Sunday, 4 April 2021

Message to Adolf - Osamu Tezuka's Underrated Manga

Between 1983 – 1985, the celebrated artist Osamu Tezuka created one of his most underpraised manga. Adolf, also known as Message to Adolf (Adolf ni Tsugu アドルフに告ぐ) spans decades and is part historical epic, part spy thriller, part romance, and one of the first “adult manga” (gekiga) that I ever read. It is the story of three men named Adolf.


Sunday, 28 March 2021

New book announcement

Earnshaw Books (Hong Kong) is releasing two new memoirs on April 1. Made in China by Simon Gjeroe, and Spring Flower by Jean Tren-Hwa Perkins. 

Made in China: A Memoir of Marriage and Mixed Babies in the Middle Kingdom by Simon Gjeroe

Simon Gjeroe became a father in China and suddenly had to deal with serious questions: Can you live with your wife if she has not showered for a month? Can you take your wife seriously if she starts wearing X-ray aprons? Do you really have to eat the placenta? In this memoir, Simon answers all those questions and many more, highlighting the weird and wonderful world of cross-cultural marriage and parenthood in the Middle Kingdom.Made in China is a humorous narrative that reveals Simon’s love for a country wonderfully full of contradictions and absurdities. He went to China as a language student, married the teacher and made both a family and a new life for himself.


Spring Flower: A Tale of Two Rivers by Jean Tren-Hwa Perkins

The story of one woman’s journey from poverty to privilege to persecution, and her determination to survive as history and circumstance evolved around her. Tren-Hwa (Spring Flower) was born in a hut by the Yangtze River during the catastrophic floods of 1931. She was given up for adoption to a missionary couple, Dr. Edward Perkins and his wife. Renamed Jean Perkins, she attended schools in China and in New York, and after World War II returned to China with her parents. Spring Flower is eyewitness history and the unflinching memoir of a young girl growing up during the brutal Japanese occupation and the communist takeover of China.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Elaine Chiew Chats With Catherine Menon about her startling debut Fragile Monsters

Photo Credit: Paul Emberson


Bio:
 Catherine Menon is Australian-British, has Malaysian heritage and lives in London. Her debut short story collection, Subjunctive Moods, was published by Dahlia Publishing in 2018. She is a University lecturer in robotics and has both a PhD in pure mathematics and an MA in Creative Writing. Fragile Monsters, published by Viking in April 2021, is her debut novel.

Synopsis: Mary is a difficult grandmother for Durga to love. She is sharp-tongued and ferocious, with more demons than there are lines on her palms. When Durga visits her in rural Malaysia, she only wants to endure Mary, and the dark memories home brings, for as long as it takes to escape. But a reckoning is coming. Stuck together in the rising heat, both women must untangle the truth from the myth of their family's past. In her stunning debut novel Catherine Menon traces one family's story from 1920 to the present, unravelling a thrilling tale of love, betrayal and redemption against the backdrop of natural disasters and fallen empires. Written in vivid technicolour, with an electric daughter-grandmother relationship at its heart, Fragile Monsters explores what happens when secrets fester through the generations. 


EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Catherine. Congratulations on your startling debut,
 Fragile Monsters (Viking, 2021).  It literally begins with a bang, one revelation following another like a series of explosions through the book, keeping this reader on her toes. Every character has an incredible secret, even Karthika, the grandmother’s domestic helper. Tell us about the making of this book: was there a clear starting point and what was the process of writing it like?

 

CM: Thank you so much for having me, Elaine. The inspiration for Fragile Monsters came from the bedtime stories my father used to tell me about his own childhood in Pahang. It was only as an adult that I began to understand the context of these stories. Kuala Lipis, where he grew up, was the headquarters of the Japanese army in Pahang during the Occupation. 

 

I began to read memoirs and interviews with other people who’d lived through that time, and I was struck by the extent to which all of these speakers were taking ownership of their own narratives. They were describing what had happened to them, but with a focus on the emotional truth rather than the specific events. This was an amazing thing to realise: the sheer resilience that they had had to show in order to take back control of the past. 

 

I very much wanted to reflect this imperative – this need to own your own past – in the character of Mary. Mary understands the importance of stories and the power that they have over our memories. Durga, of course, is the exact opposite. She values logic, certainty, a kind of rigorous and exacting thought process that doesn’t allow for something to be “right, instead of true”, as Mary tells her. In writing the book I tried to keep their characters and perspectives distinct, even when they were, in effect, telling the same story. These two women are opposite sides of a mathematical equation – as Durga would put it! 

