Living Landscapes, Connected Communities

How does an architect talk to an actor about something an activist does? How should a teacher exchange notes with a dancer? What if this is further complicated by them not speaking the same language?

The challenges are many for someone putting together a book, but in the case of editor Justine Vaz, who co-edited Living Landscapes, Connected Communitieswith Narumol Aphinives, she says that it is “probably the most difficult thing” she has ever done. “I’m comfortable with the subject matter, but I’ll think twice – no, many times – before I ever do something like this again,” she laughs.

Living Landscapes, Connected Communities is an ambitious regional project featuring almost 50 contributors from five countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines. Published by Penang-based publisher Areca Books, the book comprises essays, personal reflections, poetry and photographs of people and the communities and environment they live in.

It examines biocultural diversity – the way different communities in different countries interact with their surroundings, drawing upon shared values and cultural heritage, as they negotiate an ever-changing world. More specifically, it explores five areas in these countries – Tasik Chini in Malaysia, Kali Code in Indonesia, Khiriwong in Thailand, Biwako in Japan and Batanes in the Philippines – in its aim to better understand local responses to contemporary social, economic and environmental challenges.

“If anything, the book is a celebration of diversity, with a focus on the communities and how they react and respond to changes around them. It is an accessible introduction to our social world in Asia,” Vaz says. “Working on the book was a tough journey, but the challenges are worth overcoming. The result is a credible and worthy volume.”

It comes under the auspices of the Asian Public Intellectual (API) Regional Project with the support of The Nippon Foundation.

“Certainly, one of the things that I was conscious about was not making it look like research tourism,” shares Vaz during a chat at the book launch in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, adding that it is a book written with the layperson in mind. “Anyone who is curious about society, particularly new tertiary students, will find that this is an accessible book with stories that will intrigue and inspire the reader to find out more.”

A woman in Batanes, Philippines, wearing the traditional headgear vakul made of abaca fibre. The vakul is used to protect the head and upper body from sun and rain.

A woman in Batanes, Philippines, wearing the traditional headgear vakul made of abaca fibre. The vakul is used to protect the head and upper body from sun and rain.

Artist Toshiya Takahama used building blocks to create Community On The Move townscape installations in Japan.

The abundant fish supply in Tasik Chini, Pahang, used to be the main source of protein of the Jakun community living around the lake.

Justine Vaz

Justine Vaz.

Vaz comments that there are not enough books about Asian societies that are written by Asians. Living Landscapes, Connected Communities is one such book that sets out to bring together people from all over the region. The contributors are API members who hail from different backgrounds and write in different languages, so translators had to be on hand for this project.

There are stories in this book that, although not new to the community in question, are relatively unknown to the rest of the world as they are usually documented by the community in another language that is not English. Therefore, it lacks the global outreach that it would be more likely to enjoy if written in a language with a more global outreach.

“These stories are really quite remarkable, but they have limited exposure to the world. By making these stories available in English, we are hoping to harness some of the diversity and interest in the region,” says Vaz. She wondered in the beginning how to fit together people from so many different walks of life in one neat package. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it was a non-issue. These are artificial divisions we tend to create in our own minds about what is relevant.”

At the end of the day, there is a place for everything and everyone. “Everybody’s unique perspective is relevant, everybody has something to offer. It is an unusual book indeed; some people have very obscure interests!” she says.

And if there is one take-home message that comes from reading this book, Vaz offers that there is a secret to living, an old formula that people in the modern world seem to have forgotten.

“A healthy society has a connection with nature, with family, friends, the community and culture. When you break away from many of these things, you end up feeling lost,” she says. “There is purpose and knowledge hardwired inside cultural traditions and beliefs and history. So embrace your uniqueness and embrace the uniqueness of other people.”

Originally published in The StarTuesday July 22, 2014