ESSAY ... Shamini FLINT
‘LOW CRIME DOESN’T MEAN NO CRIME!’
Most of the crime stories we read are written by Western writers, not written by Asians or set in Asia. SHAMINI FLINT, the author of the Inspector Singh Investigates series of crime novels, asks why there is not much of a crime fiction writing tradition in Asia
THERE IS A POSTER from the Singapore police department which says ‘Low Crime Doesn’t Mean No Crime!’ It adorns many a yellow and blue taxi on the island state and causes foreigners from societies where the streets are less safe to stop and stare. I know I do!
That catchphrase might well be one of the reasons that many people do not think ‘crime fiction’ when they think of Asian writing. Crime fiction must be the genre least associated with writing that originates in Asia. A few writers have successfully dipped their toes into the bloody bath of crime fiction writing. These include Qiu Xiaolong with his well-regarded Inspector Chen series set in Beijing as well as Nury Vittachi and his humorous Feng Shui Detective series, but on the whole, there is a real dearth of successful crime fiction writing set in Asia—either by Asians or otherwise.
Despite the fact that there are hardly any crime writers in Asia, crime fiction is widely read in these parts. A saunter through any local bookshop will demonstrate this—P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell and Alexander McCall Smith are all well represented on the shelves. Far more so, it is fair to say, than any local writing. Asians clearly have a strong interest in crime fiction writing. So why is it that we are delighted to read crime stories set in Scotland, rural England and Botswana, but not somewhere in Asia?
I think the answer is simple—we don’t read ’em because we don’t write ’em. I believe that Asians generally would be delighted to read crime writing with Asia as a backdrop to the story. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of us writing crime or any other genre fiction. There are a number of reasons for this.
Many Asian authors don’t turn their hand to genre fiction because there is quite a lot of pressure from the international publishing industry to write “literature,” ideally with a historical bent. As a result, many of the stories that come out of Asia—whether written by Asians or others—are over-exoticised, as if Asia has to be exaggerated to be fascinating. I have to confess that it has always been my view that fewer people are born under unlucky stars or have stoic grandmothers than seems to be portrayed in Asian literature.
Furthermore, in many ways, Asians are the least history-obsessed of peoples because so many of us—especially the chattering classes who are turning their hand to writing in English—don’t even read or speak the language of our forbears fluently. However, there is a Western market for that sort of romantic, exotic literature and publishers rarely want to mess with a successful formula. I remember reading with interest in an article that a successful Asian writer had consciously upped the ‘exotic’ quotient in his book to appeal to a Western readership! In my view, Asia does have an absorbing history as a result of colonisation, war, mass immigration, etc., but it is the way these strands are playing out in contemporary society that is so compelling.
Another reason that not many of us turn to genre writing is that it is difficult to make a living from writing in this part of the world. It often involves giving up a career in some more lucrative profession (yes, I was a lawyer!). As a result, anyone who turns their hand to the task is tempted to try and write the ‘defining’ Malaysian or Singaporean novel—and not sully their hands with genre fiction.
Finally, Asia is not a homogenous, undifferentiated area, easily represented by any single author. Crime writing tends to concentrate on a particular location: Cambridge, London, Venice. In well-executed crime fiction, the place becomes as much part of the book, as familiar and comfortable to the reader, as the policeman or detective hero. It is difficult to imagine selecting a single setting in Asia out of the myriad locations on offer and to focus on it to the exclusion of every other mysterious town and village scattered across our unique continent.
Despite all of these excellent reasons not to turn one’s hand to crime fiction, many of us who have had our handbags snatched and/or our homes broken into know very well that Asia is the perfect setting for traditional crime fiction—with an Asian twist.
The policemen tasked with guarding us from the marauding hordes are splendid characters for fiction (and nonfiction) as well. We are all too familiar with being pulled over for alleged speeding in Malaysia and asked ‘Nak settle, ke?’ or been escorted to the ‘VIP’ lane in Jakarta Airport in exchange for a fee. It makes the traditional character of the stalwart copper pursuing justice at any cost all the more appealing!
In addition, crime fiction is a great prism through which to explore the tensions within modern Asian society because it is inevitably about conflict—and the starting point is, of course, murder. The genre allows for the interaction between people of different social stratas, race and religion to be explored at length. I find the idea of reflecting contemporary Asian society in crime writing exhilarating. From racial and religious divides in Malaysia (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder), terrorism and social dysfunction in Bali (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul, due in September 2009), to greed and exploitation in Singapore (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Singapore School of Villainy, due out in March 2010), there are the plots for a dozen novels in any Asian country. I certainly hope that more Asian writers will turn to crime fiction writing!
Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine