Thursday, 20 March 2014

World Storytelling Day by Verena Tay

World Storytelling Day logo
Today, March 20, is World Storytelling Day, an annual celebration of the art of oral storytelling.  Here Verena Tay, a founding member of the Storytelling Association (Singapore), and a co-founder of MoonShadow Stories, a group promoting live narrative art forms, talks about oral traditions in Asia, and how you can help to keep them alive.
If you are reading this blog, you are interested in the written word, texts and stories. But how did people communicate before the invention of writing? Through the spoken word and through oral storytelling, of course.
Even though we now live in an age where there are so many forms of visual communication to take up our attention, we are still hardwired as humans to listen to stories and gain much satisfaction from the experience. Remember as a child how you felt thrilled when an older person told you a story, be it a folk tale or some family anecdote or history? And what better way to bond with friends and family as an adult than to sit down and chat and swap stories? Nothing beats that direct, heart-to-heart, one-to-one bonding that comes with sharing stories.
Oral storytelling had an honoured role in times past in all parts of the world. Often the designated storyteller was the repository of community knowledge and culture and the stories that he or she told helped to pass down that information from one generation to another.
Within Asia, some examples of storytelling transforming into a performance tradition include:
·  storytellers who told stories in Chinese teahouses, various regions of China developing distinctive styles of telling;
·  the Japanese rakugo storyteller sitting alone on a stage and entertaining audiences with comic stories;
·  wayang kulit in the Malay archipelago where the dalang told stories often based on the Ramayana with the aid of shadow puppets and a whole ensemble of musicians.
Within recent history before the age of television and the Internet, Chinese immigrants brought their love of storytellers and storytelling along within them to Singapore. Click here for a poignant photo in the online National Archives of Singapore dating from 1960 of working men gathering along the Singapore River one evening after a hard day’s work just to hear stories from a traditional storyteller. From 1938 to 1982, the famed Cantonese storyteller, Lee Dai Sor, thrilled listeners with stories over public radio on a regular basis.
Far from being an archaic art form, there has been a global revival of oral storytelling since the 1980s. This wave of interest reached Singapore during the late 1990s. Individually and as part of MoonShadow Stories, I am part of this growth of contemporary storytelling as an art form here in Singapore and have particularly promoted storytelling for adult audiences.
One of the regular activities that MoonShadow Stories conducts is celebrating World Storytelling Day in various ways since 2005. On 15 March, we carried out Dragon Tales and Monster Stories and Stories of Faith at The Singapore Arts House for World Storytelling Day 2014.
The idea of World Storytelling Day was first developed in Sweden during the early 1990s to commemorate the art form on March 20, the day of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere and the autumn equinox in the southern hemisphere. Throughout March this year, World Storytelling Day is being celebrated in Canada, the Netherlands, Greece, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Kenya, the USA, Hawaii, Argentina, the Philippines, Croatia, Venezuela, India, Ireland, Spain, Denmark, the UK, and of course, Singapore. Click here for a programme of events worldwide.
Anyone can celebrate World Storytelling Day. You don’t need to be a professional storyteller, an arts group or a production house to do so.
So today, March 20, all you have to do for World Storytelling Day is turn to a loved one, a colleague, a family member or a friend and share a story, any story, with that person. Go on! Make that person’s day and your day as well. Just tell and have fun!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

It’s always too late for someone / Crime Wave Press

Two friends, Tom Vater and Hans Kemp, have recently launched Crime Wave Press, in Hong Kong.  Here Tom explains how they began their publishing (ad)venture.

In the summer of 2012, Hans and I were sitting in Bangkok talking about the changing world of publishing and the new challenges facing small independent publishers and writers. We had just collaborated on a successful illustrated book, Sacred Skin, Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos, for his Hong Kong based publishing house, Visionary World.  Meanwhile, I had just had the rights to my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, returned to me by a local publisher. I was also sitting on a crime novel, The Cambodian Book of the DeadI had not yet managed to sell.

Our conversation went something like this.
“Why don’t we start a crime fiction imprint?”
“We could specialise in crime fiction from Asia. There’s bound to be lots of writers out here trying to find a publisher. And there’s plenty of crime to write about.”
“And we’d have two titles to start with immediately.”
“We could call it Crime Wave Press.”

