Sunday 19 January 2014

Cyrus Mistry wins the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014

The Jaipur Literature Festival, January 18. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer emerges as the winner from a shortlist of six to take the US$50,000 DSC Prize

Cyrus Mistry has won the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for his novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. Cyrus Mistry is the second Indian to win the US $50,000 DSC Prize. His novel is a harrowing tale of star-crossed love that takes place in the little-known community of Parsi corpse-bearers in Bombay. It is a moving account of tragic love which brings to life the degradation experienced by those who inhabit the unforgiving margins of history.

The six shortlisted authors and books in contention for the DSC Prize were Anand: Book of Destruction (Translated by Chetana Sachidanandan; Penguin, India), Benyamin: Goat Days (Translated by Joseph Koyippalli; Penguin, India), Cyrus Mistry: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (Aleph Book Company, India), Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India), Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (Random House, India), Nayomi Munaweera: Island of a Thousand Mirrors (Perera Hussein Publishing, Sri Lanka)

The DSC Prize Secretariat had received close to 70 entries this year with participation from publishers in South Asia, the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia amongst others. The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which is specifically focused on South Asian writing, is driven neither by ethnicity nor by geography: it is open to any author belonging to any part of the globe as long as the work is based on the South Asian region and its people.  The last three years have seen winners from three different countries in South Asia, reflecting the vibrancy of South Asia’s rapidly expanding book market.

The fourth edition of the DSC Prize 2014 was judged by a diverse and distinguished jury comprising eminent members from the international literary fraternity: Antara Dev Sen, editor, writer, literary critic and chair of the DSC Prize jury; Arshia Sattar, translator, writer and teacher; Ameena Saiyid, the MD of Oxford University Press in Pakistan; Rosie Boycott, British journalist and editor; Paul Yamazaki, a veteran bookseller and one of the most respected names in the book trade in the US. 

On announcing the winner, Antara Dev Sen said: “Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a deeply moving book, exquisitely drawn on a small, almost claustrophobic canvas. It takes a tiny slice of life, the life of the Khandhias or corpse bearers of the Parsi community, and weaves a powerful story about this downtrodden caste we know so little about. A fantastic storyteller, Mistry offers a beautiful novel rich in historical detail and existential angst, gently questioning the way we look at justice, custom, love, life and death.”

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Jaipur Literature Festival

The 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival opens on Friday, and runs for five days. The Festival, the largest free literary festival on earth - last year it had 250,000 visitors - brings together some of the greatest thinkers and writers from India, South Asia, and the world.

Namita Gokhale, co-director of the Festival with William Dalrymple, has put together the Indian programme. She picks as one of this year's highlights a strand of readings and conversations on the survival of local minority languages. This set of discussions will examine India’s linguistic diversity, and the challenges with which endangered tongues must contend in the modern world. Jaipur is in Rajasthan. Namita Gokhale says this area: “has an incredible diversity in its linguistic range, including the tribal border areas adjoining Pakistan, the vast expanses of the Thar Desert, and the Aravalli ranges habituated by agricultural and nomadic communities.”  The Festival will see the launch of a book coming out of a survey of this great multiplicity of languages, carried out under linguist Ganesh Devy. He will lead a session examining the diversity of South Asian languages, dialects, scripts and grammars.

Namita Gokhale points out that with so many languages, India exists in a continuous and ongoing state of translation, a circumstance that will be explored at the Festival: “With twenty-four official languages, innumerable mother tongues and dialects, and a tradition of many languages, many literatures, translations are key to a conjoined literary heritage. In 2014, we are fortunate to have as speakers many eminent translators from India and around the world, including Carlos Rojas, Arshia Sattar, Rahul Soni, and Geeta Krishnankutty.”

Bollywood and popular culture are an intrinsic element of India’s national narrative. Gokhale draws attention to a series of sessions, Crime and Punishment, which will dissect detective fiction with special reference to Bollywood villains.

