Sunday 30 June 2013

Adrienne Loftus Parkins

Adrienne Loftus Parkins is an Asian literature consultant in the UK. She is the director of the annual Asia House Festival of Asian Literature. This covers writing about Asia or Asians, including British Asian themes and authors.

I asked Adrienne how she and her team select titles for inclusion? “We try to balance the many countries we cover, fiction versus non-fiction and so on. Each book must be well written, interesting, and able to contribute to one of the themes we are highlighting - we try to focus mainly on contemporary subjects.  We ask of every book we consider: will its themes interest the audience we are trying to reach?  Does it contribute to the Asia House mission of promoting understanding of Asian or British Asian cultures?”   

The Festival hosts some big names – this year Mohsin Hamid was a speaker. But I wondered how it promotes emerging talent? “It's always tough to attract large audiences to events focused on new authors, particularly if they are writing fiction.  Like most other festivals, we try to pair debut authors with more established ones.  Often we try to build debut fiction discussions around themes that we think will attract interest and, therefore, a large audience. Sometimes we invite groups of students or others to come in advance of the events to meet debut authors in a quieter setting.”

When not working with Asia House, Adrienne undertakes many other projects. In the UK, plans are afoot to commemorate World War 1, 1914-1918. Adrienne is currently working with one organisation to provide a series of literary events related to the war, and what was then happening worldwide, particularly in Asia.  She is also working with the British Council and London Book Fair (LBF) on ways to help promote Korean literature in the UK – LBF will next year provide a platform for Korean publishers to showcase content.  Finally, she is working on an initiative to draw together several worldwide literature festivals focusing on Asia, with the idea of cooperating to develop the market for Asian writing and writers.

That’s a lot! I asked Adrienne what she most enjoys abut her work, and what most frustrates her?  The most frustrating things are logistics and funding.  It's increasingly difficult to get funding for any arts related projects in the UK.  Add to that the challenge of getting funding from companies who are mostly country or region specific when we are featuring authors from many different countries.  There’s also the frustration of finding a great author with a new book but not being able to get him or her to the UK for the Asia House Festival.  So many of the really relevant authors are based in countries across Asia, and being pan-Asian, it's difficult to get the support of one airline that can help with transporting them.  

What I most enjoy is meeting so many interesting, lively people - authors and others involved in literature and current affairs. It's fascinating to hear contrasting opinions on issues that we get only one side of through our media.  I love being able to put together a lively discussion that is a little controversial and motivates audiences to get involved through questions and debate.  Another thing I love is having the opportunity to read so many books that I might not know about or have access to if I didn't run a literary festival. This can also be a bit frustrating in that I have very little time to read anything that isn't about Asia!”

Find our more about Adrienne at

For more on Asia House visit

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Penguin China

Penguin China is at the forefront of bringing Chinese literature in translation to an English speaking  public.  They commission 8-10 books per year on Chinese subjects - although not all are originally written in Chinese. You can check out their list by visiting

Jo Lusby, Managing Director at Penguin China, has more on her plate than making books from China available to an international readership – taking English language books into China for a start – but I asked her, via e-mail, to expand on this aspect of her job.

I wondered whether Penguin commissioned books originating in China through agents, or from authors directly?  “Penguin works with a mixture of agents and authors – China is a largely unagented market, and so a large number of books come to us through local contacts, but we increasingly acquire through agents, as they become more active in China and East Asia.”  Penguin does not expect Chinese-language works to have been translated before they’ll even look at them.  Jo explained that her colleagues: “are out in the market reading Chinese books in the original language that we think have potential for a wider English language market.” 

What about the relationship between Penguin China, and other Penguin offices? Would books originating in China, but with international appeal, automatically get accepted by other Penguin offices worldwide? “Penguin’s international publishing offices operate independently across the English speaking world, so in the first  instance, we will publish the book into Asia Pacific, and then offer it to our own colleagues and also to other publishers around the world.”  

