Mainland Southeast Asian themes sustain a consistent output of English-language fiction that draws on the places and issues that are seen to epitomise the region. Whenever I browse airport bookshops, and not just those in Thailand, they are stocked with new titles that use Southeast Asia as a backdrop for their narratives. Many of these books are, at best, of a mediocre standard. Of course, and to be fair, some are exceptional.
The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly, a novel about Burma, has just won the new writer’s award category of the Orange Prize. It has received rave reviews and has been described as “a harrowing piece of fiction – with a lyrical streak – about inmates and jailers in a Burmese prison” (National Public Radio). It sounds quite exceptional.
The first time I came across Connelly’s writing was many years ago when I read her account of life as an exchange student in Thailand, Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal. As I recall, it is a compelling, insightful and very human story of growing-up and learning about the world. It is very well-written.
Connolly has also produced a book of poetry focusing on the displaced populations of the Thai-Burma border. It is titled The Border Surrounds Us. According to the promotional material, it “brings a great passion to even her quietest poems, and a sense of engagement with the world as both participant and witness”. And, in keeping with this consistent output of Southeast Asia writing, Connelly is now reportedly working on a book of essays about Burma called The Skull is Made of Such Thin Bone. According to her CV it is “slated with Random House for 2007”.
I am not familiar with all of Connolly’s books, and have, in fact, not yet read The Lizard Cage, but am sure that many New Mandala readers will be keen to follow her continuing efforts to explain life in Southeast Asia. I am already looking forward to the release of her collection of Burma essays.