Friday, 4 April 2014

Questions and Answers With Robin Hemley

Newly established Yale-NUS sees two countries, cultures and universities collaborating to provide a world-class liberal arts education in Singapore. After 9 years as Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, Robin Hemley is now Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Writing Program at Yale-NUS.

Robin’s own work includes Turning Life into Fiction, an in-depth guide to converting real life into good storytelling. The book covers a wide range of subjects, including how to record and generate ideas from daily life and how to write effectively using true anecdotes, real places, and real people.

I interviewed him via e-mail.

So: questions and answers with Robin Hemley…

What are the aims and ambitions of the Yale-NUS creative writing program? How far are you meeting them?

We/I are starting off modestly.  At the moment, I AM the creative writing program.  I’ve taught for 25 years in various programs and have been a program builder at all of these places.  I very much consider myself a world citizen and have spent my career building community and trying to build bridges between writers across boundaries.  When I directed the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, I founded an international conference, NonfictioNOW, and brought writers from around the world to Iowa, then took the conference last time to Melbourne, Australia.  I’ve spent much of the last fifteen years giving writing workshops all over the world, from Fiji to the Philippines, and it’s always been my passion to bring writers together.  My father and mother were both translators of the Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, and while I’m not a translator, I, too, have a drive to create audiences for writers across national boundaries.  This is what I hope to continue at Yale-NUS, in Singapore, and in the region, a continuation of something I’ve been doing for years.  This is a personal ambition.  Regarding my ambitions for the program, let’s wait and see.  I hope first to create creative writing offerings and opportunities for the students and faculty of Yale-NUS, and beyond that, I hope to forge alliances with other organisations that promote contemporary world literature, and see where that takes us. 

Where do the faculty come from?  Asia?  The West? Do you think it matters?

As I said, I’m the faculty in creative writing at the moment.  I was born in New York, but I’ve lived in various places around the world, and I consider the Philippines my second home.  My wife is from the Philippines and I have many friends and family members there. 

The Writers’ Centre at Yale-NUS, which I direct, has already started a reading series which brings writers from around the world and from around the region to Singapore.  This year, we’ve brought Pico Iyer, Gina Apostol, and Arvind Mehrotra, and Alvin Pang, to name a few, to campus, and Alvin will be teaching a poetry course for us next year.  In the future, I hope to bring visiting distinguished writers from around the world and region to teach for periods from a semester to a year.  So, yes, it matters.  Diversity matters, and not only diversity of national origin and ethnicity, but diversity in terms of the traditions these writers represent and the various forms in which they practice. 

The language of tuition is English.  Do you think that matters?  If so, why?  If not, why not?

I’m not sure I understand this question.  I don’t know what you mean by “the language of tuition.”  The language of tuition, as far as I can see, is the Singapore dollar. 

(Nobody wants writers to feel they need to apologise if they choose to write in English, but I was trying to elicit an opinion on the dominance of English; the fact that writers in Asia writing in their mother tongues often find it difficult to find a translator, and almost invariably find it difficult to find an English-language publisher, and hence an English-speaking readership.  I should have asked:  do you think writers in Asia feel compelled to write in English?  Does that matter? )

Where do the students come from?  Only from Singapore?  From all over Asia?  All over the world? 

The students come from all over the world.  60% are Singaporean, and some are dual citizens.  I believe the students come from seventy different countries and six continents. 

A son or daughter going into writing is a nightmare scenario for Asian parents.  Agree? Disagree? Would you ever attempt to change the mind of a tiger mother who was distraught her child wanted to make a career out of writing?  What, if anything, would you say to try to win her over?

I don’t necessarily disagree, but I also don’t think that Asian mothers are unique in this respect.  I’d say in most places in the world, parents worry about children who go into the arts.  But I also think that people who go into the arts tend to be remarkably strong people who can’t even be dissuaded by tiger mothers.  Somehow, we do have artists and writers in the world, and many great ones come from Asia.  Think of all the great writers and artists from India and China.  Certainly, some of them had to rebel against parents who didn’t want their children to waste their lives as artists.  But I’m not a proselytiser and I don’t see it as my role to intervene between a tiger mom (or dad) and her child.  I wouldn’t want my child to become an economist, and if I argued with my child about this, and said, “Why do you want to waste your life as an economist?” I wouldn’t expect her economics prof (spawn of the devil, no doubt) to try to talk me out of my opposition.  Why should I be any different?  If she truly wanted to become an economist, I imagine she’d find a way with or without my approval, and that would be the first test of her commitment to her chosen field.  If I were able to talk her out of being an economist and she instead followed the family tradition and became a writer, I’d say she probably didn’t want to be an economist all that much in the first place.  I feel the same way about writers who must face the opposition of their parents to do what they want to do. 

Do you think writing can be called a profession? 

Of course it’s a profession, but only a tiny fraction of writers solely support themselves by their writing.  The writer Lewis Hyde wrote an important book a couple of decades ago called The Gift, in which he argues that writing and art in general needs to be looked at as more than a commodity, but as a gift to society by the artist.  We can’t judge art and say, a soft drink, by the same standards. Some artists make plenty of money in their lifetime from their writing and art, but they’re a rarity.  The point is that art can’t be judged by how popular it is necessarily or by how much money it makes. Writing can be seen as a profession, certainly, but that’s not all it is.  It’s an artistic pursuit. 

