Thursday, 10 October 2013

Michael Vatikiotis at Ubud

The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival showcases the best of Indonesian, South East Asian and international writing.  It runs this year from 11 – 15 October, and it will feature more than 170 writers, performers and artists, working across all forms of storytelling – from travel writing to song writing, via plays, poetry, comedy and graphic novels. 

Michael Vatikiotis is a Singapore-based author and journalist.  He has worked for the Bangkok Post, and for the BBC World Service.  He was the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. His books include: Indonesian Politics under Suharto, Political Change in Southeast Asia; Trimming the Banyan Tree; Debatable Land, Stories from Southeast Asia; The Spice Garden; The Painter of Lost Souls.

Michael will be blogging from Ubud.  Here he introduces himself, and talks about how his immersion in the cultures of South East Asia has influenced his own writing.

Southeast Asia offers a colourful palette for the writer. You have the chaotic crush of its mega cities, with their multitude of sounds and smells. They are the focal points of societies in transition, throwing together the very rich and the very poor in volatile close proximity.  Then you have the remote margins where barely ruled people walk on the wild side carrying ancient grudges and modern guns.

My first published fiction was a series of short stories, loosely conceived to reflect the contemporary social and political transformation then affecting countries I knew well such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.  The region was in flux and seized with hopes for a democratic future, but at the same time fearful of losing newfound prosperity. I was living in Hong Kong, where a group of writers and poets had started to exchange literary views and stories, using online chat rooms and plotting a way to gain more of a hearing for their fragmented voices.

The stories in the collection delved into the exciting transitions in Thailand and Indonesia, reflecting on the clash of traditional cultures and brash new material values.

There was the Thai migrant worker returned from Saudi Arabia who one night builds a brick wall across a lane in Bangkok to protest his sons death at the hands of a careless new-rich driver.  Theres the idealistic student in Jakarta who drives a car into a line of troops at the height of the pro-democracy protests in 1998.

The end of the century was marked by violent conflict as these transitions got underway.  In my first novel, The Spice Garden, I created a cast of characters taken by surprise when their island paradise, a model of religious and social harmony, is invaded by mysterious dark forces that generate a vicious religious war between Muslims and Christians. 

Indonesia survived the trauma of its transition, and a thriving democracy is in place.  But freedom has unleashed new forces of extremism and intolerance and exposed the truth about the countrys dark past.  For my second novel, The Painter of Lost Souls, set in Central Java, I wanted to explore the memories of Indonesia’s traumatic first few decades and the historical tensions between the forces of pluralism and dogma that currently plague Indonesian society.

This is a novel of the times, for when I embarked on it some five years ago, no one was willing to debate the countrys dark past the fact that as many as a million and a half people were killed in a brutal crackdown on communist party members and sympathisers across Java and Bali in 1965.

It has been left to the artists, writers and filmmakers to delve back in time to bring some of this unspeakable tragedy to light.  It’s the main reason I chose to tell the story through the eyes of a painter.  The artist has license.  And so it is, that by writing fiction, even in English, I hope a little of the complex tapestry of society in Southeast Asia is more easily exposed to a wider audience.  At the same time I hope my writing becomes part of a useful dialogue with friends and colleagues from the region on what makes it tick and how it might become a better place. For the artist has an obligation as well. 

Look out for Michael's posts over the coming few days. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Hyeonseo Lee book deal

Arabella Pike, publishing director at William Collins UK has bought world English Language rights to a memoir by North Korean female escapee Hyeonseo Lee. The book, yet to be titled, was sold for a six-figure sum at a brisk auction by Kelly Falconer of the Asia Literary Agency, based in Hong Kong.
Hyeonseo Lee captured the world’s attention earlier this year after her TED talk – detailing her extraordinary escape from North Korea – gathered over 2m views online.

