Wednesday 30 April 2014

Questions & Answers with Daniel Seton

Daniel Seton is an editor with the UK-based Pushkin Press, which publishes novels, essays, memoirs, timeless classics, tomorrow’s classics…its lists are filled with exciting high-quality, writing from around the world.

Last November, Daniel was part of a delegation of UK-based editors who visited South Korea for a scoping and study trip jointly organised by The British Council, and The Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

Daniel gave me an interview via e-mail, from London.

Why does Pushkin Press publish so many titles in translation?

We want to publish the world’s best stories in English, which in practice means that we publish books that have already been successfully published elsewhere. They might be contemporary works or modern classics, and the great majority of the time they are translations, although not always - for example we had great success with the multi-prize-winning American Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, which we published in the UK for the first time in 2013.

How are translated books received in the UK? How enthusiastic are English speakers to read translated work?

At the heart of our publishing policy is the belief that a great book is a great book. If published correctly, readers simply don’t care whether it was translated or not. That’s not to underplay the importance of translators to what we do, but the mere fact that a book is translated shouldn’t be a positive or a negative for readers. It may sound trite, but it’s all about the writing.

Having said that, the market for translated fiction in the UK is clearly underdeveloped - only about 4% of fiction sales are of translated works. But we think this is a result of attitudes within the publishing and bookselling industries, rather than any aversion to translated fiction on the part of UK readers. The huge success in recent years of books such as the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which kicked off with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, illustrates this - who thinks of those books as translated fiction? They’re just addictive stories that readers devour, and the fact they were originally written in Swedish is irrelevant.

All this means we see the underdeveloped market for foreign fiction in the UK as a huge opportunity. There are so many amazing stories, from all over the world, that UK readers are currently missing out on. We want to put that right.

Do you have any Asian authors on your lists?  If so, who?  And where do they come from?   

Currently, all our Asian authors are Japanese.

We publish four titles by the sexagenarian enfant-terrible of Japanese literature Ryu Murakami, including the first English translation of From the Fatherland with Love, which imagines a North-Korean invasion of Japan.

We’ve also recently published Bullfight and The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, whose writing we love. We’re following these titles up in August with a collection of stories, Life of a Counterfeiter.

There are also two children’s books that we’re publishing next year: Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass - a kind of Japanese Borrowers - and The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine by Akiyuki Nosaka, a collection of beautiful and moving stories for children about war.

What drew you to visiting Korea as part of the British Council's delegation?

Pure curiosity! I was aware that there was a rich tradition of Korean literature, with which I was only vaguely familiar, through the works of authors such as Yi Mun-Yol. I also thought of Korea as having a very young, dynamic culture, all of which made me very grateful indeed for the opportunity to visit.

When you got there, what most surprised you about contemporary Korean books, literature and publishing?  

As I mentioned above, I had only a passing acquaintance with Korean literature before my visit, and, I’m afraid to say, next to no knowledge of the Korean publishing industry. I think one of the things a lot of British people hear about Korea is how long the hours are in school, as well as in the workplace, but I was very pleasantly surprised on my arrival by how relaxed and friendly everyone seemed. It must be all the soju!

I was also surprised to learn that, despite the ubiquity of Wifi and smartphones in South Korea, eBook sales are relatively smaller than they are in the UK. Perhaps, when wireless technology is everywhere, as it seemed to be in Seoul, physical books can be something of a refuge?

Have you bought any Korean titles as a result of the trip?

I’d love to say yes, but unfortunately we’ve yet to acquire our first Korean author. I have certainly grown much more familiar with Korean literature since my visit, and there are a number of titles we’re considering, so if you keep an eye on us we might have some better news soon…

Did you meet any exiled North Korean writers?  What, if anything, do you think Western publishers can do to help North Korean writers, whether in exile, or still trapped in the North? 

I didn’t meet any North Korean authors, unfortunately, but I think the world is becoming increasingly familiar with the story of what life is really like inside North Korea, and publishers can help by making sure that story is told.

