Women in Translation: 5 books from Southeast Asian women

This month, August, is a chance to celebrate women in translation, specifically women authors who’s works have been translated. There’s so much good translated literature out there. For this month, I’ll be sharing some inspiration for women authors from around the world who have had their work translated into English.

I know a lot of people read works translated from English into their own language, and there’s so many languages that works need to be translated into. But since I only read in English, I’m going to be highlighting works that have been translated into English.

This week we’ll be visiting Southeast Asia, which usually consists of countries including: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Indonesia.

I find that these countries are less likely to be included in lists of translated literature, which makes me feel like it’s even more important to highlight books from this region.

When it is difficult to find women authors from specific countries, it makes me wonder how much we are missing out on. Every country has talented authors, with incredible stories to tell. And it breaks my heart that certain countries are just seen as not a priority for the publishing world.

But the more that people take time to notice and show interest in these countries, the more likely that publishing world will also pay attention. After all, publishing is still a market, so where there is demand, there will be a supply. So let’s create the demand.

Five books from Southeast Asian women

Here’s a list of five books with women authors from Southeast Asia.

  1. Vietnam: Paradise of the Blind by Dương Thu Hương (1988)
  2. Malaysia: The Age of Goodbyes by Li Zi Shu (2010)
  3. Thailand: The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by วีรพร นิติประภา (Veeraporn Nitiprapha) (2013)
  4. Vietnam: Mãn by Kim Thúy (2013)
  5. Indonesia: Apple & Knife by Intan Paramaditha (2018)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve ordered them based on the year they were published in their original language (not the year of the English translation).

Paradise of the Blind (1988)

by Dương Thu Hương Translated by Nina McPherson & Phan Huy Đường

  • Year Published: 1988
    English version in 2002
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Language: Vietnamese
  • Country: Vietnam
  • Currently banned in Vietnam

Paradise of the Blind is an exquisite portrait of three Vietnamese women struggling to survive in a society where subservience to men is expected and Communist corruption crushes every dream. Through the eyes of Hang, a young woman in her twenties who has grown up amidst the slums and intermittent beauty of Hanoi, we come to know the tragedy of her family as land reform rips apart their village. When her uncle Chinh‘s political loyalties replace family devotion, Hang is torn between her mother‘s appalling self–sacrifice and the bitterness of her aunt who can avenge but not forgive. Only by freeing herself from the past will Hang be able to find dignity –– and a future.


The Age of Goodbyes (2010)

by Li Zi Shu, translated from Chinese by Y.Z. Chin

  • Year Published: 2010
    English version in 2022
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, literary, emotional, mysterious, reflective, medium-paced
  • Language: Chinese
  • Country: Malaysia

By one of Southeast Asia’s most exciting writers, The Age of Goodbyes is a wildly inventive account of family history, political turmoil, and the redemptive grace of storytelling.

In the summer of 1969, in the wake of Malaysia’s deadliest race riots, a woman named Du Li An secures her place in society by marrying a gangster. In a parallel narrative, a critic known only as The Third Person explores the work of a writer also named Du Li An. And a third storyline is in the second person; “you” are reading a novel titled The Age of Goodbyes. Floundering in the wake of “your” mother’s death, “you” are trying to unpack the secrets surrounding “your” lineage.

The Age of Goodbyes—which begins on page 513, a reference to the riots of May 13, 1969—is the acclaimed debut by Li Zi Shu. The winner of multiple awards and a Taiwanese bestseller, this dazzling novel is a profound exploration of what happens to personal memory when official accounts of history distort and render it taboo.


The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth (2013)

by วีรพร นิติประภา (Veeraporn Nitiprapha), translated by: Kong Rithdee

  • Year Published: 2013
    English version in 2018
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, literary, magical realism, emotional, slow-paced
  • Language: Thai
  • Country: Thailand
  • Won the prestigious South East Asian Writers (“S.E.A. Write”) Award for fiction and a best-seller in Thailand

On the day Chareeya is born, her mother discovers her father having an affair with a traditional Thai dancer. From then on, Chareey’s life is fated to carry the weight of her parents’ disappointments. She and her sister grow up in a lush riverside town near the Thai capital, Bangkok, captivated by trashy romance novels, classical music and games of make-believe. When the laconic orphan, Pran, enters their world, he unwittingly lures the sisters into a labyrinth of their own making as they each try to escape their intertwined fates.

The original Thai language edition of The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth won the prestigious South East Asian Writers (“S.E.A. Write”) Award for fiction and was best-seller in Thailand. It is translated into English by Thai film critic and recipient of France’s Chevalier dans I’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kong Rithdee.

Attuned to the addictive rhythms of a Thai soap opera and written with the consuming intensity of a fever dream, this novel opens an insightful and truly compelling window onto the Thai heart.


Mãn (2013)

by Kim Thúy, translated from French by Sheila Fischman

  • Year Published: 2013
    English version in 2014
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, literary, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Language: French
  • Country: Vietnam & Canada
  • Kim Thuy is a Vietnamese-born Canadian writer, whose debut novel Ru won the Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction at the 2010 Governor General’s Awards

Mãn has three mothers: the one who gives birth to her in wartime, the nun who plucks her from a vegetable garden, and her beloved Maman, who becomes a spy to survive. Seeking security for her grown daughter, Maman finds Mãn a husband – a lonely Vietnamese restaurateur who lives in Montreal.

Thrown into a new world, Mãn discovers her natural talent as a chef. Gracefully she practices her art, with food as her medium. She creates dishes that are much more than sustenance for the body: they evoke memory and emotion, time and place, and even bring her customers to tears.

Mãn is a mystery – her name means ‘perfect fulfillment’, yet she and her husband seem to drift along, respectfully and dutifully. But when she encounters a married chef in Paris, everything changes in the instant of a fleeting touch, and Mãn discovers the all-encompassing obsession and ever-present dangers of a love affair.

Full of indelible images of beauty, delicacy and quiet power, Mãn is a novel that begs to be savoured for its language, its sensuousness and its love of life.


Apple & Knife (2018)

by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen J. Epstein

  • Year Published: 2018
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, horror, short stories, dark, medium-paced
  • Language: Bahasa Indonesia
  • Country: Indonesia
  • You may want to check content warnings before reading

Inspired by horror fiction, myths and fairy tales, Apple and Knife is an unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.

These short fictions set in the Indonesian everyday—in corporate boardrooms, in shanty towns, on dangdut stages—reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface. Sometimes wacky and always engrossing, this is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.

Mara finds herself brainstorming an ad campaign for Free Maxi Pads, with a little help from the menstruation-eating hag of her childhood. Jamal falls in love with the rich and powerful Bambang, but it is the era of the smiling general and, if he’s not careful, he may find himself recruited to Bambang’s brutal cause. Solihin would give anything to make dangdut singer Salimah his wife – anything at all.

In the globally connected and fast-developing Indonesia of Apple and Knife, taboos, inversions, sex and death all come together in a heady, intoxicating mix full of pointed critiques and bloody mutilations. Women carve a place for themselves in this world, finding ways to subvert norms or enacting brutalities on themselves and each other.


Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books written by Southeast Asian authors.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. If you have a favourite book written by a Southeast Asian author, please feel free to share it in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of the book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.