It was really as easy as that. Well, sort of. Well, not quite.

In 2012, there were already a number of small crime fiction imprints in the West, publishing mostly eBooks, but there weren’t any in Asia. Both Hans and I had lived in the region for many years and both of us had had long and independent careers in media. Hans started out as a photographer in Hong Kong and Vietnam, then became a successful publisher of his own illustrated books, most notably Bikes of Burden, a collection of images of motorbikes in Vietnam, which is currently published in four languages. I have a long history of writing features for newspapers and magazines, documentary screenplays, non-fiction books, all with a focus on Asia. Hans came up with the perfect tag line for our piratical endeavour: It’s always too late for someone.

And so, with just a couple of titles - mine - Asia’s first boutique crime fiction imprint was launched with some fanfare at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in October 2012.  We had a great start, hanging out with Nick Cave, John Pilger and Colin Falconer, schmoozing with agents and feeling like, well, publishers. And it just seemed to get better.

Within weeks of having our first two titles online either as eBooks or as print editions through print on demand, we sold The Cambodian Book of the Dead to British publisher Exhibit A Books. Shortly after we sold the Spanish language rights to The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu to Editorial Xplora.  And we got lucky again by signing the Father Ananda Mystery series by Nick Wilgus, which had been published in Thailand a decade earlier. Now we had a handful of titles, we were organising promotions, interviews, podcasts and we began to shift some copies.

But we received no submissions. Well, that’s not entirely true. We did receive some bar girl novels set in Thailand, quite a few Vietnam War reminiscences by former US soldiers and a handful of titles so badly written we could not even get through the first page, a 120,000 word manuscript on Satanism amongst them. It’s part of our company policy not to publish right wing, racist, sexist or otherwise demeaning fiction. That cancelled out the bar girl novels and most of the war stories. We blogged, we tweeted, we Facebooked, we networked and we sent out thousands of emails. We travelled to the Frankfurt Book Fair. We reached out to literary connections in Japan and India. We cajoled our friends to write novels. And our slush pile remained just that – a pile of low quality slush.

Granted, we found Jame Dibiasio’s excellent Gaijin Cowgirl, the incredible adventure of Val Benson, Tokyo hostess, World War II treasure hunter and a wonderful, if reckless, female protagonist who will be back in a follow-up at the end of the year. But that was pretty much it. We couldn’t find any more crime novels set in Asia. Crime Wave Press, it seemed, was stuck.

In late 2013, I connected with my friend, writer James Newman, who had also started up a small publishing imprint, Spanking Pulp Press. James didn’t seem to have as much of a problem attracting writers, despite not being able to offer advance payments, just like us. He did throw his net wider though, signing any pulp genre fiction from anywhere. Hans and I had to make a difficult decision – carry on publishing a few criminal tales from Asia or broaden our submissions policy and accept crime fiction from all over the world to expand our catalogue. We went for the world.

Crime Wave Press is now reading manuscripts for whodunits, noir and hardboiled, historical mysteries and espionage thrillers, literary crime, pulp fiction, highly commercial page turners and marginal texts exploring cultural underbellies from around the world. The slush pile has grown and so has the quality of the work we receive.

Since changing the policy we have signed five new writers. Ironically the first two titles we publish this year have strong Asian connections. Skewered And Other London Crueltiesby Benedict J Jones, just out, is set in London’s Asian community.  Salaryman Unboundby Ezra Kyrill Erker takes place in Japan.

But those elusive great books, the ones that have a special quirk, a singular tone, a narrative arc that swings like a jazz beat and an immediacy that cuts like a knife, those remain rare discoveries.  Crime Wave Press is looking for great manuscripts. We plan to publish 24 titles this year – if we can find 24 great crime novels.


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Andrea Pasion-Flores / overview of lit life in the Philippines

Manila-based, multi-talented Andrea Pasion-Flores is a copyright lawyer, and an academic – she teaches English at the University of the Philippines as a member of the faculty of the Department of English and Comparative Literature. She is also an agent with the Jacaranda Literary Agency – the first agent in the Philippines. She was previously the Executive Director of the National Book Development Board of the Philippines (NBDB).

