Thursday 25 April 2013

Amber Road / Boyd Anderson

Amber Road is an historical romance set during WW11, against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore.

The heroine is a gorgeous young Peranakan, Victoria Khoo.  But who is her hero? She would like it to be Sebastian Boustead, a handsome and wealthy Brit, but unfortunately for her at the novel’s opening he has just become engaged. Meanwhile, the reader can see at once she should be hankering after Joe Spencer, an Aussie, who is slightly rough around the edges, but who understands her in a way that Sebastian does not. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say Joe and Victoria eventually get it together, but do they keep it together?  Will they get their happy ending?  To find out the answer, you’ll have to read the novel, all I’ll say is I was rooting for them, and the ending wasn’t quite what I’d expected.

Given that the novel’s central triangle concerns people of three nationalities, you’ll probably immediately gather that Amber Road is ambitious in its sweep and scale.  The characters include Chinese, Japanese, Peranakans (Straits born Chinese), Indians, an English woman disguised as an Indian, communists, capitalists, servants, masters, children and the very old.  The novel, like one of its main settings, Singapore, is a melting pot, and Anderson skilfully explores contrasting cultures and concerns, sometimes even within one family, as when Victoria expresses discomfort at her own father’s polygamy – he has two wives, and two families.

Anderson’s characters’ personal stories unfold against dramatic world events, and as South East Asia is in turmoil; he seems to have undertaken meticulous historical research. This never becomes intrusive, but the wealth of detail enables him to evoke place and period with what feels like great authenticity.  He is very good at conveying the chaos, the deprivations, and the fear of the Japanese occupation of Singapore, an atmosphere of suspicion and tension perhaps best summed up for me in an incident where Victoria’s much younger half-brother betrays his own family by informing the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, that they have hidden in their house an illegal radio.

Thanks to Anderson’s research, I learned from his novel all sorts of interesting historical facts, for instance about the opium trade in Singapore prior to WW11 – a trade about which I previously knew nothing.  Reading the novel has also made me determined to take a walk along Amber Road, which is a real road in Singapore, and which was once lined with beachfront mansions belonging to wealthy families.  One of the mansions was clearly the inspiration for Anderson's Angsana Lodge; a house that has such importance for Victoria’s fantasy life it could almost be a character in its own right.

Amber Road is a big, generous romance that blends derring-do adventure, suspense, and tragedy. It has characters you’ll care about, and it conveys both a compelling sense of place, and of period. I highly recommend it.

Amber Road is published in Australia by Random House, and in Asia  by Monsoon Books, a company based in Singapore. It is available in print and e-book formats. If you have read it, please post with your opinions.

Friday 19 April 2013

The Asia House Festival of Asian Literature

Asia House, in London, builds links between the UK and Asia; the organisation runs a variety of programmes focused on helping readers in the UK become aware of the many Asian writers whose work is available there. The UK has a large population of first, second and third generation immigrants, whose families originally came from countries stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean, to the Pacific. Hence Asia House also runs programmes to promote the work of young British-Asian writers.

