Monday, 25 November 2013


Orwell Honoured In Burma

Nearly 80 years after George Orwell’s Burmese Days first hit bookshelves in 1934, it has won the highest literary award in the country where it's set.

The Burmese Ministry of Information announced last week that the unabridged Burmese translation of Orwell's novel was the winner of the 2012 National Literary Award’s informative literature (translation) category. 

The translator, Maung Myint Kywe, told The Irrawaddy newspaper: "I thought the Burmese should read it, and so I translated it." He considers Burmese Days a scathing portrait of both the British and the Burmese. He said his intention in translating the book was partially to inform young people about how the Burmese were discriminated against under British rule: "But Orwell is unbiased, even though he himself is British. He has fairly portrayed how bad the British were, as well as we Burmese, too."

Htay Maung, the chairman of the judges, said Burmese Days was the unanimous choice of his 10-member panel: "We all believed that, contrary to other books on Burma by the British, the novel is quite balanced. Plus, the Burmese translation style is OK and conveys the meaning of the writer well.”

According to The Irrawaddy, translations of both Burmese Days and Nineteen Eighty-Four were last available in Burma in the 1960s, but then all editions were pulped - criticism of the Burmese in Burmese Days and the satirical view of dictatorship in Nineteen Eighty-Four would not have made it past the former regime’s censors.  But after the easing of literary censorship last year the Law Ka Thit publishing house published translations of both. Win Tin, publisher at Law Ka Thit, told The Irrawaddy: “I wanted to publish those books for a long time. I feel glad one of the books I’ve published has won the highest prize in the country, but I’m wondering: what’s wrong with Nineteen Eighty-Four?"

The Golden Point Award

Singapore has four major languages, English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. The Golden Point Award is the country's premier creative writing competition for short stories and poetry; winners in each category are announced in each of the four languages. Organised by Singapore's National Arts Council, the biennial competition aims to promote new creative writing and to nurture local literary talent by providing the opportunity for unpublished writers to be evaluated by a professional jury. Winners of the 2013 prizes were announced earlier this month, and the winning stories and poems in each language can be read here

Finn Writing About Mongolia

It's probably not often you find Finns writing in Finnish about Mongolia, but Rosa Liksom’s Hytti Nro. 6 translated by Lola Rogers, and published by UK-based Serpent’s Tail as Compartment No. 6, has just won a Writers in Translation award from English PEN.    

According to the blurb, Compartment No. 6 concerns a young woman fleeing a broken relationship, who boards a train in Moscow, bound for Mongolia. She chooses an empty compartment – no. 6.  But her solitude is soon shattered by the arrival of Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a grizzled, opinionated, and foul-mouthed ex-soldier. As their train cuts slowly across a wintry Russia, towards Mongolia, a grudging kind of companionship grows between the two passengers, and the girl realises that if she works out how to listen, Vadim's stories might just contain lessons for her.

Translation in Korea

The Korea Times reports disappointment in the 2013 Modern Korean Literature Translation Awards, which received only 23 entries,10 of them poetry, although: "it is generally agreed that it is far more difficult to translate a few lines of poetry adequately than the many pages of a work of fiction." As to the fiction, the paper reported that the translations were adequate, but the judges did not read many with pleasure: "That was in part the fault of the translator who failed to create a convincing English style, and in part the fault of the author whose work did not lend itself to translation." Somewhat grudgingly, it seems, the judges awarded the Grand Prize to the translator of Jeong Chan's novel A Report to an Academy.  The Korea Times does not name this translator, and I could not discover his or her identity on-line, but apparently he or she produced a translation that: "reads so well that one can easily forget that it is a translation."

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Go There With Gimbal!

A gimbal - and the Gimbal logo
Do you have an iPhone or an iPad? And do you commute? If you answer yes to both, you should download Gimbal, a free app which will transform your daily slog of getting to work into a daily journey of discovery. 

Gimbal is not a common word, even for those who speak English as their first language, so if you have an Asian language as your mother tongue, and you've no idea what a gimbal is, don't feel intimidated - it's a thing of rings and pivots used to keep navigational instruments level at sea.

Not many of us go in for literal seafaring, but all of us engage in exploration conducted through the imagination. So there could not be a more fitting name for Gimbal. The app comes from Comma Press, a UK-based publisher specialising in short stories and international fiction in translation. Gimbal allows you to explore cities all over the world through a variety of short stories from Comma's award-winning and internationally-acclaimed authors, many of whom write in languages other than English, although as Gimbal is an English-language app, all stories have been translated. 

