Saturday 29 November 2014

New & Notable: International & Regional

International: The Book of Gold Leaves by Mirza Waheed

In an ancient house in the city of Srinagar, Faiz paints exquisite papier mache pencil boxes for tourists. Evening is beginning to slip into night when he sets off for the shrine. He looks up to see the girl with the long black hair.

Roohi has been waiting for him. She wants a love story. And so it begins.

An age-old tale of love and conflict, within families, between worlds, The Book of Gold Leaves is a heart-breaking tale of what might have been, what could have been, if only.

DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Shortlist Announced

The shortlist for the fifth annual DSC Prize for South Asian Literature was announced at the London School of Economics and Political Science late last week. 

A dynamic mix of books made the cut. The shortlist of five features: two authors of Indian origin, Jhumpa Lahiri (The Lowland - Vintage Books / Random House, India) and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (The Mirror of Beauty - Penguin Books, India); Pakistani authors Bilal Tanweer (The Scatter Here is Too Great - Vintage Books / Random House, India) and Kamila Shamsie (A God in Every Stone - Bloomsbury, India); and Sri Lankan born British writer Romesh Gunesekera (Noontide Toll - Hamish Hamilton / Penguin, India).

Thursday 27 November 2014

500 Words From Ovidia Yu

500 Words a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their books and characters.  Here, Ovidia Yu, one of Singapore’s most acclaimed authors, talks about Aunty Lee, feisty widow, amateur sleuth, and proprietor of The Lion City’s best-loved home-cooking restaurant.  Aunty Lee has now brought her charm and wit - not to mention her intelligence, nosiness, and crime-solving skills - to two delectable mysteries, Aunty Lee’s Delights, and Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials.  Both books are published internationally by William Morrow Paperbacks, enabling readers far beyond Singapore to be beguiled by Aunty Lee. 

So, over to Ovidia…

“Inspiration for Aunty Lee? Parts of Aunty Lee came from various so-called aunties I know - not necessarily older, good at cooking or even female! She loves cooking and feeding people and as far as she is concerned, eating together is the best way of becoming friends. She also loves sorting out other people’s problems for them, including murders they may be suspected of committing.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Indie Spotlight / Tune in Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries by Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson
It can be a hard slog being an indie author.  To keep self-published writers inspired our indie correspondent Raelee Chapman chats to Tim Anderson, a native of North Carolina, whose self-published memoir about his time living and working in Tokyo, Tune In Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries, published in 2010, was picked up by AmazonEncore and republished to a wider audience a year later. It has now been translated into Thai.  

The original cover
Why did you choose to self-publish Tune in Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries and which company/tools did you choose for this path?

I actually went the self-publishing route after a few years of my agent pitching the book, getting close to closing a deal, then getting the dreaded "not right for us at this time" response. One editor told us that, because David Sedaris had just released a book featuring a chapter set in Tokyo, she was going to pass, since that one chapter in that one book had obviously saturated the market with the one comical story set in Tokyo that could be told! So I started on the next book, but couldn't shake the feeling that there was an audience for Tune in Tokyo and I wanted to try to find it. I used the CreateSpace platform available from Amazon. I chose CreateSpace because the process seemed pretty straightforward, and it pretty much was!

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Friday 21 November 2014

New In Paperback: The Strangler Vine by M.J.Carter

Calcutta, 1837. Young Ensign William Avery is tasked by his employers - the East India Company - to track down disgraced agent Xavier Mountstuart, lost to the jungle. Forced to take with him dissolute, disillusioned, errant genius ex-officer Jeremiah Blake, Avery is sure their mission is doomed. When their search leads them into Kali-worshipping, Thugee territory, survival depends upon trust. Fighting for their lives, the pair close in to their elusive quarry only to discover the horrifying truth behind their mission. With death and danger on all sides, is it too late to save themselves?