As a child, Hyeonseo Lee thought her country was the best on the planet. It wasn't until the devastating famine of the 1990s that she began to question what she had been taught. She escaped to China when she was 14, and began a life in hiding as an illegal alien. The book will describe her privileged childhood in North Korea, her life in China, her decision to settle eventually in South Korea and, her journey back to North Korea to rescue her mother and brother. She is now at university in South Korea, where she is a human-rights advocate and spokesperson for the North Korean refugee community.
The book adds to the growing list of Korea-focused authors represented by the Asia Literary Agency including: Han Yujoo, winner of the  Hankook Ilbo Literary Award in 2009;  Chris Tharp, the Korea-based travel writer and memoirist; Michael Breen, journalist and author of The Koreans, and Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader.
Kelly Falconer, founder of the Asia Literary Agency, said: "There has been a phenomenal amount of interest in Hyeonseo Lee. I am thrilled that her story will be shared with the world and will help raise awareness of the plight of North Korea’s people. This memoir is as raw and heart-breaking as it is hopeful and optimistic for the future of the divided peninsula."
Arabella Pike, Publishing Director at William Collins, said: "Hyeonseo Lee’s book electrified me. Ms. Lee is quite remarkable and her book promises to be powerful, deeply emotional and important. She will be, I believe, the first eyewitness female writer to describe the terrifying fates of North Korean women escapees in China. This will be a list-defining book for us."
Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish rights have already been sold, and other offers are also under consideration.
The book is due to be published in autumn 2014. 

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ellah Allfrey / 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Commonwealth Writers, a cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, encourages Commonwealth writers to speak out on issues of concern to themselves and to their communities.  It has a guiding belief that fiction can affect the way people think, act, and engage with government agencies - that fiction has the power to bring about social change.  It has now opened for entry its 2014 Short Story Prize, via the online application form here.  The Prize covers five Commonwealth regions: Africa; Asia; Canada and Europe; the Caribbean; the Pacific.

Ellah Allfrey, writer, editor, critic, and broadcaster, is chairing the 2014 Prize. Given Commonwealth Writers' focus on the political power of fiction, I asked how she thought short stories can influence policy-makers, if, indeed, they read them? "One can’t be at all quantitative about the impact of fiction on individual readers, let alone on that hard-to-identify group of international policy-and-decision-makers. But my hope is that the stories we pick from each region will inspire conversation, focus attention and provoke debate. Good fiction does that. Short stories especially. However, it’s important to remember that these are pieces of fiction - literature, not policy documents."

Point taken.  Nevertheless, I asked Ellah whether the judges would let politics and theme trump good writing? It was perhaps a daft question. Ellah came straight back: "Nothing trumps good writing." 

Fine. I think. Although I do also think there are autobiographical stories coming out of Asia where worrying about the quality of the writing probably should take second place to worrying about the content - I'm thinking of, for example, the story snippets dribbling out of North Korea, or the stories of girls sold into the sex trade by their parents, or, less dramatically, the stories of migrant domestic workers.  

But perhaps, even when they're writing autobiographies, and telling of harrowing things, it's wrong, or condescending, not to hold writers to the highest standards of good writing?  But does good writing mean (so-called) literary fiction? What about genre writing?  This rarely wins literary prizes, except those specific to the relevant genre.  So if a writer set her story in a galaxy far, far away would that count against her winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize? Ellah reassured not: "Speaking personally, a setting in a galaxy far, far away would probably count in an author’s favour. I'm a huge fan of genre fiction and fervently hope we do get submissions this year that push boundaries. It is, perhaps, harder to achieve literary merit that can be agreed on when one is writing in genre, but take, for example, the work of two great Commonwealth writers, Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing: Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Oryx and Crake trilogy; Lessing’s Mara and Dan saga. These are life-changing books - and great literature at the same time."

I'm a fan of genre fiction too, but surely a prize celebrating the power of writing to bring about social change must encourage writers to set their stories in their communities, not in distant galaxies? "No. There is nothing prescriptive about this prize. We want good stories, wherever they are set. Obviously, for many readers, there is a great desire to read writers exploring stories in their own communities. But a good story is one that transcends its boundaries - it has to be able to travel, to have universal meaning even if the setting and scene is closely bound geographically. In the end, we want writers to send us their best stories, wherever they are set."

Okay, but what makes a good story? And what is good writing? All my other questions to Ellah were perhaps dancing around these two. The judges working alongside her are Doreen Baingana, Michelle de Kretser, Marlon James, Courttia Newland and Jeet Thayil.  You can read about them here. I asked Ellah what she and her panel were looking for? Did they have some sort of checklist against which to appraise submissions? "There is absolutely no checklist. The judges I am lucky enough to be working with represent a great deal of experience and varied reading tastes. That range in itself, I’m convinced, ensures that we approach the entries with different expectations, with keen eyes attracted to different aspects of storytelling and style. Different things will thrill us - and the winning stories will be those we feel, collectively, are the best."

