Friday 29 March 2013

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia / Mohsin Hamid

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid, is much concerned with communion between the writer, and the reader: Like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project…It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books…”  

Fine. But does that deny that an author has in her mind, when she writes, some meaning she intends to convey to her readers? Can readers misinterpret those meanings?  If I had read How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia as a guide to getting on  in the world, and not as, in part, a commentary on  both guides to getting on in the world, and also the whole idea of getting on in the world, would Mohsin Hamid have had a right to irritation?

How interesting you find such questions will probably partly determine how much you enjoy How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, as will how you feel about the fact that Hamid asks you, the reader, to participate in his novel as “you”, his unnamed main character, even though you are no freer to invent “your” biography than you are to interpret How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia as a self-help book, since Hamid has done (most of) the inventing for you.

You are born dirt poor somewhere in rural “rising Asia.” (Where’s that?) As a youth you hanker after both love and money, though the self-help  guide you're following / that's following you  advises that if you want filthy riches, then don’t fall in love. Nevertheless, you tumble. Your heart’s target is  “the pretty girl”, and once you’ve seen her, your two stories begin a life-long intermingling. Your target remains, to you, “the pretty girl”, even as she ages. When you look at her in early middle age: “What you see is a woman little changed by the years, not, obviously, because this is true, your first meeting having been half your lifetimes ago, but rather because your image of her is not entirely determined by her physical reality.” Eventually, you marry another woman, one you cannot really see, so filled is your vision by the pretty girl, and with whom you have a son: “Fatherhood has taught you the lesson that, even in middle age, love is practicable. It is possible to adore those newly come into your world, to envision, no matter how late in the day, a happily entwined future with those who have not been part of your past.” 

On the financial side, you scam, cheat, bribe, and batter your way to riches. In old age you yourself are cheated, and you descend from the top of the money tree somewhere back towards its middle.

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia is challenging, playful, serious, knowing, argumentative, upsetting and wonderful. It’s political, angry about the conditions of the world’s poor, and it’s deft and touching in its treatment of the personal.  It’s filled with sentences that demand rereading, as does the whole novel. I loved it.

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia is published in the US by Riverhead Books, and in the UK by Hamish Hamilton. Depending where you are, you will probably find both editions available in Asia – though of course more readily available in risen Asia, than in either rising Asia, or in sinking Asia.   It is available as an e-book.

UK edition
US edition
 If you have read How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, please post with your opinions. 

Monday 25 March 2013

Peony Literary Agency

Peony Literary Agency, in Hong Kong, is one of the foremost multi-lingual literary agencies in Asia. It represents both established and debut authors, organising translation if needed. 

Marysia Juszczakiewicz, a Mandarin speaker who had previously worked in international publishing, founded Peony because she believes Asia is the future, and she wanted to be at the forefront of presenting Asian stories to the west. “Asia has such a diversity of cultures and voices, with many amazing histories, and various political systems, and dynasties.” She says. “There is still so much that is untapped, and I want to see this richness brought to the widest possible audience.”

Though Peony is best known for representing Chinese writers, Marysia now looks at all of Asia when signing up new writers. “Currently I am selling a North Korean memoir by Jang Jin Sung, the court poet who, until he defected, created the aura of Kim Il Sung. I’m also looking at literature in Burma, and I'm in discussion with Indian writers.”

How difficult is it for Peony's writers to break into international markets?  “The English language market is tough.” Says Marysia. “English language publishers have their own home-grown authors to draw on, and works in translation still represent a tiny niche market.” Is it better in other markets?  “Compared to the U.K., publishers in, for example, France and Italy, have a better established tradition of taking works in translation.”  

Despite the challenges Marysia has had great success in cracking the important English language market, sometimes going to great lengths to ensure her clients reach this platform: “Digital is the way it's going with comics and graphic novels. I recently sold world digital rights in a graphic novel, Darkness Outside The Night, to Tabella. The illustrations are by Shanghai-based artist Xie Peng who doesn't speak English, whom I paired up with a writer, Duncan Jepson, who only speaks English. This collaboration was certainly interesting - Duncan and Xie Peng did not meet during the creative process, and were unable to communicate directly - but the end result is wonderful, and has been getting great reviews.” 