“M.J. Carter has cooked up a spicy dish: a pinch of Moonstone, a dash of Sherlock and a soupçon of Fu Manchu added to a rich stew of John Masters. A splendid romp” - William Dalrymple

“A splendid novel with an enthralling story, a wonderfully drawn atmosphere, and an exotic mystery that captivated me” - Bernard Cornwell

“A rattling good yarn” - A. N. Wilson, Financial Times

“The Strangler Vine is a considerable achievement, which left me waiting impatiently for a promised sequel” - The Times (London)

Published by Penguin.  Priced in local currencies. 

Thursday 20 November 2014

Tokyo Writers Workshop

Raelee Chapman, our indie correspondent, is seeking out the vast and varied writing communities across Asia, here she chats with John Gribble, organiser of Tokyo Writers Workshop. 

How long has your group been running?

The group goes back over thirty-five years. It was originally known as the Tokyo English Literature Society (TELS). Founded by Tom Ainley in 1977, it has always been a writers’ workshop, but in the early days the group was also active in publishing chapbooks under the TELS Press imprint, and putting out a magazine, Printed Matter.

Where are Tokyo Writers Workshop meetings held? 

For the last few years we have met in a classroom at Nihon University College of Art in Ekoda, Nerima Ward, Tokyo. We are fortunate in that we get this site free of charge, as co-organiser Karen McGee is a faculty member at the school.

Describe a typical meeting for us:

The meeting actually begins a week or more in advance of the scheduled Sunday afternoon gathering. Members post pieces of work they want discussed on our Meetup page. Everyone who plans to attend can then download the work and read it in advance of the meeting. We limit the number of posters to twelve, and each poster will get twenty minutes of discussion time - usually we have around twenty attendees. Each meeting we settle in the classroom for a three-to-four hour session and midway through we take a ten-minute break. 

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Lion City Lit: Audrey Chin

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore.  Lion City Lit explores literary life in our own backyard.  This week Singaporean author Audrey Chin is in conversation with Raelee Chapman.

As both a child of migrant Chinese and settled Peranakan parents, and also as a daughter-in-law of the Vietnamese diaspora, Audrey sees herself as an in-between person, a traveller through different cultures. She writes what she knows, telling stories about the search for belonging, about South East Asia, about her mixed cultural inheritance, and about the Westerners who colonised her region. Her most recent novel, As the Heart Bones Break, spans 60 years, and follows an Orange County Viet-Cong spy's quest to find peace and a home for his conflicted heart. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for English language fiction

What was your inspiration for As The Heart Bones Break? How much research was required for the novel and how long did it take to write?

I married into the Vietnamese diaspora over 30 years ago. In part, As The Heart Bones Break was written to address the fence of silence which my Vietnamese family and friends erected around their memories; I wanted to leave my children with a story of this history. But it was also written as a response to the dearth of Vietnam War fiction from the point of view of male Vietnamese participants, especially the majority who had loyalty to neither North nor South but merely wanted the war to be over.

Friday 14 November 2014

New & Notable

Chinese Rules:  Mao’s Dog, Deng’s Cat and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China 
By Tim Clissold

This new book, from the author of the international bestseller Mr China, explains how to do business in China – and win.

Part adventure story, part history lesson, part business book, Chinese Rules chronicles Tim Clissold’s most recent exploits of doing business in China and explains the secrets behind navigating China’s cultural and political maze.

Tim tells the story of how he built a carbon credit business in China, found himself caught between the world’s largest carbon emitter and the world’s richest man, and saved one of the biggest deals in carbon credits on behalf of a London investment firm. Backed by The Gates Foundation, he then set up a new company with Mina, his trusted lead negotiator from the first deal, but of course, not all goes to plan when you are playing by Chinese rules…

Tim intersperses his own personal story with business insights and key episodes in China’s long political and military history to uncover the five rules that anyone can use when doing business in modern China. Together, these five rules explain how to compete with China on its own terms. Rich in entertaining anecdotes, surreal scenes of cultural confusion and myth-busting insights Chinese Rules is a perfect jumping off point for anyone interested in contemporary China.

