Monday, 11 December 2017

500 words from Todd Crowell

500 words from is an occasional series in which authors talk about their newly-published books.

Todd Crowell is an American journalist. He has worked for news magazines in Asia for over two decades, with stints in Hong Kong, Thailand and now Japan, where he serves as country correspondent for Asia Sentinel. He has written three earlier books: Explore Macau; Farewell, My Colony: Last Years in the Life of British Hong Kong; and Tokyo: City on the Edge.

There is no single Asian language, of course, but The Dictionary of the Asian Language explains facets of Asian life, culture, arts, politics, and business through exploring words from Asian languages now being absorbed into English. The bite-sized entries are funny as well as informative, they include: discussion of a flower named after former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il; the Chinese word shengnu, literally leftover, for the new phenomenon of unmarried women over thirty; explication of the differences between jeepney and jilbab, and between yakuza and yellowshirts.

So, over to Todd, to talk about The Dictionary of the Asian Language...

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Elaine Chiew converses with multi-talented Bernice Chauly, author of Once We Were There



Photo courtesy of Daniel Adams
Bernice Chauly may be no stranger to readers in Asia but here AsianBooksBlog has the pleasure of talking to her about her first foray into the novel form and the challenges she found in writing her book Once We Were There.

Bernice Chauly is a Malaysian writer, poet, educator and festival director. Born in George Town to Chinese and Punjabi teachers, she read education and English literature in Canada as a government scholar. She is the author of six books of poetry and prose: going there and coming back (1997), The Book of Sins (2008), Lost in KL (2008), Growing Up with Ghosts (2011), which won the Readers’ Choice Awards 2012 in the non-fiction category, and a third collection of poems, Onkalo (2013), described by J.M. Coetzee as ‘direct, honest and powerful’. 

For 20 years she worked as a multidisciplinary artist and is recognised as one of the most significant voices of her generation. Since 2011 she has served the director of the George Town Literary Festival, shortlisted at the International Excellence Awards at the London Book Fair 2017, and is an Honorary Fellow in Writing from the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (2014). She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. She is also the founder and director of the KL Writers Workshop. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Once We Were There, was published in 2017 by Epigram Books (Singapore-London) and won the inaugural Penang Monthly Book Prize.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star: guest post by Vaseem Khan

You never know what will happen when you turn the page…UK-based Mulholland Books publishes crime, suspense and thriller novels you’ll find difficult to put down. Somebody in the editorial department must have an interest in Asia, as the imprint is home to both Adi Tantimedh, who wrote a guest post earlier this week, and Vaseem Khan, who does so today. 
Vaseem was born in London, spent a decade working in India, and now works at University College London’s Department of Security and Crime Science. His passions include cricket, literature, and elephants – which he first encountered on a street in Mumbai, a sight that stayed with him, and, eventually, inspired his Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series, featuring retired Inspector Ashwin Chopra, and his baby elephant sidekick, Ganesha. Together, Inspector Chopra and Ganesha investigate the dark side of Mumbai.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Oxford University Press Pakistan launches piracy awareness song

Oxford University Press Pakistan (OUP) believes book piracy poses a major threat to the local book publishing industry and is hence actively involved in efforts to curb this menace in Pakistan.

As a part of its continuous Copyright Awareness programme, OUP launched the video of the song Lafz written, composed, and performed by the singer and social activist, Shehzad Roy. The song was launched at an intellectual property training workshop for judicial members organised by multiple interested agencies within Pakistan.

Kwame Anthony Appiah to chair the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The New York-based philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist Kwame Anthony Appiah has just been named chair of the judges for the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, one of the most prestigious awards for fiction written in English. The Prize turns 50 next year, and during this significant anniversary Appiah will lead a panel of five judges in choosing the winner from eligible novels published between 1 October 2017 and 30 September 2018.

Kwame Anthony Appiah said: "Who could resist an invitation to join a diverse and distinguished group of fellow readers to explore together the riches of a year of Anglophone fiction, drawn from around the world?  The excitement around the prize can help draw attention to brilliant books and worthy writers and creates one of the more interesting literary conversations each year.  I'm delighted to contribute to that process."

Monday, 4 December 2017

Her Beautiful Monster: guest post by Adi Tantimedh

You never know what will happen when you turn the page…UK-based Mulholland Books publishes crime, suspense and thriller novels you’ll find difficult to put down. Somebody in the editorial department must have an interest in Asia, as the imprint is home to both Adi Tantimedh and Vaseem Khan, both of whom will be writing guest posts this week.  First up: Adi

Adi Tantimedh is of Chinese-Thai descent; he grew up in Singapore and London, and now lives in New York. He has written radio plays, television scripts, and Hollywood screenplays, as well graphic novels and commentary about pop culture.  He is currently writing a series of novels featuring British-Indian Ravi Chandra Singh, a most unlikely private investigator.

A failed religious scholar, Ravi now works for Golden Sentinels, a gleefully amoral private investigators’ agency. On the job, his attempts to do the right thing often result in mayhem. He has visions of Hindu gods, and thinks he might be going mad, which doesn’t help when it comes to solving crimes.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Six images of Chinese wallpaper

Chinese wallpaper has been an important element of western interior decoration for three hundred years. As trade between Europe and China flourished in the seventeenth century, Europeans developed a strong taste for Chinese art and design. The stunningly beautiful wall coverings now known as Chinese wallpaper were developed by Chinese painting workshops in response to western demand.

