Wednesday 31 July 2013

500 Words From Dawn Farnham

500 Words From is a series of guest posts from authors.   Here, Dawn Farnham talks about The Straits Quartet, her acclaimed series of novels set in nineteenth-century Singapore and Batavia (Jakarta). The four titles together follow the eventful love affair between Charlotte, sister of Singapore’s Head of Police, and Zhen, once the lowliest of Chinese coolies, and a triad member.  In each book, Dawn skilfully weaves romance, scandal, and sex into a satisfying novel, without sacrificing historical accuracy; she includes all sorts of arresting period detail such as what to do in a tiger attack, and how, in the 1830s, passionate girls avoided pregnancy.

Dawn was born in England, but grew up in Perth, Australia, and her links to Asia are strong. She has lived in China, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan.   She now splits her time between Perth, and her second home, Singapore.  It was in Singapore that she began to write, fascinated by the rich history of the tiny City-State, where a variety of cultures mingle, and where, in the nineteenth century the Peranakans, descendants of male Chinese immigrants and their Malay brides, formed a large and influential population.

So, 500 words from Dawn Farnham:

"What inspired you to write this book?" Ask any author that question and the responses will be as varied as the books themselves.  For myself, it was a photograph.  I had recently become a docent, guiding the old Peranakan Museum in Singapore and learning the surprising details of Peranakan homes, food, marriage and lifestyle. A door opened onto an entirely unheard-of universe and I was taken by this hybrid Malay / Chinese culture.

The photograph was half life-sized. It showed a wedding. The bride was dressed in the old costume of China and the groom like a Mandarin with his gown and button hat.  A simple wedding photograph, you might think, albeit exotic, but it spoke to me. For the girl was Peranakan and ought to be in a sarong and jacket, and he was most likely a coolie, newly arrived from China’s shores.  

She was a daughter, a more precious commodity in Singapore than in China, for through her were cemented important trading connections to other Peranakan families all over Southeast Asia. But in a smallish community there were never enough men to marry each daughter to a Peranakan male. So she was the means, too, to bring into the family new blood, Chinese speakers, young men who understood China and its ways better than the Peranakans themselves. And a vast supply was arriving with every boat from China. It sufficed only to pick the best of the bunch, ones who could read and write and had canny heads on their shoulders.

The huge difference from China was that this young man would move into the home of the bride not vice versa. It was up to him to adjust to this new world: different language, different food, different customs.

So there it was, the story of a young man, Zhen, handsome and ambitious, out to make his fortune and to land a rich bride. But that was not story enough of course. It had to be harder. He had to be in love not with the rich bride but with the most forbidden fruit of the colony of Singapore, a white woman, Charlotte, sister of the police chief; he had to face the seemingly impossible task of coming together with her.

That was the little seed, and all writers know that the seed is everything. From that seed, I discovered the life and loves of Singapore’s first architect George Coleman and his mixed-race Javanese / Dutch / Armenian mistress, Takouhi. I read about the house he built for her and their child, and I was hooked.

I hadn’t intended to write a quartet. Somehow that grew along the way when halfway through the first book, The Red Thread, I realised I had more to say and that the natural ending of that book led to another – The Shallow Seas. Once I realised I was going to write two, the next step, surprisingly, was not three but four, hence The Hills of Singapore and The English Concubine.

Hitchcock famously said “a movie is life with all the boring bits taken out”. Something like a quartet of books has to be similar. I’m asking the reader to invest time in my characters and my duty is to make them and the events of their lives as lively and dramatic and romantic and passionate as I can. Have I succeeded?  Only readers can say.

The Straits Quartet is published by Monsoon Books:
Visit Dawn’s website:

Saturday 27 July 2013

Nita B Kibble Literary Awards

Australia's Nita B Kibble Literary Awards aim to encourage women writers to advance the cause of literature. The Awards recognise women producing “life writing”. This includes novels, autobiographies, biographies, and any other writing with a strong personal element. Two awards are made each year, the Kibble Literary Award and the Dobbie Literary Award.  The Kibble Literary Award, currently valued at A$30,000, recognises the work of an established Australian woman writer. The Dobbie Literary Award, currently valued at A$5,000, recognises a first published work from an Australian woman writer. The winners of this year’s Kibble and Dobbie Literary Awards have just been announced in Sydney. 

The Kibble went to Annah Faulkner, for The Beloved, a novel set largely in a country usually ignored in literature: Papua New Guinea. This was where Faulkner grew up. The Beloved concerns intergenerational conflict between a mother and her daughter. When Roberta "Bertie" Lightfoot is struck down with polio she sets her heart on becoming an artist. Through drawing, she gives form and voice to the reality of the people and the world around her. While her father is happy to indulge her driving passion, her mother will not let art get in the way of the very different future she wishes for her only daughter.