Did Ellah have any particular message for writers in Asia?  For readers in Asia? "This is a wonderful opportunity for a new work to reach an international audience. My ambition is to have a surfeit of original, confident, accomplished voices in the submission pile. So the message to the writers is to send us good submissions. To readers: we look forward to sharing many stories with you."

So, writers from Asia's Commonwealth countries, get writing! You are eligible if you are a citizen of one of the following: Bangladesh; Brunei Darussalam; India; Malaysia; Maldives; Pakistan; Singapore; Sri Lanka. 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. UK literary magazine Granta will provide winners with an opportunity to have their stories published online, and selected writers will be offered a chance to work with the London-based literary agency Blake Friedmann.  If you are writing in an Asian language, and your story wins in translation, the original will be published on the Commonwealth Writers website, alongside the English language translation - Ellah told me she hopes that by welcoming submission of translated pieces, the Prize will be able to draw attention to the best of these, along with other winning entries.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Book Club: Crazy Rich Asians, and October's pick

Since this a book club, I assume you've read September's pick, Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, so I'm not going to give a plot summary.  If you need one see here for the UK publisher, Corvus, where you'll find details.

For context, Crazy Rich Asians has been wildly successful in the West, and has now won a Hollywood movie deal.  It's a comedy of manners set amongst the secretive ultra-rich in Singapore, where the luckiest 0.0001% exists in a bubble of extraordinary privilege and luxury. It’s about the clashes between their intensely private world of arcane social codes designed to keep out non-squillionaires, and the brasher one of the nouveau riche; about inter-generational clashes; about clashes between Mainland Chinese and Overseas Chinese.  But above all it’s about the lust for money, money, money. "You're way cuter now I know you're loaded."  Says Rachel, Our Heroine, to Nick, Our Hero, in what I thought was the most honest line in the book, even though both Rachel and Nick are presented as being non-materialistic, and the line is ostensibly offered, and received, as a joke.

You'll gather immediately this is not typical of novels by Asians that make it in the West: it's not a literary examination by an Indian of the legacy of colonialism in that country.  No, Kwan has, in Amartya Sen's term, a non-colonised mind. Crazy Rich Asians is post-post-colonial fiction that assumes Asia, not the West, is where the money, and hence the power, lies; that it's Asia, not the West, that's now in the vanguard of global materialism.  

I thought this freedom from the past was refreshing, as was the novel's confidence, and brashness. How great that a popular, genre novel from Asia has made it internationally.  You can see at once why Crazy Rich Asians has won that movie deal: not only does it hold the promise of enabling Hollywood to conquer lucrative Asian markets, it reads as a fantasy-fulfilling mash-up between Downton Abbey and James Bond, and thus as suitable for any market where people dream of money.  Downton Abby even gets a name check: "The fact is that you grew up in friggin' Downton Abbey."  Says Rachel to Nick in the midst of a row that you know is certainly not going to lead to their break-up. As for James Bond, how about this? "Twenty minutes later, as Bernard sat in the diamond-shaped jacuzzi on the uppermost deck while a half-Portuguese girl tried to swallow both his testicles under the bubbly water jets, a white Sikorsky helicopter appeared out of the sky and began to descend onto the yacht's helipad."

Bernard is one of the frightfully vulgar nouveau characters, and I sympathised with him, despite the fact that he's the only son of a man worth four billion, and he's presented as a twit.  I also liked Kitty with whom he's surprised in flagrante in a cupboard. Trashy Kitty is a soap star with fake boobs and a penchant for see-through dresses. She's also an out-and-out gold-digger, unlike the more circumspect gold-diggers of the old-money set. I much preferred the honesty of the various nouveau characters to the establishment squillionaires who disguise their money-lust with codes and so-called breeding. 

There are of course nods to non-materialism. As I said Rachel's and Nick's story presents them as being uninterested in money, and Michael apparently rejects it. But there's no suggestion that Nick will ever renounce his fortune, and the end hints that Michael is going to end up a squillionaire himself, and back in the folds of the mega-bucks family he's apparently just departed.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable, original romp, funny, and well deserving of the praise that's been lavished on it. I thought the best joke came when a clutch of middle-aged, ultra-rich Singaporean matrons were shopping for fake goods in Shenzhen. One whispered to another: "See, the only people shopping here are tourists like us. These days, the Mainlanders only want the real thing."