Song for an Approaching Storm

In March, Pushkin Press published Song for an Approaching Storm, by Peter Fröberg Idling, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves.

Peter Fröberg Idling spent two years in Cambodia, where he was formally employed by Forum Syd, a Swedish NGO, but where he spent most of his time as a legal advisor to Star Kampuchea, a local NGO.

Song for an Approaching Storm draws on his local knowledge.  It is a political thriller set in Cambodia in 1955. The country is on the brink of change, with the first democratic elections just around the corner.

Sar, a quiet, likeable man in his early thirties, is campaigning for the opposition, but secretly working for an armed Communist takeover. In the years to come, the world will know him as Pol Pot.

Somaly is Sar’s beautiful, wilful, fiancée, with an agenda of her own. 

Sam Sary, the deputy prime minister, is Sar’s political rival.  He too becomes interested in Somaly.

Over the course of thirty days, and against the backdrop of political power games, the love triangle of Sar, Somaly and Sam Sary unfolds in the sweltering summer heat, in an atmosphere tense with ambition.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Book Club: Mr Selden’s Map of China and May's pick

April’s pick was Mr Selden’s Map of China, by Timothy Brook. I assume you’ve read it; if you need a summary of the contents see here

I happened to be reading this in Singapore, deep within nanyang, but wherever you read it, I expect you couldn’t do so without pondering the ongoing squabbles about how the map should be drawn today – squabbles which Brook of course discusses. Hence it was interesting to learn the Selden Map was not in fact drawn to support territorial claims and can now be of no use in arguments about who owns which uninhabited patch of rock jutting from the sea, or which air force can fly where, but was purely a navigational chart enabling early seventeenth century pilots of merchant vessels to navigate from A to B.

I also found it interesting that nobody in England seems to have learned anything much from the Selden Map in the years immediately after it arrived there – partly because nobody in the country could read Chinese.  

What kinds of context can we use to understand the Selden Map today?  Brook seems to see it through a lens looking forward from its own time to colonialism, or backwards to it from ours, but with the map’s emphasis on trade, and indifference to territorial claims, it could equally well foreshadow today's more equal trade patterns in South East Asia. I found the passages on the early Europeans' encounters with Chinese fixers hilarious, and saw in these encounters examples of the clever, canny Chinese ripping off the whites – yes the canny Chinaman is a cliché, but why is a cliché a cliché? Brook, however, probably a nicer person than me, refused to be so uncharitable, generously absolving the Chinese of taking the ang mo for a ride.

In Singapore, ang mo, or ang moh, is the current slang term, and these are the current Romanised spellings, for a European – like gweilo / gaijin / bule / farang / mat salleh in other places. Until I read this book I thought it was a nineteenth century term, but it seems it dates right back to when Chinese people first encountered Westerners, and were shocked by their red (ang / hung / hong) hair (mo / moh / mao). 

The chapter which contains this information, Reading Chinese in Oxford, I found one of the most interesting in the book.  It set me to wondering: can Mr Selden’s Map of China be read in Chinese in Beijing? Is there a Chinese translation available?  I haven’t been able to track one down – but then, I don’t know how to render Mr Selden or Timothy Brook into Chinese, so doing an internet search was difficult. But if there isn’t a Chinese translation, I think Timothy Brook (ti mu xi bu lu ke?) should provide one forthwith – maybe adding a chapter Reading English in Renmin?

But enough of what I thought. What did others think?

Jen from Hong Kong was not wildly enthusiastic.

The history is interesting, but I find cartography less than grabbing, so I found myself skipping, especially in the chapters on the compass, and on the idea that earth is square.

I suppose it is undeniable that if you don’t like maps, then this is not a book for you, but considering he was writing about a map, I thought Timothy Brook kept his book remarkably free of technical discussion of cartography. I didn’t find the cartography overwhelming, although I didn’t always completely follow it - I don’t think Brook can be held responsible for that, I’m just too dim to grasp how a sphere is drawn on a flat piece of paper. I enjoyed Brook’s clear, precise and yet inviting style - I thought his use of the first person worked well.

