By Sreedhevi Iyer*
The Mekong Review exists in Southeast Asia and Oceania as a counterbalance to the unreached breadths of the London Book Review or the New York Review of Books. The articles are of varied topics relevant to many parts of Asia, and unlike many of its mainstream news outlets, possesses impeccable writing quality. Many of its long form features, op-eds, reviews and reports squarely touch on a brutal truth that many others in the region shy away from. For example, last year, the GeorgeTown Literary Festival featured Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim ina special interview with its festival director, Bernice Chauly. Chauly pulled no punches in her questions, prompting Ibrahim to joke that perhaps he shouldn’ve have accepted the festival invitation. By Malaysian media standards, it was a tough interview, the kind that ‘went there’. The Mekong Review, of course, reproduced it in its entirety, in the May/July 2019 issue. It is what its readers expect of it, it is what it expects of itself.
Minh Bui Jones, the founder, chief editor and ridiculously passionate journalist, was born in Vietnam. He arrived in Australia as a boat refugee in 1978. Having had a media career as a researcher and producer for SBS, a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, Jones is no stranger to founding new publications – The Diplomat is only one among the many magazines he started, focusing on Asian affairs. He moved to Cambodia in 2009, but returned to Australia in 2016, right after launching The Mekong Review at the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival in 2015.
Recently, Jones launched The Best of Mekong Review, featuring a selection of great articles and op-eds from the publication. In his introduction, Jones writes – “the stories we tell, whether fiction of non-fiction, become part of our imaginary landscape; embedded maps, if you like. On these maps we draw stars next to the things we like and cross out things we don’t. About Asia, the stories we in the West have been telling each other have swung wildly over the last five hundred years, the cast of characters change from noble savages to poet-scholars, subalterns to revolutionaries, peasants to high-tech entrepreneurs. The characters may chop and change but the plot remains constant: superior West and inferior East”. The existence of The Mekong Review combats this binary. Sreedhevi Iyer, of Asia Pacific Writers and Translators, wanted to know more:
- What was the intention behind the starting of The Mekong Review, and do you think the publication has fulfilled your artistic vision?
The intention was simple, to create a literary review magazine for Southeast Asia in the style and format of the London and New York Review of Books. As to whether it has fulfilled my vision, it’s hard to know, and in any event, a publication often develops a life of its own.
- One can always rely on The Mekong Reviewto have well-written articles on relevant issues around Southeast Asia, by known and unknown writers. What is your editorial process? How do you determine the content of an issue, the voices to be featured, the issues to be discussed?
Like any sausage factory, the process is messy, possibly unhygienic. As we’re a literary magazine, our contents are somewhat determined by new releases. My input is therefore administrative, allotting books to reviewers and reminding them of the deadline.
- Have you ever had to pull a story/article for fear of censure – either for the publication, the author of the piece, or you yourself? Could you perhaps mention any controversies the publication has faced?
Never. I think the most controversial thing we’ve had to deal with was a piece by Will Nguyen on his arrest, incarceration and trial in Ho Chi Minh City. Some shops in Vietnam were afraid the article might court the attention of the authorities. I understand where they’re coming from because Vietnam is an authoritarian state.
- Could you tell us a bit about the digital extension of The Mekong Review – The Teahouse. What made you start that, and how do you gauge its success at the moment?
Teahouse was started on a whim. I happened to be in Malaysia around the time of the election which brought Mahathir back to power. It was one of the most significant political events of the decade for me and I was caught between issues, so Teahouse became a convenient bridge, allowing us to run short reaction pieces to the event. It grew out of that and has limped along. Given its beginning, I don’t gauge its success or otherwise, it is what it is. In any event, it’s not there to make money or to change people’s opinions, it simply exists.
- What has been the most rewarding part of putting out this publication? Have you ever encountered something/someone that reminded you this is all worth it?
I encounter this affirmation – that it has been worth it – almost on a daily basis, and I’m not just saying it. Nearly every day I get emails from our readers telling me how much they value the magazine as a source of information and analysis on Southeast Asian literature and culture. It makes it worthwhile to know that what you do is useful.
- At last year’s GeorgeTown Literary Festival, you launched The Best of Mekong Review, a copy of which I have and love. Could you elaborate on what got you to put the collection together, and what kind of response it has generated?
The Best of Mekong Review was the product of a conversation between Pak Chong, the publisher of Gerakbudya and myself a year or so ago. I mentioned that we were about to mark our third birthday and he said why not put tother a best of. The rest, as they say, is history. I honestly don’t know how it has been received as I’ve been so busy with the daily chore of publishing. I think last time I asked Charles Brophy, the managing editor of Gerakbudaya, he said it was breaking even.
- What is your least favourite part of this job?
The usual administrative chore: sending and chasing invoices, paying suppliers and services. As Mekong Review is a one-person band, I have to do everything, which is exhausting.
- Lastly, if a writer around Southeast Asia wanted to write something for The Mekong Review, how can they gain access to you?
Write to me at [email protected]
*Sreedhevi Iyer is the author of Jungle Without Water and the forthcoming The Tiniest House of Time. She currently lives in Melbourne.