Despite their spectacular beauty, Chinese wallpapers have not been studied by European scholars in any depth until relatively recently. Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland, by Emile de Bruijn, changes that. It provides an overview of some of the most significant surviving Chinese wallpapers in private and public ownership in the British Isles. Sumptuously illustrated, it shows how these wallpapers became a staple ingredient of high-end interiors.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Journey to the West / guest post by Melanie Ho

Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese soprano in the world of Italian opera, by Hong Kong-based author and journalist Melanie Ho, is the first biography of China's first prima donna - arguably the most successful Western opera singer to come out of China. Soprano He Hui has made some of the biggest roles in Italian opera her own, including the title role in Madam Butterfly. Her story is one of East meeting West, and of East and West living alongside each other. It begins in her hometown of Xi’an, China, and moves on to Verona, her adopted Italian home. Along the way to stardom He Hui overcomes challenges, and rejection.

Melanie Ho here offers a brief overview of He Hui's journey.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

StoryDrive Asia 2017

StoryDrive Asia is a conference dedicated to exploring new forms of collaboration, and developing new business models, across media and publishing boundaries in Asia. It is organised by the Frankfurt Book Fair, in collaboration with regional partners, and it is attended by professionals working in the print, audio, film, and TV sectors.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Backlist books: Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Hobor that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia.

This post is about Noli Me Tangere (aka The Social Cancer), an idealistic novel written to expose the injustices suffered by Filipinos at the hands of the theoretically poor, chaste and obedient Spanish friars during the colonial period.

Written in Spanish, published in Berlin in 1887 and banned in the Philippines, it nevertheless reached its target audience. Although the author seems to have preferred reform to armed revolution, violent radicals made him their figurehead, and at the age of 35 he was martyred for the Filipino nationalist cause.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read Noli Me Tangere, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Final SWF Roundup: Imagining Asia, The Absurdity in Everyday Life; Hope and Resistance in the Age of Dystopia. Reflections by Elaine Chiew




Imagining Asia


Panel on Imagining Asia, featuring (L to R) Tash Aw, Madeleine Thien, Boey Kim Cheng and
University of London Professor of Humanities Roger Kain, courtesy of Elaine Chiew

Rabindranath Tagore had a construct for Asia; he called it “a continental mind of Asia.” Asia thus was conceived as more than geographical landmass and the surrounding oceans, but even mapping it geographically can prove tricky as its Western borders are conjoined with Europe.  Asia as a continent also encompasses a multitude of languages, cultures, ethnicities, religious practices, economic pursuits and livelihoods. Keep in mind also the strategic configuration of powers and militarism which accompanied the formation of ASEAN, APEC and various other regional affiliations, as well that the turn-of-the-century ideological conception of Asia as envisioned by Okakura Kakuzõ in Ideals of the East was as a foil of the East against the encroachments of the West, already forecasting Japan’s military ambitions at that time.  Thus, returning to the question of “imagining Asia” and specifically how Asian writers like Tash Aw, Madeleine Thien and Boey Kim Cheng imagine Asia, already implicate deeper framing issues of how long we will remain locked within this semantical conception of Asia as a singular, cohesive entity, Asians who are immigrants to the West as writers with fragmented identities, and all of this understood with reference to the West. 


Friday, 10 November 2017

SWF WRITER FOCUS: Elaine Chiew interviews Singapore-based Filipino writer Victor Fernando Ocampo

For every writer, once in a rare while, a book comes along and really shakes you up, where (instead of that height/ceiling metaphor) I’d like to say instead, the floor drops on which you thought the legs of fiction stood.   Victor Fernando Ocampo’s The Infinite Library and Other Stories did that for me.  The ideas that power this collection are not just incredibly imaginative, they also weave a hybrid crossing through magical realism, allegory and science fiction, that ‘synchronicity’ Ocampo mentions in one of his stories.  Rendered in prose that bears a unique voice, and also dark subtle humour in surprising turns of phrases, this collection is an invitation to a labyrinth for thought.

First an introduction to Victor:

Victor Fernando R. Ocampo is a Singapore-based Filipino writer. He is the author of The Infinite Library and Other Stories (Math Paper Press, 2017) and Here be Dragons (Canvas Press, 2015), which won the Romeo Forbes Children’s Story Award in 2012.  

Monday, 6 November 2017

Singapore Writers Festival Day 3. Aram and World Conflicts/Sci-Fi and the Fate of Humanity by Elaine Chiew


Aram in the Age of Cultural and Cross-Border Conflicts, courtesy Elaine Chiew
The panel entitled Aram in the Age of Cultural and Cross-Border Conflicts, moderated by TV presenter Greta Georges, opened to a room so packed, it was standing three-deep in the back.  But the panel appeared to have gotten mired in the thicket of translation of the meaning of 'Aram'.  Using the English translation of Aram as 'the good life', the panelists Héctor Abad, Koh Buck Song, and Suki Kim, whose credentials range from human rights memoirist (Abad), literary editor, non-fiction writer of 30 books and poet (Koh) to undercover investigative journalism (Kim) tackled it from three countries’ perspectives – Colombia, Singapore and North Korea, respectively. 