I interviewed Andrea by e-mail, to find out more about books and readers in the Philippines. I started by asking her about her work at the NBDB. Whilst she was the Executive Director, she was known for her pioneering work introducing literary events to the Philippines. Starting with Lit Out Loud (2010), followed by The Great Philippine Book CafĂ© (2011) and Read Lit District (2012), she helped establish the Philippines as a venue on the world literary festival circuit. How did she now feel about that achievement? “I was working with very few resources yet trying to make things work. That was a lot of heartache, but very rewarding, too. So I do feel like a proud parent of sorts.”

Beyond the festivals, what does Andrea consider the legacy of her time at the NBDB? I don't think I should claim anything as mine. There were many men and women working for each success, so each one was the institution’s: things got done because of collaboration; people saw the vision; we were focused. I was lucky in timing, too. When I was appointed to the NBDB, the agency was in transition and was still finding its way from a complicated past. So I was free, with the support of the Chair, Dennis Gonzalez, to test a lot of ideas. I began with some housekeeping: a revision of the vision/mission, the agency's framework, the re-assigning of personnel, and the setting of goals. Meanwhile, Dennis Gonzalez was working to establish a trust fund for authors, to help those who were working on manuscripts that were important though perhaps not commercially viable. He and I, and the whole NBDB, wanted to help others to generate content, to help in the creation of knowledge - the larger vision of working towards a knowledge-based economy was always in our minds. So we made sure that legislation to establish the fund would pass, lobbying congressmen and senators to get behind the bill to secure our trust fund. I remember sitting up with Dennis Gonzalez until 2 or 3 in the morning at the Senate because our Senator-sponsor, Senator Allan Peter Cayetano, was planning to sneak legislation onto the agenda - it was not calendared for the day, but he was confident it would be taken up and believed in it as much as we did. We had to be there just in case there were questions. And he did get it in, and it was passed: supporting writers is now an on-going activity. It's a great thing. I'm proud to have been a part of that law's journey.”

What about other initiatives to help authors to survive money-wise? “It's very difficult for authors to live off their writing, and it’s doubly painful when their copyrights are infringed. Hence the NBDB helped establish a collective management organisation for authors. Now, many authors are compensated for the use of their works in the public school system. The amounts aren't fantastic yet, but they're improvements from nothing.”

Copyright infringement is a big problem in Asia, and not just within publishing, either. How did Andrea’s background as a copyright lawyer help her fight the pirates? “I was in a position to help in the Intellectual Property Office's quest to have a new copyright law pushed through the legislature, to provide strong copyright protection in the Philippines. Whenever there was a request for comments on proposals, or for someone to go to congressional hearings, I would just slog on. By my time, legislation had been languishing in congress for so long with many people working on it, contributing so much in different ways then having it shot down then revived again, that I didn't think I would ever see the fruit of all that hard work, but the bill was passed!”

That must have been a great day for authors, as well as for lawyers? “Sure. I was always keeping in mind that I had to watch out for the rights of authors. I was aware I had the responsibility to watch out for the public interest, especially in a developing country like the Philippines - I think everybody involved was aware of this responsibility. With the Intellectual Property Office leading the effort, I do feel the Philippines now has a copyright law that is progressive yet fair to copyright owners. The law is a source of pride for the many who worked on it.”

Beyond legal and financial issues, how did the NBDB reach out to the wider literary community of the Philippines?  How did it help develop a thirst for reading Philippine literature? “I think the very basic thing the Philippines needs to do to grow readership is to raise the quality of education in the public school system. At the university, I see the large gap that has to be bridged when dealing with students from the public schools. Though efforts are ongoing, it's a long a process, but I have hope that I will see this happen. In terms of my work at the NBDB, under my watch we put Philippine poetry in the train system. It was called Tulaan sa Tren  - roughly, poetry in the train - it sounds better in Filipino I assure you! We recorded celebrities reading the poetry, and had the recordings played on the radio, on partners' websites, in coffee shops. We distributed Tulaan sa Tren posters - poetry posters - to schools and libraries. We ran Tulaan sa Tren twice, and both times the reception was fantastic. We also raised the profile of the National Book Awards, which are given every year by the NBDB and the Manila Critics Circle to the best books written, designed, and published in the Philippines, and established the biannual National Children's Book Award.”

