Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Shanghai International Literary Festival

The Shanghai International Literary Festival starts today, Wednesday 5 March, and runs through until Friday 21 March, with events taking place at the restaurant, M on the Bund

After a quick glance down the programme, I picked a few probable highlights:

On Saturday March 8, David Pilling, the Financial Times’ Asia Editor will discuss his new book Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. This presents a fresh vision of Japan, revealing its vulnerabilities and resistance in cycles of crisis and reconstruction from the 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown through the so-called lost decades, after 1990.

On Thursday 13 March, in Of Kings & Moghuls, Xanadu & Djinns, William Dalrymple, the award-winner writer, will discuss the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, and share his tales of walking in the footsteps of Marco Polo in the 1990s.

On Sunday 16 Catherine Chung, author of Forgotten Country, a novel about a Korean family in America, North and South Korea, sibling rivalry and bonds, secrets and questions, will take part in Non-Native Speaker-Writing from Another Tongue. Chung’s first language is Korean, and she will discuss what it means to be a native speaker, and the strangeness and complicated power of writing an immigrant's story from a language that is not your first.

Since the Festival venue is a restaurant, there will be several food and wine writers participating, and lashings of fine wining and dining, including a series of mouthwatering literary lunches. To mark International Women's Day, which is this Saturday, March 8, there will be a lunch, on 7th, to discuss women's writing. What is it?  And does this question matter? Singaporean author Shamini Flint  will be one of the guests. 

Of the other literary lunches, Writing China: Journalism, Fiction & History, on Monday 17, looks interesting - it will explore how writers engage with China via three different approaches.  Indian author Mishi Saran is to be one of the panelists.

There are a variety of workshops on offer, including Getting Started, Getting Finished, in which S.J. Rozan, the award-winning author of 13 novels and the leader of a popular summer writing workshop, will take authors through the essentials of beginning and ending their books – and presumably writing the middle bit too.

There are children’s days, poetry sessions, art workshops, and debates. There’s even an event around an erotic fiction competition, at which, according to the Festival’s website, finalists will read their “saucy” stories, and the bar will serve “sexy” drinks – all in a good cause as there will be a raffle for charity.  

If you happen to be attending the Shanghai Literary Festival do please post with your comments – or even write a full post, if you feel so moved.  You can e-mail it to me at, and I’ll put it up on the site.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Book Club: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon and March's Pick

I assume you've read February’s book club pick, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, the swift and suspenseful debut novel by Fatima Bhutto, so I'm not going to give a detailed plot summary. If you need one see here to find an outline from the UK publisher, Viking.

I thought this novel wore lightly its challenging nature  - but challenging it is.  How could it not be, since it’s set in one of the world’s most challenging hotspots?

On the evidence of this novel, Pakistan’s tribal areas appear to be a place where everyone speaks the “secret language of us versus us” – as Sikandar puts it to himself, when he is confronted by the Talibs. Until I read this episode, I thought life in the tribal areas was driven either by adherence to, or by resistance to, a Medieval understanding of Islam.  But I seem to have got that wrong.  Here is Bhutto, when Mina has accused a Talib of being unjust: “They can be accused of being violent, of being rash, of anything but injustice.  They have built their war around the battle of the just against the unjust. People misunderstand them; they assume it’s a war against unbelievers, against disbelief. That has nothing to do with it. Their war was always about justice. They bear its mantle and they drape themselves in its banner.” 

Really? Sure, the Talibs might think they are fighting for justice, but how can that be divorced from their religious beliefs?  I don’t know – one thing this book reinforced for me was my own ignorance of the political situation in Pakistan.  There were many other nuances that I failed fully to understand, particularly around the people of Mir Ali’s bitter and entrenched loathing of the state, and their thoughts about Afghanistan. 

Still, that’s my fault, not Bhutto’s – she was not writing a political textbook, but a novel. So what about her characters?  They too seemed to speak the secret language of us versus us, to distressing end, but with no clear-cut goodies and baddies, just differing degrees of complexity, compromise, and ability to negotiate between the demands of the self, and the demands of family and community. I thought Bhutto managed to balance the sympathies very evenly between Aman Erum, Samarra and Hayat.  Likewise between Mina and Sikandar – I thought the portrait of Mina, a woman who had retreated into her own language, or else into the universal language of grief, incomprehensible to those not bereaved, was moving without being heartstrings-tugging.

But that’s quite enough of what I thought.  What did others think?

Rong Rong (蓉蓉) from Singapore said this:

       The Shadow of the Crescent Moon was an enjoyable read, primarily because it gave me an insight into everyday life in Pakistan. Fatima Bhutto is Pakistani, and this authenticity shone through in her writing. I admire the fact that she did not shy away from including Urdu and tribal phrases, as these enabled me to gain a greater understanding of relevant South Asian culture.

        From a literary point of view, I liked the concept of following the journeys of three brothers, and the fact that the whole novel took place over the course of a single morning. However, I thought that the ending was slightly disappointing.