Whatever the format, and whether into English, or into any other language, seeing translations of her authors’ work always pleases Marysia.  Recently The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung has been a hit: “It is available in nearly 20 languages, and seeing all those foreign-language editions has been a huge thrill.” She is also excited by the increasing interest in Chinese stories by US film companies: “I represent Yan Geling, who wrote The Flowers of War. This was made into a movie directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale. It was internationally distributed, and became a huge blockbuster in China.”

With this sort of buzz, it’s not surprising that Western publishers are currently setting up all over Asia, scouting for new writers. So what is Marysia’s advice for Asian authors looking to be taken on by these international companies? “That’s easy! Get an Agent!”

Jang Jin Sung runs New Focus International, the leading website on North Korea by North Koreans. It is at:

If you have any thoughts on literary agencies in Asia do please post them. 

Thursday 21 March 2013

Five Star Billionaire / Tash Aw

Who wants to be a five star billionaire?  And is that a stupid question?  Is it a stupid question to ask in one of the new headquarters of global capitalism, Shanghai? Is it a stupid question when addressed to migrant workers?  What about when addressed to those born into wealthy families?  And if it’s money you’re after, what would you be prepared to do to win it?  Trade your youth and beauty for marriage to a rich man you didn’t love? Sing inane Mando pop for inane teenage girls?  Bully a poor man out of his home, so your family could go ahead with plans to redevelop the area? Lie, cheat, re-write your own history, or what?

These are some of the questions raised by Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, published by Fourth Estate, and available in both paperback and e-book formats.  It concerns five Malaysian-born Chinese, all now returned to China. Phoebe, poor and poorly educated,  knows what she wants: money, with a man attached. She is addicted to so-called self-help books, and comes across  Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire.  Walter, the (supposed?) author, may or may not be involved in cons worse than those of the self-help industry, and may or may not value vengeance above money. Gary won a TV talent contest, and became a pop star, but now he’s finding fame and adulation are not all they are cracked up to be. Justin, the adopted son of a property tycoon, is suffering a nervous breakdown. In her youth Yinghui got dumped by Justin’s brother.  Now she’s a businesswoman, but perhaps she’s not as savvy as she seems? 

These five overlapping stories, rooted in Malaysia, but now unfurling against the backdrop of Shanghai’s pell-mell pursuit of capitalism, between them raise questions not only about our relationships with place, with luck, good and bad, and with money, but also about our relationships with our own selves: about the roles of truth, lies, fantasy, and reality in constructing our identities.  They raise also the question of whether or not we can ever truly reinvent ourselves as our circumstances and our ambitions change?  As for answers, Tash Aw mostly leaves these hanging, or else he suggests that answers might conflict: by the end, some of his characters do seem on the verge of forging new versions of themselves, and others seem unable to cope with the new identities they’ve recently been trying out.

None of this is to say Five Star Billionaire is a philosophical treatise.  It does what novels do: it asks us to slip into the characters’ skins. The author does not take sides: all the main characters invite our sympathy and understanding, even when, perhaps especially when, they're being manipulative, and exploitative.

Five Star Billionaire is a great read. Once you start it I doubt you’ll put it down.

If you have read Five Star Billionaire, please post with your opinions.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Fran Lebowitz

Fran Lebowitz is now a Singapore-based literary agent, though she spent over a decade at the Writers House agency in New York, where she specialized in young adult fiction. Her clients regularly made the New York Times bestseller list, and some won critical acclaim. She says: “I had a lot of success with series writers and that afforded me the time to work with more literary writers like Chris Lynch who went on to win many awards and was a U.S. National Book Award finalist.  Another N.B.A. finalist, Jack Gantos, won The Newbery Medal, presented annually for the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature.”

Fran’s husband is a copyright lawyer, and when his job started bringing him frequently to Asia, the couple decided to move their family to Singapore. Fran wasn’t too worried about continuing her career. “I figured: I'll just find Asian writers!"  She says, “But it took me twelve years to find the sort of writers I feel are ready for the big markets.” Why does she think it took her so long? “Competition here hasn’t so far been fierce enough to produce the sort of commercial titles which can withstand the scrutiny of the world's larger markets.”