Moving away from Andrea’s old role at the NBDB, I asked her about her new one as an agent. I didn't know how isolated she was, professionally, but I did remark she surely couldn’t have many competitors for clients.  “Right. I have a feeling I am not only the first literary agent in the Philippines, I suspect I am also the only one!”  Really?  “Really. I think there should be more, but people here still have to get used to the idea of an agent. Here, content creators deal directly with publishers, but, as everywhere, creators and publishers have distinct interests. Also, people here find it difficult to talk about compensation, especially when the authors and publishers are friends, which is always the case because the publishing industry is tiny. So sometimes you have authors unable to make good deals for themselves, or they can't collect monies owed them, or they sell the rights to their own work for very little.” 

What about other publishing professionals – editors, for example? And what about other parts of the infrastructure, review journals, book fairs etc? Does the Philippines have these things? “Like many young markets, I think the Philippines still has a lot to improve on. We lack editors able to give high-level advice on manuscripts, though we do have a good number of copy editors. We need more distributors, marketers and publicists, more experienced book designers, more translators. I can go on and on with my wish list.” 

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore, where the National Arts Council is a strong supporter of literature.  Andrea drew a comparison with the situation in the Philippines: “I do wish the Philippines could afford the kind of government support Singapore is giving its creative sector. But maybe someday we'll get there, too? We are a generally happy people, and I fall into the mould of the optimistic Filipino!”

Government support is one thing, but a mature publishing industry surely needs a strong selection of commercial publishing houses. Are such houses to be found in the Philippines? “We have many publishers - but there's always room for more good ones. If you have a vision for how books should be made, or how content should read I think there's room for you in this large, diverse market.”

What about marketing to that large, diverse market? “There is still a long way to go in terms of marketing and publicity. We need to reach out to mainstream media. Authors need to help. More authors are going out there to make their works and themselves known, and social media is helping, but there's a lot of work still to be done. Also, we do need more distributors and retail outlets aside from the current ones. The Philippines is an archipelago, and has difficulty distributing to more than 7,100 islands populated by about 100 million. We need more libraries and bookstores and other creative channels of getting books to their readers. Digital publishing should be the solution, but it has yet to really catch on here. Many things are being done, some more quietly than others, and people are working together to make it happen. So I think the industry will soon be focused in its goals.”

You can’t have a publishing industry without readers and writers, and in Asia, for many authors, a big barrier to gaining readers is lack of English, on either one side, or the other, or both. I asked Andrea for her thoughts on this perennial problem. Are most local authors in the Philippines writing in English?  If so, do they resent this?  If an author wants to write in Tagalog, or another local language, is there much chance of translation into English?  

Andrea said: “There are many authors working in Filipino (Tagalog) as well as in English. The Philippines has around 170 regional languages, 12 of which are designated mother tongue languages. Of course, there really needs to be more translation work going on for all these languages, not only from English to Filipino and vice versa but to all 12 mother tongues at least. It's happening, slowly, children's books are leading the way because our education system has recently introduced the requirement of learning in the mother tongue. One publisher forged the way with the translation of popular young adult novels like Harry Potter and Hunger Games and other titles into Filipino. More titles have been following this path, with translations happening in other regional languages. Translation will help broaden the market and keep people hooked on books. So that's a great development.” 

How eager are local people to read books by local authors?  Is the market dominated by bestsellers from the West?  Or not?  How do local authors get their voices heard locally?

“For local books, the bestsellers are those written in Filipino (Tagalog). The English titles don't come close to the numbers bestsellers in Filipino rack up. For the English-language books, most bestsellers in other markets would also be the bestsellers in the Philippines. Of course, genre fiction sells, romance, religious and inspirational books, self-help, etc. In any language, those kinds of title will sell. I hear graphic novels in English are not doing so badly either, but it's a niche.”

