Wednesday, 19 June 2013

#Word, Kuala Lumpur

As part of the inaugural Cooler Lumper arts festival, intended to become annual, Kuala Lumpur this weekend hosts #Word, an event committed to encouraging reading, nurturing an appreciation of language, and improving literacy skills in Malaysia.

#Word will host a series of lectures, panel discussions, creative writing workshops, and readings from Malaysian authors, and from international authors from the UK, and from right across Asia. 

Asian authors attending include Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra, an award winning poet and novelist from the Philippines, Di Li, a Vietnamese novelist best know for the mystery-horror novel Red Flower Farm, and Wipas Srithong, from Thailand, whose first novel The Dwarf won the South East Asian Write Award, 2012.

Dr Ma Thida, the Burmese human rights activist and campaigner, is also attending.  Her first novel, The Sunflower, was banned in Burma. Her documentary-novel The Roadmap, published under the pen name Suragamika (the brave traveler) received the Norwegian Freedom of Speech Award in 2011.

#Word incorporates the only South East Asian segment of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference (EWWC), a series of events in cities across the globe, giving writers in different countries the chance to discuss literature and its relationship to contemporary life. The Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council jointly present the EWWC.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is really something else. Every August the organizers invite hundreds of writers from across the world to Scotland, to mingle with each other, and with vast crowds of readers. Why have they branched out to form the EWWC? Nick Barley, Festival director, said: “Writers have a role to play in stimulating our imaginative health and thereby engendering mutual respect amongst individuals and nations. The EWWC represents an opportunity for all of us to rethink how writers, and their writing, can play a part in understanding and improving our world. The EWWC is a worldwide discussion, and we look forward to seeing how the debate will continue in Kuala Lumpur.”
Meanwhile, the British Council promotes UK writers, poets, and publishers to readers around the world, hence its involvement, and that of UK-based authors.  Grey Yeoh, from the British Council Malaysia said: “We are proud to be hosting the South East Asian leg of the EWWC in Kuala Lumpur. We want to continue to contribute to the growth of the community here, and hope that this festival will leave a permanent mark on the literature scene in Malaysia.”

The EWWC hosts three panels at #Word. Should Literature Be Political? will discuss whether the political and the aesthetic are separable in literature, and if so, whether literature should be political or should be enjoyed only for its aesthetic value? Censorship Today will consider the impact of censorship on writers and writing in Malaysia and around the world. A National Literature will ask whether, in a globalised world, national literature is still a relevant concept? Malaysian National Laureate A. Samad Said will be one of the panelists. 

Of other events at #Word, the workshop for novelists led by Benjamin Markovits will surely be popular. Markovits, a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of London, is hailed in the UK as one of its best young novelists.  His workshop will explore the tricky questions what is your novel about? and why are you writing it?

#Word, runs from 21st to 23rd June, at Publika, a shopping mall in KL.  For the programme, ticketing information etc, see . All events will be in English. The EWWC panels will be streamed live on the internet.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Blossoms / Jin Yucheng

There has recently been much discussion on English-language Chinese websites of the Shanghai dialect. 

Qian Nairong, a linguist with Shanghai University, explained to Xinhua that all regional dialects now face a challenge: “With rapid social development over recent years, an increasing number of migrants with different dialects can be found all over China. However, people are encouraged to speak Mandarin between each other, threatening the existence of dialects." In addition, he worries  that in the era of keyboards, dialects will become extinct as people type characters with unified pinyin, which is based on Mandarin. To counter this trend, Qian and his team have developed character input software using the Shanghai dialect.

Others are also doing their bit, including a lexicographer who has compiled a Shanghai dialect dictionary. Apparently, for words relating to agriculture, now rarely heard in Shanghai, he had to seek the advice of old-aged farmers.

Meanwhile, the on-line English-language versions of several Chinese newspapers are reporting that a new novel, Blossoms (Fan Hua), by Jin Yucheng, is making waves, partly because it is written in the Shanghai dialect.

The novel depicts the lives of Shanghai people in two periods: from the 1960s to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, and from the 1980s to 2000. It consists of many independent stories, which interweave  as the lives of the characters unfold.