Whether you're riding the train in Beijing, taking a bus in Bangkok, or whizzing along the MRT in Singapore, Gimbal is for you: wherever they are, it's designed to offer commuters an opportunity to escape their surroundings through fiction, by exploring distant cities quite unknown to them.  

So where do you fancy going?  Venice? Istanbul? Dubai? Manchester, because you're a Man U fan? 

Wherever and why ever you want to go, the idea is that you choose a story by location, journey length, genre or mode of transport, and then select either the read function - like an eBook - or the download and listen function - an audio book which comes with a map that follows the fictional journey of the character, with markers containing information about, and images of, real landmarks in the target city.   

Gimbal is very easy to use. I selected my first story by journey length, 5-10 minutes, and picked The Other Man, by Jean Sprackland, the story from Blackpool, a seaside town in northern England. I clicked the read function, and found a horrifying story about a man's encounter with a briefcase that doesn't belong to him. It was creepily compelling, though perhaps a little less drenched with a sense of place than I'd expected, given its inclusion on Gimbal.

At the end of each story is an about the story button. By flipping through the following pages you can find information not only about the authors, but also about the translators.

Gimbal grew out of Tramlines, a project run by Literature Across Frontiers, a UK-based organisation which aims to develop inter-cultural dialogue through literature, to promote translation, and to highlight lesser-translated literatures. Tramlines was a residency project, across 8 European and North African cities, all with tram networks – it’s a pity they couldn't have included any Asian cities served by trams, such as Hong Kong. As it was, writers from Alexandria, Barcelona, Brussels, Istanbul, Manchester, Prague, Riga and Zagreb were paired up, and each visited the other's city, with the task of exploring it by tram, in order to write a story that engaged with local communities - and with local commuters. 

The resulting stories are now all to be found on Gimbal, along with many others. Excluding West Asia (the Middle East), Asia is represented only by China, and only by 3 stories: Wheels Are Round, by Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen, the story from Beijing; Square Moon, by Ho Sin Tung, translated by Petula Parris-Huang, the story from Hong Kong; Squatting, by Diao Dou, translated by Brendan O'Kane, the story from Shenyang.  These are all boundary-stretching stories, also to be found in Shi Cheng: short stories from urban China, part of Comma Press' series of anthologies of short stories, Reading The City. 

Although Gimbal has only 3 stories from Asia, I counted 10 from cities in England, and I have to say I think this is a slightly odd imbalance.  But that's a quibble. Despite thinking Manila, Jakarta, and Yangon are as worthy of inclusion as Oxford, Cambridge, and London, I loved Gimbal - we've of course always been able to go anywhere with books, but how fantastic that authors, publishers and translators are challenging us to travel further than we otherwise might, transported by our phones and tablets, in scraps of precious time we might otherwise have found dreary.


Friday, 15 November 2013

Goodbye books, hello stories

According to The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association (APWTA), Asians spend twice as many hours reading as Westerners.  But Asians don’t just read traditional printed books. The story Deep Love was a hit in Japan in 2003, with each chapter delivered to mobile phones. The Ghost Blows Out The Candle attracted six million readers in China as computer-delivered text episodes in 2006. When it comes to graphic novels, agents in Asia report that they are more likely to strike deals for digital versions, than for printed.

What does this move to digital and mobile platforms mean for the future of the book?

“As digital delivery systems replace traditional ones, the old rules about standard lengths, structures, formats and categories make no sense,” says APWTA chairman, Nury Vittachi. 

Since the borders of the book can no longer be patrolled in the traditional way, APWTA is launching a new writing prize, The World Readers' Award.

The World Readers' Award is not intended for books, but for stories, defined by the organizers as “sustained acts of creative imagination”.
Entries will not be limited either to highbrow literature, or even to fiction. The new prize will be offered simply for “the best read of the year”, including narrative non-fiction.

While an author needs a US passport to be eligible for the Pulitzer, and a work must be published in the UK to be eligible for the Man Booker, judges of the new prize won’t consider an author’s nationality at all, and with this award's emphasis on stories and digital, not books and print, constraints on place of publication are irrelevant.

Instead of geographically-based entry requirements, a broad cultural theme, such as East meets West, or the Indian subcontinent, or the Chinese diaspora will be set for each contest. The idea is to nudge authors away from stock characters and locations, such as those found in political thrillers set in the US, or cosy crime novels set in the UK, to social and physical settings in Asia, where the majority of the world’s readers live. The exact theme for 2014 is currently under discussion and will be announced shortly.

For 2014, entries must be in English. But APWTA wants to grow the award to include Asian languages eventually.

