Thursday, 26 November 2020

A brilliant grappling with history through interlinked stories: Asako Serizawa's sterling debut 'The Inheritors'

Bio: 

ASAKO SERIZAWA was born in Japan and grew up in Singapore, Jakarta, and Tokyo. A graduate of Tufts University, Brown University, and Emerson College, she has received two O. Henry Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. A former fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, INHERITORS is her first book. 

Synopsis:

Spanning more than a century, and revolving around the Pacific side of World War II, Inheritors paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of five generations of a Japanese family grappling with the legacies of loss, imperialism, and war. Written in myriad styles and set across Asia and the United States, each of the characters’ stories adds to the others to illuminate the complex ways in which we experience, interpret, and pass on our tangled history. A retired doctor is forced to confront the moral consequences of his wartime actions. His brother’s wife answers a call for first-person testimonies, gradually revealing the shattering realities of life in Occupied Japan. A half century later, her estranged granddaughter, raised in America, retraces her roots across the Pacific, chasing the secrets behind her father’s absence. Decades later, two siblings confront the consequences of their great-grandparents’ war as the world, mutated by new technology, is threatened by a violence more pervasive than the one that scorched the earth a century earlier. Serizawa’s characters walk the line between the devastating realities of war and the banal needs of everyday life as they struggle to reconcile their experiences with the changing world. A breathtaking meditation on the relationship among history, memory, and storytelling, Inheritors is a triumph of imagination and stands in the company of works by Lisa Ko, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Min Jin Lee. 

Monday, 23 November 2020

Of Suitcases and Superheroes: Poems between Singapore and the Philippines

As nations grow closer, so do their literary communities. In this month’s poetry column, we look at the cultural, economic, and literary ties between Singapore and the Philippines, and hear from two poets, Eric Tinsay Valles (whom we last interviewed in 2016!) and Rolinda Onates Espanola, about what it means to write between these two cities.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

A translated novel: a team effort

 Nicky Harman reads Zhang Ling’s latest historical novel, A Single Swallow (Amazon Crossing, 2020.)

One of the best-written novels I’ve ever translated is Zhang Ling’s Gold Mountain Blues, about a family from Guangdong, China, torn apart when the men emigrate to work in Canada and their women wait long, long years to join them. So I was all agog to read Ling’s latest novel, A Single Swallow, translated by Shelly Bryant. I found it gripping. Better still, I got to interview all the main players, author, translator and editor.

The story: Three men – two American and one Chinese – reminisce about life in the rural village they were all stationed in during WW2. …and about Ah Yan, (‘Swallow’ in Chinese) who means different things to each of the men, although they each have strong and complicated feelings for her. This novel is set during a horrific time in China, but the human spirit triumphs.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

3 Japanese Mystery Novel Recommendations

November is the perfect time for noir aka Noirvember, and that means it’s the perfect time for mystery novels. In Japan, the mystery genre is called suiri shōsetsu (推理小説) literally ‘deductive reasoning fiction,’ and has a long history in the Land of the Rising Sun. Here are just a few recommendations by Japanese authors to read during Noirvember.

 


Thursday, 5 November 2020

A new short fiction collection from multi-awarded Filipino American writer and poet Eileen R. Tabios

PAGPAG The Dictator's Aftermath in the Diaspora (Paloma Press 2020)

My first encounter with the work of Eileen R. Tabios was in the middle of 1999. I was in the middle of sorting submissions and curating intentionally diverse work for a flash fiction anthology I had proposed to Anvil Publishing in Manila, that eventually came out in 2003, and was called Fast Food Fiction: Short Short Stories To Go. Tabios’ story in this book was a deft piece, just 469 words (I asked for flash of no more than 500 words, and many writers went far beyond that), focusing on a man who puzzles, genuinely it seems, over the aftermath of passion that had evidently gone too far, with the use of a black leather crop. Adding further interest, the title chosen for the story was, “excerpts from After She Left The Hotel Room” and its text was divided into four petite sections headed, “W, X, Y” and “Z”. 