So: no promises. But which books are most likely to pick up international deals? I asked Jo about Penguin China’s commissioning policy for books to be put out in translation. What are they looking for when they evaluate whether a book will sell into international markets?  Why do they think international readers pick up books from China? “We don’t have a policy as such – we look for works that we feel confident will connect with readers. People pick up a non-fiction book to learn about a specific subject; while people pick novels from China in order to gain an insight into the psyche of a culture, above all else, the reader wants to be entertained, transported, and taken into the world of the writer.”

Gaining insight into the psyche of a culture is one thing, but I asked Jo whether she thought Chinese authors might be a little inward looking?  Did she think they were engaging with international issues, or sticking to issues of domestic interest? “A large proportion of Chinese writers are still primarily focused inward, I would say – both in terms of writing about Chinese concerns, and also exploring highly personal questions. There are increasing numbers of young writers coming back from having spent time studying overseas, mainly in developed countries, and these experiences are also beginning to feature in new writing. I would say that most literary writers stay away from contemporary political subjects, and focus more on the personal aspects of Chinese society.”

Finally, I asked Jo what she most enjoys about her job, and what most frustrates her? “I enjoy the breadth of the work – working with Chinese writers, talking with local publishers, training early and mid-career literary translators etc. Frustrations creep in around the things you cannot control – once a book is out in the world and you want the widest possible community of people to read that work, but it takes a long time and a lot of careful work for a book to reach its audience – and sometimes very deserving books just do not achieve what you hope they do.”

Wednesday 19 June 2013

#Word, Kuala Lumpur

As part of the inaugural Cooler Lumper arts festival, intended to become annual, Kuala Lumpur this weekend hosts #Word, an event committed to encouraging reading, nurturing an appreciation of language, and improving literacy skills in Malaysia.

#Word will host a series of lectures, panel discussions, creative writing workshops, and readings from Malaysian authors, and from international authors from the UK, and from right across Asia. 

Asian authors attending include Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra, an award winning poet and novelist from the Philippines, Di Li, a Vietnamese novelist best know for the mystery-horror novel Red Flower Farm, and Wipas Srithong, from Thailand, whose first novel The Dwarf won the South East Asian Write Award, 2012.

Dr Ma Thida, the Burmese human rights activist and campaigner, is also attending.  Her first novel, The Sunflower, was banned in Burma. Her documentary-novel The Roadmap, published under the pen name Suragamika (the brave traveler) received the Norwegian Freedom of Speech Award in 2011.

#Word incorporates the only South East Asian segment of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference (EWWC), a series of events in cities across the globe, giving writers in different countries the chance to discuss literature and its relationship to contemporary life. The Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council jointly present the EWWC.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is really something else. Every August the organizers invite hundreds of writers from across the world to Scotland, to mingle with each other, and with vast crowds of readers. Why have they branched out to form the EWWC? Nick Barley, Festival director, said: “Writers have a role to play in stimulating our imaginative health and thereby engendering mutual respect amongst individuals and nations. The EWWC represents an opportunity for all of us to rethink how writers, and their writing, can play a part in understanding and improving our world. The EWWC is a worldwide discussion, and we look forward to seeing how the debate will continue in Kuala Lumpur.”
Meanwhile, the British Council promotes UK writers, poets, and publishers to readers around the world, hence its involvement, and that of UK-based authors.  Grey Yeoh, from the British Council Malaysia said: “We are proud to be hosting the South East Asian leg of the EWWC in Kuala Lumpur. We want to continue to contribute to the growth of the community here, and hope that this festival will leave a permanent mark on the literature scene in Malaysia.”

The EWWC hosts three panels at #Word. Should Literature Be Political? will discuss whether the political and the aesthetic are separable in literature, and if so, whether literature should be political or should be enjoyed only for its aesthetic value? Censorship Today will consider the impact of censorship on writers and writing in Malaysia and around the world. A National Literature will ask whether, in a globalised world, national literature is still a relevant concept? Malaysian National Laureate A. Samad Said will be one of the panelists. 