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Through Teachers' Eyes: Bringing Asian Poetry into the Classroom

Editor's note: Growing up in Singapore, my high-school literature curriculum as far as I can remember it – consisted of a steady diet of Sophocles and Shakespeare. It was not till much later, rooting through the shelves at libraries and used-book stores, that I encountered many of the tongues and voices of Asian poets for the first time. In this month's poetry column (just in time for World Poetry Day!), we hear from two writers and educators who are working to bring Asian poetry into the classroom. 

Here are Inez Tan and Ann Ang, on the Asian poems they love teaching. 

Left to Right: Inez Tan, E.J. Koh, Ann Ang, and Toeti Heraty

***

INEZ TAN on E. J. KOH 

Saying “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” is a boring dead end. Here’s what I propose instead: “Poetry is what gets made in translation.”

Enter “Beyoncé’s Single Ladies English to English Translation” by E. J. Koh – singing, dancing, and completely redefining what ‘translation’ meant to me. I vividly remember reading that title and feeling explosions going off in my brain. Who knew you could ‘translate’ English to English, pop song to poem, meaning to other meanings? But then again, why not? In poetry, we’re often taking emotions, experiences, beliefs, hopes – in short, every kind of ineffable thing! – and putting them into words. Isn’t that a kind of translation?

In Koh’s poem, ‘translation’ involves inviting in new associations and figurative meanings. The romantic language of “I’m the one you own,” translated to “president of your body,” now expands to interrogate darker ideas of political ownership. Even so, you can still hear the original in there. And best of all, you can hear it in new ways.

The etymology of the word translate is the Latin translatus, meaning to to bring or carry over, across, and beyond. E.J. Koh’s relationship to English, Korean, and Japanese has everything to do her efforts to carry over a transnational family history, with all its complexities of pain, shame, and difficult love. But Koh’s background also includes hip-hop dance, political science, and Dante’s Inferno, all of which went into her poetry. Translation’ then, is also a way we draw on our whole selves – every part of who we are and what we know – in order to write from that entirety.

At the start of my poetry classes, I ask my students what languages they speak, and I make the case that their linguistic background is a real resource for their writing. At that point, they don’t buy it. Although my students at the University of California, Irvine are incredibly multilingual, they usually describe themselves in terms of deficiency: they speak some rusty Spanish or Vietnamese at home, they took some high school French but they’ve forgotten most of it, English is their second language so they’re not as fluent as a native speaker… A few weeks later, we read Koh’s poem, and I ask them again what “languages” they know, inviting them to think about that concept very broadly. And suddenly the floodgates open, and their answers are incredible: love languages (like touch or acts of service), painting, computer programming, screenwriting, Voguing, retail, memes, puns, gothic horror… They have the same revelation I had from Koh’s poem – wait, this thing I know, this can be part of my voice? This experience I’ve had is something I can claim? This, too, is something I can include in my poetry?

Of course there will always be a place for translations that aim to render a text accurately in another language, striving to faithfully reproduce the original content, form, and register. But Koh’s poem taught me that there is also room for the many other acts translation can comprise – connecting, resonating, revealing, discovering. And it’s pure joy to see how many possibilities open up when students recognize that these are all things they can do in their own writing, too. When my students finally try their hand at “translating” an English poem into another English poem, I am always amazed at how their writing sounds. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before.


Beyoncé’s Single Ladies English to English Translation
by E. J. Koh

All the big beautiful women, bondage women,
divorced women, bisexual, transgender women.
All drug-free, gay, non-religious, Latter Day Saints,
social drinker, straight, widowed-with-kids women.

Look at the blue ceiling.
Dance because the ghost is gone.
Your husk was brutalized. It’s gone too.
You’ve left the bear, the torpedo, the poodle moth.
There is someone else now.

The man is an almond in a bloom.
Don’t touch his childhood.
3 years is not like a straw, it’s a house.
Find liberty somewhere else.

You didn’t marry the bear.
You didn’t marry the torpedo.
You didn’t marry the poodle moth.
There was no ring for you.
There will be someone else now.

Remember the blue light.
Remember the man.
You can hear him thinking
until he forgets who you are.
Call him the president of your body,
then show him how it must be
to be a president without country.

First published in 'A Lesser Love' (Pleiades Press, 2017); reproduced with the author's permission. 

***

ANN ANG on TOETI HERATY

Pronouns are powerful. In a poem, “I” signals to readers and listeners that the speaker is present, whereas “You” immediately establishes a mode of address, filling the page with the charged energies of a distinctive relationship between addresser and addressee; between a speaker and an intended audience. Depending on the poem being discussed, the mode of address can be very revealing of attitudes towards self-and-other, especially when we further consider cultural attitudes towards naming and interaction in various Asian contexts.

In a recent online workshop on the anthology Poetry Moves, a cross-cultural educational resource for young people, participants and I enjoyed discussing an Indonesian poem, “Two Women”, by Toeti Heraty, in its English translation from the Bahasa. As the title suggests, the poem is about friendship between women, who are neighbours and the text delves into the shadowy undercurrents that belie everyday courtesies.

I wanted my participants to understand the various modes of address at play in the poem, as the speaker switches from talking to her neighbour to her internal thoughts, and to a third-person perspective that is more descriptive of the appearance of the living room. Together, we read a voice-script, which is a re-creation of the poem as a script where the lines are identified as spoken by different characters, or a narrator, complete with stage directions:

Woman A: Please — please come in.

Narrator: Easy smile, pregnant with meanings — masks on the back wall —

Woman A: this is an open house, my heart is open

Narrator: see all the flowers on the table

Woman A (to Woman B): — the phone is ringing, just unplug it — spacious and pleasant, here we can sit in peace beside the children playing on the floor

Woman A (to herself??) take off your armour, life's paraphernalia

Narrator: — the chaos of the city lies outside the fence —

With the poem and voice-script side-by-side, we could see how Woman A in fact has two faces, the everyday one that she presents to Woman B, and an inner voice that expresses a conflicting wish for a more sincere friendship amidst the busy-ness of motherhood. The humour of her excessive hospitality --“the phone is ringing, just unplug it” -- is also heightened in the voice-script. By going between the original text, and this dramatized version, we could better appreciate the complexity of Woman A’s position as expressed through the shifting modes of address. While I composed and provided the voice-script as a companion text, participants could also write their own version of a voice-script, which might throw up some interesting variations on the original poem.

Though we did not have the time to explore questions of translation in the workshop, as a further activity, one could also consider how pronouns, and by extension, modes of address are translated across languages. For instance, in Heraty’s original Bahasa poem, the phrase “this is an open house, my heart is open” is translated from “rumah ini rumah terbuka terbuka hatiku”. In the Bahasa, “my” is indicated by the suffix “-ku”, which leads us to question further if the customary courtesy of “terbuka terbuka hatiku” is truly addressed from Woman A’s heart. The last line in Bahasa “dua wanita bicara” carries undertones of negotiation in the verb “bicara” that “talk” does not quite convey. If these interlingual considerations could inflect the voice scripts that the class creates as a para-text, modes of address would be excitingly unpacked both as poetic technique and as cross-cultural learning.


Two Women by Toeti Heraty (trans. Ulrich Kratz, with Carole Satyamurti) Please — please come in. Easy smile, pregnant with meanings — masks on the back wall — this is an open house, my heart is open see all the flowers on the table — the phone is ringing, just unplug it — spacious and pleasant, here we can sit in peace beside the children playing on the floor take off your armour, life's paraphernalia — the chaos of the city lies outside the fence — here there is space, ease, refreshments on the table and we can be open with each other, entrust ourselves to words your life, my life in bright colours against an ashen backdrop, specks of black and crimson brushed off our clothes a fragrant mist enveloping the stage as coloured sparks circle, glittering words, reflections, are displayed on the table between the cups, car keys the good intentions that have come to nothing — the chaos of the city lies outside the fence — plans to chase up an hour, a day, the essence of life squeezed for an instant… Ah, this charade has been going on far too long whenever two women talk.

This translation first appears on the website of the Poetry Translation Centre, where you can also read the original poem. Reproduced with the Centre's permission.    


***


Inez Tan is the author of This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone: Stories, which was a national bestseller. She teaches creative writing at the University of California, Irvine.

E. J. Koh is author of the memoir The Magical Language of Others, winner of the Pacific Northwest Book Award, and the poetry collection A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize in Poetry.

Ann Ang is the author of Bang My Car, a Singlish-English collection of short stories, as well as the editor of Poetry Moves, Food Republic and PR&TA journal. Ann is currently reading for a DPhil in English at the University of Oxford. 

Toeti Heraty was born in 1933. An outstanding Indonesian poet with a powerful vision, she is also a philosopher, an art historian and a human rights activist who is well known for her opposition to the Suharto regime and for her feminism. (Bio and photograph from the Poetry Translation Centre). 



Monday, 22 March 2021

Backlist books: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Werts that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia. This post is about The Tale of Genji, the bulk of which describes the main character’s amorous relationships with at least a dozen different women as he ages and finally dies, at which point the tale starts to relate the (rather easier to follow) romantic ambitions of Kaoru, a member of the younger generation whose past is not what it seems and whose future is never actually decided.

