Tuesday 27 August 2013

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize

In 1949, as the British Empire began to fade into history, The government of the UK and those of seven former colonies came together to form the modern Commonwealth, an association of free and equal members co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.

Today, the Commonwealth has 54 members and the Commonwealth Foundation, a UK-based development organisation, works towards a world in which every person on the planet is able to participate in, and contribute to, the sustainable development of peaceful and equitable societies.

Commonwealth Writers is a cultural initiative from the Commonwealth Foundation. Commonwealth Writers both develops the craft of individual writers and also builds communities of emerging voices, so that, individually and collectively, writers can work for social change, and influence, directly and indirectly, the decision-making processes which affect their lives. Commonwealth Writers wants the writers it unearths to inspire others, especially in their local communities, and it challenges selected authors to take part in on-line residencies, and on-the-ground literary activities.

Commonwealth Writers runs the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. This aims to identify talented emerging writers and to promote the best new writing from across the Commonwealth, thus developing literary connections worldwide.  

The Short Story Prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction, of between 2000-5000 words. The language of the competition is English. Writers can submit stories translated into English from other languages.

Entries can be submitted from five regions: Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. The regional divisions are intended to give writers in countries with poor publishing infrastructure a fairer chance to compete with those in countries where there are more opportunities. Within Asia, you are eligible to enter if you are a citizen of one of the following countries: Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka,

There will be five winners, one from each region. One regional winner will be selected as the overall winner. The overall winner will receive £5,000 (approx US$7,750) and the remaining four regional winners £2,500 (approx US$3,785). Translators of winning stories will also receive prize money.  If the overall winner is a translation into English, the translator will receive £2,000 (approx US$3,100).  Translators will receive £1,000 (approx US$1,150) for regional winners.

The 2014 judging panel will be chaired by Ellah Allfrey, deputy chair of the council of the Caine Prize for African Writing, formerly deputy editor of the UK-based literary magazine Granta and senior editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House, in London. She will chair an international judging panel; this will make the final selection. The regional judges will be announced on 1 October. Experienced readers will assist the named judges in selecting the long lists.

The 2014 Short Story Prize will open for entry on-line on 1 October 2013 and close on 30 November 2013. Entry will be via www.commonwealthwriters.org where you can view the eligibility criteria, and the entry rules.

So new Asian writers: Get writing! Tell the world what great stories, and what great storytellers, we have on this continent! If you need inspiration,  click about on www.commonwealthwriters.org, it’s a great website, with a mix of interesting tips and advice, discussion, and constructively provocative comment.

Thursday 22 August 2013

500 Words From Julian Kim

500 Words From is a series of guest posts from authors.  Here, Julian Kim talks about  his first novel, SAINTS: Song of Winds.  This is a fast-paced, multicultural, quasi-historical mystery-thriller that combines a race-against-the-clock adventure, with contemporary concerns about the weather, with a love story, to produce a wild and satisfying romp.

Julian Kim was born in Seoul, but as a child he lived in other places in Asia, as well as in Europe, and in the Americas. Thus from an early age he was fascinated by cultural diversity, and as an adult he continued his nomadic existence, living in New York, London, Hong Kong and Seoul.

Julian now lives in Singapore, where, in 2012,  SAINTS: Song of Winds was the winner of a competition sponsored by the National Arts Council, to promote the works of unpublished authors.  It was subsequently published by Straits Times Press: http://www.stpressbooks.com.sg/home.php

So: 500 words from Julian Kim

With SAINTS: Song of Winds  I was hoping to create something which would be fun to write and  fun to read. In addition, I wanted to fuse modern and historical elements of Asian and Latin American cultures - the core action occurs mainly in China and Peru, with meaningful scenes also taking place in Korea, India, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

As we all know, our world is full of stories – there is so much history, so many nations and regions and cultures. Past human civilisation has left us so many traces - superstitions, fairy tales, legends and myths. Granted, much of this wealth has been lost in the mists of time, but the gaps in our knowledge allow us both to imagine what-ifs, and also to wonder about the borders between fiction and non-fiction.  Without a doubt, Asia offers a vast and rich depository of history and civilisation from which we can mine and spin a million what-if factual fictions.