I wondered whether Andrea detected any trends, concerns or fashions particular to the literature of the Philippines at the moment?  What currently concerns local authors?  “I like what's happening in the comics scene. There is a very loyal fan base that packs comics conventions here - kids do cosplay, swap comics, and lots of indies show up to sell, too. The book bloggers, writers, and illustrators are there, with readers in kilometric lines asking for autographs. It's a community. Meanwhile, I just attended an opening of an exhibit in a museum featuring the art of comics and graphic novels. I thought it was very cool to have comics in a museum - an important thing for the genre. 

I also see a lot of crime and fantasy being written. For more popular lit, romance is still up there, especially with a little bit of a twist - interracial romance, paranormal romance. Kids are also writing a lot of fantasy and sci-fi within the romance genre. Young adult lit is flourishing. I've read a few narratives that happen within games. I thought that was interesting. Books on finances aimed at younger people are also growing in popularity.

Wattpad is big, and has been dictating what gets published by commercial publishers. Kids are using Wattpad as a launchpad for a writing career. I think that is very interesting. The language being used is Filipino mixed with English - lots of Taglish going on. The stuff that's written might not meet professional standards, but Wattpad is its own space, and what a large space it is! There's a lot of fan fiction and erotica being written in that space, too. It's interesting.”

I commented that it all seemed very lively. “Yes. It's a very vibrant scene actually. In Manila, there are books launched almost every week – although it would be nice to have more exciting book events, with lots of activities aimed towards young people aside from just readings, which are standard at the moment. There were a couple of local movies that were based on books that came out recently, with big name celebrities playing the major roles. Film adaptations are great if they get people buying the books. Still, we need to do more of everything to reach out to the market. We need to be out there all the time getting people excited about books and reading.”

I asked Andrea if she could recommend any local authors as ones to watch, or books by local authors she thought everybody ought to read? “Oh, there are so many!  I am sure to get in trouble for this, but here goes anyway - I should say I have a soft spot for women authors. For novels in English, remember the names Vicente Garcia Groyon, Katrina Tuevera - daughter of another great woman writer, Kerima Polotan Tuvera - Glenn Diaz, Tara F.T. Sering and Dean Alfar. For crime, I would recommend F.H. Batacan. For writing on the conflict in the southern Philippines, Criselda Yabes. I like the essays of Rica Bolipata Santos and Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo. In Filipino, I enjoy the funny yet painful coming-of-age essays of Beverly Wico Siy. Among the men, I would say Charlson Ong is a really fantastic novelist writing about the Filipino-Chinese experience. I also always enjoy the short fiction of Jose Y. Dalisay and Sarge Lacuesta. 

People ought to read Gilda Cordero-Fernando's short stories, especially A Wilderness of Sweets and People in the War and Ninotchka Rosca's State of War. Anything that comes out of the mind of Merlinda Bobis is worth reading, too. If you ever get the chance to listen to her, she is such a treat. 

If people want to get to know the fiction and poetry of the Philippines, they should get copies of all the anthologies of Gemino H. Abad, who also happens to be a fantastic poet. The poems of Edith Tiempo and Marjorie Evasco are wonderful, too - here again is my bias for women writers.  For poetry and criticism in Filipino, I'd go for Virgilio S. Almario. He is ably translated into English by Marne Kilates. Krip Yuson and J. Neil Garcia's poems must be read, too.  

Among the younger poets, I'd say pick up the books of Rafael San Diego, Mikael Ko, Mark Anthony Cayanan, Paolo Manalo, Isabelita O. Reyes, and Conchitina Cruz. For graphic novels, you will be blown away by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldismo's Trese series. If you want to get to know Filipino food, Doreen Fernandez is the canon.” 

For children's lit, I like Ompong Remegio's story books. Candy Gourlay's novels are fantastic, too. I would say for children's lit everyone ought to read Doll's Eyes by Eline Santos, a horror story for children that happens in the labyrinthine city of Quiapo, a chaotic, mystical place in Manila. It's wonderfully terrifying! The illustrations of Joy Mallari are riveting as well.” 