Do many of your Yale-NUS students want to set up shop as writers?  Or are most of them doing this to fulfill an interest they don’t see lasting long beyond their student years? 

I wouldn’t want to generalise about my students or presume to know what they’re thinking at this point.  Yale-NUS just started and my students are ALL Freshmen.  I don’t think most people know what they want when they’re Freshmen.  It’s not my job to recruit writers, to make tiger moms hate me for luring their children to the dark side.   It’s my job to offer opportunities and to teach writing.  What my students do with this is up to them.  But I should add that I believe that people who learn how to express themselves imaginatively in writing are going to be able to use those same skills in whatever profession they go into.  I’m not only teaching them how to write, but how to think creatively – or at least, I’m allowing them to think creatively – something that’s too often discouraged – and that’s something that will serve them well throughout their lives. 

If you have students who do want to set up as professional writers, do you feel honour bound to try to dissuade them?

No, why would I do that?  It’s not a cult.  But you have to define your terms here.  What do you mean by “professional” writer?  The idea of a professional poet, for instance, is almost absurd.  There are some few poets who make a living after many years with speaking engagements, but most poets hold down another job.  One of the most famous Western poets, Wallace Stevens, worked for an insurance company.  Another, William Carlos Williams, was a doctor.  There’s no reason why you can’t write and do something else.  Some writers, such as myself, go into academia, but others hold down all sorts of other jobs.  They’re not mutually exclusive, but if you want to write seriously, you have to find a job that allows you the time and energy to write.  Straight out of graduate school, I had a 9-5 job for a year and a half in Chicago.  The job was the kind at which I could do what I needed to do and then spend much of the rest of the day writing without in any way compromising my effectiveness in my job.  I wrote half the stories in my first collection at that job.  My thoughts on this subject boil down to this:

1.     If you want to write, you’ll write.
2.     You probably won’t earn a living at it. But . . .
3.     See number 1. 

How do you feel about preparing students for a profession where most practitioners can expect to earn peanuts if they’re lucky, and nothing if they’re not?  Do you ever worry creative writing courses are immoral, in producing a massive over supply of writers the world doesn’t need?

Immoral?  Are philosophy courses immoral?  Are literature classes immoral?  What’s immoral about learning how to write?  I’d say it’s more immoral teaching people that art is frivolous and that you should only care about money.  In fact, studies have shown that these immoral writers the world doesn’t need actually make people more compassionate and smarter: writing and reading both achieve this.  The mistake, again, is to think that all writers need to make a living at writing just because they’ve taken a few college courses in it.  Certainly, it would be immoral to tell someone they’re so talented that they should quit all their other studies and simply become poets, but who does that?  I wouldn’t do such a thing, nor would anyone I know, but if someone comes to me and wants to learn something about writing, I’m happy to share everything I know. 

I should also add that I know a lot of writers.  Most of them seem as happy as anyone I know and they lead fulfilling lives.  At some point or another someone has tried to dissuade them from writing, I’m sure.  My good friend Bret Lott was told by one graduate school teacher that he had made a mistake and that he should not become a writer (the teacher thought he was acting morally, I suppose).  Bret went home to his wife dejected and told her what his teacher had said, and his wife, Melanie told him she wasn’t going to let him quit after they’d moved across the country to be there.  Bret is now more famous than his teacher ever was – about fifteen years ago, Oprah picked one of Bret’s novels for her famous book club.  Another friend of mine, the Hong Kong writer Xu Xi (a classmate of Bret’s as it turns out), took another route.  After grad school, she worked for many years in the corporate world, mostly in Asia, before leaving it with enough earnings so she didn’t have to be too concerned with money.  Meanwhile, she pursued her writing career and is now one of Hong Kong’s leading writers.  In other words, there are many different routes to writing, none of them easy, but for some of us, absolutely fulfilling. 

There is no money in Asian Books Blog, and nobody ever gets paid to contribute, so, to be fair, I should ask if you in turn think I am immoral for asking writers to write for nothing? 

No.  Actually, I’ve written on this subject. For free.  There are some things we’re willing to write for free and some things we aren't willing to write for free.  Joan Didion once said that if no one paid her to write, she would never write, but most of us aren’t Joan Didion.  It’s certainly better if you can pay writers, but sometimes exposure is worth as much as money and sometimes we write for free because we believe the subject is important and we have thoughts on it. 

Do you think writing for the public for nothing can only ever be out of vanity?

No, more often than not, it’s out of generosity, I think.  When we speak, do we only speak out of vanity?  Writing is a form of communication, and the reasons for communication are complex and myriad.  There’s never one reason for it. 

What do you think about blogging  / digital media / social networking etc., all of which increase writers’ freedom and ability to get their work out there, but undermine their ability to get paid?  Do you think overall the trade-offs work for or against writers? And should anybody care, apart from writers?

Not everyone writes to get paid, though sometimes it works out for writers, and most often it doesn’t.  That’s no different from the way it’s been for centuries.  Regardless of the media or platform, that’s not going to change. 