I Ching

Translated with an introduction and commentary by John Minford

With our lives changing at dizzying speed, the I Ching, or Book of Change, is increasingly consulted, in both China and the West, for answers to fundamental questions about the world and our place in it. The world's oldest extant book of divination, it dates back 3,000 years to ancient shamanistic practices involving the ritual preparation of the shoulder bones of oxen, to enable communication with the other world. A tool for the attainment of a heightened level of consciousness, it has recently been an influence on such Western cultural icons as Bob Dylan, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Philip K. Dick and Philip Pullman. Today millions around the world turn to the I Ching for insights on spiritual growth, business, medicine, genetics, game theory, strategic thinking, and leadership.

This new translation, by distinguished scholar and translator John Minford, is the result of over a decade of sustained work and a lifetime of immersion in Chinese thought. Through his introduction and commentary, Minford explores many dimensions of the I Ching, not only capturing the majesty and mystery of this legendary work, but also giving us various ways to approach it and make it our own.  With its origins in prophecy and divination, the I Ching is a system of belief, refined over thousands of years. In both East and West, more and more people are now reaching for it to find some stability in our times of uncertainty and rapid change. Informed by the latest archaeological discoveries, this translation offers the reader a potent encounter with an ancient way of seeing and experiencing the world, and an illuminating trip on the path to self-knowledge.

John Minford has translated numerous works from Chinese, including The Art of War, Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and the last two volumes of Cao Xueqin’s eighteenth-century novel The Story of the Stone. He has taught in China, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Australia. He is a professor of Chinese at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

Published by Viking, in hardback priced in local currencies. 

Also of note: the October publication, by Penguin, of The Analects of Confucius in an all-new translation by Yale historian Annping Chin. Paperback, priced in local currencies. 

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Lion City Lit: Q & A with R Ramachandran

Following on from the success of Singapore Writers Festival, we realised here at Asian Books Blog that we ought to give greater coverage to what's going on in our own backyard. The result is Lion City Lit, our new Singapore slot.  Here, Rosie Milne talks to R Ramachandran, executive director, National Book Development Council of Singapore.

Singapore aims to position itself as a centre for publishing of Asian content - it wants any writer with content relating to Asia to think of it as the place to publish. It helps that the country has four official languages: English; Chinese; Malay; Tamil. The vibrant local publishing scene is unusual in that it has houses specialising in each language. As part of its strategy to win pre-eminence in the region, the National Book Development Council makes a number of awards through the Singapore Literature Prize, which has categories in each language sector.  The 2014 awards were announced last week. I asked  Mr. Ramachandran about the tiny City-State’s big ambitions.

How does the Singapore Literature Prize contribute to raising Singapore's profile as a centre of publishing? 

Books can be eligible even if they are not published in Singapore, and the award system is geared to grow both to include books published throughout Asia, and also to include a larger number of categories and languages than at present.

Other than administering the Singapore Literature Prize, what else is the National Book Development Council doing to promote publishing in Singapore?

In order to serve as an effective centre of Asian content, we need to develop our translation resources so that Asian content in other languages can be translated into English and published in Singapore. Such translated works could be more easily marketed in the region and beyond than could books in Asian languages.  We are planning to set up a translation centre to facilitate translation of literary works into different languages.  We have also upgraded our established training body, the Academy of Literary Arts and Publishing, to develop the skills of those in the local publishing industry. 

Doesn’t the City-State’s small size and small books market limit its ambitions?

No. We publish for the world. For instance, each year we organise the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. This brings together content creators and producers, publishers, teachers, librarians and anyone interested in quality Asian content for children. The Festival carries the slogan: Asian Content for the World’s Children.  But it’s not just children’s publishing, we want all our local publishers to publish beyond the region to the world market, as do publishing houses in the US and the UK.

Have you learned from other small countries, which have had a big literary impact?  I'm thinking of Ireland.

We have not only studied Ireland, but also Israel and New Zealand, countries whose writers and creative people have made an impact on the rest of the world. The great advantage these countries have over us is a longer tradition of literature and a culture of publishing. Singapore is a migrant state, and a relatively new one, and even though our fathers and forefathers came from nations with rich cultural traditions – China, India, the Malay world - they migrated for materially better lives. Singapore’s early years were essentially spent on day-to-day matters and economic concerns were predominant. Since independence, after 50 years of post-colonial development, cultural interests have come to the fore. The growth of libraries, museums, art galleries, performing art centres, and a host of other services have emphasised the importance of the arts.

