Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Hong Kong International Literary Festival

As noted in the last post, the Singapore Writers Festival is currently running at venues across Singapore, and, in an embarrassment of riches, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival is happening over the exact same dates, Nov 1 - Nov 10.  If you're in Hong Kong see the website for venues and ticketing information.  

It seems wilfully aggressive of the two cities to organise their Festivals to compete, but Paul Tam, general manager of Hong Kong International Literary Festival, told me the clash was purely coincidental and that more coordination will take place between Hong Kong and Singapore before dates are set for the Festivals next year.

As you'd expect authors with a connection to China have a big presence in Hong Kong. Inevitably, I suppose, Jung Chang, who is also appearing in Singapore, is attending to promote her latest offering Empress Dowager Cixi.  

Guo Xiaolu, a controversial cultural figure, has found success as both a novelist and as a film-maker. She has published seven novels, including A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and she is known for blending her heritage of ancient Chinese folk legends with a fresh take on contemporary living. Guo will discuss her forthcoming novel, I am Chinaa love story for modern times, and a vibrantly funny portrayal of multicultural society - it has already received considerable attention in the UK. I am China moves between an immigrants' detention centre in England, where exiled Chinese musician Jian is awaiting an unknown fate, to the seedy bars of small-town America, where Jian's girlfriend Mu has fetched up. Meanwhile, in the lively streets of East London, translator Iona Kirkpatrick is feeling adrift in her life. As Iona deciphers Jian's and Mu’s ink-smudged letters and diary entries she unravels their poignant story to a tragic and powerful end. 

If you prefer comfort reading, food writer and Beijing cookery school owner, Jen Lin-Liu will discuss her love letter to noodles, On the Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and PastaFrom China to Kyrgyzstan, and from Iran to Turkey to Rome, Jen Lin-Liu trots around the globe to immerse herself in the rich and disparate cultures of the noodle - along the way she discovers truths about commitment, independence and love.  

Of other events, the panel discussion Asia in Focus looks particularly interesting. Those setting up shop as professional writers in Asia often have to grapple with problems about how to build a rewarding - and rewarded - career in this part of the world. How can you make a decent living?  Where are the agents and publishers? What amount of effort will it take to reach an international readership? Should you stay at home or seek better writing fortunes elsewhere?

Questions such as these will be discussed by an international panel of authors who have all grappled with decisions impacted by cultural, economic, and geographical considerations. Panellists are: Andrew Lam (US/Vietnam), Jason Ng (Hong Kong), Alice Pung (Australia), Ma Jian (UK/China), Sharmistha Mohanty (India),and Glen Duncan (UK)

The Hong Kong Festival has not forgotten its local authors.  Asia in Focus is moderated by Xu Xi, a Chinese-Indonesian native of the city and the author of nine books of fiction and essays - in 2007 her novel Habit of a Foreign Sky was a finalist for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize. She is also editor or co-editor of three anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English; a fourth anthology of new Hong Kong short stories, The Queen of Statue Square & Other Stories, co-edited with Marshall Moore, is forthcoming from CCC Press, Nottingham, UK. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at City University of Hong Kong’s Department of English, where she established and directs Asia’s first international low-residency MFA in creative writing. 


Saturday, 2 November 2013

Singapore Writers Festival

The 2013 Singapore Writers Festival, SWF, is running from now until November 10 at venues across central Singapore - if you're in the City see the website for venues and ticketing information. 

SWF includes Mandarin, Tamil and Malay programmes, as well as programmes in English. Alliance Francais and Institut Francais have even supported a session in French with Chinese readings, in which Nobel prize-winning holder of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Gao Xingjian, a naturalised French citizen, will read from his seminal works, and demonstrate how different cultures, languages and art forms have influenced his life.

Of the English language events the In Conversation With and Meet The Author sessions are sure to be popular.

In Conversation With sees authors pairing up for informal debate. Two highlights with strong Asian interest are Romesh Gunesekera in conversation with Fatima Bhutto, and Carol Ann Duffy in conversation with Edwin Thumboo.

Booker Prize finalist Romesh Gunesekera and Fatima Bhutto, who was born in Kabul, grew up in Damascus, and lives in Karachi, will share their views on the fraught notion of home:  its re-imagining through fiction, and ways of negotiating its idealised vision in the fractured, complex reality that is today's mobile world of immigrants, emigrants, refugees, and exiles - I assume even the lucky emigrants, expats? Meanwhile, the UK’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and Singapore’s literary pioneer and Cultural Medallion recipient, poet Edwin Thumboo, will read and discuss their poems.

Fatima Bhutto and Carol Ann Duffy will also participate in Meet The Author sessions.  Fatima Bhutto will read from her debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, which chronicles the lives of five young people trying to live and love in a world on fire. The novel begins and ends one Friday morning in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan's Tribal Areas close to the Afghan border. Three brothers meet for breakfast. Soon after, the eldest, recently returned from America, hails a taxi to the local mosque. The second, a doctor, goes to check in at his hospital. His troubled wife does not join the family that morning. No one knows where Mina goes these days. And the youngest, the idealist, leaves for town on a motorbike. Seated behind him is a beautiful, fragile girl whose life and thoughts are overwhelmed by the war that has enveloped the place of her birth. Three hours later their day will end in devastating circumstances…

More established Asian authors attending include Jung Chang, who will discuss her new book Empress Dowager Cixi: The concubine who launched modern China, a revisionist take on the dramatic, epic biography of the unusual woman who ruled China for 50 years, from concubine to Empress, overturning centuries of traditions and formalities to bring China into the modern world. Jung Chang will discuss such questions as What is the difference between the vision of an emperor, a dictator and a popularly elected leader? And Do all men and women in power have the same idea of Utopia?  

As well as the author events, SWF also includes a host of book launches, especially from local publishers such as Epigram and Monsoon, and a  variety of workshops for as yet unpublished writers, across a variety of genres from comics and manga, to poetry, to memoir, to novels.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

500 Words From Judy Chapman

500 Words a series of guest posts from authors.  Here, Judy Chapman talks about her newly published first novel, My Singapore Lover - a compelling story of love and infidelity between a Western woman and her Chinese lover, set in contemporary Singapore.   

Australian-born Judy Chapman is the former editor of Spa Asia magazine, an established journalist writing for Australian and Asian publications, and the author of four best-selling books on spas and aromatherapy. She has lived and worked all over Asia, in Bali, Malaysia, India, and Singapore.  In My Singapore Lover she writes about finding soul and spirituality in unexpected places, and having the courage to follow the truth wherever that may lead.

So: 500 words from Judy Chapman...

My motivation for writing this story was to show a young woman’s experience working within a corporate hierarchy and her struggle between  external pleasures and temptations and listening to her inner voice. It can be challenging to have the courage to say no and walk away from situations – work, relationships - and this story is essentially about a girl's growth and journey - and how even though following your truth can often look like a less exciting path in life on the outside, ultimately it is the path that brings us so much fulfilment and inner richness.
I wanted to explore what drives us to make decisions against our inner truth (and we all know what this is but so often we go against that feeling inside of ourselves). In the case of Sara, the young woman at the centre of my novel, it was obviously growing up without a father figure that motivated her to seek success in life and surround herself with strong masculine characters when that was not what she truly desired.

The love affair Sara has with a married man may be a challenging subject for many readers. Even though the characters do in their own ways redeem themselves, I wanted to present the infidelity in a different light - to show that sometimes what is traditionally considered to be wrong can be sacred and what is expected of us such as career and success can feel corrupt. 

My own experience of living and working in South East Asia for the last decade provided me with a fantastic backdrop and Singapore is a major character in this story. I felt passionate about showing the beauty, culture, festivities, heat and weather of this diverse city. 
As my day job involves setting up spas in luxury hotels I was inspired about telling the story mostly from inside a hotel suite as I have personally spent a lot of time living and working out of hotel suites around the world so it was an easy backdrop for me to write about.
The journey of actually writing this novel has been incredible. I wrote the first draft in three weeks (in a hotel, of course) and then spent a year refining, culling, editing, drafting. The publishing deal with Monsoon Books was definitely a dream come true, as I had been wanting to write a novel since I was eight years old when I experienced a moment and knew in my heart that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. Whilst I have published four non-fiction books and written for magazines for many years, it has taken me a long time to realise a novel. Like most of us I have been on many detours, but of course they have provided excellent material for my writing.
My goal is for readers to feel and connect with the theme of having the courage to follow your own intuition and if readers do connect with this then I will be so proud as for me this is the most important theme in My Singapore Lover. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Book Club: Golden Parasol, and November's pick

Since this a book club, I assume you've read October's pick, Golden Parasol: a Daughter's Memoir of Burma, by Wendy Law-Yone, so I'm not going to give a plot summary. If you need one see here for details from the publisher, Chatto & Windus. 

Nobody likes pigeon holes or labels, and I thought this book was pleasingly hard to categorise.  Yes, as the sub-title suggests, it's a daughter's memoir of Burma, but it's many other memoirs as well: a woman's memoir of her childhood; a daughter's memoir of her parents; a descendant's memoir of her ancestors; a sibling's memoir of her siblings; a writer's memoir of a newspaper; a meditation on exile; a travelogue; a primer on the history of Burma - which in this book always is called Burma, except in the prologue, where the name Myanmar is acknowledged.  

Burma is not the only nation in this book, the other is The Nation, the English-language newspaper edited by Wendy Law-Yone's brave, swashbuckling father - when he died, prior to the recent changes in Burma / Myanmar, his obituary in the New York Times hailed him as: "the first independent editor of free, post-war Burma, and also, to date, the last."

The Nation loomed large in Wendy Law-Yone's childhood: "The Nation was my nursery primer. It taught me to read, and probably to write. My first sentences were modelled on headlines...years later, when our family was scattered, it struck me as a great shame that nowhere in any of our combined mementoes of Burma was there a single issue of The Nation. I was missing, I felt, some essential proof of identity, as basic as a birth certificate. It would take many more years to recover it."

Is it far fetched to think that Golden Parasol is Wendy Law-Yone's sustained search for proof of her own identity? Or, on the other hand, is the author's search for his or her own identity so obviously the aim of any memoir it's barely worth mentioning it - the equivalent of remarking in a tone suggesting you think you're about to share a great insight, that the point of an advert for tins of beans is to sell tins of beans?   

I don't know.  What do you think?  

Most people who've got in touch seem to have enjoyed the personal aspects of Golden Parasol: "I liked the portrait of the author's mother." Said Claire, from Singapore, "She seems to have been a very strong character, and I thought the final chapter, Mum, was very moving."

I too was moved by the final chapter, where Law-Yone talks of her mother's origins, and also of her mother's death: "The predominant fear of my childhood and much of my adulthood had been a fear of my mother's death. What a relief to see beyond that dread at long last; to imagine, now it had come to pass, the compensations her actual death might bring. Increasingly in her decline she had turned into a fake: imperturbable, unreachable, absent. Surely the death of that impostor would return the mother I knew. Yes, I thought, with a sudden joyless surge of relief, now that she's dead she can come alive again."

I think that passage gives a fair flavour of Law-Yone's style; poetically analytic, her prose is at once both coolly observing, and deeply engaged with its subject matter.  

The only criticisms I've seen of this book concern the political material which both Ree, from Singapore, and also Renu, from Hong Kong, found a little indigestible. "I couldn't keep the Burmese politicians straight". Said Ree. "The sections on the various political factions in Burma were confusing and too long." Said Renu.

I admit that when Law-Yone wrote of her father's political activities, I occasionally felt like I'd stumbled into a Monty Python debate about whether revolutionaries were the Judean People's Front, or the People's Front of Judea, but then I reminded myself of the seriousness of what was at stake in Burma decades back, and also of what is at stake in Myanmar now.  So I told myself if I were getting lost in thickets of unfamiliar names it was my fault: I was being lazy; I ought to pay more attention.

Reading Golden Parasol has left me keen to read Wendy Law-Yone's latest novel, The Road To Wanting. It is not, however, November's book club pick. No, for next month I've chosen A Crowd Of Twisted Things, by Dawn Farnham, published by Monsoon.

In December 1950, the worst riots Singapore had ever seen shut down the town for days, killing 18 people and wounding 173. Racial and religious tension had been simmering for months over the custody battle for wartime waif Maria Hertogh between her Malay-Muslim foster mother and her Dutch-Catholic biological parents.

In May 1950, Eurasian Annie Collins, following this case and filled with hope, returns to Singapore seeking her own lost baby. As the time bomb ticks and Annie unravels the threads of her quest into increasingly dangerous territory, she finds strange recollections intruding, ones that have nothing to do with her own memories of her wartime experiences: disturbing visions and dreams which force her to doubt not just her past life, but her whole idea of who she truly is and even to question the search itself.