As minor criticisms I couldn't keep the characters and their relationships straight, despite the family tree provided at the beginning, and I found the footnotes explaining aspects of Singaporean culture distracting.

Alison Harvey shared this last concern: "The need for footnotes and explanations inevitably slows down the narrative. Local colour is part of the appeal of the book but I did find the explanations irritating and some incorrect statements really grated (silly, but Sauternes in not described as 'late vintage'). I think the author should have found another way to convey some of this detail."

Alison's other gripe concerned the subject matter: "Having lived in Singapore for over 12 years I have met plenty of aspiring Chanel handbag owners, young girls who prefer to live with Mum and Dad so they can spend an entire month’s salary on a bag, and I think an exploration of the insecurities that fire this sort of obsession would be more interesting than reading about the mega-rich who, frankly, can afford any number of these luxury items anyway. I can’t help but feel that an exploration of this side of the crazy rich phenomenon would have been more interesting than focusing on those who have it all because they can afford it all easily. But maybe that’s another book altogether…"

It is indeed, although you can scarcely see Wannabee Crazy Rich Asians as this book's follow-up, and if Kwan decided to write about the ultra-rich, not the aspirational classes, none of us can really argue with his choice: an author's subject is up to him, or her. 


My book club pick for October is Golden Parasol: A Daughter's Memoir of Burma, by Wendy Law-Yone, published by Chatto & Windus. 

At the time of Burma’s military coup in 1962, Wendy Law-Yone was fifteen. A year later, her father Ed Law-Yone, daredevil proprietor of The Nation newspaper, was arrested and his newspaper shut down. Eventually, Wendy was herself briefly imprisoned before managing to escape the country.

Ed would spend five years as a political prisoner. But from the moment he was freed he set about forming a government-in-exile in neighbouring Thailand. There he tried, unsuccessfully, to stage a revolution. Yet even after emigrating to America, he never gave up hope for the restoration of democracy in Burma. He died disappointed – but not before placing in his daughter’s hands an extraordinary bequest.

Ed had asked Wendy for help in editing his papers, but year after year she avoided the daunting task. When at last she found the confidence to take up the neglected manuscript, she discovered a captivating saga. Here was the forceful testimony of an ambitious, audacious, idiosyncratic and determined patriot whose career had spanned Burma under colonial rule, under Japanese occupation, through the turbulence of the post-war years, and into the catastrophe of a military dictatorship.

The result of this discovery is Golden Parasol: a unique portrait of Burma, a nation whose vicissitudes continue to intrigue the world. It is also a powerfully evocative family memoir: a daughter’s journey of reconciliation that illuminates the twin histories of country and kin.

Since this is supposed to be a book club - a discussion not a monologue from me - please do post with your comments. I'll post my thoughts on Sunday 27th October.

If you are a member of a real-world book club either devoted to books about Asia, or planning to read Golden Parasol, please get in touch:

Monday, 23 September 2013

Edinburgh World Writers' Conference

The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, presented jointly by the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council, was a year-long series of events that brought together writers from around the world to discuss and illuminate how writing is, or can be, an essential component of society.  The conversation began in August 2012 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival where 50 world-renowned writers initiated discussion of the five themes: censorship and freedom of speech; the future of the novel; nationality and national identity in the novel; novels and their relationships with current affairs; style vs. content. The closing debates took place at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last month.

In between Edinburgh and Melbourne, the EWWC visited Berlin, Cape Town, Toronto, Krasnoyarsk, Jaipur, Brazzaville, Izmir, Brussels, Beijing, Port of Spain, St Malo, Lisbon, and Kuala Lumpur, giving writers in different countries and on different continents the chance to add their voices to the global debate about literature and its relationships to contemporary life. By the time it closed, the Conference had provided 67 hours of live discussion, relayed all around the world via social media, from 281 authors representing 61 countries.

I asked Tanya Andrews, consultant, British Council literature, and project manager for the EWWC to reflect on this exciting and ambitious programme.   

I asked her which she considered the EWWC's most important achievements? "Many participants said the chance to discuss the issues facing writers and writing in a rigorous, open context as international peers has been invaluable - that’s something we’re very proud of having been able to provide. Through hosting the Conference, we aimed to build the most complete picture of writing and its relationship to our lives ever attempted - and I think we can say we’ve achieved that."

