Does literature have to be relatable to everyone? In an age where 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia, three award-winning authors – Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal, Indian writer and journalist Manu Joseph and Sri Lanka’s very own Shehan Karunatilaka joined in a conversation about writing stories based in Asia in a world of fiction that still tends to cater towards Western readers.

“When we write fiction, I don’t think everyone has to get the same context you did” answers Jaswal. “As an Asian writer, I’m glad that we have moved away from footnotes and long explanation notes at the end of our books explaining every cultural reference and that we now write on the basis that everyone somewhat understands the context of what we say.”
“To be honest, I have never thought about the global audience when I wrote” adds Karunatilaka. “My first book was about cricket and arrack and a left arm spinner at a cricket club and I genuinely didn’t think that anyone beyond the cricket club community would read it! Same with Maali. If you have to constantly think about the global audience when you write, then you will end up having to explain everything.”
“And really, when we say we want to make sure our work reaches “the global audience”, what we think and what we mean is that we want it to reach the West” interjects Manu Joseph, “and seeking that kind of validation, what does that really tell about us? I don’t think we want to know the answer to that.”
The discussion, wonderfully moderated by writer Thirangie Jayatilake, took the audience through an engaging discussion about how Asian literature has changed over the years as writers move away from restrictive stereotypical narratives (India and arranged marriages, Sri Lanka and the war, Singapore and the crazy, rich Asians) and the space Asian writers and their work occupies in the literary industry at present.

“Now, I can’t really say ‘who needs the West’ because I just got an award from the Queen of England,” concludes Karunatilaka inciting a roaring laugh from audience, “but I think we can say that we can write for ourselves now.”
Between Balli Kaur Jaswal’s humourous little anecdotes, Manu Joseph’s wry sense of humour and Shehan Karunatilaka’s easy personality, the session was easily one of the best events of the day.


This article originally appeared in print in the Daily Mirror, Life Section on the 31st of January 2024.