The following is an interview with Professor Mark Bender (The Ohio State University) about his new book, The Borderlands of Asia: Culture, Place, Poetry, which was released last month at the 2017 AAS conference in Toronto. This unprecedented volume presents important cultural works from the borders, margins, buffer zones, transitional areas, and frontiers from within and around the megastates of China and India, subsumed within the larger geopolitical constructs of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Many are from communities of poets or individuals writing within the watersheds of the Eastern Himalayas, an area encompassing Northeast India, Myanmar, and Southwest China. A number are from farther north in Western China and the steppes of Inner Mongolia and the nation of Mongolia. This book is a rare collection that brings together the works of poets of diverse cultural backgrounds located in places that are only beginning to be recognized globally as sites of intense poetic work. Major themes that penetrate these works are rapid environmental change and subsequent effects on traditional culture and challenges to ethnic and personal identity. These concerns are often framed within imagery of the local folk culture and local geographic environment, which are under increasing pressures of development by local and international governments and business enterprises. You can also watch Professor Mark Bender’s speech about his book at the AAS Cambria Press reception (or read the transcript of his speech). The Borderlands of Asia is part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Professor Victor H. Mair (University of Pennsylvania).
Q: How did you get started on the research for this book?
A: Around 2002 I was introduced to poet Aku Wuwu of the Yi ethnic minority group in Southwest China by two powerful Yi women intellectuals in Beijing government think tanks. They asked me to translate Aku’s work into English because of my previous translation work, my background in folklore studies, and experience with ethnic minority cultures in China. Much of Aku’s work concerns questions of loss/alteration of traditional culture and environmental change. This led to an interest in other contemporary poets in Southwest China, and later Northeast India, Myanmar, other parts of China, and Mongolia. In a way, however, the project actually reaches back to the mid-1970’s when I became interested in poetry in East Asia, my early experiences in Taiwan in the late 1970s, and most dramatically my stay in south China between 1980-1987 (and many later stays of various lengths thereafter) where I became involved with traditional Chinese oral performance traditions and ethnic minority cultures.
Q: What are some common questions you have faced regarding your research?
A: Some people wonder how poetry from Mongolia, China, Myanmar, and Northeast India can exist in one book. My response is that the local cultures in these areas have been influenced by China/India and earlier cultural forces over time. The local cultures in these places are also facing very similar challenges, though their local environment and socio/historical situations differ.
In another direction, as the project unfolded, I kept meeting key people in these places who sensed exactly what I was doing and wanted to participate, thus stimulating me to continue adding to the web of poets, places, and cultures.
I am also asked about language and translation. I have worked with many co-translators over the years and have gained fluency /de-coding ability in Chinese and to a degree in Nuosu Yi language. I have also had long interests in certain Altaic speaking cultures in North Asia and have developed interests in recent years in Northeast India. I feel that one important aspect of editing this work was the fact that I have traveled to all of the areas represented. Most difficult was the section on Myanmar, which I could not have completed without the help and trust of local poets in Mandalay and poet ko ko thett. I am also indebted to a local driver Yan who took me up into the Shan state and escorted me to many sights around Mandalay including a Nat festival. My three trips to India were also filled with experiences that helped me understand aspects of life on the ground in Northeast India, which on the occasion of my first visit in 2011, was just opening up to individual travelers.
Q: Please tell us about some of the findings you uncovered in your research.
A: I learned a lot about the various local cultures and environments. Since so many of the poems are filled with references to local material culture, customs, rituals, beliefs, history, events, and plants, animals, weather, the sky, and water and landscapes it was necessary to gain some understanding of these phenomena firsthand before I could really delve into the meanings of these poems and present them to others. This is a major reason that I visited so many places and worked with local informants. In a way, this method of understanding is very similar to how I approach the translation of items of oral tradition. I learned many things about situations that the poets present in their poems. Smaller scale things like aspects of daily life in a Naga home near Kohima in Nagaland (Northeast India) where I stayed a couple nights, to larger scale ones like visiting the epicenter of the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, China.
Q: Your study has opened up more possibilities for further research. What are some topic of research you would like to see in the future? And why?
A: The editors of Cambria Press helped me to arrive at a new title for the book—The Borderlands of Asia: Culture, Place, Poetry. This title in itself suggests there should be a second edition or series that includes more material from the same and other places in the “borderlands” of Asia. Of course, some thought would need to go into deciding to pursue such a venture. I will continue to follow my interests in the oral and material culture of some ethnic groups in the borderlands of China and possibly become involved in a project comparing certain traditions of orally performed epic/epic length narrative in Northeast India and China. I hope the present book will stimulate scholars and anyone else interested to look into what sort of poetry is being produced in borderlands, marginal, or less-represented places elsewhere on the planet. Hearing these voices is one way of knowing what goes on there, the concerns, and the contributions to world culture. Awareness and mutual appreciation are good things.
Title: The Borderlands of Asia: Culture, Place, Poetry
Author: Mark Bender
Publisher: Cambria Press
Series: Cambria Sinophone World Series
396 pp. | 2017 | Hardback & E-book
Book webpage: http://www.cambriapress.com/books/9781604979763.cfm