In 1955 the family moves to Port Moresby, Here, in post-colonial Papua New Guinea, Bertie thrives amid the lush colours and the tropical abundance. She rebels against her mother's strict control, and secretly learns the techniques of drawing and painting from her mother's arch rival. But she is not the only one deceiving her family. As secrets come to light, the domestic varnish starts to crack, and jealousy and passion threaten to forever mar the relationship between Bertie and her mother.

Meanwhile, the Dobbie went to Lily Chan for Toyo: A Memoir, in which the author turns her artistic vision onto her own family's history, to provide an interpretation of her grandmother's extraordinary biography. Toyo is set in Japan before and after war, and also in Australia. Chan is well placed to write about both societies: she was born in Kyoto, and raised in Narrogin, in Western Australia; she now lives in Melbourne.

Toyo, Chan’s grandmother, was born into the traditional world of pre-war Osaka, Her father lived in China with his wife. Her unmarried mother, her father’s mistress, ran a cafĂ©. As she grew up Toyo understood she must protect the secret of her parents’ true relationship, and thus keep herself and her mother in society’s good graces.

Toyo's life in Osaka was thrown into turmoil by World War Two. Through experiencing the changes of the time, through finding love, and through suffering painful loss, she grew into herself and became more aware of where she had come from. Through it all she clung to her parents’ secret.

The Beloved is published by Pan Macmillan. For more information see .  Toyo is published by Black Inc. For more information see

Wednesday 17 July 2013

500 Words from D. Devika Bai

500 Words From is a series of guest posts from writers, in which they talk about their latest books.

Here, Malaysian author D. Devika Bai talks about her novel, The Flight of the Swans, which is set in British India and colonial Malaya, and concerns the Bhonsle family. Cursed, and with blood on his hands, Captain Ramdas Rao Bhonsle is forced to flee Killa Fort, which has fallen to the British. A strange flight of swans signals this flight - one that will drive Ramdas and his family into deepest adversity. But  adversity spawns dreams: Ramdas dreams of ousting the British from India; his sons, the handsome and irascible Nilkanth and the plain and romantic Madhav both dream of Tara Bai, the most beautiful courtesan in the land; Ramdas’ granddaughter, Arundhati, who is blind, dreams of seeing. A lone white swan is inextricably linked to the ebb and flow of the Bhonsles’ fortunes as they flee across India to Malaya - a journey once taken by Devika's own ancestors. 

Devika's fellow Malaysian, Rani Manicka, who won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize  for her novel The Rice Mother  is amongst her  fans, and has praised  her as having  “a wonderful eye for detail.”

So, 500 words from D.Devika Bai:

The Flight of the Swans, my debut novel, came about as a transition from writing newspaper articles to novel-writing.

After eight years of contributing articles to the New Straits Times, I felt it was time to move on to writing something more challenging like a novel. Moreover, there’s no under-estimating the power of a tiny spark struck in you during your teen years. When my family physician, the late Dr. Lakshmanya, heard I had scored an A1 in English Language  - it was rare in 1963 Malaya for Cambridge University to award excellent grades for English -  he said at once: “You should become a novelist”. I was fifteen then. That spark he ignited burst into flame during middle-age and my debut novel was born.

First and foremost, The Flight of the Swans is a family saga about three generations of the Bhonsle family battered by war, famine, family conflict and social injustice. Why choose to write about a family? Because the family-oriented stories I read during my teen years influenced me greatly: The Grapes of Wrath  (John Steinbeck), The Good Earth (Pearl S Buck), Little Women (Luisa May Alcott) and Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell). It gave me great pleasure writing about the love, loyalty and courage of the Bhonsles in The Flight of the Swans. Not only that, I had written about the great migration East, from British India to Malaya, in this instance, a topic rarely touched upon.

A good deal of research went into the novel and it was with a sense of pride that I wrote about my clansmen, the Marathas, who under the reign of King Shivaji Rao Bhonsle ruled almost the whole of India. And it was with the same pride, too, that I wrote about my adopted country Malaya (now Malaysia) where my great-grandfather migrated to work in the Federated Malay States Railway.

History buffs will love this book. It brings to life war-torn India as the British battle brave Maratha natives and sheds light on the lustful lives of the rich and not-so-famous. It also spotlights the journey to the East. This journey is based on that of my great-grandfather from India to Penang Island in Malaya. And with his arrival an invisible curtain parts to reveal the cultural melting-pot of 19th century Penang in all its glorious detail.

