Monday, 9 September 2013

Wayan Juniartha, Indonesian Program Manager Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary, brings together Indonesian, South East Asian and international voices.  I spoke to Wayan Juniartha, Indonesian Program Manager.

I wondered what she thought UWRF had achieved for Indonesian writers? “The Festival has played a major role in the birth of a new generation of promising Indonesian authors. Ours is the only literary festival dedicating significant resources to ensuring that emerging Indonesian writers, those producing quality work, but having limited or zero exposure at the national level, receive fair attention. Selected writers receive sponsorship to attend the Festival and the works they present are translated and published in our annual bilingual anthology, making their works accessible to English speakers. Since 2008 we have showcased 75 emerging Indonesian writers.  This year more than 600 young writers from across the archipelago submitted applications to attend. The chance to speak alongside established authors, from Indonesia and elsewhere, provides chosen writers with valuable networking opportunities.  Separately, we have established links with literary communities right across the archipelago; the Festival is now the primary bridge connecting Indonesian authors, particularly those living outside Java, with the international literary community." 

How did Wayan hope to build on these achievements in the future? “UWRF wants to establish better international links. One of our dreams is to introduce an exchange programme which would enable emerging Indonesian authors to stay in Australia, and Australian authors to stay in Indonesia.”

Moving from emerging writers, to more established ones, UWRF hosts many book launches.  Of the books by Indonesian authors being launched this year which was Wayan most looking forward to reading, and why? “Renditions of My Soul, by Balinese author Desak Yoni. I met her a couple months ago and she struck me as a different kind of Balinese women: outspoken and passionately opinionated. She told me that her book touched controversial issues and might get her into trouble with mainstream Balinese thinkers.”

Renditions of My Soul, published by Saritasku Editions, certainly does sound interesting. Returning to Bali after years abroad, Desak Yoni experienced at first hand the multiple challenges facing Balinese women struggling in a patriarchal world. Renditions of My Soul, a fictionalized memoir that morphed into a novel, is apparently an antidote to consumer driven fantasies of Bali as a hedonist’s paradise, and as such it ought to be well worth reading.

UWRF has few events in Bahasa.  I put it to Wayan that this was perhaps a little odd, but she disagreed: “We are essentially an international festival with English as the main language. We provide interpreters for Indonesian authors who need them, but rather than holding a majority of events in Bahasa we opted for a different approach: inviting as many Indonesian writers as possible, translating and publishing the works of selected Indonesian emerging writers, and ensuring that all our invited Indonesian writers get exposure through panel appearances and media interviews. At the moment, our audience composition is about 70% foreigners and 30% locals. The foreigners have varying degrees of fluency in Bahasa, and many of them hail from English-speaking countries.  Meanwhile, most members of our Indonesian audience are fluent in English. Given these facts it would be counter-productive for us to use Bahasa as the main language of the Festival.”

What did Wayan hope the 30% of local readers attending the Festival would take away from it? “UWRF is about exchanging ideas. Indonesia is a young democracy  - a nation in transition - which has to deal with huge new issues: gay rights; multiculturalism; terrorism; free markets; women’s rights; environmental conservation. The Festival sees a multitude of writers from various countries, diverse political ideologies, and different belief systems, gathering at one place discussing these critical issues. I believe that exposure to such diverse viewpoints and experiences must benefit Indonesian readers by expanding their horizons of thought and, by offering insights on how they might speed up the transition process and steer the country onto a correct course.”

UWRF runs from 11 – 15 October. Visit for more information.