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Singapore Writers Festival: Day 2 Highlights by Elaine Chiew

Between Brexit and the Deep Blue Sea Panel, courtesy Elaine Chiew


Okay, Brexit.  Day Two. This time from the Irish perspective, entitled Between Brexit and the Deep Blue Sea: The Irish Perspective on a Divided Europe.  The panel of Cat Brogan, Claire Keegan and Paul McVeigh, as moderated by avuncular host, Neil Murphy, raised many interesting points to consider.  Brogan and McVeigh are from Northern Ireland, whereas Keegan is from the Republic of Ireland and Brexit impacts them differently.  

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Singapore Writers Festival: Opening Night with Irish focus by Elaine Chiew

Opening Ceremony, Yeow Kai Chai. Courtesy of Elaine Chiew
With every year that it’s held, the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) gets bigger, more ambitious, and more prominent – this year featuring close to 500 writers (of all stripes – from poets to playwrights, non-fiction writers to musicians of the written word) and from around the world, with Ireland being the country of special focus.  

The theme of Aram (which means “to do good”) is the first ever Tamil theme for the festival and takes its inspiration from the widely revered literary work in Tamil – Thirukkurai; aptly, this year SWF aims to focus on ethical quandaries and moral conundrums. Lo, how “particularly pertinent in a world [of]…increasing…fragmentation and polarisation, where it gets harder for people to agree to disagree,” as guest of honour, Ms Sim Ann, the Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and Ministry of Trade and Industry says.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Eastbridge Books by John Ross

Camphor Press is a UK-based publisher specialising in English language books about East Asia, particularly Taiwan.  The company recently acquired an American company, EastBridge, and is now making its titles available to a new readership. John Ross, one of the co-founders of Camphor Press, here explains…

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Contemporary voices: State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang


In her regular column Contemporary voices Elaine Chiew explores books and authors making waves around Asia, and beyond. Here she discusses State of Emergency, by Jeremy Tiang, from Singapore.

Henry James apparently said, “It takes a lot of history to produce a little literature.”  One might find this proven true in Jeremy Tiang’s debut novel, State of Emergency, which cuts across swaths of history starting from the Batang Kali massacre in Malaya by Scots Guards in 1948, wending through key episodes of Communist suppression in Singapore, such as the Hock Lee Bus Riots (1955), Operation Coldstore (1967) and Operation Spectrum (1983), the detention of a Catholic priest and various church members in 1987, fetching up to current day Singapore (the MRT system that’s like “something out of science fiction” and Tiong Bahru likened to Hoxton, London.)

Saturday, 28 October 2017

We must protect wildlife along the Ganges, by Victor Mallet

Does the Ganges have a future? That’s the question posed by River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future by journalist and author, Victor Mallet. From 2012 to 2016 Victor was based in New Delhi as the Financial Times South Asia bureau chief, and he is currently in Hong Kong as the paper’s Asia news editor. 

Victor’s new book exposes an environmental crisis of international significance, with revelations about extreme levels of pollution, antibiotic resistance, droughts, and floods - the Goddess Ganga, the holy waterway that has nourished more people than any on earth for three millennia, is now so polluted with sewage and toxic waste that it has become a menace to human and animal health.

As he documents the degradation, Victor traces the holy river from source to mouth, and from ancient times to the present day. During four years of first-hand reporting, he encounters everyone from the naked holy men who worship the river, to the engineers who divert its waters for irrigation, to the scientists who study its bacteria - not forgetting Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister, who says he wants to save India's mother-river for posterity.

As one Hindu sage told Victor in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Upper Ganges: "If Ganga dies, India dies. If Ganga thrives, India thrives. The lives of 500 million people is no small thing."

And the lives of animals relying on the Ganges are no small thing, either.  In this guest post, Victor calls for a revival of the wildlife-protection decree of the Emperor Ashoka, from the third century BC.

So, over to Victor…

Friday, 27 October 2017

Why I published Pai Naa by Phil Tatham

Not long before the outbreak of World War Two a young British woman, Nona Baker, sailed to Malaya to join her eldest brother, Vin, the tuan besar (general manager), of the world’s largest tin mine. When the Japanese army invaded, Nona and Vin hid out in the jungle with Chinese communist guerrillas - the people who would later become the communist terrorists of the Malayan Emergency. By the time the British surrendered to the Japanese in February 1942, nearly all white civilians had left Malaya - but Nona and Vin stayed on in the jungle. For three years, Nona, now known as Pai Naa (White Nona), the name given her by the Chinese guerrillas, avoided capture by the Japanese and betrayal by spies before at last she was delivered safely into the care of war hero Freddie Spencer Chapman.

Pai Naa is Nona’s account her time in the jungle - with her hair cut short she worked alongside the guerrillas, and with the guerrillas she suffered malaria, dysentery, beriberi, hunger and above all, fear.

Nona chronicled her experiences with assistance from Dorothy Thatcher and Robert Cross. Pai Naa was first published in 1959. UK-based Monsoon Books has just published a reissue.  Since Nona, Dorothy, and Robert are now all dead, Monsoon’s publisher, Phil Tatham, here speaks on behalf of the book they jointly produced, and explains why he republished Pai Naa for a twenty-first century readership. 

So, over to Phil…

Saturday, 21 October 2017

500 Words from Alice Poon

500 words from is an occasional series in which novelists talk about their newly-published novels.