Which, in her opinion, were the most electrifying moments? "In Edinburgh Ben Okri reading the Authors’ Statement in reference to the State of Arizona’s law effectively censoring works by Latino authors, as brought to the Conference’s attention by Junot Diaz;  in Beijing Sophie Cooke reading a poem by imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波); the huge crowds and energy of the audiences in Jaipur, the intensity and engagement surrounding the final sessions in Melbourne. It’s been quite a journey."

Which of the themes generated most discussion worldwide? "Overall the theme a national literature was taken up by the greatest number of countries, 11. That to me is fascinating, and indicative of the thirst for conversations about national identity, and about the power of literature as a mirror people hold up as a way of looking at themselves from the outside, from the inside.  To be immersed in the very real, contemporary concerns of writers discussing national literature from a Bosnian perspective, from a Turkish perspective, from a Malaysian perspective, from a Russian perspective - that’s been a privilege, and an important, eye-opening one for me." 

In Asia, regimes often try to promote a so-called national literature to support their positions.  Was there any explicit discussion of this at the Asian events? "It was discussed at length in Turkey, in Sema Kaygusuz’ keynote address and the ensuing discussion. It was also discussed, more indirectly, in Malaysia. Velibor Colic also talked about it in reference to Bosnia."  (See here for EWWC discussions of national literature.)

Censorship is another live issue in Asia.  How did Tanya think the EWWC helped writers in countries where free speech cannot be assumed? "The Conference’s role was to foster engagement and interaction between writers and readers across boundaries - so the fact that we were able to work with partners in 15 different countries and that issues of censorship were widely and forthrightly discussed is an important end in itself." (See here for EWWC discussions of censorship and free speech.)

Was Tanya pleased with responses to the EWWC in Asia? "Delighted. Our Asian editions between them covered all five themes and generated some lengthy and highly engaged debates. I’m thrilled that the voices, opinions and words of outstanding writers from the region were able to be shared on this world platform."

How did the EWWC guarantee each edition had its own local integrity? "In each city, participants were selected by the host programmer, working with the British Council locally and with input also from Edinburgh Book Festival and the British Council in London. That way each event was rooted in the host country’s concerns; so for example in Malaysia the main programming impetus came from the Cooler Lumpur Festival, with input from British Council Malaysia, and the UK EWWC team."

Are there plans to repeat the EWWC? "Not any time soon - it was a major undertaking and feels like a once in a generation concept."

Well, if it were to be repeated, what might be new themes? "This Conference, there was much discussion at Edinburgh of the issues writers face in the digital age in terms of copyright, a statement was circulated there, which continued to be discussed at events around the world, and to which authors are still adding their names. I think in future we'd probably discuss technology, and the way it is influencing literature and writers’ lives. The way we access literature, how much time readers allocate to it, how market forces impact on it in the digital age - they’re all big questions."

Physical, printed books might represent an old technology, but it's hard to beat them. Is there a book in the pipeline, pulling together the main discussions generated by the EWWC? "This has always been an aim for the project. We hope to be able to make an announcement soon."

I'll keep you posted.  

For more information, including keynote speeches, the EWWC blog, and links to Twitter and Facebook see

British Council:

Edinburgh International Book Festival:

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Listings / book club / self-publishing

As I said in August, I am starting to run listings of literary events across Asia, excluding West and Central Asia, 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.

If you do want to submit listings, I will accept them up to three months before the event takes place.  I will assume the language of the event is English, unless otherwise stated.  If you would like to have an event included please e-mail details to  Please make it as easy as possible for me to extract information, and follow the format below as closely as you can. The two examples are both real listings, not invented, so make a note, should you be interested in attending.

What?             Short Story Boot Camp: a series of creative writing workshops on how to create and craft short stories, led by Felix Chong and Verena Tay
When?            Sat 28/9 and Sun 29/9, 10 am – 5 pm
Where?           The Living Room, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane
Singapore 179429
Cost?               SG$ 120. Concessions apply

What?              Book reading from Kampong Spirit: Gotong Royong - Life in Potong Pasir, 1955 to 1965, by Josephine Chia
When?             Sat 21/9, 3:00 pm
Where?            Select Books, 51 Armenian St, Singapore 179939
Cost?                Free           
Booking           Not required

I am working on creating a proper listings page, until then I will post listings weekly at the bottom of more general posts.

Just a reminder that I have also launched a book club.  The first selection is Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, published in paperback by Doubleday.  I will post my thoughts on Sunday 29th Sept, so if you’d like to read it before then, and post your own opinions that would be great.