This year, in conjunction with The Asia-Europe Foundation, UWRF ran Long Way Home, a short story contest. Leroy Luar, from Malaysia, won the Asian section, with The Evidence of Us. Special mention went to Maltese-French author Nadia Mifsud for Made in Bangladesh, and to Kathrina Haji Mohd Daud, from Brunei, for I am a Bird.  You can read all three of these stories, and others, by following links either on, or on the website for The Asia-Europe Foundation

Friday, 6 September 2013

Sushmita Banerjee

On 4th September, Indian author Sushmita Banerjee was shot dead by turbaned men in Kabul, where she was involved in health care, and in documenting the lives of local women.  Her killers were probably the Taliban.  She was widely denounced by fundamentalists in Afghanistan for her work promoting women’s rights, and she had attracted the fury of the Taliban after she wrote the memoir Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou  (A Man From Kabul’s Bengali Wife). It told of Banerjee’s love marriage to the Afghan businessman Janbaz Khan, her moving to Afghanistan in 1989, the adversities she faced under Taliban rule and her eventual escape back to her native Kolkata.  She had only recently returned to Kabul when she was shot. Her publisher, Swapan Biswas, told The Times Of India she had informed him about her plan to return to Afghanistan in February to start work on another book: "She was determined to go back for the book which she wanted me to publish."

Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou detailed the harsh life inflicted on women in rural Afghanistan.  In 1998, Banerjee talked to Outlook India about her book.  She explained it told how the Taliban forced her to close down her business: "They also listed out dos and don'ts. The burkha was a necessity. Listening to the radio or playing a tape recorder was banned. Women were not allowed to go to the shops. They were even prohibited from stepping out from their houses unless accompanied by their husbands. All women had to have the names of their husbands tattooed on their left hand. Virtually all interaction between men and women outside the confines of their own homes was banned."(See

Banerjee followed up Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou with  more volumes of memoir, and general commentary: Talibani Atyachar, Deshe O Bideshe  (Taliban Atrocities In Afghanistan And Abroad), Mullah Omar, Taliban O Ami (Mullah Omar, Taliban And I) Ek Borno Mithya Noi (Not A Word Is A Lie) and Sabhyatar Sesh Punyabani (The Swansong Of Civilisation).

According to India Today, Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou initially sold seven lakh copies, including “over one lakh copies of a somewhat amateurish English version.” 1 lakh = 100,000. I haven’t been able to track down a mainstream, easily available English language translation of Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou, or translations of Banerjee's other titles but I hope her work does now find an international publisher, able to distribute her books, and to promote them. This butchered woman sounds like an author we all should read.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Listings / Book Club: Crazy Rich Asians / Kevin Kwan

I've decided to try to offer listings of literary events across Asia, excluding West Asia / The Middle East, but extending west to east from the Indian Sub-continent to Japan, and north to south from Mongolia to the southern tip of the Indonesian archipelago.

I will accept listings up to three months before the event takes place.  If you would like to have an event included please e-mail details to  Please state the month of the event in the subject line, and specify that this is a listing, e.g. September / listing.   Please provide the following information:

Date of event
Nature of event and a brief description. E.g. book launch plus a 100 word description
Venue for event with both a complete real world address, and a link to the venue's website  / details of its Facebook page if these are available
Cost of event, if any, plus details of discounts, if any
Language of event
For booking and further information please contact...followed by relevant information

For a series or a course of events at one venue, or for literary festivals at multiple venues within one general area, please supply the start and finish dates.  For literary festivals, I will  give only the over-arching venue, e.g. Jaipur, Hong Kong, or wherever.

I have also decided to launch a book club.  I will select a book at the beginning of each month, and request that people post comments through the month.  I will then summarise these at the end of the month, plus give my own thoughts.

My first book club selection,  for September, is  Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, a comedy about three super-rich Chinese families and the gossip, backbiting, and scheming that occur when the heir to one of the most massive fortunes in Asia brings home his American Born Chinese girlfriend.

When Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home, long drives to explore the island, and quality time with the man she might one day marry. What she doesn't know is that Nick's family home looks like a palace, that she'll ride in more private planes than cars, and that with one of Asia's most eligible bachelors on her arm, she might as well have a target on her back. Initiated into a world of dynastic splendor, Rachel meets Astrid, the It Girl of Singapore society; Eddie, whose family practically lives in the pages of the Hong Kong socialite magazines; and Eleanor, Nick's formidable mother, a woman who has very strong feelings about who her son should - and should not - marry. Crazy Rich Asians is an insider's look at the Asian JetSet; a depiction of the clash between old money and new; between Overseas Chinese and Mainland Chinese. 

