaporean upbringing were no less profound. The two men noted the island nation's minuscule size — even discovering that they were born in the same hospital — before discussing their identity as an ethnic Malay and ethnic Chinese, respectively. The island's multicultural population challenges writers to transcend their particular community in order to reach a wider audience. To illustrate this point, Tiang recounted being asked by an editor of one of his books to make his work more accessible.

"It's a common Singaporean anxiety," he said. "I had to fight my editor who wanted to explain everything."

This is an experience to which Hagedorn could relate.

"I feel that part of the fun of writing," she said, "is to not underestimate your readers' intelligence. "I don't want to be so self-conscious with every moment and wonder if it's accessible or not."

Thursday's event was part of the Singapore Literary Festival in New York, an event launched by Jee Long Koh that aspires to go "beyond territorial sovereignty, legal fictions, police controls, and cultural straitjackets" in order to conjure newer possibilities for upcoming and non-mainstream voices to express their creative autonomy. 

Michelle Varinata contributed to this article.

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.