Brian also from Hong Kong also had quibbles, although not about the book, about the format he chose to read it in.

I read the book on a kindle, and I found it very badly organised.  I couldn’t find the map, or see it very well.  The map should have been more prominent, and should have been reproduced more clearly.

I too read this book as an eBook, and I too would have found flipping to the map, and to the other illustrations, easier in a printed book, but I think this is more of an issue for the people who design eBooks, than for a book club?

May’s Pick: On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

Korean-American Lee’s oeuvre is largely made up of novels about Asians assimilating into American society and in some ways this one is no different. Fan, a young woman of Chinese descent, leaves her native Baltimore to find her disappeared lover, Reg.  However, the near-future America she travels through is going off the rails, enabling Lee to ponder how crisis stratifies society and collapses morality.

Lithe and tiny, Fan is a diver at the New China settlement of B-Mor, a worker colony long-ago known as Baltimore, her circumscribed world the temperature-controlled fish tanks that feed a contaminated continent, and Reg, the golden-skinned, simple-hearted man she loves.

Rigorously pressurised and demarcated, the America that Fan serves is ruled by the professional Charter caste. While B-Mors are obedient and tranquillised by duty and the fear of chaos, the pampered, ruthless Charters inhabit idyllic, over-supplied communities behind whose gates they jostle ceaselessly for dominance. Estranged from nature, B-Mors and Charters alike shy from the spaces between, where outcasts, free-thinkers and renegades, bandits and pedlars forage and grub and steal and kill. One quiet day Reg is removed from the colony - whether for a nameless infraction, or because he is disease-resistant in a world where no one is C-free, it is impossible to say. Fan decides she must follow. But her departure threatens to disrupt the whole order of B-Mor society, and only savage action can hold it together.

On Such A Full Sea is published by Little, Brown, in paperback and eBook formats, priced in local currencies. 

Both  Mr Selden’s Map of China and On Such A Full Sea are eligible for the ABB book of the Lunar Year in the Year of the Horse. See the post of Jan 30 2014 for details.  If you would like to vote for either title please do so by posting a comment, or contacting

New and Notable: Decoded / Mai Jia

Decoded tells the story of Rong Jinzhwen, one of the greatest code-breakers in the world. A semi-autistic mathematical genius, Jinzhen is recruited to the cryptography department of China's secret services, Unit 701, where he is assigned the task of breaking the elusive 'Code Purple'. Jinzhen rises through the ranks to become China's greatest and most celebrated code-breaker; until he makes a mistake. Then begins his descent through the unfathomable darkness of the world of cryptology into madness.

Decoded was an immediate success when it was published in 2002 in China. With the pacing of a literary crime thriller, the novel combines elements of historical fiction and state espionage. Taking place in the shadowy world of Chinese secret security, where Mai Jia worked for decades, it introduces us to a place that is unfamiliar, intriguing and authentic. And with Rong Jinzhen, it introduces us to a character who is deeply flawed and fragile, yet possessing exceptional intelligence. Decoded is an unforgettable and gripping story of genius, brilliance, insanity and human frailty.

Mai Jia (the pseudonym of Jiang Benhu) is arguably the most successful writer in China today, with total sales of over three million copies of his books. He became the highest paid author in China last year with his new book, Wind Talk. He has achieved unprecedented success with film adaptation: all of his novels have been made into films or TV series, the screenplays of which are often written by Mai Jia himself. He has created a genre that combines spy craft, code-breaking, crime, human drama, and historical fiction. He has won almost every major award in China, including the highest literary honour - the Mao Dun Award.