Not only did I love the dark little story, I admired such clever little conceits suggesting to the reader that submerged beneath this sharp tip is an iceberg of more mysterious life, indeed, the entire alphabet’s worth of it. Noting the (many) books she has authored subsequently, I found none called After She Left The Hotel Room. However, further reading led me to an intriguing discovery. On her blog, Tabios has shared the blurbs for her first novel, Dovelion A Fairy Tale For Our Times, forthcoming this March 2021 out of the arts publisher, AC Books. The blurb from France-based Filipino Reine Arcache Melvin, author of The Betrayed (Anvil Publishing 2019), ends like this, “Tabios uses her pen like Elena uses her whip, provoking tenderness through intense sensation as well as illumination through sensuality and a passionate, hungry mind.” 

Reading this, I stopped short, delighted. Could this “whip” be the same black leather crop owned by the same “she” who “Left the Hotel Room” and is Dovelion's Elena this "she"? 

Tsundoku #15 - November 2020

 November and whether you're just heading into lockdown or just escaping it you need more books. So here's November's selection and don't forget, Christmas is just round the corner and bookshops everywhere could do with a little help this year....first up some new fiction...

Thursday, 29 October 2020

What’s The Deal With Graphic Novels? Elaine Chiew Chats with Melanie Lee and Arif Rafhan on their collaboration for Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma.

 

Photo courtesy of Difference Engine
About the Writer:

 

Melanie Lee is the author of the picture book series The Adventures of Squirky the Alien, which picked up the Crystal Kite Award (Middle East/India/Asia division) in 2016. She has also published Imaginary Friends: 26 Whimsical Fables for Getting on in a Crazy World, a collection of illustrated short stories, together with Arif Rafhan. Besides books, Melanie writes content related to arts, heritage and lifestyle for a variety of platforms including museums, documentaries, magazines and websites.  In addition, she is Associate Faculty at the Singapore University of Social Sciences developing and teaching media writing courses. 


 




Photo courtesy of Difference Engine

  About the Illustrator:

Arif Rafhan is a comic artist, illustrator and pre-production artist. His work has
been published in more than 10 books to date by MPH, Buku Fixi, Maple Comics,
and Marshall Cavendish. These includes comics, content illustrations and cover illustrations. He’s been working closely with Lat since October 2018 for Lat’s upcoming graphic novel (ongoing). He also works with various production companies creating pre-production visuals such as concept art, character designs, environment designs, and storyboards. 





About the Book:

Eleven-year-old Ash doesn’t have much to look forward to: maths tests, a naggy Mum, and an Ah Ma who doesn’t know much about her. That is, until she discovers something that will change her life—Ah Ma is a superhero! The best part is, Ash discovers that she has superpowers too! 

Life is so much more exciting as a superhero-in-training. However, Ash can’t help but notice that Ah Ma sometimes gets a little absent-minded while showing her the ropes. Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma is a funny and heartwarming story about family and acceptance. Growing up and growing old is never easy—and all the more perplexing when secrets and superpowers are added to the mix. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Holding Hands: Five Singapore Poets on the first digital #SWF

The Singapore Writers’ Festival kicks off this week – and for the first time in its history, will be taking place entirely online. In these tumultuous times, we asked five Singapore-based poets about why literary festivals are important, what a successful literary festival looks like (to them!), and what they’re most looking forward to at this year’s #SWF:


Wednesday, 21 October 2020

The Girl who did a Strip-Dance, by Wang Bang, translated by Nicky Harman

 In this post, Nicky Harman translates an article by Wang Bang, a writer, film-maker and translator based in the UK and featured here in September 2020. Wang Bang says, ‘I agreed to write for Love Matters because I think it is all about the making of girls, daring, dashing unconventional girls, about how our girls break away from social norms, toxic masculinities and a rigid, patriarchal society. …The results have been great. Most of my articles have been well received, with some of them getting more than 3,000 likes.’


 .....................................................