Of the discussions with international writers, after a quick glance down the programme, I’d be particularly interested to attend Behind the Veil: Women Writers of the Islamic World, in which Nadifa Mohamad, Bejan Matur, Sahar Delijani, Shireen el Feki and Fariba Hachtroudi, five women who have found their literary voices in different parts of the Islamic world, talk about writing about modern Muslim women. The blurb explains: “Outsiders are quick to objectify Muslim women as oppressed and silent onlookers of a conservative, patriarchal and male-dominated civilization. The reality is often very different.”  It would be interesting to learn in what ways different.  The conversation will be led by Urvashi Bhutalia,

Away from the main programme, the Festival will host the first Jaipur BookMark, an initiative to develop and promote the Indian publishing industry, including self-publishing, eBooks, digital content and distribution. In publishing in the English language sector, the industry in India ranks third behind the US and the UK.  India is also an outsourcing hub for a range of print and pre-publishing services. Namita Gokhale helped bring the event to fruition.  She said: “The Jaipur BookMart is a natural progression of the interest shown in the annual publishing sessions at Jaipur. This is a modest beginning, and I am convinced that it will provide a welcome and much needed haven for informal interactions within the publishing industry.”

As noted in the last post, the winner of the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature will be announced at Jaipur.  All in all it promises to be a challenging, stretching, wonderful festival – not to mention a lot of fun.  What a pity we can’t all be in Jaipur this weekend.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

DSC Prize for South Asian Literature

The annual DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, carrying an award of US$50,000, aims to bring South Asian writing to a global audience, and to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world.The shortlist of six books for the 2014 prize was announced in London in November. It is:
Anand: Book of Destruction (Translated from Malayalam by Chetana Sachidanandan; Penguin, India)
Benyamin: Goat Days (Translated from Malayalam by Joseph Koyippalli; Penguin, India)
Cyrus Mistry: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (Aleph Book Company, India)
Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (Random House, India)  
Nayomi Munaweera: Island of a Thousand Mirrors (Perera Hussein Publishing, Sri Lanka)
I put it to Manhad Narula, Steering Committee Member of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, that writers from India and Pakistan are already doing well in reaching international audiences. So did South Asian writers really need a specific prize? “Yes. We instituted the Prize in 2010 because we felt that there was a need for an international literary prize specially focused on writing about the South Asian region, its people, and its cultures. Over the last decade or so, South Asia has significantly gained importance in the global scheme of things, be it on the political, economic or cultural front, and more and more writers from all over the world are writing about the region. The DSC Prize is not limited to showcasing and rewarding Indian and Pakistani writers, or writers from other South Asian countries, but is open to any author from any part of the globe as long as the writing is about the region.”
Given The Prize’s commitment to South Asia, it seemed to me oddly lacking in confidence that the shortlist was announced in London.  Why so cautious? “Of the three key events of the DSC Prize, two are held in South Asian cities and one in London. We announced the longlist in New Delhi, then announced the shortlist in London, and we will be announcing the final winner in Jaipur later this month. In addition we have the DSC Prize Winner’s Tour where the winner is taken to South Asian cities for readings and interactions. So there are a lot of Prize-related initiatives and activities happening in South Asia. We do the shortlist announcement in London as there is a significant interest in South Asian literature in the UK and also as an international prize we get close to 30% of our entries from publishers based in the UK, US, Canada and Australia.”

South Asia is defined in the eligibility criteria as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Burma and Afghanistan.  But bar one from Sri Lanka, and one set in rising Asia, all the books on the shortlist are from India. Were there no worthy entries from elsewhere? If so: was it a language issue? Are books from beyond India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, simply not translated into English? “We do receive entries from Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Burma, but the larger share at present comes from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It would be incorrect to say that there is any dearth of talented authors in the other South Asian countries - we have had authors from Nepal and Bangladesh on both the Prize’s longlist and its shortlist in the past. The literary landscape and the publishing infrastructure is now evolving quite well in these countries, where the Prize is encouraging more writing, both in English and translation, so that writers from all over South Asia should become increasingly visible.”

Four of the six books on the shortlist were originally written in English. So is writing in English an advantage when it comes to winning the Prize? “Encouraging writing in regional languages, and encouraging translations, are key objectives of the DSC Prize. I do not think that there is any distinct advantage if the book is originally written in English; the essence and nuances of the narrative can be brought to life to the reader through a good translation as well. We really give a lot of importance to the role of the translator; if a translated entry wins, the prize money is equally shared between the author and the translator.” 

Last year's winner, Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, was already heralded in the West. Is being so heralded an advantage?  Or to put it another way, is Mohsin Hamid odds-on to win this year? “There is no such advantage. We have a five-member esteemed international jury panel which cannot be swayed by an author’s fame. Being well known in the West is no criteria at all for judging an entry, no advantage in the adjudicating process. The shortlist over the years has had a healthy mix of established writers as well as newer writers – in fact the three winners so far have coincidentally all been debut writers.”

The winner of the DSC Prize 2014 will be announced at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is also sponsored by DSC. The announcement will be made on 18th January – look out for a post giving the result. 