Romantics will moon over the forbidden love between an ordinary man and the most beautiful courtesan in the land. Feminists will thrill at the sheer guts of a Maratha queen, based on a true historical figure, and her female sepoys as they fight the British to the death. All right-thinking people will root for the courtesan-by-birth who defies norms and breaks the shackles of a forced life of sex and opulence. And who wouldn’t empathise with the agony of parents who bear a wayward son and a blind daughter?

In a nutshell, The Flight of the Swans illuminates loyalty to king and country, courage and family bonding and sacrifice in a rich blend of historical facts and delicious fiction.

The Flight of the Swans is published by Monsoon Books in both paperback and as an Ebook see 

For more information visit:

Friday 12 July 2013

Asia Literary Agency

The Asia Literary Agency, based in Hong Kong, aims to sell its authors' work worldwide. The Agency's American founder, Kelly Falconer, told me why she decided to set it up: "This was after working as an editor for about 12 years, mainly in London, for a variety of leading publishers, and also for the literary magazine, Granta. When I moved to Hong Kong, the Asia Literary Review rang me and asked if I wanted to join them as their literary editor. It was a wonderful opportunity,  and I had the great pleasure of commissioning and editing writers from Asia. I worked there for a year and then started the Agency at the beginning of 2013 when I realised how many great authors I was reading in Asia but whom I'd never heard of when I was living and working in the West. Founding the Agency simply seemed the next step for me, professionally, given my experience as an editor and the contacts I have in the West and the East."
I asked Kelly if she were interested in signing writers from all over the continent, or only from specific regions and countries? "I want writers from across the region.  The Asia Literary Agency represents Asian authors, experts on Asia, and non-Asian writers currently living on the continent." So where did she mean by the region? Did she include the Near West / Middle East,  and Australia? "Yes.  It's not not just the continent I'm concerned with. Australia, a part of the Pacific Rim with its eyes looking east, is definitely within my remit." 
Was Kelly focusing on any particular type of writing?  Fiction? Non-fiction? Genre fiction? Literary fiction? "I think you're too interested in labels!  I'm simply looking for a good story, well-told, be it fiction or non-fiction, so I'm representing authors of both, or either,  type of writing.  As to genre versus literary fiction, the boundaries are now quite often blurred. Beyond prose writing,  I also represent the Burmese poet,  ko ko thett, and Nguyen Phan Que Mai, from Vietnam, who is both a poet and a novelist  - her debut novel,  Rice Lullaby, would be considered upmarket women's fiction."
With such eclectic tastes, I wondered whether there were any genres that didn't interest Kelly, such as books for children, or for young adults?  "All genres interest me! I'm on the cusp of adding one or two young adult authors to my list. Children's book publishing, though, is a specialist field."
For authors writing in Asian languages, but aiming for international success, translation, especially into English,  assumes a special importance.  I wondered whether the Asia Literary Agency intended to represent translators?  "All agents represent translators, to some degree or at some point in time." Okay, so how did Kelly actually work with translators? How did she develop relationships with them?  "Translators often bring to our attention writers they are working with.  If the translator is  good, it's important to make sure the publisher uses their work for the finished product - I think this is only fair. Most of my authors write in English; I have a thick address book full of potential translators for those who don't. It's always nice, also, to meet new translators, who, like new authors, can reveal to us work with a fresh ear and eye. I've recently signed the very cool Korean writer, Han Yujoo, whose novel, Impossible Fairytale, published in Korea by one of the big publishers, will be published in France by Decrescenzo. Ms Han's English translator, Janet Min, was the one who introduced us and called my attention to this extraordinary author." 

It is generally acknowledged to be difficult to sell any non-English-language book into the English-language market. In Kelly's opinion, what gave non-English-language fiction the best shot at publication in English? "A book is easier to sell if it has been well-translated, if there is a buzz about it in the original language, if it's topical and has relevance, or if it's funny, with a sense of humour that resonates universally."  

All authors are looking for international publication, but it's probably best to start local. What advice would Kelly offer to unpublished Asian writers looking for publication, either in Asia, or further afield? "As with any career, it always helps to network - to attend writers' conferences, or  to pursue a creative-writing MA.  When you've got a work-in-progress, it helps to solicit peer reviews and criticism, and if possible to work with an editor.  You could practise writing short-stories and begin to submit these to respected journals. In a nutshell, my advice is to write, write, write and continue to polish your work."