Next month Asia House will hold its annual Festival of Asian Literature, which brings to the British public the newest fiction, non-fiction and poetry written about Asia. The Festival’s director, Adrienne Loftus Parkins, explained how writers are chosen to participate: “We want to present the best books and the most stimulating discussions. Beyond that, the books we feature are mostly published in English in the UK, so that the British audience has access to them. We prefer books published in the year leading up to each festival. Work can be written by Asians or non-Asians, but it must be about Asia or Asians, and give insight into the understanding of Asian cultures and concerns. Preference is given to books about contemporary topics, and books must work within our theme for the year.”
This year the theme is freedom: freedom of expression; education; travel; justice; the freedom to read the truth and to live in our chosen ways. Festival events will examine censorship, corruption, gender, economies, social issues and political freedoms.
 In the UK, few are denied many freedoms, so who is the intended audience for Asia House’s events? “Our audience is anyone who is interested in Asian countries and cultures.” Said Loftus Parkins, “As we cover such a wide range of countries and cultures, the second and third generations who attend are from a broad range of countries. An event focused on Iran will be about 60% Iranian, or Iranian diaspora, while an event focused on women and Islam will see an audience with a vast array of people attending from a number of home countries.”
Although all the books featured are written in or translated into English, I wondered what happened when an author doesn’t speak English?  “We provide a translator, as we will do this year for Chinese authors Ma Jian and Yan Lianke. Often authors work with their own translators who they bring to the events.”
I asked Loftus Parkins what she thought writers and readers hoped to get out of the Festival? “We provide a venue where people can come together in a relatively intimate, relaxed environment. Being the leading pan-Asian organisation in the UK, we have a deep understanding of the things that matter to both the writers and the audience, and also  of Asian perspectives. Writers enjoy it because we produce events with an understanding of the issues they are writing about, matching them with moderators and other authors who can provide a stimulating discussion of the topics.  They also have an opportunity to interact with people in the West who understand the issues about which they are writing.  Readers like our events because they know at Asia House we know Asia. They will have the opportunity to hear stimulating discussions, followed by intelligent questions. They also find that with relatively small audiences, and a friendly atmosphere, they have a greater opportunity to meet and talk with the authors at receptions afterwards. We recently hosted an evening with Mohsin Hamid who spoke about his latest book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.  The audience loved having the chance to ask him questions about his perceptions of Pakistan. We are excited about giving people the chance to do the same with other authors throughout the Festival.” (See the post of March 29 for discussion of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.)

The Asia House Festival of Asian Literature runs 7-22 May. You can participate via the following platforms:
Facebook:      Like them at Asia House or at Asia House Festival of Asian Literature
Twitter:          @festofasianlit   (There will be live tweets from many events at the Festival.)
YouTube:       Asia House has its own channel.

Monday 15 April 2013

A Tale For The Time Being / Ruth Ozeki

Branching from, or parallel to, the world in which I live, does there exist an infinite number of other worlds in which unbeknownst to me, I (other versions of me?) also live? A Tale For The Time Being asks you to consider this question, and others like it.  If that sounds a turn-off, then I’d nevertheless urge you to give it a try, so you can get to know the two main characters, Nao, and Ruth.

Nao, whose name is pronounced now, is much concerned with time, as befits a time being - which, she explains, “is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”  This surely raises the immediate question: what about ghosts?  Ok, ghosts aren’t living, but, if they exist, do they exist in time?  Since one of the characters in Nao’s story is, in her present, a ghost, this is a question you get to ponder as you continue further into the novel. Nao is a Japanese teenager, living in Tokyo, but wishing she were still in California, where she spent her childhood.  Her parents have effectively zoned out on her, she is bullied both at school, and on the internet, her life is spiralling downwards until her great-granny steps in to save her. This wise old great-granny is a Buddhist nun, of 104, whose only son died on a kamikaze mission during World War Two – he is the ghost Nao later encounters, or imagines she encounters.

Meanwhile Ruth is a Japanese-American novelist living with her eco-arty husband on an isolated Canadian island. You, the reader, seem to be invited to consider whether Ruth bears a close resemblance to Ruth Ozeki, the author of A Tale For The Time Being, but I decided to ignore this question, as distracting. Ruth (the character) finds Nao’s diary in a package washed up on the beach near her home.  The package may have been ripped into the Pacific by the 2011 tsunami. Ruth reads Nao’s diary.  As she reads, she considers everything from the relationship between the writer and the reader, to the nature of time, to our relationships with our own histories, our families’ histories, and world history, to Zen Buddhism, to quantum physics, to the role of the internet in contemporary life, to the nature of bravery, and so on and so forth.