Of other events at #Word, the workshop for novelists led by Benjamin Markovits will surely be popular. Markovits, a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of London, is hailed in the UK as one of its best young novelists.  His workshop will explore the tricky questions what is your novel about? and why are you writing it?

#Word, runs from 21st to 23rd June, at Publika, a shopping mall in KL.  For the programme, ticketing information etc, see . All events will be in English. The EWWC panels will be streamed live on the internet.

Friday 14 June 2013

Blossoms / Jin Yucheng

There has recently been much discussion on English-language Chinese websites of the Shanghai dialect. 

Qian Nairong, a linguist with Shanghai University, explained to Xinhua that all regional dialects now face a challenge: “With rapid social development over recent years, an increasing number of migrants with different dialects can be found all over China. However, people are encouraged to speak Mandarin between each other, threatening the existence of dialects." In addition, he worries  that in the era of keyboards, dialects will become extinct as people type characters with unified pinyin, which is based on Mandarin. To counter this trend, Qian and his team have developed character input software using the Shanghai dialect.

Others are also doing their bit, including a lexicographer who has compiled a Shanghai dialect dictionary. Apparently, for words relating to agriculture, now rarely heard in Shanghai, he had to seek the advice of old-aged farmers.

Meanwhile, the on-line English-language versions of several Chinese newspapers are reporting that a new novel, Blossoms (Fan Hua), by Jin Yucheng, is making waves, partly because it is written in the Shanghai dialect.

The novel depicts the lives of Shanghai people in two periods: from the 1960s to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, and from the 1980s to 2000. It consists of many independent stories, which interweave  as the lives of the characters unfold.

Why did Jin choose to write in dialect? He told Global Times: "Chinese literature is getting monotonous both in language and form. I want to be special with my own language.” He also pointed out that for writers beyond Beijing, Mandarin is often a second language: “I found it much easier to write dialogues in my native language."

This begs an obvious question: can Blossoms be read outside Shanghai? Jin was careful to ensure that his language was similar enough to Mandarin to allow readers from other parts of China to understand him. He told Global Times:  "If you want your works to get read, first of all, it should be understandable for readers in other regions. It is not to amuse oneself.” He explained to China Daily that he avoided some slang and dialect words difficult to express in the written language: "The language of Blossoms is not exactly pure Shanghai dialect. You have to think in the context of the Shanghai dialect and recreate the language so that readers outside of Shanghai can understand it.”  He explained the task he’d set himself was difficult: “Many things that can be expressed in (Mandarin) cannot be said in the dialect and I had to write in a roundabout way. It means more preparation and challenges."

Has he succeeded in writing a dialect novel comprehensible beyond the dialect’s boundaries?  Zheng Li, an editor with a Shanghai publishing house, certainly thinks he has, and that he’s done so whilst retaining an authentic sense of place. He is quoted in China Daily as saying Jin’s readers can: “taste the intense aroma of the Shanghai flavour.”

Blossoms is not, to my knowledge, available in English.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Select Books: The Asian Book Specialist

Select Books specialises in books about Asia. Throughout urban South East Asia you can find terraces of narrow buildings known as shophouses; these originally had a shop on the ground floor, and living quarters above. Select Books occupies a shophouse – and one that couldn’t be more fitting. In the early twentieth century Sun Yat Sen, a Chinese revolutionary who played an instrumental role in events leading to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, briefly made Singapore his headquarters.  In 1910, to promote literacy and a sense of identity amongst the country’s Chinese population, he inaugurated the United Chinese Library.  He did so in none other than the shophouse now occupied by Select Books.

Most books stocked by Select are in English. Likewise most are new, although an ancient glass-fronted cabinet that could well have been around since Sun Yat Sen’s day holds books from Colonial times. I didn’t get to flip through any of these, the alarming price tags, and the fact they were all protected by plastic wrappings, deterred me from asking the shop assistant even to open the cabinet, but the titles were intriguing, at least from an historical, if not from a literary, perspective. I doubt I'd choose to while away the time on a long journey reading Pamphlet Of Information For Travellers, published by the Federated Malay State Railways in 1914, as a guide for those taking the train from Singapore to Penang, but what a trove of information it must contain for social historians.

