Book Review: BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016

BooksActually's Gold Standard 2016BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016 by Julie Koh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, a few Facebook friends were launching a book that sounded interesting so I went along to a launch in Sydney, and enjoyed the readings enough that I bought a copy of Gold Standard 2016.

It really is an interesting collection of short fiction, with voices from Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and writers from the diaspora.

Since some of my first literary influences were anthologies of mostly gay short fiction of the late 80s and early 90s, it’s interesting to feel the differences. There are some very clearly different voices here than North American fiction, and while very different from each other, some more fable like, some social commentary, there was a sense of place, a contemporary place, mostly centred in Asian capitals, villages or families. And nearly all the stories are relatively short; it feels like the world’s attention span has become small. While sometimes this left me wanting for more, a stronger development of an idea, more narrative than was offered (for example, Cyril Wong’s ‘Blindness’ is a poetic exploration of gay love, the protagonist negotiating a relationship with someone losing their site, yet I wanted more than the lovely sketch provided) – I also admit to being very engaged by the diversity of voices and locations.

From the fantastically literary and partically academic opening story by Kyoko Yoshida into a ghost story by Chang Ching-Hung then to a too-familiar idea of an abused Asian cleaning lady by Jing-Jing Lee, the collection offers a real breadth of subject matter and voice. So, I think readers will gravitate towards their favourites: tough family social commentary or something more surreal.

From the introduction, I learn that some of the authors are established (though perhaps not as known in the West) and other writers are newer. In some ways, the short stories of writers from the Asian diaspora have a different tone and setting (i.e. not in Asia) and yet, I found them particularly engaging: Matthew Salesses’s The Hum or the quirky and thoughtful ‘Are You There, God? It is I, Robot’ by Tom Cho. A number of stories speak of dysfunctional Asian families, too much pressure from parents on kids, or loveless partnerships with the burdens of societal and gender roles.

The question does arise for me: what is the connecting thread? I don’t quite understand what is meant by the phrase ‘cult writers’ and the idea of a ‘Gold Standard’ seems silly to me. How does one adjudicate between Asian short story writers and then decide if there is some sort of best?

But stripped of expecations, I really enjoyed this collection, this opportunity to read engaging short fiction with settings and narrators I’m not familiar with – which all come together into a nice literary experience. If this is a representation of the short fiction that’s coming out of Asia these days, this anthology makes me want to explore more.

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