Twisted memories, twisted minds, twisted lives, twisted beliefs, the twists of fate and their tangled consequences. A Crowd of Twisted Things is at once a lament for the loss and damage of war, an unravelling mystery and a journey into suppressed memory and the nature of self-delusion.

I'll post discussion of A Crowd Of Twisted Things on Sunday December 1. Please post your comments before then. Happy reading! 

Monday, 21 October 2013

Self-publishing in the Asian market

Asia, with its 4.2 billion inhabitants, has more than 60% of the world population. That is a vast potential book-buying public, though one fragmented by language and culture.   

What does this mean for digital and self-publishing on the continent?  Alice Clark-Platts investigates:

At the recent Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Nury Vittachi, author of the Feng Shui Detective series, mentioned, in conversation with Sebastian Faulks, the strength of the Asian book market. In terms of population, the size of the US, UK and European book markets pale in comparison to the mass of the Asian market. In India alone the book publishing industry is estimated to be growing at 30% per annum.

What does this mean for publishing and self-publishing in particular? Well, in small markets such as Hong Kong, traditionally considered an English-speaking market, due to economies of scale print copies of a book would need to exceed 2,000 copies to make any economic sense. This is equivalent to roughly 2,000,000 in the US[1]. Clearly, ebooks and self-publishing offer a way in to this valuable market for aspiring authors when publishing houses may refrain from taking on new authors due to economic concerns.

Or consider the emerging market of Indonesia, with its population of over 240 million. Here the market is especially fragmented[2] and so traditional publishing houses may flounder to reach readers, whereas more nimble self-publishers might be able to identify niches, and target them appropriately.

In China, self-publishing websites draw 40% of web user traffic to stories by Chinese writers[3]. Evidence such as this suggests that authors in China have been quicker than those in the West to grasp the importance of reaching out to readers via electronic means.

What about developments such as crowd funding for creative projects? The Asian market has been slow to adopt crowd funding - concerns over public failure and losing face may be at the heart of this reluctance? However it is surely only a matter of time before companies such as Singapore-based Crowdonomic catch on[4].

The diversity of the Asian markets means that conventional publishers cannot be attuned to the vagaries and nuances of each particular market. Here self-publishing can attack – spotting and targeting specific markets for particular genres and interests. For example, 25% of the Indonesian population is made up of children - writers of kids' and young adult fiction may be intrigued by the opportunities presented there. 

Self-publishing gives the author control – not only of the content, style and presentation of their book but, more importantly, with respect to the profits garnered from it. Under traditional publishing contracts, an author may sometimes only receive a 10% share of the spoils.

Companies such as Trafford Publishing in Singapore offer self-publishing services ranging from editorial to marketing. This may help to ease the where do I start? feeling that new authors might have. Equally, self-publishing gurus such as Joanna Penn at offer a wealth of articles and information to help an author navigate their path.

This is the first of what is intended to be a regular series of posts on digital and self-publishing in Asia. If you are in the process of self-publishing for Asian markets, or you have a recently self-published book of interest in Asia, or you run a self-publishing company, or you offer editorial services to digital and self-published authors please get in touch with me, either by posting a comment, or by e-mailing

Alice Clark-Platts


[1] Peter Gordon of Hong Kong Chameleon Press, cited in China’s Emerging English Language Book Market,, 8 May 2013
[2] Joy Hawley Indonesia’s Sea of Opportunities  11 October 2013
[4] Kurt Wagner CNN Money 8 July 2013

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Dredging up the dark past: Indonesian writers at Ubud

Michael Vatikiotis is currently blogging from the 10th Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.  Here he writes about some of the featured Indonesian authors.

Politics is a prominent and enduring theme of Indonesian art and literature.  Perhaps the easiest explanation for this is that Indonesia is a relatively new country, under 70 years old.  Most Indonesians have living relatives who were born before independence and they, together with subsequent generations, have experienced the highs and the lows of what Indonesia’s doyen of journalism and modern letters, Goenawan Muhammad, defines as a country still under construction. “Indonesia is a process; it is not a finished idea,” he declared at at the Festival.

Goenawan’s rather moving response to the challenge of defining “My Indonesia”, was to propose that his Indonesia is the Indonesia of his parents – a country worth dying for. His father was executed by the Dutch colonial authorities in North Java during the later stages of the armed struggle for independence. 