To help her clients reach those lucrative overseas markets, Fran has now joined forces with Kevin Mulroy and Amy Shields, both of Potomac Global Media, in Washington. What genre is she most excited to present to her international partners? “Graphic novels are where I see the talent, if not necessarily the buyers.” She says. “Singaporeans are really good at graphic novels.  I think it’s because they provide a sort of sneaky way to reveal one’s thoughts, taking up less air space than a full-blown novel. It's the abbreviation; Singaporeans weren't brought up to vent and gab.”    She mentions two graphic novelists in particular, Troy Chin, and Sonny Liew. “They’re both inventive and witty, but never self-indulgent. They never forget the story, their characters or their audience.” However, she warns, “I like graphic novels, but I’m not inviting a flood of submissions from potential clients.”

Many of Fran’s clients are expats. “That's not by design, it's simply what I think I can sell.”  Beyond the purely commercial, does she think expats have a positive contribution to make to the local literary scene?   “I think their influence on the types of conversation people are having will lead to a greater focus all across the nation on story telling and articulation. New York didn't start out being the publishing capital of the U.S. it happened because crowds of people from all sorts of different backgrounds created a place where stories would be told and read or listened to if and only if they were better than anyone else's. I think expats can help turn Singapore into a similar sort of incubator of excellence.”

You can contact Fran at; her unreliable memoir Tales From A Broad is available as an e-book from Monsoon Books.

Monday 11 March 2013

Shi Cheng / Ten Cities

Shi Cheng, Short Stories from Urban China, edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu & Ra Page, published by Comma Press in both paperback and e-book format, is a sort of mind map of both modern China, and also of what it’s like to be human. Shi cheng means ten cities, and the collection contains ten short stories, each set in a different Chinese city, each by a different contemporary Chinese author, and each translated into English by one of a small team of translators.

A sense of place is never absent. The ten cities are rendered in all their specificity, from the weather, to the food consumed, to the traffic patterns, to the toilet arrangements, but Shi Cheng is not a geography textbook, and the characters take precedence over the settings.

Many of the stories are funny. Squatting, written by Diao Dou, and translated by Brendan O’Kane, uses comedy to mock both municipal bureaucracy, and also ill-judged interventions in municipal affairs by well-meaning (self-styled?) intellectuals. When discussing crime rates on summer nights, the author writes:  “In principle, I believe, the overall mainstream big picture situation of our city at the macro level is hardly different from Paris or Warsaw, Pyongyang or London, Tokyo or Beijing, Baghdad or Port-au-Prince, Canberra or Kabul, Sarajevo or Caracas, Addis Ababa or Buenos Aires.” 

As for crime rates, so for emotions: people from Pyongyang fall in and out of love as surely as Parisians; jealousy provokes shameful behaviour in Warsaw just as in Beijing; rejection hurts whether you’re living in Tokyo, or in Caracas.

Shi Cheng highlights these similarities between people, rather than their differences. Granted, the settings are all in China, and most of the details are specifically Chinese, nevertheless the struggles of the various characters are universal.

In Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu, by Jie Chen, translated by Josh Stenberg, love, jealousy and the complexities of friendship are much more important than the setting, Chengdu.

Family Secrets, by Ding Liying, translated by Nicky Harmen, is also about jealousy - and also about anger and disillusionment.  The narrator is a newspaper columnist who gets more than she bargained for when she answers the phone to one of her readers; with a few minor adaptations it could be set anywhere where newspapers publish gossipy human-interest stories, and journalists feel ashamed of their work.

The loneliness of life in big cities is explored in such stories as Square Moon, by Ho Sin Tung, translated by Petula Parris-Huang, and This Moron is Dead by Han Dong, translated by Nicky Harman. This Moron is Dead concerns a man who dies in the street, and whose body is largely ignored; indifference could be the fate of a corpse in almost any big city in the world.

If you want conversations one-to-one with various Chinese writers, and the various characters they have created, then I recommend Shi Cheng. If you have read it yourself, then do please post with your comments.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Singapore Writers' Group

I’ve just discovered the Singapore Writer’s Group. ( This is a loose network of local writers who meet once a month to listen to members’ work, and to provide feedback.

