Amongst many other achievements, writer, editor, arts entrepreneur, and charity activist Cheryl Robson founded Aurora Metro Books, which has offices in London, Sydney, and Singapore, where she is now based. Aurora Metro is strong in non-fiction titles relating to the arts, in biography, and in fiction for young adults. It also has an exciting adult fiction list, including debut novels from many new voices; it is particularly keen to champion previously unpublished women writers. The company is committed to bringing non-English-language writers to an English readership in good, accessible translations. Authors from over 20 countries are represented in its lists, and many of its translated titles are available in English for the first time.
I asked Cheryl about her life and about Aurora Metro, and its big ambitions.
What brought you to Singapore, and how long have you been here?
I’ve been coming to Singapore for four years due to my husband Steve’s job, establishing a Change Management Company here which operates in financial services. I’ve also spent quite a lot of time visiting other countries in South-East Asia, and in Australia, where I was born. As a publisher based in London, I decided to use my time here to meet and develop relationships with writers in the region. I’ve taken part in writers’ festivals and conferences, as well as talks, and I've even organised a few book launches here.
Now you are here, how does it work with Aurora Metro?
I’m in daily contact with my publishing office in London usually about marketing, production, finance or staff. As an editor, it’s easy to work on projects by email and with Skype you can call into the office for regular chats. I go back to Europe every other month to catch up and attend events such as London Book Fair or Frankfurt Book Fair.
I’ve just sent a new book to print in the UK called Liberty Bazaar which is an historical novel about Liverpool’s role in the American Civil War. It’s due out in May by a debut author called David Chadwick and we have a PR person promoting it in UK in the summer and a PR person in USA promoting it in the autumn.
I have also printed some of our books and catalogues in Singapore, but found the cost of shipping copies back to UK or US prohibitive.
One consequence of being in the region is that I’ve met some of the festival programmers from other countries. One of our authors, a Canadian, Avi Sirlin, has recently been invited to take part in the Ubud Writers’ Festival due to my meeting with Janet de Neefe, the organiser. His novel, The Evoluntionist, concerns Alfred Russel Wallace, the little-known Victorian naturalist who co-discovered the theory of evolution with Darwin, and who spent many years collecting specimens in Malaysia and Indonesia.
What do you think of English-language publishing in Singapore?
There are many good writers in English. Some of the work is very local and aimed at Singaporeans. Singlish? Yes, it helps to create authenticity especially if you are writing for a Singaporean audience. But don’t over use it if you want a wider readership.
For others whose work might appeal to audiences beyond the local region, it’s a shame that their work isn’t generally available abroad. Some of them would also benefit from travel to up their game by meeting with foreign writers, academics and critics and becoming part of the global writing community. I congratulate PP Wong on her book The Life of a Banana which has been longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and I hope this generates more interest in writers from South East Asia. (See here for more on PP Wong.)
I’m told that TV in the region suffers from a lack of good content and I’d like to see some kind of initiative for publishers or authors to meet with programme-makers to pitch stories as this could lead to useful creative collaborations.
I’d like to see more translation work happening between languages so that I could appreciate work which was written in Malay, Bahasa or Mandarin, for example. A translation programme of some kind with funding attached to translate the best work each year into at least one other language would be useful - although English and Mandarin clearly have the biggest markets and would be the most viable.
Leaving issues of free speech and censorship aside, what do you think the publishing industry in Asia needs if it is to grow, whether it is offering books in English, or in local languages?
It seems that authors are published too early in many cases without enough editorial work being done to improve the manuscript for publication. This doesn’t really help an author in the long-term as it lowers the bar for what is acceptable to publish and doesn’t present the work in the best way. Some authors here are more aware of the need for marketing than others - some seem to think it’s unnecessary. I stood in line after a talk at last year’s Singapore Writers Festival but the author failed to turn up at the signing for his own books, although there was a queue of people waiting to meet him.
Some local publishers are very helpful such as Amir Mohammed at Buku Fixi in Kuala Lumpur. But in some cases local publishers fail to follow up. Also, they often don’t have samples of the text in English, so even if you’re interested, there’s no way of assessing the text without incurring costs. If you are looking for new material and you regularly receive samples in English of books from countries where this is standard, then you’re more likely to consider those, which puts Asian books at a disadvantage.