Finally, I asked Andrea if she were appointed spokeswoman to the world for the literature of the Philippines, what would she say? “The literature coming from the Philippines reflects the pain and suffering found in the everyday realities of the Filipino people. Remember we're always in the path of destruction - we're in storms' way and in the ring of fire. Many parents leave children behind to work overseas. We've had a long colonial past the effects of which we're still suffering from. Many are mired in poverty still. Yet despite this history of suffering, Filipinos were found to be one of the most optimistic and caring people on earth. They are not flippant or dismissive of the harsh realities they face, but are persistent and resilient, and are constantly showing people how to overcome the harshness of a difficult life. I believe with all my heart that a novel reflecting this part of the world's realities from a writer who lives in the Philippines will soon blow everyone away. I am determined to find that novel and represent it, and it's not going to be just one novel but many. I am sure Filipino writers writing in English are working on it. Maybe the big books will come from writers writing Filipino-Tagalog or any of the regional languages and will be translated into English for the world - from being written in Filipino languages they will forge their own form - I am excited to find those, too. I do know Philippine literature is rich and varied - and grossly underrepresented in the world's publishing arena. Jacaranda intends to stop this underrepresentation of Asian literature. I intend to stop the underrepresentation of Philippine lit. I feel very strongly that the world is ready to read Asia. I promise the world Asian literature won't disappoint.”

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Published Today: Capital by Rana Dasgupta

Capital: A Portrait Of Twenty-First Century Delhi by Rana Dasgupta is published today by Canongate Books, available in eBook and hardback priced in local currencies. 

Capital is an intimate and wide-ranging portrait of Delhi, one of the fastest changing, and fastest growing, cities on earth. India has rapidly become a global economy, and in only the last decade Delhi has moved from a quiet colonial capital to a vast, teeming twenty-first century city, with slums and markets demolished, and luxury offices and apartment blocks springing up in their place. As elsewhere in Asia, the change has been breathtaking, fast, and brutal. While many have prospered, others have lost everything. English-born Dasgupta, who has lived in Delhi for the last fourteen years, explores the transformation of his adopted hometown into a twenty-first century megalopolis through the eyes of its people - its billionaires and slum dwellers, drug dealers and call centre workers, the playboys and Sufi mystics, members of the so-called middle classes, whose relatively high incomes make them a local elite, and sons of the true global elites of the political and business classes. 

As you'd guess from its title income - money - is important in this book. Like Beijing and Jakarta, Delhi can be seen as an accelerated microcosm demonstrating the impact of rapid globalisation linked to an unregulated market economy. 

Residents of Asia's other rapidly-developing hotspots of capitalism will surely find in Capital many parallels with their own experiences of living in corrupt, sometimes violent, traumatised cities, ones growing so fast they are almost unrecognisable to their own inhabitants. 

Capital is Dasgupta's first work of non-fiction. His earlier work includes the much-acclaimed novel Solo, and Tokyo Cancelled, a collection of urban folktales. He hosts a website and blog here

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

World War 1 in Asia / Penguin China Specials

To mark the centenary of World War 1, the world’s first truly global war, Penguin China is publishing a series of short histories of the economic and social costs it brought to China. Each book has been written by a leading expert in the field, and each is to be published in both eBook and print formats.

The Books

The Siege of Tsingtao by Jonathan Fenby, author of The Penguin History of Modern China. The Siege of Tsingtao was the only battle of WWI fought in China. The victory of the Japanese, fighting on behalf of Britain and the Allied Powers, over the Germans bolstered Japan’s global position and status, emboldening the rising power to expand its presence in China, a course of action that would set the region on a path having consequences well into the twentieth century.  The Siege of Tsingtao is available now.

The Rush from Shanghai by Robert Bickers. This explores the extreme patriotism of Shanghai’s European expats as they rushed to enlist to help their countries’ war efforts. Robert Bickers’ previous books include Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, a wonderful account of a tragically wasted colonial life. The Rush from Shanghai will be published in April.

The Rush from Beijing by Frances Wood, a former curator of the British Library’s Chinese collections. As war rages in Europe, expats found themselves pitted against their neighbours. The Rush from Beijing will be published in May.

The Home Front by Anne Witchard. The home front here means the UK. This book explores how WW1 affected the ways China and the UK’s Chinese population were perceived and represented in the British press, popular fiction and on the stage. The Home Front will be published in August.