Why did Jin choose to write in dialect? He told Global Times: "Chinese literature is getting monotonous both in language and form. I want to be special with my own language.” He also pointed out that for writers beyond Beijing, Mandarin is often a second language: “I found it much easier to write dialogues in my native language."

This begs an obvious question: can Blossoms be read outside Shanghai? Jin was careful to ensure that his language was similar enough to Mandarin to allow readers from other parts of China to understand him. He told Global Times:  "If you want your works to get read, first of all, it should be understandable for readers in other regions. It is not to amuse oneself.” He explained to China Daily that he avoided some slang and dialect words difficult to express in the written language: "The language of Blossoms is not exactly pure Shanghai dialect. You have to think in the context of the Shanghai dialect and recreate the language so that readers outside of Shanghai can understand it.”  He explained the task he’d set himself was difficult: “Many things that can be expressed in (Mandarin) cannot be said in the dialect and I had to write in a roundabout way. It means more preparation and challenges."

Has he succeeded in writing a dialect novel comprehensible beyond the dialect’s boundaries?  Zheng Li, an editor with a Shanghai publishing house, certainly thinks he has, and that he’s done so whilst retaining an authentic sense of place. He is quoted in China Daily as saying Jin’s readers can: “taste the intense aroma of the Shanghai flavour.”

Blossoms is not, to my knowledge, available in English.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Select Books: The Asian Book Specialist

Select Books specialises in books about Asia. Throughout urban South East Asia you can find terraces of narrow buildings known as shophouses; these originally had a shop on the ground floor, and living quarters above. Select Books occupies a shophouse – and one that couldn’t be more fitting. In the early twentieth century Sun Yat Sen, a Chinese revolutionary who played an instrumental role in events leading to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, briefly made Singapore his headquarters.  In 1910, to promote literacy and a sense of identity amongst the country’s Chinese population, he inaugurated the United Chinese Library.  He did so in none other than the shophouse now occupied by Select Books.

Most books stocked by Select are in English. Likewise most are new, although an ancient glass-fronted cabinet that could well have been around since Sun Yat Sen’s day holds books from Colonial times. I didn’t get to flip through any of these, the alarming price tags, and the fact they were all protected by plastic wrappings, deterred me from asking the shop assistant even to open the cabinet, but the titles were intriguing, at least from an historical, if not from a literary, perspective. I doubt I'd choose to while away the time on a long journey reading Pamphlet Of Information For Travellers, published by the Federated Malay State Railways in 1914, as a guide for those taking the train from Singapore to Penang, but what a trove of information it must contain for social historians.

The new books tempting you to spend cover everything from cookery, to art and architecture, to religion, to botany, indeed every subject you’d expect to find in any decent independent bookshop anywhere in the world - although a little lighter, perhaps on defiantly provocative books on politics than would be the case in the West? Mind you, not every political title is timid; I found Freedom From The Press, by Cherian George, which examines the tricky issue of press freedom and state power in Singapore, and which is published by National University of Singapore Press.

In the literature section, I found books by Asian writers already well known in the West – Amitav Ghosh, Tash Aw, Haruki Murakami, Yan Lianke, and so on – but also offerings from authors you’d be hard pushed to find represented in Western bookshops, such as Damiana Eugenio, whom I now know to be honoured as the mother of Philippine folklore, and who is famous in her own land for her monumental Philippine Folk Literature series, published by University of the Philippines Press. Select had Volume 5, The Riddles.

As well as great books, poking around Select also led me to discover some great initiatives by Asian publishers - for example, that Perera-Hussein Publishing House, in Colombo, donates a part of the proceeds of every book it sells towards planting trees in Puttalam, Sri Lanka’s semi-arid zone.

If you do happen to be in Singapore Select Books is well worth a visit: 51, Armenian Street.  Or you can visit them on-line at


Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Civil Servant's Notebook / Wang Xiaofang

I’d never heard of officialdom lit until I read The Civil Servant’s Notebook, by Wang Xioafang. It is, however, a much beloved genre in China – or so I gather from the English on-line edition of The People’s Daily, where reporter Mei Jia recently wrote that officialdom novels frequently top bestseller lists, generally sell 100,000 copies, and often see sales soaring into millions. 