Finally, I asked Kelly what she most enjoys about her work and what most frustrates her? "I enjoy working with my authors, learning about their cultures and sensibilities, and working with other people from other countries who are aiming to promote their authors to the rest of the world. Really, I am doing this job for love, and for my authors. The most enjoyable part is hearing good news from a publisher who wants to work with us! The most frustrating part is receiving turn-downs, but all of us agents have thick skins. It's part of the job to have faith in our authors and their work, to continue to champion them and to persevere."
To find out more about the Asia Literary Agency visit 

Friday 5 July 2013

500 Words From Verena Tay

500 Words From is a series of guest posts from writers, in which they talk about their latest books.

Here, Verena Tay talks about Spectre: Stories from Dark to Light, her 2012 anthology of short stories, from Math Paper Press, a small, independent publisher which, like Verena herself, is based in Singapore.

For more than 25 years, Verena has acted, directed and written for local English-language theatre in Singapore. She has created various solo and collaborative performances, often based on original, self-written material, and she has published three collections of plays: In the Company of Women (SNP Editions), In the Company of Heroes and Victimology (both Math Paper Press). In 2007 she was an Honorary Fellow at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa. Spectre: Stories from Dark to Light  is her first anthology of short stories, although she has edited two others, Balik Kampung (Math Paper Press) and A Monsoon Feast (Monsoon Books). In addition to her theatre and creative writing, Verena tells stories to both adults and children, and also teaches voice and speech, presentation skills, storytelling and creative writing.

So: 500 words from Verena Tay:

Spectre: Stories from Dark to Light comprises nine short stories with different degrees and types of thematic darkness, from supernatural tales to narratives of magic realism that explore the murkier, even morbid, aspects of the human personality. As my first anthology of short stories, Spectre not only marks my full transition from playwriting to fiction writing, but also represents a clear move to find new audiences for my stories.

The first story in this anthology to be written was The Gravedigger in 2005. Back then, I had begun to move away from creating theatre towards telling stories and needed to include ghost stories as part of my storytelling repertoire. So I re-positioned an urban legend within the context of rural Malaysia/Singapore and developed my version of a gravedigger who gets his comeuppance the moment he feels guilty about his body-parts stealing enterprise.

The reinterpretation of myths, archetypes and folktales is a running motif throughout Spectre. I wrote Broken to literally give voice to the usually silent figure of the pontianak, that famous vampire-banshee of Malay folklore. I again reworked other supernatural folklore elements (such as the orang minyak, toyol, and the bomoh who practises the dark arts) within The Land, a story of four sections that traces how a certain piece of real estate in Singapore becomes cursed and how that curse manifests itself over time.

In rewriting various folktales, I was able to invest aspects of magic realism within Spectre. The original text of A.K. Ramanujan’s Tell It to the Walls is only a page long - I found it in his collection Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-two Languages.  Though short, the simple tale of how a fat Indian village woman releases all her frustrations out on the walls of a deserted house, levels the building and returns home a skinny person spoke to me and, in Walls, I redeveloped and extended the story idea within a contemporary Singapore setting. Meanwhile, The Fisherman’s Wife is my retelling of  The Fisherman and The Magic Fish from the perspective of the fisherman’s wife so as to portray her in a more sympathetic manner than the shrewish figure in the original Chinese folktale.

By contrast, other stories in Spectre are based on real life incidents. Honey’s Story and Coast have their roots in crime and mysterious death stories that hogged The Straits Times for weeks at various points in time. Fast Food 1979: Portrait of an Old Lady, the lightest tale of the collection,  is my imaginative envisioning of how an old woman would have regarded MacDonalds when the fast food joint first opened in Singapore. The Doll is not directly linked to any specific incident, but draws from the tales of domestic violence and industrial exploitation of workers that we all sadly encounter in the media now and again.

In compiling these nine stories together, I hope readers will be thrilled and delighted. At the same time, I hope readers will be able to identify with the characters and situations and gain new perspectives on life.

For more information about Verena, please visit
To Purchase Spectre online, please visit

Sunday 30 June 2013

Adrienne Loftus Parkins

Adrienne Loftus Parkins is an Asian literature consultant in the UK. She is the director of the annual Asia House Festival of Asian Literature. This covers writing about Asia or Asians, including British Asian themes and authors.

I asked Adrienne how she and her team select titles for inclusion? “We try to balance the many countries we cover, fiction versus non-fiction and so on. Each book must be well written, interesting, and able to contribute to one of the themes we are highlighting - we try to focus mainly on contemporary subjects.  We ask of every book we consider: will its themes interest the audience we are trying to reach?  Does it contribute to the Asia House mission of promoting understanding of Asian or British Asian cultures?”   

