On The Dirt Road to Dystopia with Nadeem Aslam and Kim Young Ha

What is Dystopia? Does the Road to Dystopia need to be made of dirt? Are our modern and comfortable societies already on the road to Dystopia?

These were the weighty questions thrown at a panel I was featured on at a Singapore Writer’s Festival, together with literary eminents Nadeem Aslam and Kim Young-Ha, and moderated by experienced Hong Kong journalist Steven McCarty.


Nadeem is a British writer who fled his native Pakistan at age 14 because his father was a Communist.  His first novel Season of the Rainbirds, won the Betty Rask and Author’s Club First Novel Award. His next novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, about an immigrant Pakistani community in North England won the Kiriyama Prize.  He then wrote The Wasted Vigil, set in Afghanistan.  His latest book, The Blind Man’s Garden is about events in Pakistan following September 11.


Kim Young-Ha is a Korean writer whose work focuses on life as experienced by Koreans in a changing world. You can read his, I Have a Right to Destroy Myself, Your Republic is Calling You, and Black Flower in English. Black Flower, the story of Korean migrant workers in Mexico in the early 20th century, worn the 2004 Dong-In Literary award.  Young-Ha’s work has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Polish, Turkish, Chinese and Vietnamese and has been made into movies.

How cool is it that I was with these literary lights;)

Dystopia is

an imagined place or state where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly. – Steven defined for us.

And no, the road to it does not need to be made only of dirt

Kim Young-Ha, for example, notes that although  his book Your Republic is Calling You is about a North Korean spy, the character is only a literary device to provide a glass to look into the stress of living in modern South Korea.

As for whether we’re all on the road to dystopia

All of us agreed that it is always possible for seemingly safe and functioning societies to turn into dystopias. Things can always fall apart – and more quickly and into smaller pieces than we can imagine.

Nadeem answered the question by telling us an Islamic story  about a monkey appointed to be the King’s bodyguard. The monky, noticing an ant crawling on the King’s chest, picks up a knife to kill the ant and hence stabs the King to death.  We should not feel too comfortable just because we’ve appointed guardians to protect our safeties and comforts ,  Nadeem warns.

Young-Ha pointed out that even in the so-called developed world, there are schisms and fractures. There are income inequalities. There is oppression. There is injustice. Dystopia is hidden in corners and dark places, but it is already with us. It’s only a question of how it can weaken the foundations of our societies…

I’m a believer in the human heart and the power of one and One. Going back to Steven’s definition that dystopia is an “imagined” state, I said that whether or not we are already in dystopia begins with our response to what’s out there in the world, not the actual discomforts and horrors of the world itself. It’s what one can do, how one sees. It’s of course also about the One I believe in.  That in the end, I do believe it will all come out right.

But, by then it will have affected me, Nadeem quoted a character of his saying. What good will it all turning out well in the end have done me? Still, there would be suffering.

Ahh! An hour on a literary panel is not enough to go into this eternal question.  The bell rang. We dispersed.

What I can say is in the imagined dystopic worlds that all three of us wrote about, there is redemption. Although our characters suffered, something came out of it.

The words helped. Go take a look at our books on Amazon and tell us what you think.

What is Dystopia? Does the Road to Dystopia need to be made of dirt? Are our modern and comfortable societies already on the road to Dystopia?

Leave a comment.

2 Responses to “On The Dirt Road to Dystopia with Nadeem Aslam and Kim Young Ha”
  1. Dystopia, like Utopia, is a literary device, useful to describe dysfunctional societies like Somalia, for example, but no place is either entirely good or entirely bad. Utopia could never exist, which doesn’t stop vain politicians from trying to create it. And yes, our modern and comfortable society is well down the road to dystopia. CS Lewis called the road to hell soft underfoot with no sudden turnings. And yes, it is very cool that you were with those literary lights! You are a literary light yourself!

    • Audrey Chin says:

      It’s so true Kathleen. There’s a passage in As the Heart Bones Break where the hero’s offered a cigarette and muses that’ he’s 27 and this is his first smoke. But of course, by then, we know he’s been on the dirt road to dystopia for a decade already.

      The road to hell is soft underfoot with no sudden turnings. That phrase describes it so aptly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: