Monday, 15 April 2013

A Tale For The Time Being / Ruth Ozeki

Branching from, or parallel to, the world in which I live, does there exist an infinite number of other worlds in which unbeknownst to me, I (other versions of me?) also live? A Tale For The Time Being asks you to consider this question, and others like it.  If that sounds a turn-off, then I’d nevertheless urge you to give it a try, so you can get to know the two main characters, Nao, and Ruth.

Nao, whose name is pronounced now, is much concerned with time, as befits a time being - which, she explains, “is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”  This surely raises the immediate question: what about ghosts?  Ok, ghosts aren’t living, but, if they exist, do they exist in time?  Since one of the characters in Nao’s story is, in her present, a ghost, this is a question you get to ponder as you continue further into the novel. Nao is a Japanese teenager, living in Tokyo, but wishing she were still in California, where she spent her childhood.  Her parents have effectively zoned out on her, she is bullied both at school, and on the internet, her life is spiralling downwards until her great-granny steps in to save her. This wise old great-granny is a Buddhist nun, of 104, whose only son died on a kamikaze mission during World War Two – he is the ghost Nao later encounters, or imagines she encounters.

Meanwhile Ruth is a Japanese-American novelist living with her eco-arty husband on an isolated Canadian island. You, the reader, seem to be invited to consider whether Ruth bears a close resemblance to Ruth Ozeki, the author of A Tale For The Time Being, but I decided to ignore this question, as distracting. Ruth (the character) finds Nao’s diary in a package washed up on the beach near her home.  The package may have been ripped into the Pacific by the 2011 tsunami. Ruth reads Nao’s diary.  As she reads, she considers everything from the relationship between the writer and the reader, to the nature of time, to our relationships with our own histories, our families’ histories, and world history, to Zen Buddhism, to quantum physics, to the role of the internet in contemporary life, to the nature of bravery, and so on and so forth.

Ozeki’s language ranges from teenage-slangy, in Nao’s diary entries, to dryly academic, in the footnotes and appendices she unconventionally includes, to evocatively poetic in her descriptions of nature, and of Buddhism. Her characters grab you; all are moving in their various predicaments; they all matter.  The novel has a great sense of contrasting places, and cultures. Tokyo is captured in all its gaudy craziness; a Buddhist nunnery feels mossily serene; the claustrophobia of a Canadian island seemed very real to me.

All in all this is a fantastic novel, and one I highly recommend. 

If you have read it please post with your opinions.


Thursday, 11 April 2013

Holly Thompson

American Holly Thompson teaches creative writing at Yokohama City University. Since she teaches in English, but her students are mostly Japanese, is language an issue? “It’s true my students bring into their English writing their thinking from a language completely different in structure from English, but I believe reading authentic stories and poems in English then striving to write their own helps non-native speakers connect to and claim the language in a personal way.”

Given the different educational approaches in the States, and in Asia – a focus on individuality and critical thinking versus exam results – is there any difference between teaching creative writing in Japan and in America? “Of course, anyone writing from within Asia, regardless of their language of writing, will be writing from within their environment in Asia. Climate and culture influence the stories we cultivate. Most of my students in Japan, unlike those in the U.S., have never written a short story in any language, and most have never tried writing poetry. My job is to expose them to possibilities, to share stories and poems that lead to prompts for their own ideas, to give them tools for creating stories and poems in English, and to nurture curious, responsive readers and writers. Most importantly, my aim is to open their minds and to inspire them to discover creativity with words.”

That’s all very well, but even in the West, it’s sometimes said that the way to break your parents’ hearts is to take an arts degree, and creative writing scarcely fits the Asian view of university as a stepping-stone to a stable job. So are students’ ambitions similar in the States and in Japan? “Few of my students in Japan aspire to be writers whereas many students in the U.S. do consider creative writing as something that might weave itself into their future. But times are changing . . .”

They are indeed, and one of the changes is that Asia is on the rise. Has that given Japanese students greater confidence to write in English about Japan?  “Not necessarily. I have to convince many of my students that Japan-set stories, and Japanese characters, can be convincingly written in English. I have to push them to think of their own unique points of view and find stories from deep within their own bins of collected story seeds. I have to convince them that their Asian-based stories are worth telling to an English language readership around the world.”