Crazy Rich Asians is published by Doubleday, in hardback, paperback, audio, and e-book formats. Color Force has acquired movie rights so it should be coming to a big screen near you sometime soon. 

So: what do you think?  Please do post with your opinions, and I'll share mine at the end of the month.


Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize

In 1949, as the British Empire began to fade into history, The government of the UK and those of seven former colonies came together to form the modern Commonwealth, an association of free and equal members co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.

Today, the Commonwealth has 54 members and the Commonwealth Foundation, a UK-based development organisation, works towards a world in which every person on the planet is able to participate in, and contribute to, the sustainable development of peaceful and equitable societies.

Commonwealth Writers is a cultural initiative from the Commonwealth Foundation. Commonwealth Writers both develops the craft of individual writers and also builds communities of emerging voices, so that, individually and collectively, writers can work for social change, and influence, directly and indirectly, the decision-making processes which affect their lives. Commonwealth Writers wants the writers it unearths to inspire others, especially in their local communities, and it challenges selected authors to take part in on-line residencies, and on-the-ground literary activities.

Commonwealth Writers runs the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. This aims to identify talented emerging writers and to promote the best new writing from across the Commonwealth, thus developing literary connections worldwide.  

The Short Story Prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction, of between 2000-5000 words. The language of the competition is English. Writers can submit stories translated into English from other languages.

Entries can be submitted from five regions: Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. The regional divisions are intended to give writers in countries with poor publishing infrastructure a fairer chance to compete with those in countries where there are more opportunities. Within Asia, you are eligible to enter if you are a citizen of one of the following countries: Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka,

There will be five winners, one from each region. One regional winner will be selected as the overall winner. The overall winner will receive £5,000 (approx US$7,750) and the remaining four regional winners £2,500 (approx US$3,785). Translators of winning stories will also receive prize money.  If the overall winner is a translation into English, the translator will receive £2,000 (approx US$3,100).  Translators will receive £1,000 (approx US$1,150) for regional winners.

The 2014 judging panel will be chaired by Ellah Allfrey, deputy chair of the council of the Caine Prize for African Writing, formerly deputy editor of the UK-based literary magazine Granta and senior editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House, in London. She will chair an international judging panel; this will make the final selection. The regional judges will be announced on 1 October. Experienced readers will assist the named judges in selecting the long lists.

The 2014 Short Story Prize will open for entry on-line on 1 October 2013 and close on 30 November 2013. Entry will be via where you can view the eligibility criteria, and the entry rules.

So new Asian writers: Get writing! Tell the world what great stories, and what great storytellers, we have on this continent! If you need inspiration,  click about on, it’s a great website, with a mix of interesting tips and advice, discussion, and constructively provocative comment.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

500 Words From Julian Kim

500 Words From is a series of guest posts from authors.  Here, Julian Kim talks about  his first novel, SAINTS: Song of Winds.  This is a fast-paced, multicultural, quasi-historical mystery-thriller that combines a race-against-the-clock adventure, with contemporary concerns about the weather, with a love story, to produce a wild and satisfying romp.

Julian Kim was born in Seoul, but as a child he lived in other places in Asia, as well as in Europe, and in the Americas. Thus from an early age he was fascinated by cultural diversity, and as an adult he continued his nomadic existence, living in New York, London, Hong Kong and Seoul.

Julian now lives in Singapore, where, in 2012,  SAINTS: Song of Winds was the winner of a competition sponsored by the National Arts Council, to promote the works of unpublished authors.  It was subsequently published by Straits Times Press:

So: 500 words from Julian Kim

With SAINTS: Song of Winds  I was hoping to create something which would be fun to write and  fun to read. In addition, I wanted to fuse modern and historical elements of Asian and Latin American cultures - the core action occurs mainly in China and Peru, with meaningful scenes also taking place in Korea, India, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

As we all know, our world is full of stories – there is so much history, so many nations and regions and cultures. Past human civilisation has left us so many traces - superstitions, fairy tales, legends and myths. Granted, much of this wealth has been lost in the mists of time, but the gaps in our knowledge allow us both to imagine what-ifs, and also to wonder about the borders between fiction and non-fiction.  Without a doubt, Asia offers a vast and rich depository of history and civilisation from which we can mine and spin a million what-if factual fictions.