Mei Jia speculated this popularity reflects Asian readers’ keenness for books that show them how to prosper in the world: “Experts say readers look to the books … to learn workplace skills.”

Alas, The Civil Servant’s Notebook probably disappointed Chinese readers looking for a leg-up, as though it surely qualifies as officialdom lit, it is hard to read it as a guide to winning promotion. 

However, Mei Jia offered a second explanation for the popularity of officialdom lit, quoting Fudan University professor Zhang Taofu as saying the craze shows Chinese people's ongoing fascination with political power: "The lack of full transparency in power operations in a sense raises public curiosity in digging out the dirt behind the scenes. That's why officialdom novels are popular.”

Chinese readers choosing The Civil Servant’s Notebook because they wanted dirt won’t have been disappointed: Wang offers a tale of corrupt civil servants in a scramble for political prestige and personal gain, and never mind the public welfare. He writes with an insider’s authority, since he was private secretary to Shenyang’s deputy mayor from 1997-1999, during which time his boss achieved infamy for losing millions in public money in Macau’s casinos – he was later sentenced to death for his crimes. Wang was found innocent of involvement and left the civil service to set up shop as a writer. He has since specialized in re-examining his career through the lens of political fiction. The Civil Servant’s Notebook is the first of his 13 novels to be published in English. Eric Abrahamsen translated it, and various English language editions are available in Asia - I read the one from Penguin, Australia.

You might worry a book set in the world of Chinese local government will put you to sleep, but The Civil Servant’s Notebook is probably sensational enough to satisfy even fans of Dan Brown: skullduggery, seduction, and a money-grubbing Buddhist entrepreneur all feature.

The plot revolves around the personal notebook of a high-up official, who works in provincial government. Its exposure to the internal enforcement brigade initiates a hunt for the anonymous writer.  The hunt makes everyone in the civil service jumpy, from lowly researchers to vice-mayors. Not even the most practiced of civil servants can predict just who will outmaneuver whom, and, indeed, whether anyone will remain unscathed. 

Wang tells his tale through multiple narrators, including contributions from The Office Chair, The Office Desk, The Government Square, The Name Card, and so on and so forth.  It’s an interesting way to tell a story, and this novel provides an interesting insight into modern China. 

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Seeds of a new North Korean literature

North Koreans in exile are the only North Koreans who right now have any chance of having their voices heard; the May issue of the on-line magazine Words Without Borders lets us listen to seven of them.

Guest-editor Shirley Lee, who also edits New Focus International, a website offering analysis of news from North Korea, told me her aim: “I hope to provide a record of the scattering of the first seeds of a non-state North Korean literature, which allows North Korea's writers to reclaim their language and literature from their politicians. It sounds a bit grand, but the emphasis is on 'seeds'. I would like to think that we are witnessing the beginnings of a new North Korean literature, that is written in something other than the language of the regime.”

If North Koreans are to reclaim their language from their politicians, they must be able to distinguish truth from lies.  Lee has selected pieces that all deal, in differing ways, with exiles’ struggles to understand that the dark fantasies the regime spun them at home were precisely that: fantasies, and not reality.  Beneath this overarching theme, three concerns recur: drugs, maternal love, and hunger.

Did you know North Korea has a large population of junkies?  Or that the regime, as a (presumably?) unintended consequence of trying to raise foreign capital by selling drugs abroad, has encouraged large numbers of its own people into becoming pushers and users?  If these are new ideas to you, as they were to me, then read the only fictional offering in the issue, After The Gunshot, by Lee Ji Myung, translated by Shirley Lee, which is about drug smugglers on the Sino-North Korean border, or A Blackened Land, a memoir by Kim Yeon-seul, translated by Sora Kim-Russell. This is an account of the devastating effects of crystal meth addiction. When the content is so distressingly compelling, it feels wrong to comment, even positively, on the style, but, through the veil of translation, this struck me as strong writing. Here Kim Yeon-seul describes her junkie husband lighting-up: “When he rolled (crystal meth) up in the shiny aluminum lining of a cigarette pack and touched the lighter to it, bluish gray smoke would curl up from it, like a cobra dancing to a flute.”  Isn’t that an apt simile, beautifully ugly and sinister?

