In this diaCRITICS interview Dao Strom speaks with Minh Bui Jones, editor of the Mekong Review, a quarterly print magazine that features reviews, cultural essays, and literature from and of Southeast Asia. In an increasingly digitized and digitizing era, Mekong Review is a unique and driven enterprise, citing a commitment to reading and to publishing as a tactile experience.
With a presence in bookstores in the five Mekong countries—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand—as well as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the US. Mekong Review, as featured in a recent NY Times article, serves importantly “as a vehicle for cross-border connections in a region that lacks a sense of a shared historical narrative.”
Readers can enjoy some articles on Mekong Review’s website, with full content available via subscription options at this link: mekongreview.com/subscribe/
DAO STROM: What kind of publication is the Mekong Review, and where are you based?
MINH BUI JONES: Mekong Review is a quarterly magazine on Southeast Asian literature and culture. I’m based in Sydney, though when I founded the magazine I was living in Phnom Penh.
DS: Is your focus regional and if so what region(s) do you cover or include? Do you only publish writers based in SE Asia or from all over?
MBJ: We focus on Southeast Asia, with occasional forays into Asia (China, India, South Korea and Japan). We publish reviews and essays on Southeast Asia, not necessarily writers based in that region, though many of them do. Some of our contributors come from the US, Australia and Europe.
DS: What was the inspiration, the “seed”, for the Mekong Review? Was there a moment at which the idea for the journal was ‘born’?
MBJ: It was early October 2015 when the idea came together. My family and I had been living in Phnom Penh for more than six years and we had planned to return home to Sydney. Just at that moment I felt this need to maintain a link with Cambodia and the rest of the Mekong region, where I had been living since 2009. The opportunity came when friends asked me to compere a session at the inaugural Kampot Readers & Writers Festival. I knew immediately that the festival would be a wonderful time and venue to launch such a magazine, so threw myself into it and a month later came up with the first edition, just in time for the launch at the Kampot festival.
DS: What need or desire do you see your journal fulfilling, culturally or contextually speaking?
MBJ: This is difficult for me to say. I think readers might be better placed to answer this. I produce the magazine, as I said above, for personal reasons, so I don’t think of it in this fashion.
DS: In a nutshell, what kind of writing can a reader expect to find in Mekong Review?
MBJ: We publish a mix of book reviews, interviews with authors and journalists from the region, profiles of artists, a bit of reporting and travel writing. We cover all genres and lengths vary from 700 to 7000 words.
DS: What do you want to give readers that they will find only in the Mekong Review?
MBJ: Articles and reviews written by people who really care about the countries they write about.
DS: You have both a web and print presence. Can you tell us a little more about your different platforms?
MBJ: Print is the heart and soul of what we’re about. The website is a virtual shop where people can go to subscribe to the magazine. I’m a computer illiterate, so when people say platforms I think of a swimming pool.
DS: Who are your *dream* readers?
MBJ: I don’t think I have ‘dream’ readers as such. I like them all, and the more the merrier.
DS: As a reader, what do you look for, wish for, love or hate or fear? What is something you have read, either recently or at some turning point in your life, that affirmed your sense of the importance of literature and the sharing of the written word?
MBJ: I read for work, so of course what I look for is different from, say, reading for pleasure. First, it’s the content; there must be something there worth reading. Second, I look for clear and concise writing. Recently I read Kim Cheng Boey’s Between Stations, a travelogue-dash-memoir from a Singaporean-Australian writer. It’s a beautiful meditation on places, childhood memories and identity.
DS: Tell us a little more about yourself. What is your background and what was your path to becoming publisher of a SE Asian based journal with global reach?
MBJ: I’m Vietnamese by birth. I settled in Australia as a refugee in 1978 and was educated in that country. I’ve worked in the media all my adult life, mainly as a journalist and an editor. Mekong Review is the fifth publication that I have started, so you might say this is what I do for a living.
DS: Where do you consider yourself to be “from”?
MBJ: I’m from Australia.
DS: What are some production/publication challenges you have encountered with the Mekong Review? What challenges (and changes) do you foresee in the coming year?
MBJ: As a little magazine, Mekong Review faces the mortal fear of death. By their nature, little magazines have few resources and make up for this through hard work, the generosity and goodwill of their readers and supporters. They exist through the will, belief and delusion of their creators, that there is a place in the world for them.
DS: As much as you are comfortable addressing it, can you talk about censorship of media in SE Asia and whether or not this has been an obstacle for your journal, to any degree?
MBJ: We’re a literary journal and we’re small, obscure and we have no influence, so the censorship you’re referring to doesn’t apply to us. I can’t see any bureaucrat in his or her right mind would even look at us. It’s hard to see this changing in the foreseeable future.
DS: What do you think western readers should know or maybe don’t know about publishing and the writing life in SE Asia? Are there “myths” about the life of the writer in Southeast Asia that you would like to address?
MBJ: I’m only familiar with life in Cambodia and Vietnam, so I’ll confine my comments to those countries. One aspect of life in cities like Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City is the lack of space. People in the West are used to the idea of having a room of one’s own, or having a public library to go to. In large urban centres in Cambodia and Vietnam, people live on top of each other, sometimes a whole family is cramped into a tiny space. There’s no room to breathe, let alone write. I can’t imagine anyone doing anything creative in such an environment. On top of that, you have the extreme heat and during the wet season, the big wet.
DS: What are some “trends” of contemporary literature in Southeast Asia as you see it? In fiction? In poetry? In experimentation…?
MBJ: Again, this is hard to generalise. Every country is different. And I don’t know enough to say. Come back to me in a year’s time.
DS: Who are the Southeast Asian contemporary writers you think the world should know about? Who are the voices you think we should (or will) be reading more of soon?
MBJ: As I said above, I really like the prose of Boey Kim Cheng from Singapore. The short stories of Sreedhevi Iyer (I have no idea where she’s from). The poetry of Maung Philar from Myanmar. The fiction of Nguyen Binh Phuong from Vietnam. I recently read a book on traditional Cambodian dancing by Prumsodon Ok, which I thought was sublime.
DS: Name a favorite piece or author you’ve published in the Mekong Review that you would recommend we read.
MBJ: There are so many! From the stop of my head: Penny Edwards’s piece on Soth Polin, the great Cambodian novelist; Pim Wangtechawat’s shopping malls in Thailand; Thomas Bass’s review of Ken Burns’s Vietnam War; Chi Mai’s re-reading of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; Sebastian Strangio’s masterful essay on the death of Kem Ley, a government critic who was murdered two years ago.
DS: As a person of the Southeast Asian diaspora, can you elaborate on what the word “diaspora” means to you and how this influences your notion of your “place in the world”?
MBJ: I might be paraphrasing or misquoting Salman Rushdie here, but he wrote somewhere about people united by a sense of loss. For me, diaspora conjures up a feeling of being amputated, cut off – from country, from language, from food. I’m nearly 50, so I’ve come to terms with my loss, or at least I’m dull to it, but when I was young I felt it acutely.
Minh Bui Jones was born in Da Nang, Vietnam in 1969 and came to Australia in 1978 as a boat refugee. He began his media career in TV as a researcher and producer, and worked as a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald, then later founded or co-founded four magazines focusing on Asian current affairs, including The Diplomat in 2001. Bui Jones moved to Cambodia with his family in 2009, where he launched the Mekong Review in 2015. He currently resides in Australia in 2016.
Dao Strom is the editor of diaCRITICS.