The same is true for the world of unexplained phenomena. We often hear stories about the paranormal, about the extraterrestrial, and about bizarre creatures. I think most of us can agree that there's still much that we don't understand about our planet, the universe, and the realms of the physical and the spiritual, especially as they relate to the human mind.

So with all this wealth of secrets and mysteries surrounding Asia and the world we live in, I could not resist creating a world of somewhat plausible histories, mysteries and uncommon abilities.

SAINTS: Song of Winds begins two thousand years ago in China, when a geomancer leads a tribe out of the tomb of Emperor Qin. One thousand years later, in Peru, the immense treasure of the Incas is lost to the world.  And today, a strange terracotta soldier is unearthed in the ancient capital of China.

In my novel SAINTS is an acronym standing for Syndicated Alliance of Irregular and Talented Specialists. It is a secretive organisation whose purpose is to save nations, when all else fails. The members of SAINTS look like ordinary people and behave like ordinary people, most of the time. But they have very special talents.

There’s a Korean boy who teaches at school and can secretly control the winds. There’s an American university student who studies animals and discovers she can heal people. There’s a young Singaporean billionaire who plays the financial markets and who possesses an unnatural intuition. There’s an old Mexican man in Manhattan who sells hot dogs and can see your past. And they are all connected in a web of fate that stretches from ancient China to the mountains of present-day Peru.

Using sheer intellect and mastering their subtle supernatural talents,  the four heroes  join forces with the leader of Peru to free the country from a mysterious villain who is causing havoc with the weather.  But before they can save the day they must unlock the cryptic codes of Emperor Qin’s tomb and also find the lost treasure of the Incas. Somehow, they realise, the tomb and the treasure are connected.

In essence, SAINTS: Song of Winds can be loosely described as a kind of Indiana Jones meets The Da Vinci Code, in an Asian and Latin American context. Key events include monstrous battles with lightning and tornadoes in the desert plains of Peru, desperate scrambles through deadly chambers in the tomb complex of Emperor Qin, and an epic cavalry battle between the ancient forces of China and Mongolia.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Documentation Center Of Cambodia

The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in Phnom Penh enables research into the years 1975 – 1979, when the Khmer Rouge killed almost two million Cambodians; its dual aims are to record the events of that time to ensure they are not forgotten, and to bring the perpetrators of great crimes to justice. The Center presently contains the world's largest archive on the Khmer Rouge, holding over 1 million pages of documents and 6,000 photographs.

Research undertaken by DC-Cam’s staff and volunteers has resulted in the publication of many books, including history textbooks and teacher-training materials for local use. But what about English-language books for the international general reader? DC-Cam’s director, Youk Chhang, recommends Bou Meng: a survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21, by Huy Vannak, which is published by DC-Cam itself, and The Last One: an orphaned child fights to survive the killing fields of Cambodia by Marin R. Yann, published by Outskirts Press, and available from their website,

If you happen to be in Phnom Penh you can buy Bou Meng direct from Bou Meng himself, at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly the notorious Prison S-21 of the book’s subtitle.

Bou Meng is a harrowing read.  At least 16,000 people were imprisoned and tortured at S-21, of those sent there, only 14 people survived. Bou Meng was one of the 14; his life was spared because he was an artist, and the regime needed him to paint portraits of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. Bou Meng, who in chapter 2 talks directly to the reader through Huy Vannak’s translation, is unsparing in his description of deprivation and torture, both mental and physical. This is typical:  The interrogator kept asking me the same questions. I replied with the same answers. The interrogator grasped a bunch of torture materials, including bamboo sticks, whips, rattans, cart axles and twisted electrical wires.  He asked me to choose one of them. I did not want any of them because they were tools to hurt me. But I did not have any choice.