The thing that completely changed my relationship with my body was not losing my virginity, but watching a private striptease. It happened one hot day during the summer holidays, when I met Star. We had a lot in common: we were both at the ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ age; and she, like me, had dark skin, and came from a single-parent family. From then on, I used to tell my mum that I was going to a classmate's home to do my homework and hang out with Star instead.

There was something particularly fascinating about her body. It seemed to be softer and lither than anyone else's. I remember we found a dress in the suitcase her mother had left behind – round-necked, with an A-line skirt – and took turns to try it on. I got it tangled around my neck and then my elbows got stuck, but she just wriggled like an eel and the woollen fabric, shrunk from the wash, slid down over her body.

That summer holiday, Star seemed obsessed with trying on clothes. It was as if she was desperately trying to find her grown-up self in this jumble of fabrics and fibres. One evening, she drew the curtains and whispered to me that she was going to show me something special. With a mischievous smile, she began to pull her shirt up, then stopped half-way, pouted, and made a pretence of pulling her shirt down again, all the time swaying her hips. Finally, she pulled it up to reveal her small, flat belly… And she danced her way through taking her clothes off. There was no soundtrack, but her body seemed to open and close rhythmically, the way a seashell does. It was its own musical box. There was no stage lighting, but countless beads of sweat at her hairline caught the light instead.

Her dancing was naughty and provocative. It seemed to me then that she had made it up herself, though thinking back now, it was a lot like the striptease in a black and white photo of the American burlesque dancer Mae Dix. Mae Dix wears a hat with sparkly tassels, and holds a slender wand between her fingertips. Her silky dress has fallen to her hips, showing her alabaster backbone, her pert, fleshy buttocks, shaped a bit like a French snail, and her bum crack. She wears a neat pair of dance shoes, with copper-plated soles designed for tip-tapping around the dance floor.

Mae Dix’s act became a sensation. In those days, few women even wore trousers, and hardly anyone had heard of ‘striptease’. Instead, the mainstream media dubbed her teasing, flirty dance moves ‘burlesque’. The male reporters sent to cover the shows practically mobbed the stage, even if afterwards, they wrote about it with scorn. 

As girls, Star and I were separated from Mae Dix by nearly a century, but the society in which we lived did not seem to have grown much more tolerant towards women. My space, growing up, felt flat, crude and rigid, like a cardboard straitjacket. After I developed physically, I seemed to lose any right to do anything with my body apart from gymnastics to the radio broadcasts, sprinting and skipping. We had to sit bolt upright, walk with our toes turned in, and wear skirts down over our knees. It was a sin to touch ourselves in private, let alone make a spectacle of ourselves in public. Only the beautiful were allowed to dance, because only they qualified to join the dance troupes that added glamour to every public celebration. And only bad girls combed their hair into giant quiffs, wore bat sleeves and jeans, and sneaked into pop-up discos in basement fire tunnels. Our bodies were controlled, as rigidly as if we were statues of women displayed on the square, by a hidden but highly effective mechanism which reached right down to the micro level, to our families.

‘You should stop showing off your body every time you go out, okay?’ my mother would say, casting a stern, anxious eye over the sleeveless top I liked to wear because it was hot. ‘You’re asking for some hoodlum to slash your back. Have you any idea how many perverts there are out there, just waiting to slash a girl who’s showing a bit of back?’ My mother tried to teach me that clothes fell into two categories: ordinary, workaday, old clothes, were one sort. The other sort were for special occasions, when it was permissible to wear something a bit prettier. Jeanette Winterson writes in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal about her mother: ‘She had two sets of false teeth, matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for “best”.’ Every time I read this, I smile wryly.

If I hadn’t met Star, I would never have had the guts to stand in front of the mirror, examine my body, caress it, dance with it, go with it, let alone set off with it to cross continents and find my own way in life. No matter how critical other people are about my body, I have learned to accept it. I’m in love with all the ways it allows me to express myself. I think of it as a musical instrument, its every movement performing a dance. And I am the only person with the right to play it. 