Sunday 5 January 2014

Book Club: The Valley Of Amazement and January's Pick

Happy Western New Year, here's to 2014.

I assume you've read December's book club pick, the historical novel The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan, so I'm not going to give a plot summary. If you need one see here for details from the publisher, HarperCollins.

Since much of The Valley Of Amazement is set in Shanghainese courtesan houses it is often concerned with sex - you might be tempted to flip through for the clean bits - but it's not a sad, wish-fulfilment fantasy, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, and nor is it titillating. Rather, to me, in our age of Internet porn where every teenager with access to a computer and a modem can be assumed to have seen stuff that only 5 or 10 years ago would have been considered shockingly transgressive, it all seemed sweetly innocent, and old-fashioned. It made me feel nostalgic for the days when what Tan’s courtesans tweely call Two Scholars of the Night was considered outrageously decadent, whereas now I bet One Scholar of the Night is regularly demanded by porn-addled boyfriends of girls who think they must ape porn stars to have any hope of keeping a man - although perhaps two scholars must still be purchased from professionals?    

Again since it is about the world of courtesans, the novel is deeply concerned with money.  In Asia, the no money no honey continent of assorted male and female love entrepreneurs, we are of course familiar with the notion that men are meal tickets, women have no value unless they are young and pretty nymphs, romantic love is a luxury only the lucky few can afford, and so on and so forth.  Accordingly, Tan’s strong emphasis on the courtesans’ attitudes to love and money struck me as old hat - although I suppose they might be an eye-opener to some readers in the West? As to whether treating yourself as a commodity is a good idea, Tan of course pays lip service to the important pieties - and they are important - but try persuading a Thai tart, or a Hong Kong tai tai sincerity is more important than a healthy bank balance, and surely you deserve the mirthful scorn she's likely to heap upon you?

Once this novel moves away from sex and money, what’s left? Eve from Hong Kong thinks not much:

This is overly familiar Tan territory: a tale of difficult mother-daughter relationships.  I found I have grown bored of this plot.

I have not grown bored of the plot, but I have to say I thought it ploddingly handled in this particular novel. Nor do I mind predictability, but I thought Tan laboured so hard to an obvious dénouement of her Lucia / Violet / Flora tangle that it felt sometimes as if she were delaying the inevitable just for the sake of filling a few more pages. Along the way, I found many of the incidents incredible, in particular the manner in which Violet and Lucia became separated.  

Devika from Singapore was not happy either:

I didn't like or respect the characters. They never seemed to grow or mature.

I don't mind spending time with characters I don't like, but Tan's failed to get under my skin. I agree Violet seemed to retain an adolescent attitude to Lucia well into adulthood, even after she had herself become a mother, but I felt this was an aspect of keeping the plot going to fill the pages, as mentioned above.

Cathy from Denpasar was more enthusiastic:

Tan provides a wonderful insight into the world of the courtesan, her descriptions are vivid, rich and detailed.  The pace is leisurely, slowly familiarising the reader with the courtesan houses, rather than rushing her. Those who enjoyed Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha will probably enjoy this story too.

The courtesans’ costumes, the luxurious interiors of their houses, and their habits, customs and jealousies are certainly rendered in meticulous and interesting detail. I enjoyed Tan’s lingering accounts of these things, and I never felt her evidently careful historical research overwhelmed other aspects of the novel.      

January’s Pick

Next month I suggest we read Phillip Y. Kim’s Nothing Gained, another novel much concerned with money. Phillip Y. Kim, a banker who lives and works in Hong Kong, has twenty-five years’ experience of the international financial industry, and Nothing Gained draws on his insider knowledge.

Nothing Gained zooms in on the global financial crisis. A thriller, it is set in Hong Kong’s glitzy business restaurants and boardrooms, it offers an insight into the human cost of life in the fast lane, and shows how easily wealth and excess can slip away. 

After a prominent Hong Kong expat banker drowns in what appears to be a fluke accident, his wife, Cheryl, must confront the harsh reality that the man she loved was leading a double life, and that the rarefied world she moved in was a sham.

Forced to protect her family from unscrupulous business associates, Cheryl begins both to unravel the mystery of her husband’s death, and to unpick his complicated business affairs. Her friends prove to be as volatile as the stock market, their promises worthless now the money has dried up, but even as they desert her she doggedly pursues the truth. She discovers fraud on a scale that threatens to topple a prominent player in the financial industry.  This brings her into danger.  Will she be able to track down the one person who can save her?

