Thursday 6 March 2014

500 Words From Duncan Jepson

500 Words a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books.  Here Duncan Jepson explains the background behind Emperors Once More, which is published today.  The novel is the first in a Hong Kong-based crime trilogy featuring Detective Alex Soong.

Duncan Jepson lives in Hong Kong. His first novel was  All The Flowers In Shanghai.  A founder and former managing editor of the Asia Literary Review, he writes regularly for the New York Times, Publishing Perspectives and the South China Morning Post.

Emperors Once More is set in the near future. It’s Hong Kong, 2017.  China has bailed out the West, but the West has defaulted on its debt.  On the eve of a crisis summit for world economic leaders, two Chinese Methodist ministers are killed in an apparently motiveless execution in Hong Kong’s financial district.

It appears that luck alone makes Detective Alex Soong one of the first officers at the scene.  But is his involvement more than incidental? Is the crime itself more than a senseless assassination? It seems so: Soong is contacted by a mysterious figure, and more massacres follow.

With the eyes of the world’s media fixed on Hong Kong, Soong must race to intercept his tormentor, and thwart a conspiracy born from one of the bloodiest confrontations of China’s past, which now threatens destruction in the present.

So: 500 words from Duncan Jepson…

It is known as the century of humiliation, a term that arose in China in the early 1900s to describe a number of events that started with the First Opium War in 1839 and was thought to have ended with the Communist Revolution in 1949. Those years included painful suffering at the hands of imperial powers and unequal treaties signed requiring China to pay what would now be billions of Renminbi. But it also involved some self-inflicted injuries such as the Taiping Rebellion and a general failure to modernise as needed to defend against foreign powers.

Yet, it had not ended, following a few productive years, China fell headlong into another twenty years of madness through the 100 Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, Chinese people emerged from isolation to find that after 5000 years of civilisation, the last one hundred plus years had left them decades behind people in the West, who barely claim half the history. It seemed an unbelievable situation and the reaction was what some psychologists call the superiority inferiority complex – bitterness at a lost rightful place in the world but also doubt in the belief that perhaps it was deserved at all. For several generations there was a feeling of inferiority, a terribly heavy burden, to some it became a belief and way of life.

Emperors Once More is a story about an angry and bitter person from the generation which feels it has been betrayed by history and a young man from the new generation of modern global Chinese who are as comfortable in Europe or the US as they are in China. I wanted these generations to clash in an open forum but I also wanted to create a story that was entertaining and that pushed me as a writer. One particular story point was the demand by the older generation to return to better days regardless of the high cost and confused reasoning.

Longing for the familiar and fear and resistance to change can push people to try to stem whatever is next and spend vast resources on avoiding confronting the inevitable. Most wasteful is expense on war and revolution just to force a return to the past. Chinese history and culture is full of examples of attempts to maintain the past and a belief in the unquestioned respect for that which once was. To be declared a great classical artist was to have copied perfectly the masters before, to honour one’s parents was to follow their instruction, perhaps even forgo one’s own life for them, and at work one would be commanded without question. So much of the future given up, but not in humble deference to wisdom, often only in blind eagerness to nothing more than age.

The main character is hurt deeply by his own and his parents’ past and he transfers all his anger to reinstating the values and beliefs of something largely best left to fade into history. But he cannot, and instead must recreate it from jagged pieces of confused understanding and mistaken belief. Only a person who wants even more a new and unfamiliar future to succeed can defeat him and the two figures repeatedly clash as the story develops, each teasing the other that they are delusional and set to fail.

Another important element was to try to write a story with a faster pace than my first novel, and to meet the conventions of a crime novel. The level of difficulty was much more demanding and complex than I had imagined. A crime novel must meet the reader at pace and then maintain that momentum. I can only hope that I have succeeded in some way and that there is interest in a sequel as there are other relationships that I would like to explore in this narrative structure which might not be so successful shaped into another form.

Emperors Once More is published by Quercus. The hardback should be widely available in Asia, priced in local currencies, and the eBook  can be purchased from on-line bookstores, or else here direct from Quercus. 

Emperors Once More is 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 want to vote for it, please do so by posting a comment, or by e-mailing

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.