I’ve always been in two minds about writers’ groups.  On the one hand, a writer should surely always welcome constructive criticism?  On the other hand, writing a novel is not a team effort. Isn’t there a risk that novelists, if they hear too many opinions on their works-in-progress, will either lose sight of their own opinions about what they are writing, or else give up, because, in the light of other peoples’ chatter, their novel seems such a mess?

Before I went along, I was particularly worried about the Singapore Writers’ Group.  I imagined, in advance, that it would be a bunch of my own kind: Expat Lady Novelists With Their Notebooks.  As it turned out, the only Expat Lady Novelist With Her Notebook in attendance was me. To my considerable surprise, the group was split roughly 50:50 between men and women, and though the organizer, Alice Clark-Platts, is English, and there were several other western faces round the circle, most of the group seemed to be local, or else to be non-western expats now drawn to Singapore from their home countries all over Asia. 

The range of writing, too, went way beyond the expat dramas and sagas I was expecting. Alice Clark-Platts is a human rights lawyer, and she has just completed a political thriller set in the future; it explores the long-term legacy of the war on terror.  She did not read the night I polled up, but three people were brave enough to do so. One put us through the wringer with a harrowing short story about a lost child.  Another read the first chapter of a genre-bending fantasy-romance about a teenaged girl seemingly possessed by an ancient Egyptian Queen, and destined to join a sisterhood dedicated to protecting modern Egypt’s female politicians.  The final offering was from an Indian writer, who is working on a highly fictionalized, wildly exuberant memoir of his teenage years.  The chapter he read was called That crazy, shit-assed chapter to all the lovely people in the parallel universe- yes, whatever has been reported here happened in the parallel universe.  To the extent I understood it, this seemed to me in equal measure barking mad, genius, tasteless, and funny.

Next time I go, I won’t take any preconceptions, and nor will I take my notebook.  If you do happen to be living in Singapore, and you want to set up shop as a writer, I recommend you give this group a try.

If you’ve ever been a member of a writers’ group, and you have thoughts on their helpfulness, or otherwise, then do please post to share them.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Two takes on Raffles

In the spirit of urging books I’ve enjoyed on my friends, I’d like to recommend Raffles And The Golden Opportunity, by Victoria Glendinning, published in late 2012 by Profile Books, and available as both a paperback, and an e-book. Glendinning remarks in her introduction that “Raffles’ story, in a work of fiction, would strain credulity.” For sure, his biography has it all: a spectacular rise from humble beginnings; financial success, and financial ruin; blazing rows with assorted soldiers and administrators; two wives, his first a raffish beauty, his second the mother of his children, and the keeper of his flame; shipwreck; multiple bereavements – everything including the founding of London Zoo.  It is fantastic material, and Glendinning marshals it with enjoyable flair and aplomb. Her purpose is to provide a portrait of Raffles the man, and not to treat him as either a hero, or a villain, of early imperialism, thus she does not paint him as either falsely black, or as falsely white, but as a mixture of good and bad, like any of us, a mass of contradictions, like any of us, loving to, and loved by, his wives, loathed by many, ambitious, yes, but not venal, a man who wanted to do good, even when he messed things up, as he did sometimes. If you are prepared to set aside the idea that colonialists were all monsters, and to see them as human beings, then I think you will enjoy this book as much as I did. 

If, on the other hand, you are determined to see Raffles as an ogre, you might prefer Raffles And The British Invasion Of Java, by Tim Hannigan, published by Monsoon Books, also in late 2012, and also available as both a paperback, and an e-book. This focuses on the five years during which the British ruled Java, for almost all of which time Raffles was the settlement’s Lieutenant-Governor. Hanningan is much more concerned than Glendinning to push a point, his being, roughly: Everything Raffles Did In Java Was Wrong. He selects material to show Raffles in a uniformly bad light, there is no attempt to be balanced, and even Raffles’ first wife, Olivia, whom Glendinning presents as a vivacious, interesting woman, is more-or-less dismissed as a cartoon drunk. At times I did long for some indication that there were multiple sides to every story, but Hannigan clearly feels it is still necessary to argue against the idea that Raffles was a paragon of virtue, rectitude, and wise and kindly good sense. In this he succeeds admirably.

If you have read, or now choose to read, either or both of these books, then do please post with your opinions. Thanks.