Alice Poon, author of The Green Phoenix, a novel of Old China, currently lives in Canada but she was born and educated in Hong Kong.  She grew up devouring Jin Yong’s martial arts and chivalry novels, all set in China’s distant past. That sparked her ambition to write historical novels of her own.

The Green Phoenix tells the story of the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, born a Mongolian princess, who became a consort in the Manchu court and then the Qing Dynasty’s first matriarch. She lived through harrowing threats, endless political crises, personal heartaches and painful losses to lead a shaky empire out of a dead end. The story is set against a turbulent canvas as the Chinese Ming Dynasty is replaced by the Qing. Xiaozhuang guides her husband, her lover, her son and her grandson  to success against the odds, and to the creation of an empire that lasted for 250 years.

So, over to Alice…

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Backlist books: I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Hobor that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia.

This post is about I Am a Cat, a series of semi-related stories published serially in 1905 and 1906 that provide a satirical look at Meiji-era Japan through the eyes of a smug young housecat.

Either eminent Japanese novelist Sōseki Natsume (1867 – 1916), also known for his novels Kokoro and Botchan, was prescient for choosing an uppity lolcat as his narrator, or that special attitude cats have has always been apt to make us laugh.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read I Am a Cat, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Just quickly...

Click for the opportunity to get trained to lead a writing workshop in Cambodia with Writing Through. You don’t need to be a writer, poet, or teacher and you don’t need to move to Cambodia. Training is scheduled for Friday, 27 October in Central Singapore.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

500 words from Stephanie Han

500 words from is an occasional series in which novelists and short story writers talk about their newly-published books.

Stephanie Han is an American with family roots in Korea. She now divides her time between Hong Kong and Hawaii, home of her family since 1904. Her short stories cross the borders and boundaries of Hong Kong, Korea, and the United States.

Swimming in Hong Kong is Stephanie’s debut collection. It has won wide praise, including from Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer. It explores the geography of hope and love, as its characters struggle with dreams of longing and home, and wander in the myths of memory and desire.

So, over to Stephanie…

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Guest post: Nicky Harman on translating Happy Dreams, by Jia Pingwa

Although few of his novels are currently translated into English, Jia Pingwa is one of China’s most popular novelists. UK-based Nicky Harman translates from Chinese into English, and spends time promoting contemporary Chinese fiction to the general English-language reader.

Nicky’s translation of Jia Pingwa’s
高兴, Happy Dreams, has just been published.

Happy Dreams concerns Hawa 'Happy' Liu’s search for a life that lives up to his self-given name. He travels from his rural home to the city of Xi’an, taking with him only an eternally positive attitude, his devoted best friend Wufu, and a pair of high-heeled women’s shoes he hopes to slip onto the feet of the yet to be found love of his life.

In Xi’an, Happy and Wufu find jobs as trash pickers sorting through the city's dumps. But Happy refuses to be crushed by circumstance: in his eyes, life is what you make of it. His optimism seems justified when he meets a beautiful girl: surely she is the one to fill the shoes? But when harsh conditions and the crush of societal inequalities take the life of his friend, Happy needs more than just optimism to hold on to the belief that something better is possible.

Here, Nicky discusses translating 高兴

Saturday, 30 September 2017

StoryDrive Asia

The Singapore Book Publishers Association and Frankfurt Book Fair are jointly organising the 2017 StoryDrive Asia conference on 13-14 November, at the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.

The two-day conference is aimed at authors - published and unpublished - publishers, marketing managers, editors, rights and license managers, and service providers. It will cover topics such as copyright and licensing, e-production, sales, new marketing strategies and trends, international business, new technologies, future ways of storytelling like virtual reality and augmented reality, and cross-media sales.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Indie spotlight: Soulla Christodoulou

Indie spotlight is our monthly column on self-publishing. This month our regular columnist, Tim Gurung, chats to Soulla Christodoulou, author of the women’s fiction titles Broken Pieces of Tomorrow, and the forthcoming The Summer Will Come, about her experience of self-publishing.

Friday, 22 September 2017

What kind of heart? Guest post from Alison Jean Lester

Although she is an American now based in England, Alison Jean Lester has variously studied, worked, and raised children in China, Italy, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore. Her first novel, Lillian on Life, was published in 2015, and her second, Yuki Means Happiness, came out in July.

Set in Tokyo, Yuki Means Happiness concerns the relationship between Diana, a young nanny newly-arrived from America, and her charge, two-year-old Yuki Yoshimura.  As Diana becomes increasingly attached to Yuki she also becomes aware that not everything in the Yoshimura household is as it first seemed. Before long, she must ask herself if she is brave enough to put everything on the line for Yuki, and thereby confront too her own demons.

So, over to Alison Jean…

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Backlist books: Mahabharata retold by William Buck

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Hobor that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia.

This post is about The Mahabharata, specifically a short prose retelling by William Buck. The 2,000-year-old Sanskrit original is the longest epic poem in the world, consisting of over 200,000 verses or 1.8 million words. If you combine The Mahabharata with the much shorter Sanskrit epic The Ramayana, you get more words than there are in The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Bible, and the complete works of Shakespeare combined. Even the short version of The Mahabharata bristles with more heroes, fair maidens, and helpful, mischievous, or jealous gods than you can shake a stick at. Nevertheless, let’s shake that stick.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read The Mahabharata, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Elaine Chiew on contemporary voices: The Wangs vs The World by Jade Chang

In the first of her new columns on contemporary voices Elaine Chiew uses The Wangs vs The World by Jade Chang as a springboard to discuss road trip fiction.

