Southeast Asia is an immense region with diverse cultures, traditions, and mythologies. It has witnessed trade, migration, wars, and occupation. Right from the very beginning, Southeast Asia was known as a destination for trade in ancient Greek sources, right up to the detailed texts by Chinese writers. With trade came the exchange and cross-fertilisation of ideas and belief systems. There is so much beauty and joy as well as stark horror. The glorious architecture of Angkor Wat, the outpouring of religious stories and texts like the Ramayana, the intermarriages of ethnicity and culture. The horrors of the Japanese Occupation in World War II and the Khmer Rouge, the terror of the Vietnam War have left an indelible imprint in the collective psyche and memory of Southeast Asian people.
Indeed, Southeast Asia is a diverse region with diverse cultures, traditions, mythologies, and stories. Hantu, preta, wandering wild spirits, monsters, nagas, Barong—all the stories that keep generations of children and adults awake at night.
And with its diversity comes the amazing (and delicious range of) food. Most of Southeast Asian cuisine—no doubt, deeply influenced by trade—are spicy or packed full of spice. In fact, the Portuguese, Dutch, and English fought bitterly over spice and their actions irrevocably changed Southeast Asian history forever.
We are pleased to present to you the Southeast Asian special. We are amazed, awed, delighted, and have wept (in a good way) at the sheer talent represented in the stories, poems, and essays. In fact, we are saddened that we couldn’t represent all of Southeast Asia. We have so much talent.
For fiction, we have a range of comedy and tragedy, fresh takes on known tropes, and a confirmation that if there is one thing Southeast Asia is full of (besides talent), it’s ghosts, food, and the cooperation we find in the knowledge that we share this world together. We have JV Choong’s Kuan-Yin story, “Her Merciful Components,” in which a cantankerous inventor explores the concept of the Goddess of Mercy with the Thousand Arms through engineering, artificial intelligence, and some visionary architecture. EK Gonzales continues the exploration of artificial intelligence, this time with a parental theme, as a woman raises a humanoid robot and heartbreakingly releases him at his request to participate in anti-colonial efforts. A similar recognition of the right to autonomy threads through Nadine Aurora Tabing’s “Obsolesce,” a cyberpunk future where even the wealthy can get trapped in machinations of others, domestic workers must still tend to their needs, and compassion can still be found.
We take a quick comic break into the streets of Kuala Lumpur with Guan Un’s little heist for a wok that may or may not be magic in “Wok Hei St.” Wok hei, for those unfamiliar, literally translates into “the breath of the wok,” and is a certain flavour captured by cooking in a wok. This takes us into the food half of the fiction. If “Wok Hei St” is about cooking, then our next two stories are about different forms of consumption, and the revelations to be had in the process. Cat T. takes on the penglipur lara figure and infuses it with the gravitas of telepathy, the hunger of vampirism, and the bardic duty towards soothing the soul of their audience in “The Soother of Sorrows.” In contrast, the manananggal of Wen-yi Lee’s “Lay My Stomach On Your Scales” practises restraint, struggling with a weight disorder and a tenuous friendship with a seemingly perfect schoolmate, leading to a surprising revelation of bodily value.
Our poets also bring with them a feast of flavourful verse, dealing with loss, love, and survival. A note of steel rings through Natalie Wang’s tense and deliciously threatening "Red", Rachelle Cruz’s strange yet tender "Aswang Paces Outside of Kaiser Permanente Hospital", and Votey Cheav’s "when a kingdom falls/shakti’s kisses". Southeast Asia’s softer side is evident in Yee Heng Yeh’s dreamy "Song" and the terse, dense imagery of Call out my name by Jeff William Acosta. That same sense of density is also a part of Max Pasakorn’s "field notes from an investigation into the self", carrying the reader along in a monsoon of words. Cheng Him’s "Declaration", the last of the cohort, delivers boisterous energy and playfulness through every stanza.
The nonfiction continues with food and food imagery. Stephani Soejono writes passionately about food in space, specifically in shows like Star Trek. How do the Southeast Asian-coded characters express their Southeast Asianness? Or have they, at all? It is a wasted opportunity for science fiction shows not to showcase or have actual Southeast Asian food representation. If Picard is known for his Earl Grey, Sisko his jambalaya and Janeway her coffee, how about Georgio? I would like to see Philippa Georgio enjoying Peranakan Nonya or Indonesian food! Or Portuguese Kristang/Eurasian, even!
Ni Yi-Sheng’s essay rounds up the SEA special by asking vital questions. What is spicepunk? How do we, Southeast Asians, write spicepunk? Yi-Sheng unpacks the tensions in the word itself and how we have to decolonise our minds. How can we write with our own biases and prejudices? It is a difficult challenge which Southeast Asian writers and readers have to address.
So, grab a cup of tea, chai, and kopi. Savour the words and have them change your mind of what Southeast Asia is. It’s a diverse region to many people. Our experiences might differ and converge, but ultimately, for many of us it’s simply home.