Two prizes will be awarded each year, one for the best published work, and one for the best unpublished text. Penguin Random House has signed up as a publishing partner through its North Asian operation, and winning entrants will be offered a traditional publishing contract.

Judges are to be so-called ordinary readers - whoever they are - not academics, literary journalists, novelists or anybody else with a professional interest in story telling.  Judges for the award for published work will be recruited through the Internet. For the award for unpublished work, APWTA will appoint a diverse panel of judges, drawn from people who read at least 30 books per year.

The distinction between published and unpublished work begs the question: how do you distinguish them in the digital age?  Says Nury Vittachi: “We’re working with the Penguin North Asia office to see where that line will be. We’re trying to encourage fresh writing, rather than have people send in their old, self-published books which have not been successful. But on the other hand, if a text has been seen by only by a small number of people, it could count as unpublished, for practical reasons.”

Writers in Asia are enthusiastic. Mariko Nagai, in Tokyo, says: “This new award subverts the notion of the West, subverts how an award is chosen, and most importantly, it questions the idea of who a writer is, and what makes a book a book.”
Mumbai poet Menka Shivdasani says: “An award such as this one will act as a catalyst to give literature from Asia the attention it deserves.”

APWTA will be publishing details of how to enter before the end of the year.  Further information at:  Join APWTA at

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Festival Book Launches

As discussed in the last two posts, both Hong Kong and Singapore hosted literary festivals running Nov 1- Nov 10.  In each city, local publishers took the chance to launch new books. Here's my selection of three interesting-looking titles from each festival.

Launched at The Singapore Writers Festival

Princess Play / Barbara Ismail / published by Monsoon:

New Yorker Barbara Imail spent several years in Kelantan, Malaysia in the 1970s and 1980s, living in Kg Dusun and Pengkalan Cepa, studying Wayang Siam (Malay shadow puppetry) in the Kelantan dialect. The first book in her Kain Songket Mysteries series, Shadow Play, follows the middle-aged sleuth Mak Cik Maryam as she investigates a murder in Kelantan. In this second mystery, Princess Play, Mak Cik Maryam unravels a knot of family secrets, madness, and familiar spirits to solve the murder of a market woman.

The Last Lesson Of Mrs De Souza / Cyril Wong / published by Epigram

Cyril Wong is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of several poetry collections. The Last Lesson Of Mrs De Souza is his first novel. After a long career of teaching secondary school boys, this is Mrs De Souza's final lesson before retiring - and one that turns into a confession about a former student who overturned the way she saw herself as a teacher, and changed her life forever. 

Island of Silence / Su Wei-chen, translated by Jeremy Tiang / published by Ethos Books

Taiwanese Su Wei-chen is a professor of Chinese literature at National Cheng Kung University. This is the first English translation of her modern classic, originally published as 沈默之島 in 1994. In Island of Silence Chen-mian, a young woman with a troubled background, can’t bear the reality of her life, and creates an idealised fantasy existence: "the other Chen-mian" is a happily-married woman with a stable family. Chen-mian is obsessed with islands. She travels to Hong Kong, Bali and Singapore, trying to find a secure hiding place. The lives of the two Chen-mians become more surreal and intertwined, and it becomes difficult to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins. 

Launched at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival

Hong Kong’s Back Yard: A Guide to the Pearl River Delta / Tom Bird / published by Make Do Publishing

Despite the integration of Hong Kong and the cities of the Pearl River Delta (PRD), the PRD remains mysterious to many, even in Hong Kong. The new travel guide Hong Kong’s Back Yard: A Guide to the Pearl River Delta introduces some of the hidden gems of the PRD: from surfer beaches, to artists’ villages, Ming dynasty fortresses to ancestral temples, hiking trails to archipelagos of hidden islands, and much more. It is suitable both for locals and for visitors to Hong Kong with a day or two to spare for exploration.

Vivid Hong KongPalani Mohan / Asia One Books

Vivid Hong Kong is a colourful look at daily life in Hong Kong, as captured on an iPhone camera. Photographer Palani Mohan roamed the streets in all weathers and seasons to compile his personal take on the city. By forgoing traditional photographic equipment, Mohan was able to make his way through the crowds unobtrusively, capturing the everyday, fleeting moments that define the soul of Hong Kong in their purest state and their most evocative and dream-like form.

In The Shadow Of The Noonday Gun / Mike Smith / Self-published

In his first book, former policeman Mike Smith unveils Hong Kong's seedy past under colonial rule, by recounting true tales of corruption and sex, including some gathered from the gambling syndicates typical of the less than salubrious side of Hong Kong. This is Hong Kong noir at its noir-est!

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.