Nothing Gained is published by Penguin China, in paperback, priced in local currencies.  Discussion of Nothing Gained will be posted after Chinese New Year, on Sunday February 9.  Please do get in touch to share your thoughts.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Season's Readings

Season's Readings is not exactly an original variation on Season's Greetings, but  it's been put to good use this year by Kinokuniya, Singapore, as the title for its Christmas calendar-cum-promotional-catalogue. 

Kinokuniya is a Japanese book chain, operating throughout Asia, Australia, and across the U.S., and selling Japanese language books, as well as local language and English language books in each store. It  has a pleasing commitment to books from Asia, and, if the Singapore calendar-catalogue is anything to go by, a commitment too to local publishing.  

The calendar-catalogue is organised by month, and book category. If you celebrate Christmas, you've left your shopping late, and you're short of gift ideas, it's a good place to start.  For those of you not in Singapore, I now offer my pick of their picks.

January / Fiction: Crazy Rich Asians /  Kevin Kwan.   Asian Book Blog's September book club pick.  A wild romp that dazzles with the excesses of Singapore's super-rich.  Perfect for free-spending teenage girls.

February / Fiction: Strange Weather in Tokyo /  Hiromi Kawakami. An old fashioned romance set in modern Tokyo.  Perfect for secretly-sloppy outwardly cool dudes who, rather than being caught reading romantic fiction, would wrap it in brown paper covers.

March / Children's: Jet Black and the Ninja Wind / Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani.  The story of a teenage girl descended from ninjas. Perfect for pre-teen ninjas.

April / Children's: My Awesome Japan Adventure: a diary about the best 4 months ever! / Rebecca Otowa. The title says it all. Perfect for under 10s relocating to Japan.

May / Lifestyle:  I'm skipping this one, on the grounds that any book a person of normal intelligence could possibly categorise as Lifestyle can't be worth the paper it's printed on.

June / Food & Drink: Baking With Tropical Fruits /  Melinda Lim. Great bakes using mango, pineapple, lychees, and so on.  Perfect for woodworkers. (Only joking - perfect for cooks.)

July / Business: In Line Behind a Billion People / Damien Ma and William Adams. How scarcity will define China's ascent in the next decade.  Perfect for students you dislike - spoil their Christmas by reminding them of the competition they're up against in our globalised world.   

August / Business:  Another one I'm skipping, this time because all the books look deadly dull. 

September / Science and Humanities: Countdown: our last, best hope for a future on earth? / Alan Weisman.  An investigation into humanity's future. Perfect for the loons otherwise known as climate change sceptics, although if they haven't had what passes for their minds changed by now, then they probably never will. 

October / Humanities: The Straits Chinese House: Domestic Life and Traditions / Peter Lee. A  lavishly illustrated guide to Peranakan culture through their homes.  Perfect for expat wives who've set up shop as interior designers. 

November / Biography: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban / Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. What can you say? This is surely a book that everybody ought to read, especially those least likely to - so if you do happen to know any English-speaking fundamentalists, try slipping them a copy, although perhaps it would be best not to mention Christmas. 

December / Comics: Super Graphic / Tim Leong. The geek's infographic guide to the comic book universe. Perfect for pale boys who are so in love with their screens they never leave their bedrooms.

If you do celebrate Christmas, I hope you give some great books, and, in return, get some equally great books in your stocking.  

Asian Book Blog will now close until January 5, when the first post of the New Year will be a discussion of December's book club pick, The Valley of Amazement / Amy Tan, which would itself make an excellent Christmas gift - add it to your wish list if you haven't already read it. Happy Christmas, and happy reading, now and all through 2014.   

Saturday 14 December 2013

500 Words From Barbara Ismail

500 Words a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books.  Here, Barbara Ismail talks about Princess Play, the second in her Kain Songket Mysteries, which she intends to be a 6 or 7 book series. The mysteries  feature Malaysia’s first female detective, Kelantanese Mak Cik Maryam, a no-nonsense kain songket trader in the Kota Bahru Central Market - kain songket are gorgeously woven silks, patterned with gold or silver threads, found all over the Malay world.   

Barbara Ismail now lives in her home city, New York, but she studied the wayang siam puppetry tradition in Kelantan in the 1970s, when she was doing fieldwork for a PhD in anthropology. 

So: 500 Words From Barbara Ismail...  