Okay, but are Singapore’s publishing ambitions driven by commerce, or culture?
Singapore has always been a commercial city and it will continue to be. But great commercial cities also emerge as centres of culture. Take London and New York in the present day, and Alexandria and Venice in earlier times. All are great examples of cities that are or were centres of the arts made possible by their commercial wealth. While commerce and banking are the foundations of wealth in Singapore, it has also realised the important part culture plays in people’s lives and is committed to nurture Singapore as a global city of the arts. The government has spent billions developing arts infrastructure, for example setting up the National Arts Council, the Media Development Authority, the School of the Arts, LaSalle College of the Arts, and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, to train, nurture and support creative talent.

An international publishing industry needs an international rights marketplace. Are there any plans for Singapore to develop a books fair and rights market?  
Yes, the Singapore Book Publishers Association is planning to set up such a fair. The Book Council hopes to be involved in this effort. Meanwhile, the Book Council has developed a marketplace for children’s contents called Media Mart as part of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. We want Media Mart to become known as the foremost regional rights fair for children’s content.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

This Week In The Asian Review Of Books / Murakami Wins Welt Literature Prize

Asian Books Blog is not a review site.  If you want reviews, see the Asian Review of Books.  Here is a list of its newest reviews:

City of Darkness Revisited by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot reviewed by Mark L. Clifford
From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army: The Experience of Chinese Labourers in Russia during the First World War and Bolshevik Revolution by Mark O’Neill reviewed by Juan José Morales
Living Karma: The Religious Practices of Ouyi Zhixu by Beverley Foulks McGuire reviewed by John Butler
The Battle of Penang: World War One in the Far East by JR Robertson reviewed by Tim O'Connell

Also, over in Germany Haruki Murakami has been awarded the Welt Literature Prize.  Click here for coverage in the Japan Times.

Monday 10 November 2014

Gentlemen, Samurai, and Germans in China / guest post by Oleg Benesch

Oxford University Press has recently published Inventing the Way of The Samurai, by Oleg Benesch. The book offers a re-evaluation of some of the longest-standing myths about Japanese thought and culture. Oleg Benesch here further explains…

One hundred years ago today, far from the erupting battlefields of Europe, a small German force in the city of Tsingtau (Qingdao), Germany’s most important possession in China, was preparing for an impending siege. The small fishing village of Qingdao and the surrounding area had been reluctantly leased to the German Empire by the Chinese government for 99 years in 1898, and German colonists soon set about transforming this minor outpost into a vibrant city boasting many of the comforts of home, including the forerunner of the now-famous Tsingtao Brewery. By 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region. Given its further role as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy, however, Qingdao was unable to avoid becoming caught up in the faraway European war.
The forces that besieged Qingdao in the autumn of 1914 were composed of troops from Britain and Japan, the latter entering the war against Germany in accord with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Alliance had been agreed in 1902 amid growing anxiety in Britain regarding its interests in East Asia, and rapidly modernizing Japan was seen as a useful ally in the region. For Japanese leaders, the signing of such an agreement with the most powerful empire of the day was seen as a major diplomatic accomplishment and an acknowledgement of Japan’s arrival as one of the world’s great powers. More immediately, the Alliance effectively guaranteed the neutrality of third parties in Japan’s looming war with Russia, and Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sent shockwaves across the globe as the first defeat of a great European empire by a non-Western country in a conventional modern war.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: New Books from Ethos

On the last day here at Singapore Writers Festival local publishing house Ethos launched two new poetry titles - with a twist.  Each anthology was produced entirely by Singapore's next generation of poets, fresh new voices from the creative writing programmes at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and The National University of Singapore (NUS).