,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Wang Bang’s column was written for RNW Media, Netherlands radio station, Love Matters Chinese website

 

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Popular Filipino author/columnist & podcaster, Jessica Zafra's first novel, The Age Of Umbrage

That Jessica Zafra is a great writer goes without saying; but her wit and acerbity, her idea (only somewhat facetious) of world domination via yaya and domestic helper make the notion of a novel from her irresistible. Only consider the volumes of Twisted columns she’s sold over two decades, apart from three short story collections, and it's understandable that The Age of Umbrage (Bughaw, an imprint of Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2020) could not have come soon enough.
A slim book with easy-on-the-eye-catching cover art by Bianca Alexandra Ortigas in bright Crayola red violet, its slightness in my hands is disconcerting. Flipping through, I note the book’s entire six chapters ending at a petite 126 pages. That's thirty pages fewer than one of my all-time-favorite novels: Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (which a few critics have called a novella). And then there is her very first sentence, a wistful, heartrending line with hardly a pause for a breath through a substantial paragraph that recalls Nick Joaquin. 

From the outset, we sense a master in command of language, smooth as milk, and so all-knowingly authoritative, we relax, confident we won’t be jolted out of the reverie by awkward diction, an inorganic sentence or an overwrought adverb. We turn ourselves over, the way we might turn over in a dream. It’s hard not to hear Zafra’s voice in our head. The buy-in is immediate. 

We enter the familiar yet strange world of the unfortunate Siony, her wayward Hernani, and their extraordinary daughter, Guada, the life they live, the class differences they negotiate, their struggle, their pathos, their lunacy in the every day, and the all too surreal hilarity of living in the mansion of Don Paquito Almagro, close friend to the President, in the wealthy, high-walled subdivision of Almagro. Zafra takes such palpable pleasure in the selection of details for this world—quoting dialogue from movies, pop and classic, making references to books, from Thomas Hardy to Frank Herbert, the music of Madonna and Prince, and the 55-volume The Philippine Islands by Blair and Robertson, included for texture and the nifty little inside joke. 

We feel for Siony, grim-faced and resigned, as she accepts the only chance she has for herself and her child. We sympathize with Guada and understand her ambivalence, her reluctant acceptance of the way things are, that she is her mother’s one and only reason for living. And through it all, in the background, the events of recent Philippine history unfurl in like swathes of indigenous fabric, its designs always apparent. We delight too in the large, motley cast of vividly named characters—each so real, they might be someone we once encountered in our life. Don Paquito, who loves pork stewed in coconut milk, Dona Consuelo, distant but not unkind, Guillermo, the forlorn and flailing Almagro son, Lennon, the driver (named for his father’s favorite musician), Ding-Dong, the village security guard who runs marathons and is sleeping with the maid, Teresita, and so many more. 

 “Ding Dong was a common name in the Philippines, where people were routinely named after doorbells, TingTing, BongBong, JengJeng and so on.” 

 Zafra sifts funny lines throughout the book like pinipig—crunchy sweet toasted rice—on suman—steamed glutinous rice cake. 

 “It is a truth acknowledged in the Philippines that a single man in possession of good looks and no fortune must be in want of a benefactor, an older person of the female or homosexual persuasion. In the case of the latter, it did not follow that the party of the first part was himself homosexual or even bisexual, merely in need and pragmatic.” 

 “Rich girls could wear whatever they wanted… they could parade themselves like hookers and people would call them fashionable. If a girl from the middle class went around in shorts so tiny they were more wedgie than pants, she would be called a slut. If a girl from her barrio appeared in public undressed like that, she was a hooker.” 

 “Eventually, she came to the conclusion that only the sane worry about going crazy. The truly insane have no minds left to lose.” 

 “Pedestrians are a lower life form in Manila, destined to become roadkill, deprived even of sidewalks, which are appropriated by vendors of radioactive-looking fried snacks.” 

Her deadpan humor is the essential layer that cushions us against the stark and massive disappointments in Guada’s sad life. It is self-deprecation as self-defense, and it resonates, matter-of-fact, quintessentially Filipino. For where would we all be if we could not laugh through our tears and our rage, if we could not make fun of and mock our own mindless folly, our own contrary, superstitious, religious culture, and our now almost unsurprising, pathetic outcomes? 