I agree about the pace – the tight timeframe was one of the most compelling aspects of this novel – and also about the use of terms in local languages.  I’ll come to my thoughts on the ending in a minute.

Fred from Deux Sevres in France – and who knew Asian Books Blog has readers in France? Bonjour to Fred and anybody else in his neck of the woods – Fred said:

A well-written and compelling book, drawing the reader into a painful and isolated way of life: "No one prays together, travels in pairs or eats out in groups.  It is how they live now, alone." Says one of the main characters, Aman Erum, summing up the fear of the community, a fear which leaps out of the pages.

The breakdown in family and other relationships is starkly and simply drawn. The depiction of the internecine fighting between the Shias and the Sunnis shows the sheer terror of being hated by other Muslims when you yourself are one, albeit of a different sect.

Love and betrayal on a small scale and a large stage are at the heart of this very disturbing but very readable book, which I highly recommend, though I thought the ending tailed off.

I received both Rong Rong’s and Fred’s comments before I’d finished the book, so I was put on the alert for something that might explain the apparently hanging ending I hadn’t yet reached.  I think I found it in the folk tale of the king and the diamonds, the one Hayat remembers when he is about to kiss goodbye to Samarra, when he wishes he could be a fakir, suspended indefinitely, the one Inayat had told him in his childhood: “Inayat did not finish the tale, did not end the folk legend with the rest of the story, which saw the fakir throw himself off the mountain into the river below it, where he was savaged by the very fish that had fattened themselves on his alms of grain. Inayat did not end the legend with its message of revenge.”

March’s Pick: The Song of King Gesar 

The Song of King Gesar is one of the world's great epics, as significant in Tibet as the Ramayana and  Mahabarata in India. 

Set partly in ancient Tibet, where evil spirits meddle in the lives of humans, and partly in the modern day, The Song of King Gesar, by Alai (阿来),  tells of two lives inextricably entwined. Gesar, the youngest and bravest of the gods, has been sent down to the human world to defeat the demons that plague the lives of ordinary people. Jigmed is a young shepherd, who is visited by dreams of Gesar, of gods and of ancient battles while he sleeps. So begins an epic journey for both of them. Gesar will become the warrior-king of Ling, and will unite the nation of Tibet under his reign. Jigmed will learn to see his troubled country with new eyes, and, as the storyteller chosen by the gods, he must face his own destiny.

Alai was born in 1959 in the Sichuan province of Rgyalrong, of Tibetan descent. As well as critically acclaimed collections of poetry, short stories and essays, he has written a number of novels, including Red Poppies: A Novel of Tibet.

Howard Goldblatt is the translator of Mo Yan (莫言). Together, he and Sylvia Li-chun Lin have rendered many contemporary Chinese-language novels into English.

The Song of King Gesar should be widely available in Asia in hardback, priced in local currencies. It is also available as an eBook, available from on-line bookstores, and from the UK publisher, Canongate. 

Discussion of The Song of King Gesar will be posted on Sunday, March 30, so do please get in touch with your comments by then.

Both The Shadow of the Crescent Moon and The Song of King Gesar are eligible for the ABB book of the Lunar Year in the Year of the Horse. See the post of Jan 30 2014 for details.  If you would like to vote for either title please do so by posting a comment, or contacting

New and Notable: Pioneer Girl

Although you might have trouble finding print editions in Asia, I thought it was worth mentioning Pioneer Girl, by Bich Minh Nguyen, which is available as an eBook, through on-line bookstores and Penguin US.

Bich Minh Nguyen is the Vietnamese-American author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.

Pioneer Girl is a tale of mothers and daughters, lingering family secrets, and physical and metaphorical frontiers.

Jobless with a PhD, Lee Lien returns home to her Chicago suburb from grad school, only to find herself contending with issues she’s evaded since college. But when her brother disappears, he leaves behind an object from their mother’s Vietnam past: a gold-leaf brooch, abandoned by an American reporter in Saigon back in 1965, that might be an heirloom belonging to Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books, classics of American children's literature. 

As Lee  investigates the history of the brooch, she unearths more than expected - a trail of clues and enticements that lead her from the dusty stacks of library archives to hilarious prairie life reenactments and ultimately to San Francisco, where her findings will transform strangers’ lives as well as her own.

A literary mystery,  Pioneer Girl is also the deeply moving tale of a second-generation Vietnamese daughter, the parents she struggles to honour, the missing brother she is expected to bring home - even as her discoveries yield dramatic insights that will free her to live her own life to its full potential.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Jayapriya Vasudevan / Jacaranda Literary Agency

Jacaranda is a full service literary agency, with agents in India, Singapore and the Philippines. The company has an inspiring mission statement: “We value the relationships we build with our writers and publishers, and we place value in nurturing these relationships. Our mission is as simple as our philosophy. We look for good writing from anywhere in the world to become accessible globally. Simply put, we want our writers’ word to become their published word. Jacaranda is driven by the passion to make the world better for readers by ensuring that gifted writers from all corners of the globe are discovered, nurtured and published.”