The tale, perhaps the world’s first novel, was written by an unusually well-educated noblewoman and lady-in-waiting to one of the Fujiwara empresses, sometime around the year 1000, and provides scholars of literature and history with a wealth of information about life in Heian Japan. Although the narration is often frustratingly vague when referring to well-known poems of the time, to the common cultural practices of the day, and to the dozens of people who feature in the tale, the characters have human emotions and motivations that are not at all alien to modern readers. The translators who have laboured to bring the work to life in English shine their light on different aspects of the novel, each making it accessible to readers in a different way.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read The Tale of Genji, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Manga Kamishibai by Eric Nash - A Look at Japanese Paper Theater

 

Before what we know as manga, there was kamishibai. Literally translated as “paper play” (紙芝居) kamishibai was a popular form of entertainment in Japan which is virtually unknown in the West. Luckily, Eric Nash has compiled one of the most comprehensible English-language books about this unique form of Japanese storytelling in Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater.


Friday, 26 February 2021

Edgeland Visible: Reading Singapore’s Terrains of the Anthropocene



Editor’s note: Here in Singapore, public conversation has in recent weeks revolved around the fate of the island’s forests – sanctuaries of diversity within a crowded city-state. This month’s guest post by Leonard Yip, excerpted from his recently-completed MPhil dissertation, explores the trajectories of place- and nature-writing in Singapore poetry, and draws our attention to how the ‘twin languages of grief and hope’ cast a familiar terrain in new light.  

***

In his poem ‘Clementi’ (2019), Singaporean poet Alvin Pang describes the titular neighbourhood as 

a riverrimmed reefknot of […] woods, mosques, stadium, pool, defunct purposebuilt buffet edifice, bioswales. Park connectors haunted by the Great White God of the waterway (photoevidence on request) (saidtobe komodo dragon wor, sureornot), a maw bigger than the monitors that monitor the stream and get picked on by otter gangs. Greyheads and whitebellied lurkers, raptorial and sometimes rapturous, hauling telelens on extended tripods. Wings bluelasering the wavers while the abacusclacker of massrail passings encount indifferent intervals. 

Pang’s work does not pretend towards neat, organised overview of place. A riotous composition of poetic sensitivity to rhythm and prosaic attention to detail, ‘Clementi’ formally embodies the area it describes: a chaotic compress of countless lives, seething together . The terrain of poem and place defy categorisation – religious, recreational and natural structures of ‘woods, mosques, stadium’ build together undifferentiated, vowels and consonants accelerating together with restless rhythm. 

Set loose from containment, things collide and intermingle freely. The vernacular of Clementi’s residents mixes with hushed myth: a lizard water-god, ‘saidtobe komodo dragon wor’, the suffix a Singlish invocation of emphasis, and the incredulous response ‘sureornot’. Genres as well as languages smash into each other, the great lizard’s high mystery fraying into gangland turf war as smooth-coated otters vie with monitors for territory. Language turns loose; ‘Greyheads and whitebellied lurkers’ describes both middle-aged, enraptured birdwatchers and the watched raptors themselves, melding human observer and animal subject. Words come together in onomatopoetic portmanteaus, birthing a new soundscape for this strange place, where urban and natural generate new forms: the ‘abacusclacker’ of a passing train, consonants clattering against the skimming, sheeting ‘bluelasering’ of wings slicing the water’s edge. This place is an interface of lives morphing into one another, a land animated by accommodations and adaptations. 

Pang’s lands are my lands. I know this ‘riverrimmed reefknot’ for myself, these taut words suggesting the landscape’s own denseness. I grew up in it, tracing my way through park connectors and bioswales to canal edges, where linen-scented laundry outflow washes into loach shoals glittering in the water grasses. A landscape such as this can be frustrating to read. Theories and poetics of either urban architecture or sublime, untouched wildness fall flat, insufficient for making sense of a space as mixed between the two as this. They are lands at each other’s fringes, neither fully wild nor urban – edgelands. 

This term was first coined by the British writer and activist Marion Shoard in 2000, to describe the land ‘betwixt urban and rural’, which was ‘a kind of landscape quite different from either’. It describes many of Singapore’s terrains which do not fit cleanly into urban or natural categories, where human infrastructure marries itself to the wildness of nature, springing new ecologies into life. These terrains, however, also exceed the term’s original, Anglocentric definitions. Where Shoard understood the edgelands as a transitional zone between city and countryside, Singapore’s small landmass and extensive development mean that the countryside is city. The edgelands detonate out of the compression between our dense neighbourhoods and teeming biodiversity – both products and victims of our land-altering and devastating. Great metal machines up-end the forest, laying down concrete drains where macaques sneak into backyards and morning glories bloom over fences. These go in time, too, as bulldozers churn the earth again to prepare new superstructures of metal and glass. The edgelands are terrains of the Anthropocene, disappearing as fast as they form.