Ozeki’s language ranges from teenage-slangy, in Nao’s diary entries, to dryly academic, in the footnotes and appendices she unconventionally includes, to evocatively poetic in her descriptions of nature, and of Buddhism. Her characters grab you; all are moving in their various predicaments; they all matter.  The novel has a great sense of contrasting places, and cultures. Tokyo is captured in all its gaudy craziness; a Buddhist nunnery feels mossily serene; the claustrophobia of a Canadian island seemed very real to me.

All in all this is a fantastic novel, and one I highly recommend. 

If you have read it please post with your opinions.


Thursday 11 April 2013

Holly Thompson

American Holly Thompson teaches creative writing at Yokohama City University. Since she teaches in English, but her students are mostly Japanese, is language an issue? “It’s true my students bring into their English writing their thinking from a language completely different in structure from English, but I believe reading authentic stories and poems in English then striving to write their own helps non-native speakers connect to and claim the language in a personal way.”

Given the different educational approaches in the States, and in Asia – a focus on individuality and critical thinking versus exam results – is there any difference between teaching creative writing in Japan and in America? “Of course, anyone writing from within Asia, regardless of their language of writing, will be writing from within their environment in Asia. Climate and culture influence the stories we cultivate. Most of my students in Japan, unlike those in the U.S., have never written a short story in any language, and most have never tried writing poetry. My job is to expose them to possibilities, to share stories and poems that lead to prompts for their own ideas, to give them tools for creating stories and poems in English, and to nurture curious, responsive readers and writers. Most importantly, my aim is to open their minds and to inspire them to discover creativity with words.”

That’s all very well, but even in the West, it’s sometimes said that the way to break your parents’ hearts is to take an arts degree, and creative writing scarcely fits the Asian view of university as a stepping-stone to a stable job. So are students’ ambitions similar in the States and in Japan? “Few of my students in Japan aspire to be writers whereas many students in the U.S. do consider creative writing as something that might weave itself into their future. But times are changing . . .”

They are indeed, and one of the changes is that Asia is on the rise. Has that given Japanese students greater confidence to write in English about Japan?  “Not necessarily. I have to convince many of my students that Japan-set stories, and Japanese characters, can be convincingly written in English. I have to push them to think of their own unique points of view and find stories from deep within their own bins of collected story seeds. I have to convince them that their Asian-based stories are worth telling to an English language readership around the world.”

That sounds frustrating.  Is it? “No. I feel fortunate to have been able to teach creative writing in a Japanese university.  I love to see the evolution of the students as they travel from bewildered beginners to imaginative and capable writers. At the end of the semester it’s a joy to hand out the student publications that result, and in the poetry classes to watch students listen with rapt attention as fellow students stand before them reading selected poems from their final portfolios—moving others with their own words.”

Holly Thompson is the author of two young adult novels in verse: The Language Inside (Delacorte/Random House, forthcoming, May 2013) and Orchards (Delacorte/Random House), winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, as well as the novel Ash (Stone Bridge Press) and a picture book The Wakame Gatherers (Shen’s Books). She edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories (Stone Bridge Press).

Visit Holly Thompson’s website at

Sunday 7 April 2013

Romancing The East / Jerry Hopkins

Romancing The East includes chapters on various western novelists, whose novels have helped shape the west’s perceptions of Asia. It provides potted biographies, plot-summaries, suggestions for retracing the writers’ footsteps, and all sorts of arresting snippets of information along the way.

            Part of the fun of any portmanteau book is taking issue with the author’s selection criteria. I’m sure every reader of Romancing The East will think: if I’d been writing this I’d have included / excluded so-and-so. Is it unfair to quibble with somebody else’s deeply personal selection? Probably.  So I won’t do it.  Instead, I’ll say that though I found some of Hopkins’ choices / omissions a little odd, I found all his chapters interesting; my favourite was the one on Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu.