The Kain Songket Mysteries were originally conceived as a story about Kelantan and its culture. I never thought of myself as a novelist, since the writing I had done in the past was academic for the most part.   However, I wanted to write something easier to read than a general ethnography, and in the bargain, way more fun to write.  Writing fiction allows enormous leeway in the story and the characters, and of course, reality doesn’t limit what you can do.

Having said that, I think the background of the novels—Kelantan and its people—are quite realistic, and I have tried to stick to the Kelantan I know and the culture I love.  Of course, murder doesn’t happen in Kelantan with the regularity of a mystery series, and I fear that as the stories follow each other I may be decimating the population!  And while the plots are, of course, fiction, the society in which they are placed is certainly not.

I enjoy reading mystery novels and therefore thought to write in a genre I liked and could be comfortable with.  Mysteries in general are quite stylized, with a strong story structure: the question is never what will happen, I think, but rather how. I find, therefore, that within the ritual, the specific sleuth and environment can be explored at length with a story line to carry it along.

When writing the stories, I usually begin with the victim, and try to imagine the full person, filling in his or her family, friends and work.  The characters take shape, and then basically do what they want: I don’t begin the story with an outline or a detailed plot: the characters themselves take over the story, and in both the books I have written, I was surprised at the end to find out who did it:  the murder seemed to present him or herself without my "permission".

Many of the characters are based, at least to some extent, upon real people.  Mak Cik Maryam is based upon one of my neighbors in Kota Bahru, who owned a cloth stall in the main market, and also upon my Polish mother, who shares her name.  The bomoh (spiritual healer or shaman) in Princess Play is also based upon a bomoh I knew in Kelantan.  Mak Cik Maryam’s husband Mamat is based upon a neighbor with whose family I lived in Pengkalan Cepa, and also owes a great deal to my sister-in-law, who first commented that Mamat was so nice, it didn’t seem real:  in homage to her, I have worked to make him the ideal husband, perhaps bordering on fantasy.  Maryam’s daughters are my daughters; they provide a great deal of inspiration.

It is important to me that my books open a window on Kelantan, and that readers will either learn about the area by reading my books, or recognize it if they are from there.  

The Kain Songket Mysteries are published by Monsoon, in paperback and ebook, priced in local currencies.   

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Curtain of Rain / Tew Bunnag

The Asia Literary Agency has sold World English and Italian language rights to Curtain of Rain, a soulful, intricately linked series of stories set in Thailand and London, by Thai author Tew Bunnag. World English rights were bought by Narisa Chakrabongse at River Books. Italian language rights were bought by Andrea Berrini at Metropoli d'Asia.

Bunnag comes from a prominent Thai family, graduated from Oxford with a degree in Chinese and Economics, works to ameliorate conditions in the Bangkok slums, and divides his time between Thailand and Spain. He is a Buddhist, and a t’ai chi and meditation master, who counsels families with terminally ill children. Bunnag enjoyed publishing success with his previous works, including Time of the Lotus, a bestseller in Spain, and After the Wave, a collection of short stories to commemorate the Boxing Day tsunami. 

Geographically, Curtain of Rain takes readers from Bangkok to London, via the Vietnam War; it moves in time from the troubled past to the uneasy present.  It is told from the perspective of two characters whose lives and fates become entangled after a chance encounter during the Vietnam War. Bunnag evokes place brilliantly, especially Bangkok and the Thai countryside. His explorations of the tension between history and the present, and of the unreliability of memory, allow him to introduce issues of politics, power and greed, without losing sight of his characters’ searches for meaning, and redemption. 

Kelly Falconer, founder of the Asia Literary Agency, said: “This timely account of contemporary Thailand, a country still struggling to come to terms with an unstable past, is evocatively told by Tew Bunnag. The feeling of being an insider and simultaneously an outsider, caught between the past and the present, permeates this book, which is international in setting and in appeal.”

Bangkok-based River Books was founded 20 years ago with the aim of publishing high quality, illustrated books on the art, archaeology, history, and culture of mainland Southeast Asia. Their guidebooks to the ancient cities of the region are perennially popular, although Ancient Angkor has the dubious distinction of being the most widely available pirated guidebook at Angkor Wat. Recently River Books has started publishing cookery titles and novels. Narisa Chakrabongse said: “River Books are very excited to be publishing the English edition of Curtain of Rain by Tew Bunnag.

Metropoli d'Asia is an Italian publishing house owned and run by Andrea Berrini, a writer himself, who spends most of his time in India, China, Singapore and the rest of the South East Asian countries, directly scouting for emerging writers.

Curtain of Rain should be available in English and Italian next year.