The Festival hosts some big names – this year Mohsin Hamid was a speaker. But I wondered how it promotes emerging talent? “It's always tough to attract large audiences to events focused on new authors, particularly if they are writing fiction.  Like most other festivals, we try to pair debut authors with more established ones.  Often we try to build debut fiction discussions around themes that we think will attract interest and, therefore, a large audience. Sometimes we invite groups of students or others to come in advance of the events to meet debut authors in a quieter setting.”

When not working with Asia House, Adrienne undertakes many other projects. In the UK, plans are afoot to commemorate World War 1, 1914-1918. Adrienne is currently working with one organisation to provide a series of literary events related to the war, and what was then happening worldwide, particularly in Asia.  She is also working with the British Council and London Book Fair (LBF) on ways to help promote Korean literature in the UK – LBF will next year provide a platform for Korean publishers to showcase content.  Finally, she is working on an initiative to draw together several worldwide literature festivals focusing on Asia, with the idea of cooperating to develop the market for Asian writing and writers.

That’s a lot! I asked Adrienne what she most enjoys abut her work, and what most frustrates her?  The most frustrating things are logistics and funding.  It's increasingly difficult to get funding for any arts related projects in the UK.  Add to that the challenge of getting funding from companies who are mostly country or region specific when we are featuring authors from many different countries.  There’s also the frustration of finding a great author with a new book but not being able to get him or her to the UK for the Asia House Festival.  So many of the really relevant authors are based in countries across Asia, and being pan-Asian, it's difficult to get the support of one airline that can help with transporting them.  

What I most enjoy is meeting so many interesting, lively people - authors and others involved in literature and current affairs. It's fascinating to hear contrasting opinions on issues that we get only one side of through our media.  I love being able to put together a lively discussion that is a little controversial and motivates audiences to get involved through questions and debate.  Another thing I love is having the opportunity to read so many books that I might not know about or have access to if I didn't run a literary festival. This can also be a bit frustrating in that I have very little time to read anything that isn't about Asia!”

Find our more about Adrienne at

For more on Asia House visit

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Penguin China

Penguin China is at the forefront of bringing Chinese literature in translation to an English speaking  public.  They commission 8-10 books per year on Chinese subjects - although not all are originally written in Chinese. You can check out their list by visiting

Jo Lusby, Managing Director at Penguin China, has more on her plate than making books from China available to an international readership – taking English language books into China for a start – but I asked her, via e-mail, to expand on this aspect of her job.

I wondered whether Penguin commissioned books originating in China through agents, or from authors directly?  “Penguin works with a mixture of agents and authors – China is a largely unagented market, and so a large number of books come to us through local contacts, but we increasingly acquire through agents, as they become more active in China and East Asia.”  Penguin does not expect Chinese-language works to have been translated before they’ll even look at them.  Jo explained that her colleagues: “are out in the market reading Chinese books in the original language that we think have potential for a wider English language market.” 

What about the relationship between Penguin China, and other Penguin offices? Would books originating in China, but with international appeal, automatically get accepted by other Penguin offices worldwide? “Penguin’s international publishing offices operate independently across the English speaking world, so in the first  instance, we will publish the book into Asia Pacific, and then offer it to our own colleagues and also to other publishers around the world.”  

So: no promises. But which books are most likely to pick up international deals? I asked Jo about Penguin China’s commissioning policy for books to be put out in translation. What are they looking for when they evaluate whether a book will sell into international markets?  Why do they think international readers pick up books from China? “We don’t have a policy as such – we look for works that we feel confident will connect with readers. People pick up a non-fiction book to learn about a specific subject; while people pick novels from China in order to gain an insight into the psyche of a culture, above all else, the reader wants to be entertained, transported, and taken into the world of the writer.”

Gaining insight into the psyche of a culture is one thing, but I asked Jo whether she thought Chinese authors might be a little inward looking?  Did she think they were engaging with international issues, or sticking to issues of domestic interest? “A large proportion of Chinese writers are still primarily focused inward, I would say – both in terms of writing about Chinese concerns, and also exploring highly personal questions. There are increasing numbers of young writers coming back from having spent time studying overseas, mainly in developed countries, and these experiences are also beginning to feature in new writing. I would say that most literary writers stay away from contemporary political subjects, and focus more on the personal aspects of Chinese society.”

Finally, I asked Jo what she most enjoys about her job, and what most frustrates her? “I enjoy the breadth of the work – working with Chinese writers, talking with local publishers, training early and mid-career literary translators etc. Frustrations creep in around the things you cannot control – once a book is out in the world and you want the widest possible community of people to read that work, but it takes a long time and a lot of careful work for a book to reach its audience – and sometimes very deserving books just do not achieve what you hope they do.”