NUS students offered Red Pulse 11: poetry to a local beat, edited by Kevin Lam and Tan Xian Yeow. Thanks to Singapore's minuscule size on the world map, its inhabitants often refer to it, affectionately, as The Little Red Dot. Kevin and Xian Yeow explained that their title turns the dot into a pulse, to reflect Singapore's dynamism, the furious pace of life here, and the constant movement.

You can't get much faster than an F1 race. Kevin presented his wonderfully zooming poem The Singapore Grand Prix - presented, not read, because this is a poem that has escaped text, and gone roaring off into the digital world.  You can experience its multimedia energy by clicking here and scrolling down 

Xiang Yeow read Definition of Long-Kang noun. A long-kang is a monsoon drain, and in the poem a man recalls the pleasure he derived, as a boy, from catching guppies in a long-kang, and his disappointment when his mother rebuffed his gift of those guppies by warning him long-kangs are dangerous.  In the present, he is disturbed to find the long-kang has been cemented over. 

NTU students offered Kepulauan, edited by Zhang Jieqiang, Hidhir Razak and Marcus Tan Yi-hern. Hidhir explained that pulau is Malay for island, whilst kepulauan is Malay for archipelago, their title thus plays with ideas about insularity and isolation, as well as making a geographical reference to the once Malay, now Indonesian, archipelago.

On Tuesday the Singapore Literature Prize for English language poetry was awarded jointly to two men,  Joshua Ip and Yong Shu Hoong, much to the disgust of Grace Chia, who was a contender for her collection Cordelia - click here for full details. Consequently, accusations of gender bias in the local poetry scene have been flying about all week.  At this evening's launch, the moderator, Ng Kah Gay, from Ethos books, alluded to the controversy when he challenged all the editors to explain why neither anthology had a single female editor. Hidhir and Xian Yeow each denied there was anything sinister going on. Hidhir said Kepulauan had initially had some women editors, but they had dropped out for various reasons. Xiang Yeow said Red Pulse 11 had plenty of female input from NUS staff.

Given this background, it was great to hear young women poets taking to the mic with confidence. Debra Khng, a contributor to Red Pulse 11, sang a poem about Robert Frost, to the accompaniment of a guitar. Shane Lim Han Jung, a contributor to Kepulauan, read a spiky challenge to unthinking acceptance of the strategies of nation building - a live subject of discussion in Singapore, which won independence only 50 years ago. The Merlion, a mixed creature, half lion, half fish, dreamed up by a marketing man, was for many years used by the Singapore Tourist Board as logo. Shane Lim Han Jung's poem Merlion addressed ideas about Singaporean identity, and explored the extent to which manufactured myths are believed.

At the close of the evening Ng Kah Gay commented that anybody wanting to get both anthologies signed by all the authors would have a long time to wait.  Likewise, it is difficult to mention all the contributors in a single blog post. But Red Pulse 11, and Kepulauan show the future of poetry in Singapore is, as they say, as bright as the tropical sun!

Saturday 8 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: A Packed Saturday

Today at Singapore Writers Festival was packed to say the least! 

I began the day at a panel discussion Translated Literature: A dynamic Conversation. The highlight of this, for me, was hearing Hungarian-born, British-resident, English-language poet George Szirtes reading in Hungarian, a language in which I couldn't even recognise sounds as words - it reminded me of hearing Chinese for the first time, when I was similarly clueless as to which sounds made words.

I then went to a panel Love Stories, which paired two bestselling women writers, UK novelist Adele Parks, and Indian author Ira Trivedi, whose latest book, India in Love: marriage and sexuality in the 21st century  is an examination of contemporary attitudes to love, sex and marriage in India. 

After that I caught part of a discussion Morality And Writing, which was about the role, or otherwise, of writers and literature in "teaching" values.  All the panellists, including internationally-acclaimed Karen Joy Fowler, were much taken with a metaphor suggested by Singaporean-Malay novelist Isa Kamari, who said he thought novels need not be about drawing bold lines, but could rely on dotted lines, with the interesting things happening between the dots - including discussion on morality.