Whatever it might be for Guada, the book ends bleakly…and well, with umbrage. However, it is an open end. The cruelty of The Age of Umbrage is its brevity; “age” is a misnomer. That’s it. No more. Finished. Zafra leaves us like Guada, bereft upon a precipice. To be sure, she has created a heroine to love. We root for Guada, we wish her the happiness she deserves, but we do want another six chapters to find out what happens next. Instead, we can only turn the book over and read it again. 

It is a flaw, but a bearable one and bittersweet. I will wait for Zafra’s second novel and her third and her fourth, and hope that one of them will take up the rest of Guada’s tale, which after all, has only just begun.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

10 Junji Ito Horror Manga Recommendations

Since it's spooky season, I wanted to highlight one of Japan's most famous horror manga artists/writers - Junji Ito. For those not in the know, manga are Japanese comics, and Ito's realistic and hyper-detailed artwork, combined with his macabre and haunting plots, are a perfect nightmare cocktail. Here are ten recommendations to start you off, from his longer-form works to short stories. Also, to existing Junji Ito fans, yes, there are plenty of well-known recommendations here, but if I didn't list your personal favorite, well, there's always next Halloween...

Friday, 2 October 2020

Tsundoku #14 - October 2020

 In England i've lit the first fires of the autumn and settled down to read. It might not be so chilly all over the world but whether by the fire or the pool, here's some Asia-related books that caught my eye and built my tsundoku for this October. As ever fiction first....

 

Monday, 28 September 2020

Taking Down Borders: An interview with poet Zakir Hossain Khokan

Since the launch of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014, Singapore’s migrant writing community has grown exponentially, with migrant-led initiatives like ‘One Bag, One Book’ slowly joining the mainstream of a burgeoning poetry scene. Events like the Global Migrant Festival and the Migrant Literary Festival have enlivened the literary calendar, while in 2018, Stranger to Myself – a collection of poetry and prose by Bangladesh-born MD Sharif Uddin – won the top prize at the Singapore Book Awards.

Capturing the spirit of these developments was the release of Call and Response: A Migrant/Local Poetry Anthology in 2018. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed the situation of Singapore’s migrant community under the spotlight, publisher Math Paper Press has commissioned a second release of this landmark anthology, with a portion of the proceeds going to HealthServe, a migrant advocacy NGO.

In this interview, we speak to one of the anthology’s co-editors, Zakir Hossain Khokan, about how the pandemic has affected the community, and his hopes for the book:


Friday, 25 September 2020

Translation goes in both directions

Nicky Harman writes: It seems obvious that there is literary translation from English into Chinese, as well as from Chinese into English, but very little has been written in English about what travels in that direction, and what impact it has on Chinese readers. It is a subject that fascinates me. So I was delighted when I got the chance to interview Wang Bang.


Wang Bang has translated Peter Hughes’s Behoven poems (Oystercatcher Press, 2009) for Professor He Ping, a well-known critic, author and professor at the College of Arts at Nanjing Normal University. Readers can explore them on this bilingual page here. I asked her to tell me more about this project.

N: How did you come across Peter Hughes and Oystercatcher Press, and what do you like about his poetry? 

W: The first time I bumped into ‘oystercatchers’, they were not those waders with red beaks, dressed in black cloaks, they were well printed pamphlets with abstract, geometric, mostly hand-painted covers, the kind of visual vocabulary that recalled me to Abstract Expressionism. I soon learnt that they were poetry pamphlets produced by the poet Peter Hughes, who also used his own paintings for the covers. I was immediately intrigued and was hoping to write an article about Peter. I asked David Rushmer, my husband, who is also a poet and had been published by Oystercatcher Press, to introduce me to Peter. A week later, we were in Norfolk, walking against the brisk wind, the oystercatchers rising swiftly from the waves, whilst Peter narrated his early life stories to me from his house on the coast; his surreal adventures working as a translator for the Italian Army and how he endeavored to make sense of the instructions on Russian landmines. I then wrote a story titled ‘The Poet Who lives next to the Lighthouse’; it was surprisingly well received and hit over 600 likes overnight. I thought it could be a great opportunity to introduce Peter’s work to Chinese readers, so I started work translating a small section of his poems. His work is not easy to digest at all but I found them fascinating, it’s like playing with a Rubik’s cube, I have to solve one word (normally a verb) first, before I can rotate to the next layer, and the magic is dark, sensory, musical, dreamy, imaginative and philosophical. 