Bitter Labour by Mark O’Neil. The Chinese Labour Corps, often referred to as the coolie corps, cleared up the battlefields of the Western Front, and did other support work and manual labour for the British army. Members were mainly recruited by missionaries, many of whom also led the units. Bitter Labour will be published in September.

Betrayal in Paris: China’s Disappointments at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 and the Long Revolution that Followed by Paul French, the award-winning author of Midnight in Peking. The betrayal of China at Versailles led to the rise of the student-led May Fourth Movement and impacted the course of modern China. Betrayal in Paris will be published in October.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Peter Gordon / Editor, Asian Review of Books

Peter Gordon is the editor of the Asian Review of Books (ARB), the only dedicated pan-Asian book review publication. The magazine is currently available electronically, and it is produced from Peter’s adopted hometown, Hong Kong. Peter arrived in the city in 1985, when he worked for an American computer company. Later, he founded Paddyfield, an on-line bookstore; he thus became involved with readers and writers in Hong Kong – now he is at the centre of the city’s book world.  He was a founder of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which was initially run out of Paddyfield’s office, he set up Chameleon Press, an independent publisher specialising in Asian fiction and topical non-fiction, and he ran the Man Asian Literary Prize for its first two years. In addition to his work at ARB, he now contributes regularly to other English-language publications in Asia, and he is setting up the international authors' programme for the Hong Kong Book Fair.

I interviewed him via e-mail. I asked him to give a quick overview of the history of ARB: “It started 2000 as an adjunct to the various other things I was doing: publishing, bookselling, etc. Several years later, Pankaj Mishra suggested it should be expanded and formalised. This was discussed and kicked around for about another year, and it was the advent of the tablet that convinced me that an electronic-only magazine with long-form articles could in fact be readable. So we re-launched it at the Asia Society in New York in 2011.”

This blog does not cover all of geographic Asia, it considers Asia to be east to west from the Indian Subcontinent to Australia, and north to south from Mongolia to roughly Bali – so excluding West Asia / The Middle East.  How does ARB define it? “More widely than that. For ARB Asia is the East Coast of the Mediterranean up to and including the Pacific.”
What about ARB’s editorial policy? “We focus on books that are Asian by author, subject or publisher.  Insofar as there is a policy, it is mostly one of raising awareness: it is not unusual that we are the only regular publication to review a given book. Our larger purpose is to address inequalities. Asia, compared with the West, has a relative lack of platforms - think tanks, journals - in and through which non-Western points-of-view, policies, models, etc. can be rigorously discussed. The ARB is meant to be just what it says - a resource on Asia-related books - but it is also intended to be a place where intellectual and cultural positions can be laid out and developed. Books provide a focus and an anchor for further discussion, so it's not inappropriate that a book review publication has this ambition.”

Peter refused to be drawn on how long it might take for Asia to catch up with the West in developing cultural testing beds for new ideas: “These things take time, and one must do the straightforward things first and well. Nevertheless, ARB provides a piece of infrastructure, just as Chameleon Press, and the Hong Kong Literary Festival are in their own ways also pieces of infrastructure: they help the development of writers, and a literary culture. Paddyfield likewise. When I started it books were expensive in Hong Kong, and only the most basic selection was on offer. A universal e-commerce bookstore made books far more accessible than they had been.”

Talking of Paddyfield, I wondered whether books were ever chosen for review in ARB simply to help drive sales through the store? “No. ARB and Paddyfield are not linked much at all. ARB is entirely non-commercial.”

What about Chameleon: are books published by Chameleon guaranteed a review in ARB? “No. It’s actually very complicated to combine ARB, which is entirely non-commercial, with the commercial operations of retail bookselling or book publishing. For example, The Asian Review of Books is global, while Paddyfield mostly serves Hong Kong - most readers of ARB would not be buy their books from Paddyfield. Similarly, ARB's success derives in no small part from its family of reviewers and contributors; what they want to review or write may not overlap with books published by Chameleon, or any given local or regional publisher."