The same is true for the world of unexplained phenomena. We often hear stories about the paranormal, about the extraterrestrial, and about bizarre creatures. I think most of us can agree that there's still much that we don't understand about our planet, the universe, and the realms of the physical and the spiritual, especially as they relate to the human mind.

So with all this wealth of secrets and mysteries surrounding Asia and the world we live in, I could not resist creating a world of somewhat plausible histories, mysteries and uncommon abilities.

SAINTS: Song of Winds begins two thousand years ago in China, when a geomancer leads a tribe out of the tomb of Emperor Qin. One thousand years later, in Peru, the immense treasure of the Incas is lost to the world.  And today, a strange terracotta soldier is unearthed in the ancient capital of China.

In my novel SAINTS is an acronym standing for Syndicated Alliance of Irregular and Talented Specialists. It is a secretive organisation whose purpose is to save nations, when all else fails. The members of SAINTS look like ordinary people and behave like ordinary people, most of the time. But they have very special talents.

There’s a Korean boy who teaches at school and can secretly control the winds. There’s an American university student who studies animals and discovers she can heal people. There’s a young Singaporean billionaire who plays the financial markets and who possesses an unnatural intuition. There’s an old Mexican man in Manhattan who sells hot dogs and can see your past. And they are all connected in a web of fate that stretches from ancient China to the mountains of present-day Peru.

Using sheer intellect and mastering their subtle supernatural talents,  the four heroes  join forces with the leader of Peru to free the country from a mysterious villain who is causing havoc with the weather.  But before they can save the day they must unlock the cryptic codes of Emperor Qin’s tomb and also find the lost treasure of the Incas. Somehow, they realise, the tomb and the treasure are connected.

In essence, SAINTS: Song of Winds can be loosely described as a kind of Indiana Jones meets The Da Vinci Code, in an Asian and Latin American context. Key events include monstrous battles with lightning and tornadoes in the desert plains of Peru, desperate scrambles through deadly chambers in the tomb complex of Emperor Qin, and an epic cavalry battle between the ancient forces of China and Mongolia.

Sunday 18 August 2013

The Documentation Center Of Cambodia

The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in Phnom Penh enables research into the years 1975 – 1979, when the Khmer Rouge killed almost two million Cambodians; its dual aims are to record the events of that time to ensure they are not forgotten, and to bring the perpetrators of great crimes to justice. The Center presently contains the world's largest archive on the Khmer Rouge, holding over 1 million pages of documents and 6,000 photographs.

Research undertaken by DC-Cam’s staff and volunteers has resulted in the publication of many books, including history textbooks and teacher-training materials for local use. But what about English-language books for the international general reader? DC-Cam’s director, Youk Chhang, recommends Bou Meng: a survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21, by Huy Vannak, which is published by DC-Cam itself, and The Last One: an orphaned child fights to survive the killing fields of Cambodia by Marin R. Yann, published by Outskirts Press, and available from their website, http://www.outskirtspress.com.

If you happen to be in Phnom Penh you can buy Bou Meng direct from Bou Meng himself, at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly the notorious Prison S-21 of the book’s subtitle.

Bou Meng is a harrowing read.  At least 16,000 people were imprisoned and tortured at S-21, of those sent there, only 14 people survived. Bou Meng was one of the 14; his life was spared because he was an artist, and the regime needed him to paint portraits of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. Bou Meng, who in chapter 2 talks directly to the reader through Huy Vannak’s translation, is unsparing in his description of deprivation and torture, both mental and physical. This is typical:  The interrogator kept asking me the same questions. I replied with the same answers. The interrogator grasped a bunch of torture materials, including bamboo sticks, whips, rattans, cart axles and twisted electrical wires.  He asked me to choose one of them. I did not want any of them because they were tools to hurt me. But I did not have any choice.