 

N: How did Professor He Ping get involved?

W: I thought it would be great if I could persuade someone to publish a pamphlet of Peter’s work, a duplication of Oystercatcher Press in both Chinese and English. And an independent publisher in China had agreed to publish the pamphlet. I sent off the work, which is a small part of ‘Behoven’, kindly chosen by Peter and waited, but nothing was certain with the unsettled publishing rules in China. Bored of waiting I sent the manuscript to Professor He Ping, and amazingly he published it right away on a literary journal ‘A Flower to You’ run by his MA students. 

 

N: Which is your favourite poem in the selection published here? 

W: Sonata 1 in F minor, op.2, no. 1, Sonata in A major, op. 10.no.2 and the bears in Sonata in A major, op. 10.no.2.

N: Could you say something about the challenges of translating them?

W: The hidden cultural references, the metaphors, they really did my head in. For instance, the phrase

 “even if it is called a patio”. What is special about a patio? Is it because it’s a posh word from Spanish? Or, because of its overly ornamental design by the English? 

Some sentences seemed to be more straightforward, but can still require a lot of cultural understanding.

“when strangers 

         with sledge-hammers 

       & shorts passed

    the whole piano 

through a bangle”

I had to peep through a keyhole of time to understand that he is talking about “Piano Smashing Contests” in England in the bonkers 1950s!

N: Did you listen to Beethoven while you were translating?

W: No, I really needed to concentrate! 

N: Anything else you'd like to say about the special challenges of translating poetry?

W: Poetry often takes liberties that prose would not. Poetry by its nature is often very compact and can include a duplicity of meaning in a single word or phrase which is very difficult to reproduce in another language. I wish I were a poet, it would be easier for me to undertake such an impossible task. I would love to see more work being translated from both languages, work from my generation, and from new emerging writers.

 Here is my article about Peter and his press, with some beautiful pictures: The Poet Who lives next to the Lighthouse, in Chinese with a selection of the poems in English.


 

N: I'm fascinated by which English writers have an impact in China and in Chinese, so He Ping's project seems particularly interesting.

W: This is from Professor He Ping on why he published my translations. I think his response is great: “I am interested in what British writers, including poets, are writing recently. All literature today, regardless of nationality or mother tongue, is part of world literature. And of course, it is also out of friendship with Wang Bang and my trust in her judgment, that I promoted the works of these two poets [Richard Berengarten and Peter Hughes] on my graduate students’ WeChat public account. Modern Chinese literature has always had strong links with British English writing, so I am keen to promote contemporary British writers, poets and their writing wherever possible, in any Chinese literary media where I have some influence.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Danton Remoto Chats With Elaine Chiew About His Novel Riverrun: Proudly Gay, Proudly Filipino

 

Credit: PRH SEA

Bio:

Danton Remoto was educated at Ateneo de Manila University, Rutgers University, University of Stirling and the University of the Philippines. He has worked as a publishing director at Ateneo, head of communications at United Nations Development Programme, TV and radio host at TV5 and Radyo 5, president of Manila Times College and, most recently, as head of school and professor of English at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. He has published a baker’s dozen of books in English. His work is cited in The Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Literature, The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Postcolonial Literature.

 





Synopsis:

Riverrun, A Novel, deals with Danilo Cruz, a young gay man growing up in a colourful and chaotic military dictatorship in the Philippines. The form of the novel is that of a memoir, told through flash fiction, vignettes, a recipe for shark meat, feature articles, poems and vivid songs. The setting ranges from provincial barrio to cosmopolitan London. The grimness and the violence are leavened by the sly wit and wicked humour. Riot.com, the biggest independent platform for the publishing industry in the USA, has called this novel “one of the five most anticipated books by an Asian author in 2020.”