Was Peter actively looking for reviewers?  If so, could anybody apply? How?I'm always looking for reviewers - but not actively! Anyone can apply: just email I'm looking for people who can write from experience, who are either writers themselves or who have particular areas of expertise. I should say it's probably just as important - maybe more important - that publishers know how to send review copies, especially Asian publishers.  Publishers who want to request a review should look under the i button on the website.”
I wondered how Peter chose which essays and excerpts to include? “Essays are commissioned. They must be interesting, well-argued, well-written, intellectually rigorous and novel. They have, alas, proved harder to source than I had originally hoped. In selecting excerpts, I use the same criteria. As a result, they tend not to be from bestsellers, and they tend to be relatively long.”

Finally, I asked Peter if he believed in an Asian Literary Scene?  If so, what part is played in it by ARB? “There isn't an Asian Literary Scene but many different ones. Each country has its own literary scene and perhaps more than one. But these scenes should communicate with one another and interact, and the ARB is one way they can do so.”

In Other Words: a discussion about translation and translators

ARB has just published In Other Words, a fascinating discussion of translation and translators.  Much Asian literature comes to readers via translation. So ARB invited five experts covering different languages, countries and parts of the process to discuss translations, translators and the role they play in bringing Asian literature to English-speaking readers. Read it here – it certainly meets Peter’s criteria of being well-argued, well-written, intellectually rigorous and novel!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

International Women's Day / The Bookworm Literary Festival

Today is International Women's Day. See here for the Asia Foundation's summary of discussions of some of the challenges now facing women in Asia.

Is it necessary to say Asia is a region where the message that women are not subhuman still needs to be shouted from the rooftops? Against the general backdrop of a widespread inequality now unthinkable in the West, what are Asia's readers and writers doing to mark the day?   

As noted in the post on Wednesday, the Shanghai International Literary Festival yesterday hosted an event on women's writing: what is it, and does the question matter? 

Shanghai is not the only Chinese city currently hosting a literary festival: yesterday the Bookworm Literary Festival (BLF) began in Beijing. 

The Bookworm offers a combined bookshop, lending library, bar, restaurant and events space in each of three cities: Beijing, Suzhou and Chengdu.

Every March, BLF transforms the Bookworm in Beijing into a hub of literary, intellectual and creative activity in a giant celebration of literature and ideas, that brings together diverse voices from China and beyond – later, the Festival transfers to other cities.   This year the programme has more than 300 events across 8 cities, connecting more than 100 Chinese and international writers and thinkers. BLF is today offering a variety of events for International Women's Day.Feminism in the 21st Century World features three prominent feminist writers and commentators. Hong Ying, known for her gritty portrayals of women's lives in contemporary China, Bidisha, one of Britain's most outspoken feminists and human rights thinkers, and the award-winning French novelist Carole Martinez will discuss the importance of feminism in the 21st century. What does contemporary feminism stand for? What does feminism mean in China, Europe and elsewhere, and what does it mean on an international level? Zhang Lijia, the Chinese author and journalist, will moderate.  Sexual health and sexuality are issues generally swept under the carpet in China. But attitudes towards sexuality and sexual habits are changing. Young people are more sexually active, and with more freedom over their sexuality, than in the past. At the same time prostitution and a culture, amongst men, of infidelity are on the rise. All of which poses risks, both physical and psychological, for women in China.  In Women’s Health and Sexuality in China Joan Kaufman, who has worked on reproductive and sexual health in China since the 1980s, Huang Yingying of the Renmin University Institute for Research on Sexuality and Gender, and Dr. Setsuko Hosoda, Family Medicine Physician at Beijing United Family Hospitals and Clinics discuss these important issues in contemporary Chinese society. 
In May Leta Hong Fincher, an award-winning former journalist who is now completing her Ph.D. in Sociology at Tsinghua University will publish Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, as part of the Asian Arguments series from Zed Books. Leftover Women will argue that urban professional women have been disproportionately disadvantaged during China's breakneck economic development. Hong Fincher will today discuss China’s gender inequality at BLF.
In Female Voices in China, writer and editor Ma Xiaotao, acclaimed novelist Xu Xiaobin, and the radical voice of China's 1980s youth, Chun Sue, will discuss with editor Alice Xin Liu how the female voice is being heard in the Chinese literary world and to what extent it is making an impact beyond the confines of literature. Have a thoughtful day!