The novel sets off, so to speak, when Charles Wang, an American-born Chinese for whom the American dream has turned into a nightmare, decides he wants to take his family on a healing trip to China, but first they must survive a road trip through America.

So, over to Elaine…

Friday, 15 September 2017

Jo Furniss on dystopias

All the Little Children, the debut novel from Singapore-based, British expat Jo Furniss was published at the beginning of this month. In the previous post, Jo explained how living in Singapore has helped her writing career. All the Little Children is a dystopia.  Jo here reflects generally on dystopias.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

All the Little Children, guest post by Jo Furniss

When a family camping trip takes a dark turn, how far will one mother go to keep her family safe? That’s the question British-born serial expat Jo Furniss addresses in her newly-released debut novel All the Little Children. Jo previously lived in Switzerland, but is now based in Singapore. She here discusses how living in the City-state shaped her writing, and how she interacts with other local and regional writers. All the Little Children is a dystopia, on Thursday Jo will follow up this post with a second one exploring the whole idea of dystopias.

Jo trained as a journalist, and worked for numerous organisations including the BBC and The Economist. In 2015, she founded SWAGLit an online literary magazine for writers in Singapore.

All the Little Children is set in Britain, and features working-mother Marlene Greene. Marlene hopes a camping trip in the forest will provide quality time with her three young children - until they see fires in the distance, and columns of smoke distorting the sweeping view. Overnight, all communication with the outside world is lost.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

500 words from Nigel Barley

500 words from is an occasional series in which writers talk about their newly-published books.

Nigel Barley is a British anthropologist and novelist who has written extensively about Southeast Asia, particularly about Indonesia.

Snow Over Surabaya is a fictionalised account of the life of Muriel Stewart Walker, originally from Glasgow. Under a multitude of different names, including, Surabaya Sue, this self-proclaimed Hollywood scriptwriter joined the struggle for Indonesian independence after the Second World War, and broadcast its revolutionary message to the world on Rebel Radio. She undertook shady business to help finance the new Republic and experienced battle in the November 1945 British attack on Surabaya that some have seen as a war crime. She went on to become an intimate of revolutionary leaders including Bung Tomo and Soekarno, and lived to see Indonesia become a free nation.

Surabaya Sue is virtually unknown in the West and, even in Indonesia, there have always been doubts about her version of events. Snow Over Surabaya embraces doubt, and brings a spirited account of her adventures to a wide readership.

So, over to Nigel…

Books come to writers in lots of ways – taking shelter from the rain, one day, in Singapore cathedral or a snotty letter from an insurance company.  Some have come from other writers.  Island of Demons, my novel about the artist Walter Spies, was born of a lunch with Tash Aw who wanted to find out about Margaret Mead for his Maps of an Invisible World. Meanwhile, Snow Over Surabaya was conceived in a Balinese restaurant and literary salon, called Biku, over a very ex-pat tea with writer Tim Hannigan.  Both of us had produced a biography of Stamford Raffles but with a different take on the man.  I knew Tim must be thoroughly evil to disagree with me on the subject but we were brought together and discovered that we got on like a house on fire. Someone had suggested the subject of Muriel Stewart Walker to him but he hadn’t got along with it. "You do it," he said. "Right up your alley." As he said it, I knew he was right. By the end of tea, I’d written the first paragraph in my head.  That makes a book real.

Muriel was born in Glasgow at the very end of the nineteenth century and she lived almost to the end of the twentieth.  Along the way, she took many names, Mrs. Pearson, Manxi, Surabaya Sue, K’tut Tantri.  She claimed to have worked in the Golden Age of Hollywood, seen a film that made her fall in love with Bali and created the first luxury hotel there.  She lived through the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War Two, the struggle for independence, the Battle of Surabaya, knew all the revolutionary leaders, did propaganda broadcasts and smuggled guns, money and – probably – drugs, to help the infant republic.

All this, emerges from her autobiography, Revolt in Paradise (1960).  But Muriel was also a fantasist, spinning a web of romance about herself so that the book consists more of careful omissions and wild inventions than facts.  She has been constantly rediscovered by believers and the sceptical, both in Indonesia – where she is part of official history – and in the West but remains highly controversial.

Snow Over Surabaya starts with what we know she must have seen and experienced, simply from being who and where she was, and unchains her from her prudery and self-censorship, to reveal the feisty, ego-centric survivor she became.  There can be no doubt that she was totally committed to the cause of Indonesian freedom but that didn’t prevent her spying for the British and Americans as well.  Since she did that for money, in her world, it didn’t count.  And it is her indestructibility that allows a book set in a time of war, famine, and atrocity, but high ideals, to be seen as funny and life-affirming. Muriel is flawed, often terrible, and sees the world as centred about herself. She died still dreaming that one day someone would make a Hollywood movie about her life as a romantic heroine. It would make a good one.

Details: Snow Over Surabaya is published by Monsoon, available in paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Summer break: happy reading!

Asian Books Blog is taking a summer break. We'll be back on Friday, September 8.  In the meantime: happy summer reading!