Friday 25 April 2014

Second Islamabad Literature Festival

The second Islamabad Literature Festival starts today.  The Festival was co-founded by Ameena Saiyid, of Oxford University Press Pakistan, and the company is a sponsor. Dr Federico Bianchi, First Secretary, Head of the Economic, Cultural, and Press section of the Embassy of Italy to Pakistan will give the opening address, followed by keynote speeches from Urdu poet and scriptwriter Zehara Nigah, and from short story writer and critic Aamer Hussein. The Festival runs until Sunday.  Click here for full details of the programme.Click here for the Facebook page.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Alice On Self-Publishing: Once Upon a Mulberry Field

Alice Clark-Platts writes our monthly column on self-publishing. Here she talks to C L Hoang, who has recently self-published his first novel, Once Upon a Mulberry Field, through Smashwords.

C L Hoang was born and raised in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, he then moved to the United States in the 1970’s. Like many authors, C L conducts his writing life alongside his primary profession – in his case, working by day as an electronic engineer whilst scribbling away at night.
C L began Once Upon a Mulberry Field in homage to his Vietnamese father, so as to capture the memories of family life in Saigon during the war. Later, C L discovered that the stories he unearthed deserved their place in a novel. He wanted to write about the experiences of the Vietnamese in a country destroyed by war, juxtaposed with the fates of the American servicemen who fought against them.

Once Upon a Mulberry Field is set in Bien-Hoa Air Force Base near Saigon in 1967, at the height of the Tet Offensive. The novel explores the blossoming romance between a U.S. Air Force doctor, Roger Connors, and Lien, a young Vietnamese widow working as a hostess at a Saigon club.

"Writing the novel has been the hardest task I have  ever undertaken." Says C L.  "It took me six years to finish but, if I was ever going to write a book, this was the one I wanted to write."

The choice to self-publish was as a means of achieving creative freedom: "It was a way of telling my story in the way I thought best. The process gave me the independence to choose the layout and design of the book – every aspect of the novel has been specifically selected by me."

C L admits that the learning curve has been steep. In line with the message of last month’s column, he advises that the input of professionals and experts is invaluable when it comes to the technicalities of editing and cover design etc.

The hardest part of the project was publicising and marketing the novel. "After doing your best on social media; writers’ platforms; and even working with a book publicist, the fruits of your labours are outside your control." He warns, adding that prior to publication is is a constant worry whether anyone will  actually buy the book.

Sales of Once Upon a Mulberry Field have been steady but C L admits that striving forth without the backing of a big publishing house is challenging, especially for an unknown, first-time author in a competitive market.

C L says whether he is inspired to write another novel remains to be seen. But, he adds, Vietnam is a beautiful country with a rich cultural heritage and an ancient folklore that highlights the universal human condition and spirit. "I hope to be inspired again to share that with my reading public."

More information

Click here for the Once Upon A Mulberry Field site. 
Click here for the page on Smashwords.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

World Book Day

Today is World Book and Copyright Day, organised by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. 

The connection between 23 April and books was first made in 1923 by booksellers in Spain as a way to mark the death date of the author Miguel de Cervantes. In 1995, UNESCO decided to adopt it as World Book and Copyright Day. The date is also the anniversary of the birth and death of William Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, this World Book Day is marked by sadness in Asia. The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, yesterday presented the people of Myanmar with her condolences following the death of journalist and poet U Win Tin, laureate of the 2001 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

U Win Tin co-founded Myanmar’s National League for Democracy in 1988.  He was arrested soon afterwards and spent nearly 20 years in prison before being released in 2008.  While he was behind bars, Win Tin continued to advocate for free speech and democracy, even writing a letter to the United Nations that led to an extension of his sentence.

“The death of U Win Tin is a loss to the people of Myanmar and to champions of freedom of expression all over the world,” declared Irina Bokova.  “It is also a loss for UNESCO, whose values U Win Tin promoted with exemplary selflessness before his country embarked on the process of democratisation that is presently underway.”

U Win Tin died on 21 April after being admitted to hospital because of kidney problems.

On a happier note, you can celebrate World Book Day by joining in with worldwide debate via UNESCO’s Facebook page: click here.

To mark World Book Day, the on-line magazine In Asia has a feature on elevating growth in Cambodia through combating illiteracy.  Click here.

