Ravi Shankar
An Introduction to the Arts in Asia folio

Even the demarcation is a porous chorus, in this global world where ethnicity might no longer be as leading an indicator as class or wealth. Because, really, what is Asia? A yoking together of collective and distinct histories from regions where center and periphery are kept discrete by barriers of land, mountains and desserts, where populations grew in isolation with regard to one another. One can’t even talk about India monolithically. Not with its twenty-two official languages, cuisines that range from overpoweringly sweet jalebi, to mustard seed, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, green chili and nigella-based panch phutanai, states that have majority populations of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains respectively. So to encompass more than a continent is to generalize baldly—and badly.

Yet that is precisely what we set out to do, when with co-editors Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, I began the seven year process of putting together the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond. Encompassing sixty-one different countries and over four hundred and fifty poets writing in forty-four different languages, the collection publishes some work for the first time in English, alongside works from the Diaspora that could be bred from no other bed than the contemporary American idiom.

The connections between poets proved suppler and the net result greater than could have been imagined. The anthology launched in April 2008 at the Rubin Museum and PEN World Voices in New York City, at the Hartford Public Library in Connecticut, at the Levantine Center, the Nehru Centre in London, at the India Institute of Technology in New Delhi, at Singapore Management University in Singapore, at De La Salle University in Manilla, and at the Chengdu Bookworm Literary Festival in Chengdu, China.

The book, with its mandate for inclusiveness, in all its capaciousness could not have helped but leave out certain crucial figures. Poets we loved like Dinah Roma who had to be displaced simply because of the sheer brilliance of an elder generation of Filipino poets; poets we very much wanted to include but weren’t able to contact, like Edwin Thumboo, or poets who we just didn’t know about yet, like Kaiser Haq or Sharanya Manivannan. This folio in a sense starts from the overflow from the anthology, and therefore presents a corollary to the book, the poems that didn’t make it in but should have, and have now, since in a sense our process was always open-ending, a pointing outwards rather than a closing down, not canonical the way cages are, but rather how a cannon exhumes a cannon ball: outwards.

Just to wet the palate, we’ve supplemented these texts with just a small taste of the larger art scene in Asia, including (Toshio Matsumoto), music (Anand Thakore), video, (Lisa Xu Zhongmin) and fiction (Dilruba Ara) and links to publishers like Blaft Books and festivals like ARTSingapore.

These voices and visions own their own bearing and being. This folio will likely in time show itself rife with omission, but let’s take what’s preserved here, in the voices of poets and the images of artists, as a dialogue that precludes and helps prevent the only conversation between cultures from being that between spirit and dust. We are alive now and here connected online in shared humanness. To acknowledge the subjectivity of someone on the other side of the globe from us is to begin the process of acknowledging oneness, an accommodation that is even more urgently needed than might be prophesized by the alarmists. Revel in these Arts from Asia.

—Ravi Shankar, July 2009