The violence which creates and destroys the edgelands extends not just across the earth, but into it as well. Redeveloping land erases and builds over past traces of life, razing ecologies, histories and memories. Because of this, the cultural activity which articulates our relationship to the edgelands often does so through a language of grief and memory. Chitra Ramesh’s poem ‘Merlion’ (2019) evokes the history of Singapore’s modernisation, where swamps were drained and zinc-roofed villages razed to make way for public housing: 

        if you dig the marshy wet soil
        you might find the roofs of my kampong house
        roosters might mumble under those roofs
        fish may be still gasping through their gills
        among the flowers in my garden 

        […] 

        Under the expressways
        our thatched houses lie buried. 

Ramesh’s imagination figures national and personal history as fantastic revenants haunting the city’s underworld: disquiet roosters in the soil, and fish clinging on to amphibious half-life. Childhood memories persist uncomfortably in the earth like stubborn residue, the ‘gasping’ of fish suggesting a suffocating struggle for survival. Wistful, yet resolute, Ramesh’s landscape is an edgeland of chronology as well as ecology, containing and conjuring memories back to ward off their forgetting. This language of grief and ghosts is critical for surviving in the Anthropocene, because it refuses the geographic amnesia of what ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ – when our landscapes become so altered that we forget what was there before. Ramesh’s edgeland poetry is held hostage by its summoned spectres, and this holds us in turn accountable – to remember the stratified layers of meaning and home-making beneath our feet.

The edgelands, however, can also be read with a language of hope as much as grief. The same sensitivity which allows us to mourn what is lost enables us to imagine what might still be possible, between the human and more-than-human presences that compose these places. Observing smooth-coated otters returning to Singapore’s city-centre reservoirs and waterways, Cyril Wong’s ‘Otter City’ (2019) both wrestles with and affirms the tentative relationships forming within the edgelands’ compress:

        how long have we been watching
        with love and envy -
        leaving us lovers and doubtful
        urbanites to lumber back to the m.r.t.,
        noting sporadically trees
        we cannot name – tembusu
        or angsana, we wished we knew –

        and that sudden, darting shrew
        skirting us between office buildings.
        those otters still
        whirling through our minds –
        our date complete; not just
        with each other
        but with a whole republic
        of life thrumming beneath our feet. 

Wong’s verse initially charts estrangement and frustration. Ocular connection between otter and observer produces only a reminder of how alien each one seems to the other. The watchers appear to be drawn apart from the wild rather than reconciled to it, so detached they cannot even name the trees. 

Yet something wonderful happens in the poem: the otters stay ‘whirling through [their] minds’, extracting the transfixed watchers from the self-obsession of their date, and extending the occasion’s opportunity for intimacy to ‘a whole republic of life’. The phrase unites our manmade polity with the creatures slinking back through this city, becoming as much a part of it as the watchers. Wong’s poem finds its way ultimately to a kind of entrancement – human and animal test the waters, learning to shape the colliding spheres of their existence. The path blazed by Wong’s work illuminates how the twin languages of grief and hope might help us to read these complicated, threatened terrains: tracing a route from what we are not, into the possibility of what we could be; one entire ‘republic of life’, living, nourishing, and benefiting each other within the edgelands’ interface. 

***

Leonard Yip is a writer of landscape, people, nature and faith, and the places where these intersect. He recently graduated with an MPhil in Modern and Contemporary Literature from the University of Cambridge, where he wrote his dissertation on multimedia representations of the edgelands of Singapore. His writing has been featured in Moxy Magazine, Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, and Nature Watch, the quarterly publication of the Nature Society (Singapore). He lives in Singapore, where he is currently furthering his work on the edgelands and other terrains of the Anthropocene. More of his work can be found at leonardywy.wordpress.com

Note: Alvin Pang's and Chitra Ramesh's poems can be found in 'Contour: A Lyric Cartography of Singapore', ed. Leonard Ng, Azhar Ibrahim, Chow Teck Seng, Kanagalatha Krishnasamy, Tan Chee Lay (Singapore: Poetry Festival Singapore, 2019). Cyril Wong's poem is published in 'The Nature of Poetry', ed. Edwin Thumboo and Eric Tinsay Valles (Singapore: National Parks Board, 2019). 

Cover photo by Theophilus Kwek.