Monday 21 April 2014

Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Prize-winning novelists Hanif Kureishi, Kamila Shamsie, Tash Aw and Romesh Gunesekera plus award-winning BBC journalist John Sweeney are some of the key speakers at this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, which takes place at Asia House in London from May 6 to May 21, 2014.
Now in its eighth year and with a new title sponsor, the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival is the only UK festival dedicated to pan-Asian writing.
With a range of events covering more than 17 countries, the Festival this year includes authors writing about China, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea, South Korea, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Nepal, the Middle East, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Britain.
This year’s theme is Changing Values Across AsiaForeign correspondent Peter Popham examines Burma two years after its milestone election, while Shereen el Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel, and Sally Howard, author of The Kama Sutra Diaries, take a serious but entertaining look at changing sexual mores in the Middle East, India and Pakistan.
Literary superstar Hanif Kureishi launches the Festival as he discusses his new novel, The Last Word, while award-winning Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie introduces her hotly anticipated novel of friendship, injustice and love, A God in Every Stone.
The best of Asian literature is further celebrated as new works by acclaimed Sri Lankan novelist Romesh Gunesekera, Chinese novelist and film maker Xiaolu Guo, and Pakistani-born Roopa Farooki are previewed in a special showcase event ahead of publication. 
The series Extra Words will introduce debut authors from Pakistan, Nepal and Thailand.
Award-winning BBC reporter John Sweeney, author of North Korea Undercover, joins Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia, to analyse the threat posed by that country, while historian John Keay introduces the first comprehensive history of South Asia as a whole with his new book Midnight’s Descendants.
Digital freedom in East Asia will be analysed with Thai blogger Giles Ji Ungpakorn, and Anja Kovacs from the Internet Democracy Project in Delhi. 
British Asian humour will be hotly debated by a panel including journalist Sathnam Sanghera, BBC head of comedy Saurabh Kakkar, comedian Shazia Mirza and writer producer of hit TV shows Goodness Gracious Me,The Kumars at Number 42The Office and Citizen KhanAnil Gupta. 

Brigid Keenan, author of Packing Up: Further Adventures of a Trailing Spouse, takes us on a wildly funny tour through her life in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Palestine.
Look out for further information on the blog, including details of how you can participate from Asia  via social media. 

Friday 18 April 2014

Seen Elsewhere: Death of Gabriel García Márquez

The death of  Gabriel García Márquez  is being mourned and reported around the world. Here are a few of the tributes, in English.

The Guardian (UK)

The New York Times

Sydney Morning Herald

RT (Russia)

Xinhua (China)

Al Jazeera (Qatar)

Thursday 17 April 2014

Questions & Answers with R. Ramachandran, Executive Director, National Book Development Council of Singapore

The National Book Development Council of Singapore promotes and encourages the local community of writers, publishing professionals, librarians, and booksellers working in all four of the country’s official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.  Its aim is to establish Singapore as a hub for publishing and the literary arts. I spoke to the Executive Director, R. Ramachandran.

How far has The Council succeeded in developing Singapore as a regional centre of literary activity? What still needs to be done?

Our own programmes, in conjunction with those of the National Arts Council (NAC), have together made a good start. The NAC’s Singapore Writers Festival and our own Asian Festival of Children's Content (AFCC) have together established Singapore as an Asian centre for writers producing content for both adults and children.

Our awards for children's content, such as The Scholastic Asian Book Award, a joint initiative with the children’s publisher, and Asian Picture Book awards for both authors and illustrators, have been particularly successful.  Through our involvement with children's books we have directed the attention of illustrators to Singapore, thus helping to promote the City as an Asian centre for the visual arts.

What we have not yet become is a fully-fledged publishing centre. We still need trained editors and marketing personnel specialising in regional and international marketing. We need to develop literary agents and expertise in the selling of rights. We are addressing these needs and have established the Academy of Literary Arts and Publishing for training personnel in editing, book design, managing intellectual property, and the various other aspects of publishing.

Which other Asian cities do you see as rival hubs for publishing? What are they doing better, or not so well, as Singapore?