Meanwhile, The Poet Who Asked For Forgiveness, by Gwak Moon-an, translated by Shirley Lee, is a factual account of how a poet is bullied, as a strategy for survival, into writing a hymn praising The Party as Mother - a superhuman mother to be revered over any mere biological mother.  All North Koreans are now required to learn this hymn by heart; expressions of love between biological mothers and their children have become subversive acts.

I Want to Call Her Mother Again by Park Gui-ok, translated by Sora Kim-Russell is about stripping away the regime’s falsehood that a child’s real Mother is the Party.  It is a harrowing account of a mother’s abandonment of her children in a potato field, so they can have a chance of a better life, in South Korea. Park Gui-ok is for a long time filled with resentment and hatred of her mother, but after thirteen years of freedom she is able to understand that her mother was not to blame for her suffering: “All at once, the hatred and ugliness I had harbored toward her turned to longing and flooded my heart. How she must have suffered! How bad things must have been for her to abandon her babies! When I think back on that potato field all those years ago, the image of my mother removing all of her clothes, dressing me and my younger sibling in them, and keeping nothing but a layer of tattered rags for herself fills me with such pain. Now, as I picture her hands, blistered and scratched from digging through the frozen earth in search of even a single potato no bigger than a bean, the memory tears at my heart.”

And so to hunger. The Arduous March by Ji Hyun-ah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, and A Rice Story by Kim Sung-min, translated by Shirley Lee, are both about the struggle to survive famine. A Rice Story is billed as a poem, although in English it reads more like brief and vivid prose.  It was written during a campaign in South Korea urging people to eat more rice as there was a glut of the stuff. Kim Sung-min compares this situation with that over the border: “The greens that have been dried for three days, the roots of trees gnawed and abandoned by beasts in the mountains, and one small sack of barley—mixed together on the stove. Food bartered for your sister’s chastity. Rub your stinging eyes, make sure the smoke rises into the night. So what if I’m a father who’s let his children starve? I’ve shaken hands with this enemy, life, just to stay alive, to stay alive. Facing those who grip their spoons and wait by empty bowls, Seoul is left with too much rice.”

Pillow, a poem by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, combines the two motifs of motherhood, and hunger. It presents a mother lying to her son about the contents of a sack, to motivate him to go to school:
                        The ultimate act of motherhood
Was a rice-pillow lie
For deceiving her beloved son
The final pang of hunger
Was a pillar of faith giving way
For the ruin of a young boy’s life

I urge you to read the rest of Pillow, and all the other pieces in the May issue of Words Without Borders.  Find them at New Focus International is at

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Words Without Borders

 Words Without Borders (WWB) is a non-profit organisation encouraging cultural understanding
through the translation, publication, and promotion of contemporary international literature. Its publications and programs enable readers of English to explore the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and differing perspectives on world events offered by writers in other languages. It provides a location for global literary conversation, principally through its monthly on-line magazine. This includes ten to fifteen pieces of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction not previously translated into English; to date the magazine has published over 1,600 pieces by writers from 119 countries, translated from 92 languages.

Susan Harris is the editorial director of the on-line magazine. She spoke to me, via e-mail, from Chicago: WWB is virtual; it has no offices, Susan and her colleagues all work from home, either in the States, or in London.

The current magazine features pieces from North Korean writers living in exile.  I asked Susan how the editors decide on themes for issues?  “It's a mixture. We do annual graphic novel and queer issues, and we often do an issue of writing from the guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This year is the tenth anniversary of our founding, and we’re celebrating by returning to the themes of our first three issues: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.”

