Peter Gordon is the editor of the Asian Review of Books (ARB), the only dedicated pan-Asian book review publication. The magazine is currently available electronically, and it is produced from Peter’s adopted hometown, Hong Kong. Peter arrived in the city in 1985, when he worked for an American computer company. Later, he founded Paddyfield, an on-line bookstore; he thus became involved with readers and writers in Hong Kong – now he is at the centre of the city’s book world. He was a founder of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which was initially run out of Paddyfield’s office, he set up Chameleon Press, an independent publisher specialising in Asian fiction and topical non-fiction, and he ran the Man Asian Literary Prize for its first two years. In addition to his work at ARB, he now contributes regularly to other English-language publications in Asia, and he is setting up the international authors' programme for the Hong Kong Book Fair.
I interviewed him via e-mail. I asked him to give a quick overview of the history of ARB: “It started 2000 as an adjunct to the various other things I was doing: publishing, bookselling, etc. Several years later, Pankaj Mishra suggested it should be expanded and formalised. This was discussed and kicked around for about another year, and it was the advent of the tablet that convinced me that an electronic-only magazine with long-form articles could in fact be readable. So we re-launched it at the Asia Society in New York in 2011.”
This blog does not cover all of geographic Asia, it considers Asia to be east to west from the Indian Subcontinent to Australia, and north to south from Mongolia to roughly Bali – so excluding West Asia / The Middle East. How does ARB define it? “More widely than that. For ARB Asia is the East Coast of the Mediterranean up to and including the Pacific.”
What about ARB’s editorial policy? “We focus on books that are Asian by author, subject or publisher. Insofar as there is a policy, it is mostly one of raising awareness: it is not unusual that we are the only regular publication to review a given book. Our larger purpose is to address inequalities. Asia, compared with the West, has a relative lack of platforms - think tanks, journals - in and through which non-Western points-of-view, policies, models, etc. can be rigorously discussed. The ARB is meant to be just what it says - a resource on Asia-related books - but it is also intended to be a place where intellectual and cultural positions can be laid out and developed. Books provide a focus and an anchor for further discussion, so it's not inappropriate that a book review publication has this ambition.”
Peter refused to be drawn on how long it might take for Asia to catch up with the West in developing cultural testing beds for new ideas: “These things take time, and one must do the straightforward things first and well. Nevertheless, ARB provides a piece of infrastructure, just as Chameleon Press, and the Hong Kong Literary Festival are in their own ways also pieces of infrastructure: they help the development of writers, and a literary culture. Paddyfield likewise. When I started it books were expensive in Hong Kong, and only the most basic selection was on offer. A universal e-commerce bookstore made books far more accessible than they had been.”
Talking of Paddyfield, I wondered whether books were ever chosen for review in ARB simply to help drive sales through the store? “No. ARB and Paddyfield are not linked much at all. ARB is entirely non-commercial.”
What about Chameleon: are books published by Chameleon guaranteed a review in ARB? “No. It’s actually very complicated to combine ARB, which is entirely non-commercial, with the commercial operations of retail bookselling or book publishing. For example, The Asian Review of Books is global, while Paddyfield mostly serves Hong Kong - most readers of ARB would not be buy their books from Paddyfield. Similarly, ARB's success derives in no small part from its family of reviewers and contributors; what they want to review or write may not overlap with books published by Chameleon, or any given local or regional publisher."
Was Peter actively looking for reviewers? If so, could anybody apply? How? “I'm always looking for reviewers - but not actively! Anyone can apply: just email firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm looking for people who can write from experience, who are either writers themselves or who have particular areas of expertise. I should say it's probably just as important - maybe more important - that publishers know how to send review copies, especially Asian publishers. Publishers who want to request a review should look under the i button on the website.”
Finally, I asked Peter if he believed in an Asian Literary Scene? If so, what part is played in it by ARB? “There isn't an Asian Literary Scene but many different ones. Each country has its own literary scene and perhaps more than one. But these scenes should communicate with one another and interact, and the ARB is one way they can do so.”
In Other Words: a discussion about translation and translators
ARB has just published In Other Words, a fascinating discussion of translation and translators. Much Asian literature comes to readers via translation. So ARB invited five experts covering different languages, countries and parts of the process to discuss translations, translators and the role they play in bringing Asian literature to English-speaking readers. Read it here – it certainly meets Peter’s criteria of being well-argued, well-written, intellectually rigorous and novel!