That sounds frustrating.  Is it? “No. I feel fortunate to have been able to teach creative writing in a Japanese university.  I love to see the evolution of the students as they travel from bewildered beginners to imaginative and capable writers. At the end of the semester it’s a joy to hand out the student publications that result, and in the poetry classes to watch students listen with rapt attention as fellow students stand before them reading selected poems from their final portfolios—moving others with their own words.”

Holly Thompson is the author of two young adult novels in verse: The Language Inside (Delacorte/Random House, forthcoming, May 2013) and Orchards (Delacorte/Random House), winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, as well as the novel Ash (Stone Bridge Press) and a picture book The Wakame Gatherers (Shen’s Books). She edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories (Stone Bridge Press).

Visit Holly Thompson’s website at

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Romancing The East / Jerry Hopkins

Romancing The East includes chapters on various western novelists, whose novels have helped shape the west’s perceptions of Asia. It provides potted biographies, plot-summaries, suggestions for retracing the writers’ footsteps, and all sorts of arresting snippets of information along the way.

            Part of the fun of any portmanteau book is taking issue with the author’s selection criteria. I’m sure every reader of Romancing The East will think: if I’d been writing this I’d have included / excluded so-and-so. Is it unfair to quibble with somebody else’s deeply personal selection? Probably.  So I won’t do it.  Instead, I’ll say that though I found some of Hopkins’ choices / omissions a little odd, I found all his chapters interesting; my favourite was the one on Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu.

Hopkins does, clearly, love all things pulp and Hollywood, which is joyous in that his book manages to make room for both E.M. Forster and Eric Van Lustbader, but the movies’ dazzle does lead him to some fairly provocative judgements: “Michael Crichton was a literary colossus.” Really? Hmm…

Eric Van Lustbader, in case the name is new to you, wrote of one of the many books featured in Romancing The East I’ve never read, namely The Ninja. Nor can I say I now have any intention of reading The Ninja, but if the success of Romancing The East rests on how many books it leaves the reader wanting to read, or re-read, then this was, for me, a very successful book. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to catch up on all those James Clavell doorstops I’ve thus far avoided, but I do want to read André Malraux, and - oh no! - I’ve never read Orwell’s Burmese Days, or John Masters’ Bhowani Junction, or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth…

Romancing The East didn’t just remind me quite how badly read I am at the level of individual titles, it also forced me to consider there are entire genres I’ve never bothered with.  The west has chick lit and mummy lit, but Asia has prostitute lit. I’ve never settled down with either Suzy Wong, or with the love entrepreneurs of Thailand, but now I’m going to give the Thai entrepreneurs at least a try.  One author included in the discussion of this genre, Stephen Leather, wrote Private Dancer, in which, apparently, the male-sucker character falls for a Thai Bar girl, and then finds out (surprise, surprise) she’s married.  But this is not just your standard ripped-off-by-a-hooker story. No, “it is told in the voices of everyone involved so you can see that everyone has a different opinion of what is happening, but that no one really understands what is going on.”  I’m all for no one having a clue; I’ve added it to my reading list.

Romancing The East, by Jerry Hopkins, is published by Tuttle, in paperback format.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Sonny Liew

Sonny Liew is a Malaysian-born, Singapore-based illustrator of internationally acclaimed comics and graphic novels. What attracted him to the form? “It started out with just a simple love of comics growing up – The Beano, Lao Fu Zhi, Spiderman. That grew into an understanding of comics as a unique medium blending visuals and text into a language all its own, so learning and experimenting with the craft has kept me engaged for the last umpteen years.”

Some Asian languages, like Japanese, are notoriously difficult to read. Does Sonny think this has anything to do with the popularity of graphic novels in Asia? “No. I think prose sells well in Japan too, so I don't think it's a question of language difficulty. That said, comics and graphic novels can be easier to digest than narrative text, but that’s not particular to Asia. During and after Word War Two the American cartoonist Will Eisner produced illustrated instructional booklets for the US Army that were very well received. Understanding and processing a visual image, or a combination of visual and textual information, is probably easier for the human brain than comprehending text alone.”

The Malay she-devil, the Pontianak, seems made for horror.  Does Sonny detect any specifically Asian themes in local offerings?  “There’s a natural urge to create stories close to our home and hearts, but I think what might make a story "Asian" is the particular temporal or geographical setting, a specifically Asian world in which the story unfolds, rather than thematic concerns.”