Since self-publishing is becoming so accepted, and important to those of us living outside of, and feeling excluded from, the big centres of commercial publishing, ABB is going to provide a monthly round-up of five or six interesting looking self-published titles from around Asia. 

Alice Clark-Platts will write the round-ups.  Alice is a human rights lawyer with a passion for literature, high, low and trashy. She is the author of Warchild, a political thriller, and she is currently working on her next novel, The Weir.  In 2011, Alice founded The Singapore Writers Group, which currently has over 350 members. The Group is involved with others across the world in an exchange of ideas and information. Alice blogs on life and writing at, so take a look!

If you are a self-published author, and you would like to have your book considered, please e-mail  No children’s / young adult, erotica, self-help, religious titles, cookery, autobiography, so-called lifestyle titles, true crime or anything else Alice or I decide to take against.

The ban on erotica is not a ban on books with sex scenes, even ones where you have to flip through to find the clean bits, just an attempted ban on boring books.  All other genres of adult fiction are fine: chick lit, lad lit, sci-fi, and so on are as welcome as lit lit.  All narrative non-fiction is likewise welcome. All books should have something to do with Asia, or with Asians.

The first of Alice’s round-ups will be posted in mid October. 

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Lisa Dempster / Director, Melbourne Writers Festival

Melbourne Writers Festival, the city’s annual, two-week celebration for writers, readers and thinkers, has just closed.  I asked Lisa Dempster, its director, to reflect on this year's achievements.

I commented that the program seemed to suggest the Festival was intended, in part, as a bridge between East and West. Was that correct? "Yes, it's very important to me that the Melbourne Writers Festival creates a dialogue with our neighbours in Asia. So much of the publishing industry is focused on the US, UK and Europe, but as we live in the Asia-Pacific it's vital that we take part in conversations about the politics and literature of our region also. When planning the program, we think about the conversations that are happening around us and curate topics and speakers that we know will provoke discussion or further the conversation about a particular issue. Given our geographical position, some of these naturally promote dialogue between East and West."

Global Voices was one event clearly focused on encouraging an East-West conversation. It brought together Iranian-born Australian writer and poet Ali Alizadeh, American-Taiwanese Tao Lin, and Australian writer-performer Laura Jean McKay to talk about how they represented, or evaded, different cultures in their writing.  I thought it sounded great, and I wondered how Lisa and her team came up with the idea of bringing together these three writers? "It was a natural fit. Although their writing styles are very different, all of their most recent books are about the intersection between the East and the West, and how people navigate increasingly globalised lives. The discussion was fantastic, and each author brought an interesting perspective to the panel."

Like #Word, Kula Lumpur, (see the post here) Melbourne hosted a chapter of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference - a global enquiry into contemporary writing that has spanned the world from Edinburgh to Beijing, and beyond. One of the EWWC's themes was censorship - a problem in much of Asia. How did Lisa think writers' festivals in countries where free speech is allowed help writers in countries where it isn't? "We can help simply by contributing to the dialogue around writing and censorship. I think in democratic countries we need to be aware of the challenges facing authors working in more restrictive conditions. At the Melbourne Writers Festival we ensure there are empty chairs on stage during events, highlighting authors who cannot be at the Festival because their circumstances don't allow it." 

Ruth Ozeki was one of the big names attending the Festival.  Her novel A Tale For The Time Being is on the Man Booker shortlist(See the post here).  I wondered how she was received in Melbourne, and which other Asian writers, or writers of Asian descent, the audiences wanted to see? "Everyone loved Ruth. In addition to being a brilliant novelist, she's a very interesting woman and a great presenter. Tao Lin also made waves. His work is quite divisive in a lot of ways - he has fans but he also has detractors. A lot of people were curious to come along and meet the man behind the work."

The Festival closed with Marina Warner, an expert on the magic and metaphor of fairy tales, talking about her latest book, Stranger Magic: charmed states and the Arabian Nights, an exploration of the wide-ranging influence of Scheherazade's life-saving tales. Lisa moderated the event.  Had she enjoyed herself? "It was a real treat. Stories are vital to the human condition, as evidenced by our desire to tell and retell stories across centuries. Musing on that idea at the end of the Festival was the ideal way to close a huge eleven days that celebrated stories and storytellers of all kinds!"