 

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Danton. Congratulations on Riverrun, a delightful and poetic read, lightly trodden but deeply impactful; and indeed, as intended, it reads like a personal, intimate memoir. Why did you decide on having this ‘memoirish’ cant?

 

DR: Thank you, Elaine. I really intended it to be written lightly, as it were, since the topic is the grimness and violence of a military dictatorship in the Philippines. The narrative form is that of a memoir, which is influenced by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the stories in Dubliners. Even the title of my novel comes from Ulysses by Joyce. A memoir allows for a more personal, chatty tone, and the genre itself connotes memories. Talk is one of the things banned in a military dictatorship, so I tried to capture the hidden talk, whispered conversations, snide remarks and seemingly unintended jokes cracked in a dictatorship. I also experimented with Filipino English in this novel, trying to capture the way educated Filipinos spoke in English. I had written books of poetry and essays before I wrote the first draft of Riverrun at Hawthornden Castle, an old castle haunted by ghosts, in Scotland. This influenced the way the novel is written—lyrical in some parts, chatty in others. I wrote in longhand, on yellow pad paper, and I wrote from 9 AM to 5 PM, stopping only for lunch break or to take a walk around the chilly woods that April of 1993. When I found out the voice I would use – a slightly older and more cynical person recalling his bittersweet past – the words seemed to fall into place. 


Friday, 11 September 2020

New Japanese short fiction: One Love Chigusa

Soji Shimada is one of Japan’s best selling mystery writers. His latest work One Love Chigusa has been published in English as part of the Red Circle Minis collection. The collection, which began in 2018, includes short works from contemporary Japanese authors that have not yet been published in Japanese. This novel approach adds an interesting layer to the reading experience; literary criticism on the original texts is not yet available. 

The strange title One Love Chigusa is fitting for a novella that is indeed strange throughout. This strangeness slowly builds, reaches a crescendo in the final chapter, and then in the very last scenes recedes with the revelation of certain vital information. The bizarre array of characters and events that make up the work contribute to the disconcerting yet wonderful experience of reading One Love.

The story is set in Beijing, although it is easy to forget this as spatial descriptions are often very dream-like and dystopian. Surroundings are described to us from the perspective of the main character, Xie Hoyu. Xie has had half of his brain and body replaced by machinery, and this has fundamentally altered the way he experiences the physical world. People and objects often morph into more disturbing or mechanical versions of themselves. For example, when Xie has been wandering the city, we are given his observations: “the letters of the displays and the neon signs scattered on the walls and rooftops would suddenly start to change to numerals. Some changed slowly; some fluctuated violently... Were they stock prices?” Here, the hallucination itself questions the solidity of our linguistic system, while Xie’s question about stock prices points to the all-pervasive presence of financial motivation in our society. This extract thus evokes feelings of disorientation and instability, and conveys a cynical view of civilisation.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China's Reawakening

The 1980s was a period of rapid change and economic growth for China. In 1979, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping opened special economic zones in southern China, experimenting with market capitalism. Dori Jones Yang, a reporter for BusinessWeek, saw China’s rise in the 1980s and has recorded it for her memoir When The Red Gates Opened.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Tsundoku #13 - September 2020

Autumn, cooler weather (perhaps, depending on where you are?) - back to school, back to work, back to some sort of new normal for most of us...and bookshops are open again all over. September is also a bumper month for new books - so many novels held back from spring and summer releases so let's get going....fiction first as ever which is the bulk of this month's new books...

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Hong Kong, Inside and Out: Two Guest Poets Write Home

More than a year since pro-democracy protestors took to the streets in Hong Kong, the city has faded somewhat from headlines around the world, eclipsed by the uncertainties of a global pandemic and fast-changing events elsewhere. But for Hong Kongers at home and abroad, political and cultural upheavals on the island continue to take centre stage, while the fate of their city as they know it hangs in the balance. 