Throughout this year’s Festival, Indonesian writers have aired concerns about the state of the nation through the prism of literature, in performance, and in conversation.  Much of the questioning is about the buried past.  Leila Chudori launched Home, her novel about exiled Indonesian leftists washed up in Paris in the wake of the violent anti-communist crackdown. Soon to be available in an English translation, Leila’s powerful prose reveals the stark brutality of the period, when people accused of communist sympathies were cleansed “like lice and germs...The army was the disinfectant.  We, the lice and germs had been eradicated from the face of the earth, with no trace left.”

Laksmi Pamuntjak’s poetic epic Amba, newly published in English as The Question of Red, deals with the same era only transposed as a modern version of the story of Amba and Bhisma from the Mahabharata epic.  

Both Home and Amba have already been re-printed several times in the months since they were published, indicating a public thirst for stories about the political past as Indonesia heads into an uncertain political future. 

Another Indonesian author featured at the Festival this year was journalist Solahudin, whose new book, starkly titled, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia, traces the jihadist movement responsible for the Bali bombings of 2002 back as far as Darul Islam movement that made a violent bid to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state from the 1950s until its defeat in 1962.  Solahudin’s detailed research establishes a clear link with the failed revolt and chronicles the Islamic movement’s efforts to revive through the 1970s and 80s, which provided the launch pad for the modern generation of terrorists.

Whilst the momentum of Indonesia’s transition to democracy seems reassuring and offers grounds for optimism, strikingly many Indonesian writers are not taking things for granted.  Rather, they have used their relatively new-found freedom to explore the country’s troubled past, perhaps in the hope that it will help secure a better future.

Michael Vatikiotis

Friday, 11 October 2013

Literature festivals promoting blandness - or not?

Michael Vatikiotis is currently blogging from the 10th Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.  Here is his first post.

It's been ten years since a group of writers gathered rather improbably on the side of an Ubud hillside to speak about their writing in front of a meagre audience of tourists and resident expats. Then, as now, it was an odd juxtaposition: Ubud is known for its laid back vibe - all meditation and yoga to the tinkling of little bells and gongs. Its art scene is primarily visual. We scribblers seemed like interlopers introducing more urgent, contemporary themes, disturbing the otherwise placid waters of the lily pond.  Quite literally.

Since then, boutique literary festivals have sprouted across Asia. There are so many that authors are tripping over each other in Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong Shanghai, Penang,Yangon and Galle. India has its own circuit and style, and even Bhutan is on the literary map.

There are those who argue that throwing writers into the global mixer and shoving cocktails in their hands when sponsors pay is generating a homogenized literary product.  In
Beyond the global novel, a piece written for the Financial Times, Pankaj Mishra recently argued that: "Literature today seems to emerge from an apolitical and borderless cosmopolis". He decried the emergence of the global novel with its superficial multiculturalism that denuded it of more urgent, pungent nationalist or political themes.

Mishra takes aim at what he terms "exotically sited literary festivals" where he says writers "can appear to embody the bland consensus of transnational elites, denuded of the differences and antagonisms that define a genuinely pluralist culture." 

Well I beg to differ.  As a writer living in Asia, I find no difficulty highlighting the differences and antagonisms that challenge me to write either fiction or opinion pieces.  I don't attend literary festivals to seek any kind of consensus, but rather to advertise what is so different, divisive and defective in our world.  Ubud is a soapbox, not a homogenizing mixer.

I can see where Mishra is coming from. One recent year I was on a panel with a Palestinian writer who claimed that when Israeli shells killed his children he felt no hatred. It was pure nonsense, of course. I felt the hatred boiling beside me.  I could sense the audience's empathy with his hatred. There are group settings where we pretend that literature salves the pain of human suffering.  We writers sometimes have our passions mistaken for objective observation.  We go along with this because we need to sell books.

Ubud has always worked because the setting is Indonesia. The festival rose out of the ashes of the Bali bombings. For those of us who know Indonesia, There was a need to come together, to declare that Bali would survive this outrage. And we did.

Ten years later there is still the anger and the passion, and the need for a safe space for free expression. The organizers cleverly tapped into the so-called Arab Spring. This has helped bring Middle Eastern voices to Ubud - and a much needed cross fertilization of Islam as it is viewed from here with Islam in the Arab context. Too bad some see this as a dumbing down or suppression of complexity.

I come to Ubud to mingle and exchange world views; I come to assert myself and peddle my scribbling.  It's up to the audience to decide what they like.  It's the responsibility of the writers to keep faith with what they believe.  On santi Om.....

Michael Vatikiotis