While not all of these visitors had direct experience with Myanmar, many were well-versed in the challenges of pitching Asian stories to British and American publishers, and they were under no illusions that the situation here would be any different.

Hong Kong-based literary agent Kelly Falconer – who describes herself as representing “Asian authors, experts on Asia, and writers living in Asia, be they Asian or not” – said she looks for works that will sell in the English-language market and have appeal to Western readers.

“I’m looking for fine writing, something that really captures my heart and takes my breath away, and that I hope will have a similar effect on anyone who reads it in the UK or the USA,” she said.

Falconer – whose clients include poet Ko Ko Thett, co-editor and translator of the 2012 anthology of Myanmar poetry Bones Will Crow – said that while she thinks the appeal of Asian literature is growing in the West, there are many challenges to overcome, including the tendency for agents, editors and readers to “reach out for the familiar”.

Photos: SuppliedPhotos: Supplied

“I think there are editors and agents who are looking for something to confirm their prejudices … Readers in the West often want something that’s very familiar. They’re reading about the Cultural Revolution in China and are still trying to understand how China has reached the point it has today,” she said.

“But my fiction writers are writing about what’s going on now, and I’m finding it challenging to convince the West that these are the fresh voices of Asia.”

Michael Vatikiotis, a writer and journalist who has published several fiction and nonfiction works on Southeast Asia, agreed that the world of publishing often relies on perpetuating stereotypes.

Photos: SuppliedPhotos: Supplied

“A publisher will fixate on something that’s worked – the Harry Potter of India – and everything else just falls off a cliff,” he said.

He cited Indonesia – the subject of much of his writing – as an example of a country that can be a hard sell to Western readers.

“Indonesia is probably one of the most colourful and interesting countries in the world … [but] there’s a rather bleak view of Indonesia – that it’s a dark, forbidding place that people do not really enjoy reading about.”

Writer Dipika Mukherjee, whose 2011 novel Thunder Demons is set in Malaysia, said she constantly struggles with the issue of how to connect with readers in the West.

“Malaysia is not a country that is very big in the American imagination. I think places like Thailand are a lot larger in terms of what people know about it,” she said. “So although there is interest, I think I have a much larger following in Malaysia, where they really get what I was trying to do with this book.”

Kerry Glencorse, a literary agent based in London who represents Golden Parasol (2013) author Wendy Law-Yone, said many readers prefer being “spoon-fed” stories that are easy to digest, making it difficult for books about unfamiliar cultures to break out of a small niche.

“But there are books like [Chinese author Jung Chang’s] Wild Swans from other cultures that have gone on to be huge successes. They can be really big. It’s just trying to find the right one,” she said.

“If you happen to hit upon a story that really works for whatever reason, then I think there’s great opportunity because there is a hunger and appetite for literature from these places and for a different point of view – especially one like Myanmar that has been closed for so long.”

Marysia Juszczakiewicz, who founded the Peony Literary Agency in Hong Kong, said she tries to find stories that “speak to an international audience” and that “are not so steeped in that culture that people outside have no comprehension of it”.

One of the writers she represents is Duncan Jepson, the Hong Kong-based author of the novels All the Flowers in Shanghai (2012) and Emperors Once More (2014) and former managing editor of Asia Literary Review.

“You do end up thinking, ‘We can’t publish this because it’s too esoteric.’ It’s a story about Laos or some aspect of Cambodia that people think is too arcane,” Jepson said of his work at the literary review.

“But I was interested in communicating to a broad audience about things that are happening, so that there is greater awareness and understanding. It’s a slow process.”

For many Asian authors, regional idiosyncrasies manifest themselves not only in subject matter but also in writing style, which only adds to the challenge of cross-cultural publishing.

Myanmar author Ma Thanegi – who has written several English-language nonfiction works, including the travelogue The Native Tourist (2005) and the prison memoir Nor Iron Bars a Cage (2013) – said the format and characteristics of English and Myanmar literature are very different.

“I can be irreverent in English, but the written word is taken very seriously by the Burmese – especially for a woman who is no longer young and ‘should be dignified’ – unless it is an all-out complete satire, which is also rather rare. Burmese satirical books often have the subtitle ‘satire’ just in case a reader misunderstands and gets angry,” she said.

Juszczakiewicz, who represents Chinese writers such as Su Tong, author of Raise the Red Lantern (1990), and 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, said Chinese novels are often constructed differently from Western works.