Asia is a region where the freedom to say what you like, about anything you like, is rarely granted. Do you think that being forced to work within local guidelines is a creative constraint on writers, or just a constraint?
I have published writers from Eastern Europe who were under far more stringent constraints than in Singapore and they found a way to express themselves, using allegory, symbolism, sci-fi, dystopia etc. Writers and artists find ways round these limitations. I can’t speak for publishers in the region, who may be reliant on public funding, but I’m not subject to these constraints. As we publish books in London, there’s no censorship, so editors act as the gatekeepers.
I notice you publish the play, Women of Asia, and the novel The River’s Song, by one of Singapore’s most distinguished writers, Suchen Christine Lim. Can you talk a little bit about these titles?
Women of Asia by American-Japanese playwright Asa Palomera was published to coincide with a production in Singapore. It had been produced internationally already with good reviews and had won an award in Melbourne. It is a hard-hitting drama about the treatment of women in Asia, and deals with sex trafficking and bride burning in India. I’m currently looking for other plays from the region which might have international appeal – and could be produced abroad.
The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim is a wonderful novel about the rise of Singapore and the human cost of the country’s transformation in relation to the communities which were cleared away from along the river banks into public housing. It’s told through the eyes of an American-Singaporean musician who returns after 30 years to visit her mother.
The book was sent to me by Jacaranda Literary Agents who have been really helpful in terms of advice and information about the scene here. Suchen, the author, will be taking part in the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in August and has been invited to participate in the International Writers’ Program in Iowa, USA, where her novel is taught on the curriculum.
Do you now intend to grow a list of books about Asia? If so, are you looking for anything in particular? Fiction? Non-fiction? Theatre and the arts? All of the above?
I’m looking for books or plays which might appeal to an international audience as we have distribution in English-language markets worldwide, and in Europe. I look for a writer with an individual voice - and either a new story to tell, or an old story being told in a new way.
We also published a book about women in film recently, Celluloid Ceiling; women film directors breaking through, which is the first book to give a global overview of the film industry and women’s role within it. There are chapters on Asia and China within it mentioning Asian women film directors and raising their profile internationally. We also look for contributors for non-fiction books, mainly academics or journalists.
Has Aurora Metro published any works originally written in Asian languages? If not, any plans to rectify that?
We’ve published one dual language play text in English and Mandarin, called The Dutiful Daughter by Charles Way.
To publish work in translation generally requires some kind of subsidy to cover the costs of the translation. Translated work can be hard to sell in the UK and is often not commercially viable without a subsidy. Translators usually send me samples of novels or plays which they’d like to translate and if I’m interested in the material I often apply for a grant to cover the cost of the translation, where possible. European countries have funding to enable this, but many Asian countries don’t. This limits the chances of work in those languages crossing borders unless the translator is willing to translate the work for free or reduced fees.
Aurora Metro is proud to support women writers. What, if anything, do you think publishers in the West can do to help support women writers in Asia, especially women who are living in countries with poorly developed publishing industries?
I think that with the internet, writers can access many opportunities around the world. Our competition for women novelists, The Virginia Prize for Fiction, is open to any woman writer over 18 who has an unpublished novel in English. There are many writing competitions, fellowships and awards available. Personally, I’d be happy to run some workshops while I’m here to give feedback on scripts - I used to do this for a Creative Writing course with the City Lit in London and also for students at Middlesex University.
If you were forced to pick one Aurora Metro title to recommend to readers in Asia, which would it be, and why?
The River’s Song would be my first choice but after that I’d suggest Pomegranate Sky by Louise Soraya Black which is a love story set in Tehran at the time of the revolution. It concerns a young woman who is having an illicit affair with her art teacher. The novel was the first winner of our Virginia Prize competition - the author is a lawyer who had written her first book during a career break to have a baby. Incidentally, Louise Soraya Black went to school in Indonesia, and her parents are originally from Iran.
Do you have any advice for unpublished authors in Asia, whether they are writing in English, or in Asian languages, and whether they are men, or women?
I’d suggest thinking about writing for an international audience and finding a good editor who will tell you honestly what needs to be improved. If you can’t find an editor then send your manuscript off for appraisal to an established literary consultancy website which offers editorial advice. I’ve never had a manuscript arrive on my desk which could not benefit from some polishing, editing down, rewriting or revision.