The Borderlands of Asia

Simon Wickhamsmith

t is very rare that a book is published which, rather than presenting new insights into an old topic, actually presents and defines a new topic. Mark Bender’s The Borderlands of Asia is such a book. It seeks, for the first time in, I suspect, any language, to present the poetic traditions of the peoples who live at the edges of Asia, in Northeast India, Myanmar, Mongolia and the areas of southwestern China, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia, and Gansu. In so doing, Bender and his translators have produced a book of vital cultural importance, a glimpse into cultures which are too frequently passed over in favor of the dominant cultures of the region.

As an expert on China’s minorities, and a translator from the Nuosu dialect of Yi, Bender is well placed to guide the reader on this most unusual journey. In his long and detailed introduction, he divides his comments into three sections. The first, Landscapes and Lifeforms, addresses the interaction of human beings with the environment they inhabit, through brief historical and topographical observations. The differences between these four key areas may be great, but it is the relationships which exist and develop there, each a changing life form of its own, which characterize the cultures in general, and the literatures in particular, of the people who partake in these relationships.

Bender’s second section, Juxtapositions, presents a comparative look at some of the connections between these poetries. This analysis opens up issues relating to how environment can be understood, both by the reader of these poems as well as by their authors, in the globalized 21st century. One of Bender’s concerns in putting this book together has clearly been to address the sometimes fraught and difficult dynamic which increased globalization produces, and to suggest ways in which this can more effectively be negotiated. The comparisons he makes here offer some elegant and productive ideas through which a reader unfamiliar with such poems might approach them, but they ask us also to go deeper into our own experiences and assumptions, and to question how we ourselves are living in our own corners of the world.

In the final section, Poets in Places, he gives a brief introduction to the state of poetry in each of the four areas covered by the book, and to some of the poets featured. The placement of this section at the end of his introduction allows the poets to find their natural place within the environment of the book, as those who are gifted with the power to give voice to the land and its inhabitants, as individuals charged with a responsibility and a calling, and not as the kind of literary ‘figures’ to whom we are more used in the west.

I should declare my own professional interest in this book. I have been translating Mongolian poetic literature for more than ten years, and over that time have developed connections with many of the country’s leading writers. So it was with particular interest that I read the poems by Mongolian and Inner Mongolian writers. The work of the three Inner Mongolian and six Mongolian poets represented in the book shows well the primary themes of environment and culture which form the kernel of much Mongol poetry. Although I initially felt the lack of Mongolian-language poems by Inner Mongolian poets, I realized that this omission brings up the necessary question of sinification, as it does elsewhere among the texts. Yet the fact that even the translations of poems written originally in Chinese feel Mongolian (at least to me) challenges my own assumptions surrounding issues of authenticity, and the relationship between language and culture in disputed regions. The inclusion of several generations of Mongolian poets, moreover, shows how constant is the voice of their poetry: even D.Urianhai, much of whose work is characterized by a postmodern sense of experimentation and philosophical play, remains for the purposes of this volume what he perhaps is at heart ­– a traditional poet of Mongolia’s grasslands.

What for me is a ready-made comparative framework, then, that between Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, can be shifted to other areas of crossover, as suggested by the Juxtapositions section of the introduction. The choice of poems reflects the rich diversity which exists at the margins of Asia, and it shows also the ways that land affects the human heart, how the world of spirit touches us, unseen, and imperceptible. And while even American nature writers like Annie Dillard or Mary Oliver conjure up the spiritual in their work, the sensitivity exhibited here is remarkable – not necessarily better or deeper, perhaps, but remarkably different, striking as when struck and surprised by a falling twig, and touching too, as when reaching out in the dark to encounter velvet. These are poems whose unusual nature comes as much from the physical and spiritual environments in which their writers write, as from the minds of the writers themselves.

Bender has enlisted a fine team of translators to assist with this book and, while readers (and fellow translators like myself) will generally find something somewhere to criticize, I find these to be readable and frequently very beautiful translations. The annotations provided for most of the poems are helpful in understanding specific points of culture and linguistic usage, and together with the biographical information for poets and translators and a set of 14 photographs at the back of the book give the reader sufficient context within which to enjoy the poems.

Scholars of Asia and those more broadly interested in literature and culture owe Mark Bender and Cambria Press a debt of gratitude for producing this fine and timely book. These poems reflect the relationship between humans and the natural environment in ways which a thousand protests, a thousand academic papers, or a thousand laws passed by even the most progressive of legislatures could never hope to reproduce. They should be better known, read widely, and learnt by heart.