What does it mean to write from, to, and about a changing city? To start a conversation between writers within and outside the city, we invited two guest poets – one based in Hong Kong, to write about a fellow Hong Kong poet living abroad; and the other based overseas, to write about a fellow poet living in Hong Kong. Together, this pair of contributions reimagines Hong Kong as a larger, enduring community that transcends the island’s boundaries. 


Saturday, 8 August 2020

Tsundoku #12 - August 2020

August's Tsundoku may not find you on a beach sadly - or if it does then it's probably the closest beach to your house. But summer reading remains essential wherever you are...here's some new Asian-focussed fiction and non-fiction for the month...some fiction first up...

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Japan's Asian Allies - A Look at the Collaborationist Regimes of World War II


Compared to Nazi Germany, the Japanese Empire during World War II receives little to no coverage in Western media. Even more obscure, are the many puppet regimes that aided the Japanese occupation throughout Asia, spanning from the far north in Manchuria to the south in Burma and the Philippines. Luckily, Osprey publishing has come to the rescue with their newest edition to the Men At Arms series titled Japan’s Asian Allies 1941 – 45.


Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Elaine Chiew Chats With Professor Malachi Edwin Vethamani, Malaysian poet and short story writer.

Photo Credit: Chris Leong


Malachi Edwin Vethamani is a Malaysian-born Indian poet, writer, critic, bibliographer and professor. He is currently Head, School of English, University of Nottingham Malaysia. He has two volumes of poems, Complicated Lives (2016) and Life Happens (2017), and a collection of short stories, Coitus Interruptus and Other Stories Happens (2017). His research on Malaysian literature in English led to the publication of A Bibliography of Malaysian Literature in English (2015) and two edited volumes of Malaysian literature which cover 60 years of Malaysian poetry, Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems (2017) and short-stories, Ronggeng-Ronggeng: Malaysian Short Stories (2020).


 

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Malachi. Great to have you here. Your most recent publication, an anthology of short stories which you compiled and edited, Ronggeng-Ronggeng, has a Table of Contents that reads like a Who’s Who in the Malaysian short story. What was the impetus for this project, what are your hopes for the anthology, and how did you go about the selection process? 

 

MEV: I wanted to bring together a volume of short stories that is representative of Malaysian short story writing from the 1950s till the present. The two existing significant collections of short stories were compiled and edited by Lloyd Fernando in 1968 and 1981 and were republished in 2005 but are generally unavailable. Ronggeng-Ronggeng is one of the outcomes of my research on Malaysian literature in English and I wanted a volume of Malaysian short stories that showcased the works of a range of writers, the new, emerging and the established. I read all the published works that were available and then went on to select the stories and get permission from the writers to include their works for this collection. It is my hope that this collection will contribute to more scholarship on Malaysian literature in English.

 

EC: In your illuminating precis on the development of the short story as a form in Malaysia, you wrote that Malaysians writing in English have a distinct flavour, for example, in the use of Manglish or other vernacular – how important is it to retain this characteristic within the tradition of a national literature, and how has this played out nationally versus internationally, where big publishing houses may not yet recognise or appreciate local tongues and the hybridity it brings to British English as a global (though colonial) standard?

 

MEV: I believe that it is essential that Malaysian writing in English is recognisable as a distinct flavour both in the linguistic and literary dimensions. Malaysian English, in its full spectrum, ranges from the standard form to the non-standard form (Manglish). Between these two poles, there is a range of Malaysian English which contributes towards a national identity. This emerges not only in the linguistic forms but also in the literary dimension, the idiomatic expressions and local images that are used in the works. The multi-cultural mix in Malaysia further contributes to the hybridity in Malaysian English. It is a part of World Englishes, just as British English is a variety of the English language. The fact that Malaysian writers have won international literary prizes is indicative of the contribution Malaysian writers make to contemporary Literature in English worldwide. Sadly, at the national level, Malaysian writing in English remains in the margins as it is not considered part of national Malaysian literature as only literary works in Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language) is included in this literary canon.