Jayapriya Vasudevan is the founder. She spent the early part of her career working in publishing in India, doing everything from editing and publicity to sales and distribution. Then, with a partner, she set up India’s first bookstore café in Bangalore. In 1997 she decided to use her experience in publishing and book selling to set up Jacaranda - another first, India’s first literary agency.
Jay gave Asian Books Blog an interview, via e-mail.
I had been struck that Jacaranda’s mission statement mentioned making the world a better place. I asked Jay whether it was strictly a commercial agency, or whether commercial considerations came second to literary and social ones? She told me: “We are a commercial agency.  But we do like to take on books that we believe in, authors who bring us great and universal stories. It’s about the quality of the work we like to represent rather than any social considerations. Like any agency, we want all our books to sell for loads of money!”

Despite the need to pay the bills, Jay is setting up a not-for-profit wing of her company, The Jacaranda Literacy Foundation, under the direction of Archana Rao - she previously worked with Faber and Faber in London, initially selling rights, later developing Faber’s market across West Asia, the Indian Sub-Continent, North Asia, and South East Asia.

Jay wants The Jacaranda Literacy Foundation to fund NGO projects promoting and enhancing literacy amongst children. The dual aims are to enable authors to donate all or part of their royalties, without worrying about inefficiency or corruption, and also to encourage publishers to enter into long-term donation programmes. I asked Jay about the Foundation’s future plans: “As an agency, we want to develop a sort of Literature for Literacy movement. At this moment we are looking at projects in India - not urban India but rural India. We want to plug into existing foundations and support the good work they are already doing. The idea is to get the literary community to support literacy. This is quite common in the West but not so in Asia.  We want to change that."

The Foundation's very first project is in Kenya.  I wondered how that came about? “My daughter got very involved with girls and education in Kenya. In a sense, this was the beginning of the Foundation. Our Singapore authors supported this idea and donated money for a scholarship - fees, boarding, lodging and books - for one bright Kenyan girl for one year. This is so fabulous.”

It was good to learn of authors supporting Jay’s Literature for Literacy idea.  I asked whether authorial interest extended beyond Jacaranda’s own authors?  “Yes. We have a few authors whom we do not represent but who have also pledged to support our endeavour.”  Great! But how did Jay plan to encourage continued authorial involvement in the Foundation? “In future, we will make it mandatory for our own authors to support literacy with small donations from their royalties.  We will leave the amount to their discretion.”

I asked Jay where her authors come from, or where she hoped they would come from in the future? “Jacaranda began in India. So we have a strong India list. And we build on that list every year. Our Singapore list comprises around 50 books. And we’ll build on that too. Additionally, we have 9 writers in the UK, and a couple in Australia, including Thomas Weber, arguably the world’s best known Gandhiologist. We are building a new list of writing from the Philippines. We have a novel from Japan and one from China as well. We hope these numbers will grow. These days, we are essentially a Singapore-based agency with a list of writing we are committed to.  That list comes largely from Asia, but of late it has come from several parts of the world. We’d like to be the go-to agents in Asia. And in many ways, we are.  Like any international agency, we sell rights anywhere in the world.”

Talking of which, how easy, or difficult, is it to sell rights into the big English-language markets outside India? Selling anywhere is challenging. Worldwide, the publishing industry is going through some seriously challenging times. We do go to the book fairs and have a very good contact base of international publishers. If the story is a universal one, there is no reason for it not to sell. Non-fiction seems to make that crossing much faster at this moment. Looking beyond the English-speaking world, we’ve sold quite a few books into European-language markets, through our network of partner agencies.”

Turning from selling rights, to acquiring manuscripts, I asked Jay if Jacaranda accepts submissions in languages other than English? “We currently work with books in the English language. If it’s a translated work, we’d need a previously-translated synopsis and sample chapter from the author.”

Jacaranda has a fascinating-sounding Advisory Board.  I asked Jay how she appointed members, and what they did for the agency? Did they advise her on whether to take submissions by acting as readers for manuscripts coming in? “Our Advisory Board is quite lovely. They have been a part of the Jacaranda journey in many ways. We pull in their expertise as needed. Amrita Chak, Anant Rangaswami and Paul Mooney have all had a busy year with us. All of them have read manuscripts for us."  

I wondered what Jay found most challenging about her job, and what she most enjoyed? “Most challenging. That would certainly be about managing the expectations of authors. Agents walk a thin line between the author and publisher. Sometimes, this can be a very frustrating process. Still, we do have good, strong relationships with our authors and seem to manage this process well. Most enjoyable. Making a sale. It’s unbeatable. That moment when we get an offer and ring the author is sheer magic."

And final thoughts? “Being an agent is very difficult. Especially with this new and not-going-away trend of self-publishing. Nevertheless, we do find books we adore. And authors we adore. We’ll be around...”