Lion City Lit: Writing and talking about race in Singapore by Eldes Tran

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore, a multi-racial city. The majority population is of Chinese descent.  There are also large minorities of people of Malay or Indian descent, and of Eurasians. Our regular column Lion City Lit explores in-depth what’s going on in the City-State, lit-wise. Here Eldes Tran reports on a forum about racial discourse in Singaporean literature hosted last Thursday, July 27, at the National Library, by Epigram Books, a local independent publisher of Singaporean stories for all ages. Eldes is an assistant editor at Epigram Books.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Q & A: Ovidia Yu

Ovidia Yu was born in, lives in and writes about Singapore. After a happy childhood spent reading, drawing comics and dramatizing stories, she dropped out of medical school to become a writer. She achieved international success with a trio of Aunty Lee Mysteries: Aunty Lee’s Delights; Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials; Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge. Her latest novel, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, takes her crime writing in a new direction.

The novel is set in 1930s colonial Singapore. Ovidia says she chose to write about her grandparents’ Singapore because it was where and when most of the stories she and her friends heard as children were set. The Frangipani Tree Mystery introduces amateur sleuth Chen Su Lin, a local Chinese-Singaporean with a limp.  She is hired by Acting Governor Palin to look after his youngest daughter.  Whilst working for the Palins, it falls to Su Lin to help ace-detective Chief Inspector Le Froy uncover the cause of a mysterious death….

Friday, 28 July 2017

New book announcement: Yuki Means Happiness by Alison Jean Lester

Yuki Means Happiness is a rich and powerfully illuminating portrait of the intense relationship between a young woman and her small charge, as well as one woman's journey to discover her true self.

New book announcement: Bloody Saturday, by Paul French

Marking 80 Years since Shanghai’s darkest day, Penguin China are bringing out Bloody Saturday, a new Penguin Special by Paul French.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Indie spotlight: Travis Lee

Indie spotlight is our monthly column on self-publishing. This month our regular columnist, Tim Gurung, chats to Travis Lee about his new book Expat Jimmy, in which he draws on his own experiences of teaching English in China. The novel concerns a young American teacher, who arrives in Wuhan looking for a year-long vacation, paid for by teaching English as a second language. Waiting for him is Adam, a jaded laowai (foreigner / expat) determined to crush his preconceptions of China, and to introduce him to the dark side of expat life.

Just quickly...

Click here for full details of the 2017 Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist. The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy makes the initial cut, as do Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Blood and Silk: guest post by Michael Vatikiotis

Journalist and international negotiator Michael Vatikiotis has worked for publications and organisations as various as the Bangkok Post and the BBC World Service. He is also a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently based in Singapore where he is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Michael’s new book, Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, explores the dynamics of power and conflict in one of the world's fastest growing regions. It peers beyond brand new shopping malls and shiny glass towers in cities such as Bangkok and Jakarta, to probe the heart of modern Southeast Asia. Why is Malaysia, one of the region's richest countries, riddled with corruption? Why do Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines harbour unresolved violent insurgencies? How do deepening religious divisions in Indonesia and Malaysia affect the region and the rest of the world? What about China's growing influence?

Throughout Blood and Silk Michael offers vivid portraits of the personalities who pull the strings in Southeast Asia. His analysis is always underpinned by his decades of experience in the countries involved.

So, over to Michael…

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Backlist books: The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Hobor that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia.

This post, the first in the series, is about The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This 2,500-year-old text, less than 11,000 words in total, is broken into thirteen themed sections, each of which contains a list of numbered principles only a sentence or two long. The message, in essence, is "Fight intelligently so you'll always win."

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read it, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Singapore: Unlikely Power by John Curtis Perry

John Curtis Perry is the Henry Willard Denison Professor of History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He has also served as the director of Tufts’ Maritime Studies program and was the founding president of its Institute for Global Maritime Studies. He has written widely on Asia-US relations, particularly on relations between American and Japan. In 1991, the Japanese government awarded him the Imperial decoration of the Order of the Sacred Treasure for his contributions to US-Japan relations.

Perry's latest book Singapore: Unlikely Power, explores the implausibility of Singapore's success. It tracks the meteoric rise of Singapore to the status of first-world dynamo in just three decades, shows how the city-state’s founders adopted a resolutely pragmatic approach to economic development rather than following any one fashionable ideology, and offers an overview of a country that has perfected one of the world's most influential political-economic models, despite its tiny size.

In this guest post, John Curtis Perry considers whether Singapore can offer a model to other countries.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

500 words from Kaitlin Solimine

500 words from is an occasional series in which writers talk about their newly-published books.

San Francisco-based Kaitlin Solimine has been a U.S. Department of State Fulbright Creative Fellow in China. She has received several scholarships, awards, and residencies for her writing, which has appeared in a range of publications from the Wall Street Journal, to China Daily. She here talks about her debut novel, Empire of Glass - the Center for Fiction, a New York-based organization devoted to promoting fiction, has longlisted it for their 2017 first novel prize.

Empire of Glass explores recent changes in China through the lens of one family's experiences. In the mid-1990s, an American teenager, named Lao K in Chinese, must decide whether to help her Chinese homestay mother, Li-Ming, who is dying of cancer, in ending her life. Twenty years later, Lao K receives a book written by Li-Ming called Empire of Glass; it chronicles the lives of Li-Ming and her husband, Wang, in pre- and post-revolutionary China over the second half of the twentieth century. Lao K begins translating Empire of Glass. But, as translator, how can she separate fact from fiction, and what will be her own role be in the book?