Whether they were “Asian” or not, which types of local offering does he see working well internationally? “I'm guessing most stories that translate well deal with universal human conditions and issues - love, death, taxes. So a good story set in an interesting world, I think that would be the key to international success.”

Most of Sonny’s internationally published books have been collaborations with authors from the US or the UK, and none of his novels have been set in Singapore. What if he tried selling internationally a book set in his hometown?  It seems Sonny is about to discover how easy, or difficult, that will be. “I'm working on one right now, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, for a local publisher, Epigram Books. A local book for a local publisher makes sense in many ways; how the book can then be marketed or sold outside Singapore is big question. Right now I'm focused on trying to make the book work in its structure and storytelling - and I guess hoping that if the narrative is successful, then later that in itself will go a long way into making selling it easier.”

What advice does Sonny offer to other graphic novelists in Asia who want to reach an international audience? “Sometimes you can rely on the luck of the zeitgeist - riding the right wave at the right time - but generally I think it's still a question of crafting good stories. A combination of good and interesting art, and a strong story spine I think would make a book work anywhere.”

If you are a graphic novelist, app creator, comic aficionado, or similar, then do please post with your opinions.

Friday, 29 March 2013

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia / Mohsin Hamid

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid, is much concerned with communion between the writer, and the reader: Like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project…It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books…”  

Fine. But does that deny that an author has in her mind, when she writes, some meaning she intends to convey to her readers? Can readers misinterpret those meanings?  If I had read How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia as a guide to getting on  in the world, and not as, in part, a commentary on  both guides to getting on in the world, and also the whole idea of getting on in the world, would Mohsin Hamid have had a right to irritation?

How interesting you find such questions will probably partly determine how much you enjoy How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, as will how you feel about the fact that Hamid asks you, the reader, to participate in his novel as “you”, his unnamed main character, even though you are no freer to invent “your” biography than you are to interpret How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia as a self-help book, since Hamid has done (most of) the inventing for you.

You are born dirt poor somewhere in rural “rising Asia.” (Where’s that?) As a youth you hanker after both love and money, though the self-help  guide you're following / that's following you  advises that if you want filthy riches, then don’t fall in love. Nevertheless, you tumble. Your heart’s target is  “the pretty girl”, and once you’ve seen her, your two stories begin a life-long intermingling. Your target remains, to you, “the pretty girl”, even as she ages. When you look at her in early middle age: “What you see is a woman little changed by the years, not, obviously, because this is true, your first meeting having been half your lifetimes ago, but rather because your image of her is not entirely determined by her physical reality.” Eventually, you marry another woman, one you cannot really see, so filled is your vision by the pretty girl, and with whom you have a son: “Fatherhood has taught you the lesson that, even in middle age, love is practicable. It is possible to adore those newly come into your world, to envision, no matter how late in the day, a happily entwined future with those who have not been part of your past.” 

On the financial side, you scam, cheat, bribe, and batter your way to riches. In old age you yourself are cheated, and you descend from the top of the money tree somewhere back towards its middle.

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia is challenging, playful, serious, knowing, argumentative, upsetting and wonderful. It’s political, angry about the conditions of the world’s poor, and it’s deft and touching in its treatment of the personal.  It’s filled with sentences that demand rereading, as does the whole novel. I loved it.

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia is published in the US by Riverhead Books, and in the UK by Hamish Hamilton. Depending where you are, you will probably find both editions available in Asia – though of course more readily available in risen Asia, than in either rising Asia, or in sinking Asia.   It is available as an e-book.

UK edition
US edition
 If you have read How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, please post with your opinions. 

Monday, 25 March 2013

Peony Literary Agency

Peony Literary Agency, in Hong Kong, is one of the foremost multi-lingual literary agencies in Asia. It represents both established and debut authors, organising translation if needed. 

Marysia Juszczakiewicz, a Mandarin speaker who had previously worked in international publishing, founded Peony because she believes Asia is the future, and she wanted to be at the forefront of presenting Asian stories to the west. “Asia has such a diversity of cultures and voices, with many amazing histories, and various political systems, and dynasties.” She says. “There is still so much that is untapped, and I want to see this richness brought to the widest possible audience.”

