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.