Hopkins does, clearly, love all things pulp and Hollywood, which is joyous in that his book manages to make room for both E.M. Forster and Eric Van Lustbader, but the movies’ dazzle does lead him to some fairly provocative judgements: “Michael Crichton was a literary colossus.” Really? Hmm…

Eric Van Lustbader, in case the name is new to you, wrote of one of the many books featured in Romancing The East I’ve never read, namely The Ninja. Nor can I say I now have any intention of reading The Ninja, but if the success of Romancing The East rests on how many books it leaves the reader wanting to read, or re-read, then this was, for me, a very successful book. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to catch up on all those James Clavell doorstops I’ve thus far avoided, but I do want to read André Malraux, and - oh no! - I’ve never read Orwell’s Burmese Days, or John Masters’ Bhowani Junction, or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth…

Romancing The East didn’t just remind me quite how badly read I am at the level of individual titles, it also forced me to consider there are entire genres I’ve never bothered with.  The west has chick lit and mummy lit, but Asia has prostitute lit. I’ve never settled down with either Suzy Wong, or with the love entrepreneurs of Thailand, but now I’m going to give the Thai entrepreneurs at least a try.  One author included in the discussion of this genre, Stephen Leather, wrote Private Dancer, in which, apparently, the male-sucker character falls for a Thai Bar girl, and then finds out (surprise, surprise) she’s married.  But this is not just your standard ripped-off-by-a-hooker story. No, “it is told in the voices of everyone involved so you can see that everyone has a different opinion of what is happening, but that no one really understands what is going on.”  I’m all for no one having a clue; I’ve added it to my reading list.

Romancing The East, by Jerry Hopkins, is published by Tuttle, in paperback format.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Sonny Liew

Sonny Liew is a Malaysian-born, Singapore-based illustrator of internationally acclaimed comics and graphic novels. What attracted him to the form? “It started out with just a simple love of comics growing up – The Beano, Lao Fu Zhi, Spiderman. That grew into an understanding of comics as a unique medium blending visuals and text into a language all its own, so learning and experimenting with the craft has kept me engaged for the last umpteen years.”

Some Asian languages, like Japanese, are notoriously difficult to read. Does Sonny think this has anything to do with the popularity of graphic novels in Asia? “No. I think prose sells well in Japan too, so I don't think it's a question of language difficulty. That said, comics and graphic novels can be easier to digest than narrative text, but that’s not particular to Asia. During and after Word War Two the American cartoonist Will Eisner produced illustrated instructional booklets for the US Army that were very well received. Understanding and processing a visual image, or a combination of visual and textual information, is probably easier for the human brain than comprehending text alone.”

The Malay she-devil, the Pontianak, seems made for horror.  Does Sonny detect any specifically Asian themes in local offerings?  “There’s a natural urge to create stories close to our home and hearts, but I think what might make a story "Asian" is the particular temporal or geographical setting, a specifically Asian world in which the story unfolds, rather than thematic concerns.”

Whether they were “Asian” or not, which types of local offering does he see working well internationally? “I'm guessing most stories that translate well deal with universal human conditions and issues - love, death, taxes. So a good story set in an interesting world, I think that would be the key to international success.”

Most of Sonny’s internationally published books have been collaborations with authors from the US or the UK, and none of his novels have been set in Singapore. What if he tried selling internationally a book set in his hometown?  It seems Sonny is about to discover how easy, or difficult, that will be. “I'm working on one right now, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, for a local publisher, Epigram Books. A local book for a local publisher makes sense in many ways; how the book can then be marketed or sold outside Singapore is big question. Right now I'm focused on trying to make the book work in its structure and storytelling - and I guess hoping that if the narrative is successful, then later that in itself will go a long way into making selling it easier.”

What advice does Sonny offer to other graphic novelists in Asia who want to reach an international audience? “Sometimes you can rely on the luck of the zeitgeist - riding the right wave at the right time - but generally I think it's still a question of crafting good stories. A combination of good and interesting art, and a strong story spine I think would make a book work anywhere.”

If you are a graphic novelist, app creator, comic aficionado, or similar, then do please post with your opinions.