I wondered how much lead-time is required for each issue, and what happens if world events render commissioned material out-of-date?  “We work well in advance on the issue themes, and we've already scheduled most of 2014, but we acquire work for the monthly features, usually three to four pieces, closer to publication. We try to remain flexible to accommodate breaking news and other developments. In 2011, I'd planned an issue of writing from the three languages of Algeria - Arabic, French, and Berber - for August. In January the uprisings started, and we realized that, regardless of what transpired over the next seven months, we would need to acknowledge the situation. Then all the dominoes started to fall, and it became clear that the entire region was undergoing revolution. So we took apart our schedule and scrambled to publish two issues of writing from the Arab Spring, in the rough order of the uprisings: July with North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Tunisia), and August with the Middle East (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen).

I asked whether WWB commissions from translators, or directly from authors?  In which case, how do they manage the translation process? “We do prefer to receive translations. but we often solicit submissions in the original languages - from authors, publishers, agents, etc. In those cases, if we don't have the original language reading capacity on staff, we place the pieces with a reader and commission a sample.  If we’re happy with the sample we commission a full translation.” 

On a personal note, I asked Susan what she most enjoys about her job, and what she finds most frustrating? “I love working with authors and translators and helping to bring work that I couldn't otherwise read into English.  It frustrates me there's so much we don't know about, or to which we don't have access.”

Words Without Borders is at They are interested in expanding their offerings from Asia, particularly in the languages they haven't yet published – Thai, Khmer and Laotian. So if you are in Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos, get writing!

My next post will be on Words Without Borders’ North Korean issue. Have you read it yet?  If so do please share in advance  your opinions.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Rainbow Troops / Andrea Hirata

If you’re fed up with books about lucky westerners going through a patch of angst, then read The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata, which was originally published in Indonesian.  It is now available in English translated by Angie Kilbane; I read the Australian edition from Random House.

The Rainbow Troops are a group of dirt-poor students from the ramshackle Muhammadiyah Elementary School on the Indonesian Island of Belitong. Have you heard of Muhammadiyah?  I hadn’t, until I read The Rainbow Troops, but I now know it’s a charity that helps Muslims via education – the novel employs all sorts of Malay and Muslim words and concepts previously unknown to me.

The Rainbow Troops get their name from sitting in a tree in their schoolyard looking for rainbows.  In Indonesian they are called Laskar Pelangi. Either the author, or the translator, explains that pelangi means rainbow, and laskar means warriors, but I suppose the novel couldn’t be called, in English, The Rainbow Warriors, because of associations with Greenpeace?

Mind you, The Rainbow Troops fight hard for their environment, and this novel might prod you to do a light spot of internet research on tin mining in Indonesia. Tin mining is the backbone of the Belitong economy, and one of myriad threats to the existence of The Muhammadiyah School comes from a rapacious mining company which wants to knock it down to dredge the land it stands on. The Rainbow Troops see off this threat, as they see off many others.

This is not, however, a feel good novel with happy endings all round. The narrator, Ikal, is a clever boy, but not the cleverest in his class; he perpetually comes second to Lintang, a genius who is so desperate for an education that he daily crosses crocodile infested swamps to get to school.  Lintang’s fate will make your blood boil, as will this whole novel, it is a book furious at the injustice of the world, but it wears its anger lightly, and it charms, rather than lectures – it deceives you into thinking.

There is only one girl in Ikal’s year, a gender imbalance he appears not to notice, although I’m sure all western readers will ponder it.  The novel does, however, have a courageous, inspiring female character, Bu Mus, one of the two extraordinary teachers who provide The Rainbow Troops with hope for the future. Bu Mus is only fifteen when she starts teaching, she is not qualified in any way that would be recognised in the West, she receives no pay for her work – and she is a heroine adamant the children in her care will be freed by education from the illiteracy and drudgery which blight their parents’ lives.

I urge you to read The Rainbow Troops.  Unless you share Ikal’s background, it will force you to think about lives very different from your own, and unless you are impoverished by Asian standards, it will force you to consider how privileged you are.  But this is not a self-consciously worthy or earnest book, it is instead gentle: warm, tender, and heartbreaking.