Though Peony is best known for representing Chinese writers, Marysia now looks at all of Asia when signing up new writers. “Currently I am selling a North Korean memoir by Jang Jin Sung, the court poet who, until he defected, created the aura of Kim Il Sung. I’m also looking at literature in Burma, and I'm in discussion with Indian writers.”

How difficult is it for Peony's writers to break into international markets?  “The English language market is tough.” Says Marysia. “English language publishers have their own home-grown authors to draw on, and works in translation still represent a tiny niche market.” Is it better in other markets?  “Compared to the U.K., publishers in, for example, France and Italy, have a better established tradition of taking works in translation.”  

Despite the challenges Marysia has had great success in cracking the important English language market, sometimes going to great lengths to ensure her clients reach this platform: “Digital is the way it's going with comics and graphic novels. I recently sold world digital rights in a graphic novel, Darkness Outside The Night, to Tabella. The illustrations are by Shanghai-based artist Xie Peng who doesn't speak English, whom I paired up with a writer, Duncan Jepson, who only speaks English. This collaboration was certainly interesting - Duncan and Xie Peng did not meet during the creative process, and were unable to communicate directly - but the end result is wonderful, and has been getting great reviews.” 

Whatever the format, and whether into English, or into any other language, seeing translations of her authors’ work always pleases Marysia.  Recently The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung has been a hit: “It is available in nearly 20 languages, and seeing all those foreign-language editions has been a huge thrill.” She is also excited by the increasing interest in Chinese stories by US film companies: “I represent Yan Geling, who wrote The Flowers of War. This was made into a movie directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale. It was internationally distributed, and became a huge blockbuster in China.”

With this sort of buzz, it’s not surprising that Western publishers are currently setting up all over Asia, scouting for new writers. So what is Marysia’s advice for Asian authors looking to be taken on by these international companies? “That’s easy! Get an Agent!”

Jang Jin Sung runs New Focus International, the leading website on North Korea by North Koreans. It is at:

If you have any thoughts on literary agencies in Asia do please post them. 

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Five Star Billionaire / Tash Aw

Who wants to be a five star billionaire?  And is that a stupid question?  Is it a stupid question to ask in one of the new headquarters of global capitalism, Shanghai? Is it a stupid question when addressed to migrant workers?  What about when addressed to those born into wealthy families?  And if it’s money you’re after, what would you be prepared to do to win it?  Trade your youth and beauty for marriage to a rich man you didn’t love? Sing inane Mando pop for inane teenage girls?  Bully a poor man out of his home, so your family could go ahead with plans to redevelop the area? Lie, cheat, re-write your own history, or what?

These are some of the questions raised by Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, published by Fourth Estate, and available in both paperback and e-book formats.  It concerns five Malaysian-born Chinese, all now returned to China. Phoebe, poor and poorly educated,  knows what she wants: money, with a man attached. She is addicted to so-called self-help books, and comes across  Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire.  Walter, the (supposed?) author, may or may not be involved in cons worse than those of the self-help industry, and may or may not value vengeance above money. Gary won a TV talent contest, and became a pop star, but now he’s finding fame and adulation are not all they are cracked up to be. Justin, the adopted son of a property tycoon, is suffering a nervous breakdown. In her youth Yinghui got dumped by Justin’s brother.  Now she’s a businesswoman, but perhaps she’s not as savvy as she seems? 

These five overlapping stories, rooted in Malaysia, but now unfurling against the backdrop of Shanghai’s pell-mell pursuit of capitalism, between them raise questions not only about our relationships with place, with luck, good and bad, and with money, but also about our relationships with our own selves: about the roles of truth, lies, fantasy, and reality in constructing our identities.  They raise also the question of whether or not we can ever truly reinvent ourselves as our circumstances and our ambitions change?  As for answers, Tash Aw mostly leaves these hanging, or else he suggests that answers might conflict: by the end, some of his characters do seem on the verge of forging new versions of themselves, and others seem unable to cope with the new identities they’ve recently been trying out.

None of this is to say Five Star Billionaire is a philosophical treatise.  It does what novels do: it asks us to slip into the characters’ skins. The author does not take sides: all the main characters invite our sympathy and understanding, even when, perhaps especially when, they're being manipulative, and exploitative.

Five Star Billionaire is a great read. Once you start it I doubt you’ll put it down.

If you have read Five Star Billionaire, please post with your opinions.