So, over to Kaitlin…

Friday, 14 July 2017

Q & A: Balli Kaur Jaswal

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean novelist of Punjabi extraction.  As a child, she lived all over the world, thanks to her roaming diplomat father. After studying for an undergraduate creative writing degree in the US she continued work on her first novel, Inheritance, during a year spent in the UK, where she was a recipient of the David TK Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia – an award made annually to a novelist whose work deals with some aspect of East Asia. She then moved to Australia to do a postgraduate teaching degree in Melbourne, where she met her partner. She ended up staying in Melbourne for 5 years. In 2014, Inheritance won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award. She then moved back to Singapore, and in 2015 her second novel Sugarbread was a finalist for the city-state’s richest literary prize, the Epigram Books Fiction Prize.  Her recently-published third novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, was the subject of a hotly-contested auction won by HarperCollins, in London, for a six-figure GBP sum.

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows follows members of the Punjabi immigrant community in the UK as they struggle to negotiate between two cultures. It is set in London, in Southhall, an area which is home to a large Punjabi population. Balli says her novel is about “a group of Punjabi widows who sign up for a literacy class, which quickly evolves into a space where they can speak freely about things that their community considers taboo. At first, their discussions are centred on erotic fantasies but as the trust builds, the women become empowered to break their silence about other injustices in the community.”

Liu Xiaobo

Amongst many other retrospects, tributes and obituaries, click here for the response from The New York Review of Books.

Friday, 7 July 2017

LSE Review of Books bookshop guides

The London School of Economics (LSE) is one of the world’s leading insitutions for the study of social sciences, economics, politics, and related subjects.

LSE Review of Books publishes daily reviews of books across the social sciences, all of them written by experts. This encourages wide public discussion of some of today’s most pressing global issues, including climate change, the struggle against religious fundamentalism, the challenges currently faced by Western-style democracies, the rise of China, how the internet is changing society, and issues connected with maintaining, or promoting, free speech.

The LSE Review of Books also runs an online guide to the world’s best bookshops, which has included contributions on Mumbai, and Fukuoka - and you don’t have to have a connection to the LSE to contribute.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Freedom to publish and the IPA Prix Voltaire by Trasvin Jittidecharak

The International Publishers Association (IPA) makes an annual award to publishers, the IPA Prix Voltaire. This rewards exemplary courage in upholding the freedom to publish and in enabling others to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

The IPA Freedom to Publish Committee is responsible for picking the shortlist. It announced the shortlist for the 2017 prize  in June.

Thai publisher Trasvin Jittidecharak is a member of the IPA Freedom to Publish Committee

Issues connected with freedom of speech, and freedom to publish, are of particular importance across much of Asia, since ours in a region where these freedom are often denied, or actively resisted. Trasvin Jittidecharak here offers an Asian perspective on the Prix Voltaire.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Extract: City of Protest: a recent history of dissent in Hong Kong by Antony Dapiran

As part of Penguin’s new Hong Kong series – for which see the previous post - Antony Dapiran has just brought out City of Protest: a recent history of dissent in Hong Kong, which explores the role of protest in Hong Kong life, up to and including the Umbrella Movement.

Antony has written and presented extensively on China and Hong Kong business, politics and culture. A contributing editor of Art Asia Pacific magazine, his writing has also appeared in publications including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Financial Review, Nikkei Asia Review and Hong Kong Free Press. In a legal career of almost twenty years, Antony advised China’s leading companies raising capital and doing business internationally.

He here provides a short extract from the preface to City of Protest.

The Hong Kong Series: new books celebrating the many faces of HK

Twenty years ago, Hong Kong’s sovereignty was handed from Britain, to China. Since then, Hong Kong has accumulated new stories worth telling: stories looking slantwise at history; stories containing lessons for people everywhere. The multicultural hub, bustling with possibility and promise, has become a centre for creativity and a source of inspiration for those on the mainland, throughout the Chinese diaspora, and beyond. But what conclusions can be drawn from a city that faces daily contradictions, such as bank towers looming over shanty towns, mango trees growing on industrial roundabouts, and art that seems driven by commercial requirements? Then there are the political strains of negotiating Hong Kong people’s desire for Western-style democracy, with Beijing’s insistence the Chinese way is best.

These and other issues are explored in a new Hong Kong Series from Penguin. Authors of launch titles are Dung Kai-cheung, Antony Dapiran, Xu Xi, Christopher DeWolf, Ben Bland, Simon Cartledge, and  Magnus Renfrew. They use both fiction and non-fiction to examine Hong Kong’s past, and future, its people, politics and art, its architecture and economy. All except Xu Xi are based full-time in Hong Kong. Collectively, the launch titles shine a light on the whole of Hong Kong’s society, and on the city’s changes over the past twenty years.

Friday, 30 June 2017

New book announcement: Monsoon Summer by Julia Gregson

Oxfordshire, 1947. Exhausted by the war and nursing a tragic secret, Kit Smallwood flees to Wickam Farm to recuperate. There she throws herself into helping set up a charity sending midwives to India - and she also meets Tomas, a handsome, complicated, and charming Indian trainee doctor nearing the end of his English education, she falls utterly in love.

Tomas makes her laugh and marriage should be the easiest thing in the world.  But when he informs his family that he is shortly to return home with an English bride, his parents are appalled.