Next I went to hear Geoff Dyer, a British essayist previously unknown to me, in conversation with Robin Hemley, head of a local creative writing programme linked to Yale, which has a campus in Singapore. Dyer read a very funny passage about attending a  fashion show in Paris, whilst knowing nothing about couture. I now intend to seek out his books. 

I finished my day at another event featuring Adele Parks, also Indian novelist Ashwini Devare, and Straits Chinese novelist Lee Su Kim.  The formal topic of discussion was Women At The Crossroads, and the three authors  explained how this meant different things in their three different cultures - the most impassioned advocacy on behalf of women came from Devare, who pointed out that 50% of women in rural India are still illiterate, still have few choices, or chances, and have yet to reach any of those crossroads women in other parts of the world take for granted - whether to marry, whether to have children, and so on. 

Friday 7 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: New Books from Monsoon

Singapore publishing house Monsoon has launched four new titles at the Singapore Writers Festival coupling two debut novelists, PP Wong (The Life of a Banana) and KH Lim (Written in Black), and two seasoned novelists, Patricia Snel (The Expat) and SP Hozy (The Scarlet Macaw). Raelee Chapman reports.

London born and schooled Singaporean based author PP Wong’s first, and autobiographical, novel The Life of a Banana is about growing up as what some Chinese call a banana – yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Wong describes her novel as primarily about racial bullying and told the audience about her own experience when, at age eight, as a tall Chinese girl with a strong sense of justice, she tried to break up a fight between to two boys who then began to racially vilify her. Wong is also an actor, and after describing to a famous South East Asian film director her experiences of being bullied as a child, he replied: “Weren’t we all?” This prompted her to begin to collect other horrific examples of bullying from fellow bananas abroad, and to start thinking about a novel to encapsulate their feelings of isolation, of not being popular, and not knowing where you fit in. Wong read for the crowd two very funny passages, in one the main protagonist, Xing Li, goes shopping with her grandmother and watches mortified as her embarrassing relative causes a scene on public transport, in the other Xing Li feels uneasy in a school history lesson, when the content  fails to reflect her own ancestors' experience.

KH Lim’s debut novel, Written In Black, is a coming of age novel set in his native Brunei. Phil Tatham, Monsoon’s founder, and moderator for the evening, pointed out that so few novels are set in Brunei this one is naturally intriguing. He added that when Lim was pitching the novel he claimed all his patients loved it - Phil later found out Lim is a pathologist! Lim himself explained that after an earlier unsuccessful attempt to write a novel he worked out that for a story to be really successful it should have some basis in reality. He decided then to pillage from what he knew best – his home country. He was also aware that barely anything is written about Brunei. Lim describes the major themes in his novel as exploring self-determination versus consequentialism, however, he assured the crowd that it is not all grim and includes much humour - as an afterthought he described Written in Black as Kafka combined with Calvin and Hobbes. The novel features a dysfunctional family and Lim said that while his own family are relatively normal (they were in the crowd!) a dysfunctional family made sense because it meant the main protagonist is not too perfect, and must rise above his problems and soldier on. 

The two more established  Monsoon authors, Patricia Snel and SP Hozy have both used Singapore as the setting for their most recent books.

Snel's The Expat, originally written in Dutchhas sold over 50,000 copies in Holland. It is a story based loosely on news headlines about human trafficking. Snel said that the story is a blend of fantasy and reality which she started when she was living in Singapore and witnessed - through her bird watching binoculars - a man hitting a woman in a neighbouring condominium. In a strange twist the neighbour then in turn started spying on her! This blend of strange reality, and headlines grabbed straight from the newspapers, enabled the bones of a novel to take shape.  Snel now  aims to turn her novels and short stories into screenplays. There is already talk of a film of The Expat - Snel said it will undoubtedly be filmed in Singapore which pleased the crowd!