Actually we have no rivals. We are unique in publishing and promoting all four languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Our diversity in language and culture makes us attractive to the literary arts community throughout Asia. Having an English-speaking population means we can publish in English for the world market.

Talking of which, Singapore itself has a small market for books, but it is excellently placed to be a bridge between east and west. What are you doing to grow international connections in the publishing industry?

Local publishers do not publish for Singapore alone. They publish for the region and hence what needs to be done is to connect them with distributors who will distribute the books for the rest of Asia. We need to emerge as a country which has good translators. Once we have a core group of translators, we can translate Asian books from one Asian language to the other. When that happens we will have a market of 700 million in ASEAN alone to reach out to.

Perhaps the even bigger challenge is reaching out to the West. The West wants to sell to the East but does not readily buy from the East. Such purchases, if any, are very limited. What must be done is that we must reach out to the West not through establishing contacts with the Western distributors but by developing our own network to handle distribution. Only then, through a coordinated effort, can publicity, marketing and sales be effective.

Already we are attracting writers and key industry players from the West to our festivals, enabling them to become familiar with our literary works. We want them to recognise our content is good, but not necessarily to take on the responsibility of distributing books published in Asia.

South East Asia lacks an international marketplace for rights. Do you have plans for an Asian books fair, as an Eastern equivalent of Frankfurt or London?

The AFCC is already acting as a marketplace for Children's content, and this is bound to grow. We intend to suggest to the National Arts Council that we should organise an Asian Book Fair for all content, in conjunction with the Singapore Writers Festival.

How do you promote writing and publishing in languages other than English?

The Singapore Literature Prize managed by us gives recognition to works published in all four official languages. All our festivals have a strong track record in presenting workshops and seminars in Chinese, Malay and Tamil. This we think is unique as most literary festivals are monolingual.

What do you do to promote translation between languages, especially of Chinese, Malay and Tamil into English?

In 2012, we held the first Asian Expressions, a conference conceived to focus on and promote literary translation, to celebrate writings and writers in Asian languages, especially Chinese, Malay and Tamil. The conference brought together translators, and authors from various language groups to enable cross-cultural exchange. Asian Expressions was a great success and we intend to hold it again, either bi-annually or once in three years.

In the meantime, we continue to encourage translation, and to run programmes to train translators, and this year alone Singapore will be host to two major events throwing a focus on translation: the Singapore International Translation Symposium 2014; the Singapore International Storytelling Festival, 2014. 

At the Storytelling Festival storytellers from Singapore, India, Korea and Italy will be telling stories translated from other languages into English.

Do local writers writing in Chinese, Tamil, or Malay have international connections?

Writers in each language group have strong associations and links with their own diasporas, as well as with writers in the country or countries where the language is a, or the, national language.

Do different genres (romance / sci-fi) or types of writing (prose / poetry) dominate in the different language groups?

All genres are popular but across all four languages poetry is most popular.

What currently are the major concerns of Singaporean writers?

Lack of sufficient support. Our writers need staff to manage their publicity and marketing activities as most are also fully employed. Writers need more exposure. They need to travel and take part in festivals throughout Asia and the West.

Leading commercial publishers in Singapore, by language

Epigram Books


Flame of the Forest

Marshall Cavendish International (Asia)

Monsoon Books

Candid Creation Publishing  

Shing Lee Publishers 

World Scientific Publishing Co 

Zenru Culture Communication 

Thangameen Publications (Goldfish Publications)

Kumaresh Enterprises

Casco Publications 

Pustaka Nasional 

Vision Publishing Enterprise

Singaporean writers you might like to try, by language.

Meira Chand
Amanda Lee Koe
Jolene Tan
Ng Yi-Sheng
Cyril Wong
Marc Nair

Yeng Pway Ngon
Lee Seng Chan
Tham Yew Chin
J.M. Sali Masilamani Anbalagan
M. Balakrishnan

Yazid Hussein
Ahmad Jaaffar Bin Munasip
Isa Kamari