Book Review

‘The Durian Chronicles’ explores political dissonance as a link between the U.S. and Southeast Asia

In her new book, author Sally Tyler explores the paradoxical relations of justice, power and politics through her collection of essays

October 4, 2022
‘The Durian Chronicles’ explores political dissonance as a link between the U.S. and Southeast Asia
Rows of durians displayed for sale in Kuala Lumpur. The fruit is a common sight and smell at a Southeast Asian market. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Anyone who’s ever walked through a local market in Southeast Asia has almost certainly detected the striking but recognisable stink of durian. Some describe the smell as rancid, while others feel it’s all part of the package, a highly valued delicacy often reserved for special occasions.

To those who love the fruit, durian is a unique food that smells pungent but has a soft and delicious heart.

For Sally Tyler, an author and longtime traveller of Southeast Asia, the fruit is the perfect metaphor for dissonance. In her new book, The Durian Chronicles, Tyler uses durian to examine the discrepancy between an outer layer of democratic values and the political realities of the U.S. and Southeast Asia where political figures including former American President Trump and former military regimes like that in Thailand praise democracy, but adopt a subtle authoritarian rule.   

“That is a very strange concept to embody, something that’s both wonderful and horrible,” Tyler said. “The durian is very unique.” 

Following the controversial 2016 election of Donald Trump,  Tyler was dismayed. She then embarked on a journey through Southeast Asia seeking inner renewal away from the political transition that pervaded her country. 

More than two dozen essays were born from that trip, and as many topics were covered in this book. “One of the reasons behind the importance of having a different topic for each essay is that I am hoping to reach a broader audience,” she said

With a strong view against a president “who has no respect for the rule of law”, Tyler  wrote of the hidden connections in policies and politics between Southeast Asia and the U.S.

Her essays are short and simple, yet informative and powerful. 

Tyler earnestly commits herself as an observer, something that immediately comes across in The Durian Chronicles. Her on-the-ground approach and passion help her address sensitive cross-country political issues.  

Author Sally Tyler explores themes of dissonance and international relations in The Durian Chronicles. Photo: supplied

How did The Durian Chronicles come about? 
I am a political junkie by nature. I also love Southeast Asia. I went there first when I was young and somehow I kept going back the following decades. I made more and more friends and connections, and of course, I began to be a more keen observer of the changes in culture and politics there over the years. 

When I wrote one of my first U.S. -Southeast Asia-related essays, I sent it to Dr. Nicholas Farrelly at the Australian National University to review. As a founding editor of New Mandala, a well-known academic blog on Southeast Asia issues, he read my piece, commented on it, and encouraged me to write for the blog.

Each of the following pieces was on a different topic, labour rights, environment, criminal justice, art censorship, etc. Then, because of the pandemic pause, I was able to think more about them, write some overarching content, and pull it together in a book. I contacted my publisher, Chin Music Press, and The Durian Chronicles came around. 

The essays included in this book are all about this dissonance in policies and political choices in both the US and Southeast Asia. Can you tell me more about this concept? 
The durian is unique. I decided to use it as a metaphor to describe these very strange times when [in] a nation like the U.S. where people all over the place say ‘we uphold the rule of law, we respect and revere it, and we are built on the rule of law’ and we actually elected someone who has no respect for the rule of law.

In terms of democracy, we say that democracy is one of the values of our society yet sometimes does that only mean democracy is to elect the candidates we want? What happens? How do you reconcile living in a democracy where you’ve elected someone that is completely antithetical to everything you believe in or care about? But it’s still a democracy, or isn’t it? 

And here is Southeast Asia, similarly, on the surface, people are easygoing, they talk about tolerance, but going hand in hand with that, there is a real authoritarian influence that makes it hard to move towards the democratic impulses that are developing there now. 

How did you do your research for your articles?
I am not a researcher. I appreciate experiential learning rather than academic. Being there is always the best option. Some articles are mostly based on the experiences of locals and their opinions on the current situation in their countries. It was more like a lot of chats with locals. That was my research. 

It really reminded me that it is important the way we craft domestic policy and the way we talk about it, to make sure that people don’t feel disaffected by the policy. Because when you have a large group of people thinking not just ‘this doesn’t help me, it actually hurts me’ then that can come back to bite you later. 