Canadian author SP Hozy’s literary novel The Scarlett Macaw presents two entwined mysteries that unfold over two different time periods in Singapore, one in the present day and the other in the 1920s. The contemporary mystery concerns an artist named Maris who is shattered by the death of her mentor, gallery owner Peter Stone. Stone left Maris a trunk of old letters and books by British author E. Sutcliffe Moresby (based on W. Somerset Maugham). The letters tell of  a tragic love story. Hozy read a passage about a newlywed couple caught in the Botanic Gardens during one of Singapore’s torrential downpours. Afterwards, as the couple head home in a rickshaw, they witness an elderly Chinese woman dying in the street; the earlier carefree moments they spent enjoying the splendour of the gardens have gone, and the bride realises she and all others are at the mercy of strangers.

With long signing queues and a large turnout, these four authors can feel assured their new novels will be future book club favourites.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: Ministry of Moral Panic Wins Prize

A quick update from the Singapore Writers Festival where it has been announced Amanda Lee Koe has won the English language section of the Singapore Literature Prize for her debut collection of short stories, Ministry of Moral Panic.

Click here for coverage in The Straits Times.
Click  here for my review in Asian Review of Books.

Monday 3 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: New Books From Epigram

Singapore publishing house Epigram Books has launched two new titles at the Singapore Writers Festival: The Space Between the Raindrops by Justin Ker and Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and Other Stories, a collection of short stories from one of Singapore’s most illustrious poets, Cyril Wong. Raelee Chapman reports.

The Space Between the Raindrops is a collection of forty-two pieces of flash fiction. Justin Ker said he likes the form as it condenses difficult ideas into something tight and concisely written. He added it is a great form for writers who have only an hour here or there to write – and he works full time as a doctor, so he should know!  He gathers ideas for stories on early morning runs, then returns home and jots them down; he said that not having much time is exactly what you need to distill your ideas. His flash fiction focuses on stolen moments - the space between the raindrops of his title - and he shared with the crowd his recollection of one such stolen moment, the seed of the story Open Reduction Internal Fixation. Justin was assisting in surgery to mend the hipbone of a 100-year-old woman and his colleague asked him to reach out and touch the bone. Justin asked the crowd: “Have you ever felt a 100-year-old bone? Bones are a record of all the experiences and weights we have ever borne throughout life, whether it be carrying a child or a sack of rice.”  

Cyril Wong explained the stories in Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me concern that which may lie beyond a closed door, or a shut window. He read from the title story, a moving, semi-autobiographical account of the God-awful relationship he had with his father.  The passage described the teenage protagonist being driven home from catechism class by his father; the teenager begins singing along to the radio in a loud falsetto; a boiling point is reached as the father can no longer ignore his son’s burgeoning homosexuality.

Cyril recently announced he was considering stopping writing. Thankfully, he seems to have changed his mind.  He said he will always write poetry - he likes to text himself lines throughout the day, as they come to him. He said he is always writing, always has a blank word document open  - even if it stays blank for some time the cursor sitting there blinking at him prompts him to write. However, he said he no longer feels the desire to publish, or the need to support a culture that does not support him. 

This week in the Asian Review of Books

Asian Books Blog is not a review site.  If you want reviews, see the Asian Review of Books.  Here is a list of its newest reviews, plus links to original short fiction on-line, and its latest commentary on the current situation:

Sunday 2 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: China, Literary Powerhouse

Day three of the Singapore Writers Festival included an English-language panel discussion: China - a new super (literary) powerhouse?  Moderator Phil Tatham, publisher at Monsoon Books, didn’t mention the strange use of brackets, but he did point out that the question mark was not necessary; there is no doubt China is a literary powerhouse.  That established, the panellists, who both write in Chinese, were free to explore the ways in which, through translation, Chinese literature can act as a bridge between cultures, and can engage and interact with readerships globally.

The panellists were Dorothy Tse, who is Hong Kong Chinese, and Zhang Ling, who was born in Zhejiang Province, but who now lives in Canada – she was the first overseas Chinese to be awarded China’s People’s Literature Award. Oddly, there was no Mainland Chinese writer on the panel.