Bou Meng’s wife, Ma Yoeun, was killed at S-21, and their children also perished under the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Comrade Duch was the Khmer Rouge official in charge of S-21. In 2009, a UN supervised trial of Duch began at a Phnom Penh court; in 2010, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity, torture, and murder. Huy Vannak reports that Bou Meng now wants to hold a Buddhist ceremony: “to dedicate justice to the soul of his wife and the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Then, he believes, their spirits will rest in a peaceful place.” 

Today, Bou Meng paints pictures drawing on his memories of life under the Khmer Rouge. Huy Vannak says: “He draws on his personal memories to paint a collective pain. He hopes his art will inspire the world to prevent a repeat of Cambodia’s painful past.”

In addition to books, Youk Chhang also recommends the movie  A River Changes Course, directed by Kalyanee Mam, which follows three families in contemporary rural Cambodia as they struggle for survival, their livelihoods threatened by ever-increasing industrial development:  http://ariverchangescourse.com/

For further information, or to order DC-Cam’s publications, visit http://www.dccam.org/

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Revenge / Yoko Ogawa

Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder, is a mesmerising, weird, and elusive meditation on...what, precisely? Coming up with possible answers to that question is one of the many engrossing challenges of reading Revenge, a collection of eleven short stories, each bound to others by cobwebby chains of connection, and each giving glimpses of the world seen through a most dark-adapted eye.

What few of the stories seem to be about, or at least not obviously, is revenge. Granted, some seem to concern marital, or romantic, revenge: in Old Mrs. J a woman apparently kills in revenge for being trapped in a disappointing marriage; in Lab Coats another woman kills because her married lover prevaricates about ditching his wife; in Sewing for the Heart a bag maker kills because, as he sees it, a customer rejects the bag he has crafted for her, to hold her heart, which lies outside her chest, and hence she also rejects him. But some of the stories seem to have little or nothing to do with revenge.  Afternoon at the Bakery, the horrifying first story in which a mother fails to assimilate the unassimilable fact that her child has died in an abandoned refrigerator, seems to be about the way lives can be smashed by improbable, but devastating events; the final story, Poison Plants, which wheels back to Afternoon at the Bakery through the "motif", if that is what it is, of a dead child in an abandoned refrigerator being found by an old woman, seems to be about the loss and degradation of ageing, and the pity of mortality.

Indeed, the whole book drips with the menace of mortality; in every story there's a death, or deaths, although not every story has a death as its central event.  Still, Poison Plants and hence Revenge, closes on, and thereby emphasises, the idea of mortality, with this account from the narrator, an old woman, of finding the aforementioned dead child in a refrigerator: I opened the doors - and I found someone inside. Legs neatly folded, head buried between the knees, curled ingeniously to fit between the shelves and the egg box. "Excuse me," I said, but my voice seemed to disappear into the dark. It was my body. In this gloomy, cramped box, I had eaten poison plants and died, hidden away from prying eyes. Crouching down at the door, I wept.  For my dead self.

It's not obvious, to me, how to interpret this passage, but whatever it means, and whatever its relation to Afternoon at the Bakery, it gives the flavour of Ogawa's style - at least as it reads through the veil of translation. Peering through that veil, it does seem that Ogawa writes of horror, cruelty, desperation, lives gone awry, in short, exact, even forensic sentences, generally unadorned. The effect is often hypnotically, but precisely, threatening.  This, from Welcome to the Museum of Torture, is Ogawa on a dead hamster lying between a crumpled hamburger wrapper and a crushed paper cup in a garbage can at a fast-food place: Its fur was speckled brown, and its tiny arms and legs were a beautiful shade of pale pink. The poor thing almost still looked alive. I even imagined I saw its little paws twitching. Its black eyes seemed to be looking at me. I opened the lid the rest of the way, releasing the smell of ketchup and pickles and coffee all mixed together. I was right, the hamster was moving: hundreds of maggots were worming into its soft belly.

All in all, Revenge is a mysteriously wonderful book, as beautiful as the mould of decomposition soon to be spreading across that hamster.  I urge you to read it - and then at once to re-read it, to retrace the many delicate threads that link Ogawa's stories and to re-evaluate what you think she might be saying.

The US edition is published by Picador, and it might be available in parts of Asia, but I read the UK edition published by Harvill Secker, http://www.vintage-books.co.uk.