Bou Meng’s wife, Ma Yoeun, was killed at S-21, and their children also perished under the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Comrade Duch was the Khmer Rouge official in charge of S-21. In 2009, a UN supervised trial of Duch began at a Phnom Penh court; in 2010, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity, torture, and murder. Huy Vannak reports that Bou Meng now wants to hold a Buddhist ceremony: “to dedicate justice to the soul of his wife and the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Then, he believes, their spirits will rest in a peaceful place.” 

Today, Bou Meng paints pictures drawing on his memories of life under the Khmer Rouge. Huy Vannak says: “He draws on his personal memories to paint a collective pain. He hopes his art will inspire the world to prevent a repeat of Cambodia’s painful past.”

In addition to books, Youk Chhang also recommends the movie  A River Changes Course, directed by Kalyanee Mam, which follows three families in contemporary rural Cambodia as they struggle for survival, their livelihoods threatened by ever-increasing industrial development:

For further information, or to order DC-Cam’s publications, visit

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Revenge / Yoko Ogawa

Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder, is a mesmerising, weird, and elusive meditation on...what, precisely? Coming up with possible answers to that question is one of the many engrossing challenges of reading Revenge, a collection of eleven short stories, each bound to others by cobwebby chains of connection, and each giving glimpses of the world seen through a most dark-adapted eye.

What few of the stories seem to be about, or at least not obviously, is revenge. Granted, some seem to concern marital, or romantic, revenge: in Old Mrs. J a woman apparently kills in revenge for being trapped in a disappointing marriage; in Lab Coats another woman kills because her married lover prevaricates about ditching his wife; in Sewing for the Heart a bag maker kills because, as he sees it, a customer rejects the bag he has crafted for her, to hold her heart, which lies outside her chest, and hence she also rejects him. But some of the stories seem to have little or nothing to do with revenge.  Afternoon at the Bakery, the horrifying first story in which a mother fails to assimilate the unassimilable fact that her child has died in an abandoned refrigerator, seems to be about the way lives can be smashed by improbable, but devastating events; the final story, Poison Plants, which wheels back to Afternoon at the Bakery through the "motif", if that is what it is, of a dead child in an abandoned refrigerator being found by an old woman, seems to be about the loss and degradation of ageing, and the pity of mortality.

Indeed, the whole book drips with the menace of mortality; in every story there's a death, or deaths, although not every story has a death as its central event.  Still, Poison Plants and hence Revenge, closes on, and thereby emphasises, the idea of mortality, with this account from the narrator, an old woman, of finding the aforementioned dead child in a refrigerator: I opened the doors - and I found someone inside. Legs neatly folded, head buried between the knees, curled ingeniously to fit between the shelves and the egg box. "Excuse me," I said, but my voice seemed to disappear into the dark. It was my body. In this gloomy, cramped box, I had eaten poison plants and died, hidden away from prying eyes. Crouching down at the door, I wept.  For my dead self.

It's not obvious, to me, how to interpret this passage, but whatever it means, and whatever its relation to Afternoon at the Bakery, it gives the flavour of Ogawa's style - at least as it reads through the veil of translation. Peering through that veil, it does seem that Ogawa writes of horror, cruelty, desperation, lives gone awry, in short, exact, even forensic sentences, generally unadorned. The effect is often hypnotically, but precisely, threatening.  This, from Welcome to the Museum of Torture, is Ogawa on a dead hamster lying between a crumpled hamburger wrapper and a crushed paper cup in a garbage can at a fast-food place: Its fur was speckled brown, and its tiny arms and legs were a beautiful shade of pale pink. The poor thing almost still looked alive. I even imagined I saw its little paws twitching. Its black eyes seemed to be looking at me. I opened the lid the rest of the way, releasing the smell of ketchup and pickles and coffee all mixed together. I was right, the hamster was moving: hundreds of maggots were worming into its soft belly.

All in all, Revenge is a mysteriously wonderful book, as beautiful as the mould of decomposition soon to be spreading across that hamster.  I urge you to read it - and then at once to re-read it, to retrace the many delicate threads that link Ogawa's stories and to re-evaluate what you think she might be saying.

The US edition is published by Picador, and it might be available in parts of Asia, but I read the UK edition published by Harvill Secker,