Tse’s third book, Snow and Shadow, a collection of surreal stories set in a fantastical version of her hometown, is available in English through Hong Kong University Press.  Tse read an extract from the story Blessed Bodies, set in Y-land, a place famous for its sex industry, where men who otherwise couldn’t afford the prostitutes can barter their own limbs for sex – the amputated limbs are sold on.  Tse then discussed differences between Hong Kong writers, and Mainland writers.  She said she thought Mainland writers knew they had a large home market, and so they worried about meeting the demands of that market, whereas Hong Kong is so small, that its writers do not think of it as a market at all, and thus they take risks and experiment, free of commercial pressures.

Zhang read from her novel Gold Mountain Blues, which is available in English through Penguin Canada.  It is an historical novel chronicling the lives of five generations of a Chinese family originally from Guangdong Province, but soon transplanted to Gold Mountain, the Chinese name for Canada’s West Coast. Zhang explained that she cannot pin down her own identity:  in China they call her Canadian-Chinese; in Canada they call her Chinese-Canadian; she speaks English in her daily life outside the home, but Mandarin within the home; she dreams in Mandarin, but tells her Canadian friends her dreams in English.

Co-incidentally, both authors share a translator, Nicky Harman, who also contributed an introduction to Snow and Shadow.  They discussed the pleasures and perils of working with a translator, with Zhang telling how her French translator insisted on disambiguating the ambiguities of Chinese – ambiguities both she and Tse said they relished. 

Tse said she was relaxed about mistranslations. She made the point that readers often misread texts in their own language – misreadings, she said, are part of reading, and can have interesting, fruitful results, and she felt the same about mistranslation.  That’s a positive attitude that could surely serve writers well, throughout Asia?

Saturday 1 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: History Day

Highlights from the second day of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) included two sessions on history.

In the panel discussion The World Before Singapore moderator Lai Chee Kien initiated a conversation that ranged from the myths surrounding Singapore’s past, to the continuities between the Singapore of the 1840s, and of today, to ethical dilemmas faced by historical novelists.The panellists were: John Miksic, an archaeologist, and the author of many books, including, most recently, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea; John Van Wyhe, an historian of science who has written extensively on Alfred Russell Wallace, the great 19th Century naturalist who based himself in Singapore for several years, during which time he explored the region, resulting in his famous book, The Malay Archipelago; Malay novelist Isa Kamari, some of whose novels, including 1819, are available in English, through Malaysian publisher, Silverfish.

Miksic addressed head-on the myth that before Raffles landed on Singapore the island was a barely inhabited haunt of pirates.  Van Wyhe pointed out that every branch of knowledge has its own myths, commenting that if people think they know anything about Wallace at all, then what they think they know is usually wrong.  Isa Kamari considered a problem faced by historical novelists everywhere: to what extent, if any, should they stick to the (so-called) facts?  

Later in the day another history-oriented panel made reference to Salman Rushdie's 1982 article The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance. How did, or how do, post-colonial voices respond to their experience of colonialism?  That, roughly, was the subject of The Empire Writes Back, moderated by Neil Murphy, who is currently writing a book on John Banville and art. The three panellists were: Singaporean Walter Woon, whose novels explore the experience of the Straits Chinese community in Singapore in the lead up to independence; Australian Dawn Farnham, whose novels are set in colonial Singapore; Kamila Shamsie, the UK-based Pakistani internationally-renowned author of Burnt Shadows, and more recently of A God in Every Stone, set in Europe and Peshawar, during the early part of the last century.

Members of the audience asked some really interesting questions.  One person seemed to be asking whether it was time for us to start re-evaluating the legacy of colonialism, and to look for the good things it brought to colonised people.  This prompted a politely angry response from Shamsie, who made the point that colonialism was a morally bankrupt system – she added the fact that some men were nice did not render patriarchy morally acceptable.  Who would disagree?  But I thought the questioner was trying to suggest that we should consider the way colonial innovations / impositions - perhaps such as railways and the civil service? - brought continuing benefits to local communities, and opening up that conversation, rather than shutting it down by invoking the moral bankruptcy of colonialism might have been interesting. There was also much discussion of when we’ll move on from talking about post-colonialism. Shamsie said she thinks if people applied to her the label post-independence writer that might be more accurate than post-colonial writer.  It might be even better if people stopped applying labels to writers at all, but that's another story...