When you published the book, what was your main goal in mind?
There is a need for new messengers to talk about foreign policies on labour rights, environment, and international relations, to look at Southeast Asia with a comparative lens, but beyond those very traditional areas such as military defence and trade. In the U.S., if you see Southeast Asia covered, it is usually through one of those topics.

I also hope that with this book people would want to travel and see the world for themselves and they might as well come away with a whole new insight that can be also very different from mine. That’s part of the value of independent inquiry. 

To those who stop at the surface, I am saying ‘go further, investigate, there is much more there.’

What made you interested in politics in the first place? 
I grew up in a very small town in Georgia really near where former U.S. president Jimmy Carter grew up. He was a farmer who got into politics and became president. Realising that one person could make a difference in the world really was inspiring to me; it had a strong impact on my younger self. That was surely one of the things that helped me start thinking about politics and connections in the world, and I always had an innate sense of fairness. I later began to realise maybe the political and region[al] policy process could help people achieve better outcomes and justice in some cases. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (second left), walks with President-elect Donald Trump, his wife Melania Trump, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence (left), at the U.S. Capitol for a meeting 10 November, 2016 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day president-elect Trump met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP

Excerpt from the Durian Chronicles

In The Durian Chronicles, Tyler’s essays span a wide range of topics linking policy developments in the US and Southeast Asia:

The shifting balance of global power may necessitate creation of new alliances outside the traditional superpower narrative, yet most news coverage and commentary signals the tired trope that Southeast Asian nations have no resort but to align themselves with either the US or China.

We should expect that, as sovereign nations, they each have their own independent relationships with the US and with China. These relationships will play out differently depending on the issue. Chinese vaccine diplomacy efforts were described by Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachit as exemplifying a “comradely relationship of cooperation” that “demonstrates the spirit of Laos-China community with a shared future,”while similar Chinese pandemic outreach was viewed more sceptically in Vietnam. Other examples abound: Myanmar has allowed a growing share of its GDP to be subsumed by debt through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects, while Malaysia, led by a new president who rejected saddling future generations with debt, successfully renegotiated the terms of agreement for their BRI development projects with China.

And the Philippines’ Duterte frequently employed the aphorism, “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,” to justify steering clear of taking sides in any US/China decision, relishing in his nonaligned posture by handing out public tongue-lashings to both countries, which did nothing to erode the historically strong ties between the US and the Philippines.

Not only do we fall short when we expect other nations to conform to this limiting either/or construct, but we also use it to our disadvantage at home. The rhetoric used to describe US foreign policy initiatives to a domestic audience is too often reduced to a simplistic dichotomy illustrating a decision to either remain strong at home or serve as the nation’s policeman. Such a narrow framework is an outmoded attempt to force contemporary foreign policy decisions into neat categories that fail to recognize the myriad ways globalization has fostered interdependence among nations, requiring a nuanced, collective approach both comprehensive and nimble enough to address 21st Century challenges.

The scourges of climate change, economic inequality, and the rapidly transforming use of social media disinformation to undermine democracies are not confined within the borders of any one nation. Nor can their resolutions be.

What type of policy framework then would allow us to acknowledge dissonance without diminishing the primacy of key principles or objectives? Perhaps, a model could be found in ASEAN. Frequently dismissed in the West as an ineffective regional power broker, the organization’s operation may still provide lessons about how to ride out these turbulent times. Though its founding principles of consensus and nonintervention generally receive the most criticism from US observers, the organization’s historical emphasis on conflict reduction, rather than conflict resolution, merits more attention …. It could make sense to adopt ASEAN’s more subtle approach at times, conserving strategic resources by focusing on conflict reduction or management, rather than expending more resources toward the higher-risk goal of conflict resolution. 

Such a focus could allow more resources to go to the amelioration or elimination of underlying causes of conflict to achieve greater harmony over time.

The Biden Administration has signaled intent to return to multilateral engagement, certainly on big-ticket issues, though this may not happen in the near-term in every instance. In the meantime, there will be a range of opportunities for bilateral participation with Southeast Asian nations on a range of discreet issues, to demonstrate US commitment to being viewed again as a trusted ally in the region.

The Durian Chronicles is published by Chin Music Press and will be available on Amazon on 4 October.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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