Despite being Anglo-Indian herself, Kit's own mother is equally horrified. She has spent most of her life trying to erase a painful past and the problems of her mixed-race heritage - losing her daughter to an Indian man is her worst fear realised.

Indie spotlight: how to launch a new book like a pro by Tim Gurung

Hong-Kong-based Tim Gurung edits indie spotlight, Asia Books Blog’s monthly column on self-publishing. Tim is the self-published author of both fiction and non-fiction titles. His non-fiction covers topics as various the Gurkhas, the afterlife, fatherhood, and women's rights. Launching a book can be nerve-wracking. Tim here draws on his own experience to offer a few tips, particularly for debut authors.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Just quickly...

The International Publishers Association (IPA) today announced the shortlist for the 2017 IPA Prix Voltaire, which rewards exemplary courage in upholding the freedom to publish and in enabling others to exercise their right to freedom of expression. Shortlisted publishers include Kim Jeong-ae (North Korea / South Korea), Way Moe (Myanmar), and Minhai Gui (Hong Kong / Sweden). For more information click here.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Just quickly...

Click here for my review of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows by Ballin Kaur Jaswal, for Asian Review of Books. 

Friday, 23 June 2017

My working day by Eldes Tran

My working day is an occasional series in which publishing professionals talk about their jobs.

Eldes Tran is an assistant editor at Epigram Books, Singapore’s largest independent publisher of local stories for all ages. She mostly edits nonfiction manuscripts, but also some children’s books. Apart from editing, she also acts as a project manager seeing a book through all stages, including making sure the right illustrator is picked, the layout is balanced, and deadlines are met.

Epigram Books is Eldes’ first foray into book publishing, but she has been an editor for 11 years in the US and Asia. She started at newspapers Newsday and the Los Angeles Times, and later spent six years in Hong Kong with the South China Morning Post and New York Times.

So, over to Eldes...

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Hong Kong authors mark 20 years since the handover by Pete Spurrier

Close to a hundred people filled the Bookazine bookshop in Prince’s Building, Hong Kong, on the evening of June 15, to hear six local authors discuss the 20 years which have passed since the handover in 1997.

As the publisher of four of these writers, I was roped in to MC the event. I started off by asking how many of the crowd were in Hong Kong on that rainy night of June 30, 1997. About half, it turned out. But of those, far fewer had expected to still be here 20 years later.

First question went to Rachel Cartland, author of Paper Tigress, an account of her 34 years working in the Hong Kong government. Many people in the audience remembered seeing police officers replacing their cap badges as sovereignty was transferred at the stroke of midnight on handover night. Rachel stayed in office through 1997 and beyond, so did she have any badge to change? No, she said, but non-stop heavy rain during the handover period ruined everyone’s extra-long public holiday allowance!

Friday, 16 June 2017

Q & A Gregory Norminton

Gregory Norminton is an English novelist of French and Belgian extraction, who has spent time in Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo, and Cambodia. He has recently published The Ghost Who Bled, a collection of fourteen short stories that range widely in space and time. He takes the reader from medieval Byzantium and Elizabethan London, to Japan and the jungles of Malaya in the more resent past, to Edinburgh in the present-day, and on to a climate-changed San Francisco of the near future. His scope is ambitious, but he says: “I reserve the right - as all authors should, provided they do the research and are humble towards their material - to set stories in places that I have not visited. Since much of my writing is either historical or speculative, what choice do I have?”

He answered a few questions for Asian Books Blog.

New book announcement: Blood and Silk by Michael Vatikiotis

Michael Vatikiotis is a member of the Asia Society's International Council and has a decade of experience working as a conflict mediator for the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. He is a former BBC journalist who has worked in Asia for over thirty years, living in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and his current home, Singapore.

Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia is in part his memoir and in part a political study of the dynamics of modern Southeast Asia, a frontline of two of the most important global conflicts: the struggle between a declining West and a rising China, and that between religious tolerance and extremism.

Southeast Asia accounts for sizeable chunks of global investment and manufacturing capacity; it straddles essential lines of trade and communication.  Whether it is mobile phone parts or clothing and accessories, Southeast Asia is a vital link in the global supply chain.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman wins Man Booker International Prize

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman has won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. The novel was translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Celebrating global fiction in translation, the Man Booker International Prize awards both the winning author and translator GBP25,000. (USD32,000 approx).

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Indonesian emerging voices at Ubud

The Yayasan Mudra Swari Saraswati, a not-for-profit organisation with the mission of improving the lives of young Indonesians through literature and the arts, has announced that after after a two-year hiatus their emerging voices programme, a free, four-day event celebrating young writers, filmmakers and artists from across the Indonesian archipelago, will again be held alongside the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which this year runs from 26-29 October.

Friday, 9 June 2017

500 words from John Holliday

500 words from is an occasional column in which authors talk about their newly-published books.

John Holliday, an Australia-based, British-born writer, has just published Mission to China: How an Englishman Brought the West to the Orient. The book, part adventure story and part social history, examines the life of one of John’s ancestors, Walter Medhurst, a 19th century Christian missionary to Chinese communities throughout Asia, and to China itself.

John had long been aware of having an ancestor who was a famous missionary, but it was not until 2008 that he discovered an orphanage founded by this ancestor in Jakarta was still functioning. A visit to the city, and a commitment to build a library for the orphanage, prompted him to undertake research into Walter Medhurst’s life, and, ultimately, to write his biography.