The new books tempting you to spend cover everything from cookery, to art and architecture, to religion, to botany, indeed every subject you’d expect to find in any decent independent bookshop anywhere in the world - although a little lighter, perhaps on defiantly provocative books on politics than would be the case in the West? Mind you, not every political title is timid; I found Freedom From The Press, by Cherian George, which examines the tricky issue of press freedom and state power in Singapore, and which is published by National University of Singapore Press.

In the literature section, I found books by Asian writers already well known in the West – Amitav Ghosh, Tash Aw, Haruki Murakami, Yan Lianke, and so on – but also offerings from authors you’d be hard pushed to find represented in Western bookshops, such as Damiana Eugenio, whom I now know to be honoured as the mother of Philippine folklore, and who is famous in her own land for her monumental Philippine Folk Literature series, published by University of the Philippines Press. Select had Volume 5, The Riddles.

As well as great books, poking around Select also led me to discover some great initiatives by Asian publishers - for example, that Perera-Hussein Publishing House, in Colombo, donates a part of the proceeds of every book it sells towards planting trees in Puttalam, Sri Lanka’s semi-arid zone.

If you do happen to be in Singapore Select Books is well worth a visit: 51, Armenian Street.  Or you can visit them on-line at


Tuesday 4 June 2013

The Civil Servant's Notebook / Wang Xiaofang

I’d never heard of officialdom lit until I read The Civil Servant’s Notebook, by Wang Xioafang. It is, however, a much beloved genre in China – or so I gather from the English on-line edition of The People’s Daily, where reporter Mei Jia recently wrote that officialdom novels frequently top bestseller lists, generally sell 100,000 copies, and often see sales soaring into millions. 

Mei Jia speculated this popularity reflects Asian readers’ keenness for books that show them how to prosper in the world: “Experts say readers look to the books … to learn workplace skills.”

Alas, The Civil Servant’s Notebook probably disappointed Chinese readers looking for a leg-up, as though it surely qualifies as officialdom lit, it is hard to read it as a guide to winning promotion. 

However, Mei Jia offered a second explanation for the popularity of officialdom lit, quoting Fudan University professor Zhang Taofu as saying the craze shows Chinese people's ongoing fascination with political power: "The lack of full transparency in power operations in a sense raises public curiosity in digging out the dirt behind the scenes. That's why officialdom novels are popular.”

Chinese readers choosing The Civil Servant’s Notebook because they wanted dirt won’t have been disappointed: Wang offers a tale of corrupt civil servants in a scramble for political prestige and personal gain, and never mind the public welfare. He writes with an insider’s authority, since he was private secretary to Shenyang’s deputy mayor from 1997-1999, during which time his boss achieved infamy for losing millions in public money in Macau’s casinos – he was later sentenced to death for his crimes. Wang was found innocent of involvement and left the civil service to set up shop as a writer. He has since specialized in re-examining his career through the lens of political fiction. The Civil Servant’s Notebook is the first of his 13 novels to be published in English. Eric Abrahamsen translated it, and various English language editions are available in Asia - I read the one from Penguin, Australia.

You might worry a book set in the world of Chinese local government will put you to sleep, but The Civil Servant’s Notebook is probably sensational enough to satisfy even fans of Dan Brown: skullduggery, seduction, and a money-grubbing Buddhist entrepreneur all feature.

The plot revolves around the personal notebook of a high-up official, who works in provincial government. Its exposure to the internal enforcement brigade initiates a hunt for the anonymous writer.  The hunt makes everyone in the civil service jumpy, from lowly researchers to vice-mayors. Not even the most practiced of civil servants can predict just who will outmaneuver whom, and, indeed, whether anyone will remain unscathed. 

Wang tells his tale through multiple narrators, including contributions from The Office Chair, The Office Desk, The Government Square, The Name Card, and so on and so forth.  It’s an interesting way to tell a story, and this novel provides an interesting insight into modern China.