Anything else you want to say?  Anything you think I should have asked, but didn’t?  

You should come to some of our readings.  In fact, anyone reading this within shouting distance of Singapore should come to the readings.  They’re open to the public.   We don’t have our full slate of visitors set up for 2014/15 yet, but we’ll  have the slate of readers available by June 2014 at the latest and people can email me directly to find out who is reading and when, if they’re interested.  We’d gladly welcome the public to our readings and receptions. 

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Book Club: The Song of King Gesar and April's pick

March’s pick was The Song of King Gesar, by Alai, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin.  I assume you’ve read it; if you need a plot summary see here.

I thought this was a wonderfully strange book, an eye-opener on the mysterious, different culture of Tibet.  I often felt I was reading it through multiple veils of ignorance: my ignorance of Tibet and its history; of Buddhism; of Chinese. I couldn’t help wondering how much of this book was myth, how much was Alai, and how much, in the English edition, was the translators?

The translation flows naturally: Above, the sky was a vacant blue that imbued sorrow and despair with beauty.  Lovely.  But how closely does that map with whatever Alai originally wrote? Is it a translation, or an interpretation?  And does it matter? What do you think?

I found it easy to imagine the myths retold in this book being spun by a storyteller round a campfire on the grasslands. Which was fitting since The Song of King Gesar is, I suppose, above anything else, an extended meditation on stories and storytelling in the lives of individuals, and in forging a culture’s identity. It is fantastic that this book has been made available in English, so stories that have helped shape, and still sustain, the inner lives of Tibetans can be widely read – particularly given Tibet’s current troubles.

I loved this book’s descriptions of the Tibetan landscape – the vast grasslands, vast skies, and snow-capped mountains – it conveys a compelling sense of place.  I also loved learning about the central role of horses in Tibetan life – who could resist the various talking horses?

That said, I did in places find this book hard going, partly because I found it difficult to keep all the Tibetan names straight, and partly because my lack of knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism often left me floundering around with questions about the various Bodhisattvas, or getting distracted by irrelevant detail – such as why Guanyin appeared sometimes to be male, and sometimes to be female?

However, I did better than either Sarah, or Gao Shang, who both told me they gave up on this book. 

Sarah said: “I only got as far as page 8. I gave up after the gruesome description of the demons feasting on human flesh.”

I didn’t mind the gruesomeness, and some of the writing about the demons I really enjoyed – demons scurrying around in human blood, demons as moles burrowing away under the soil, destroying the link between the earth and vegetation, so: “the pasture grass reached down with its roots and grasped nothing but black emptiness.”  It is good to be reminded of the centrality of grass to life, even far, far from the grasslands.

Gao Shang said: “The device of the story and the storyteller was confusing, and I kept losing track of what was happening.”

If you accept this is a book in part about stories and storytelling, then the interleaving of passages from the storyteller and the story makes sense.  

I would suggest both Gao Shang and Sarah try again – perhaps with judicious use of skipping?

April’s Pick: Mr Selden’s Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart and the South China Sea by Timothy Brook

The Selden Map is the most important Chinese map of the last seven centuries, but until recently it has been largely neglected and little understood. Finally unlocking its secrets has completely changed the way we think about the history of China’s relations with the world.

This extraordinary map was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library, in Oxford, the UK, in 1659 by John Selden, a London business lawyer, political activist, former convict, MP and the city's first Orientalist scholar. Timothy Brook came across it in 2009, when he saw an object of great beauty, painted by hand and featuring drawings of details such as mountains, trees and flowering plants. He realised he had before him a puzzle that had to be solved, an exceptional artefact, so unsettlingly modern-looking it could almost be a forgery.

But it was genuine and - even more incredible - it is one of a kind. What it has to tell us is astonishing: it shows China, not cut off from the world, but a participant in the embryonic networks of global trade that fuelled the rise of Europe - and which now power China's ascent. However it raises as many questions as it answers: how did John Selden acquire it? Where did it come from? Who re-imagined the world in this way? What can it tell us about the world at that time?

Like a cartographic detective story, this book provides the answers. From the Gobi Desert to the Philippines, from Java to Tibet and into China itself, Brook uses the map (actually a schematic representation of China's relation to astrological heaven) to tease out the varied elements that defined this crucial period in China's history. 

Timothy Brook was Shaw Professor of Chinese at Oxford when he first saw the Selden Map, and he is now professor of history at the University of British Columbia. The author of eight books on Chinese history, his most widely read book is Vermeer's Hat.

Mr Selden’s Map of China is published by Profile Books in hardback & eBook, priced in local currencies.

Both The Song of King Gesar and Mr Selden’s Map of China 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: Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, by David Pilling

What makes Japan tick? Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, by David Pilling, confronts that question head-on. It explores the misunderstood island nation's history and culture, resilience, and significance.

Japan’s shift from feudal shogunate to superpower is often overlooked as a result of China's overshadowing presence, nevertheless Japan remains the world’s third most important economy.  It accounts for eight percent of global output, it is the world’s biggest creditor nation, has the second highest foreign exchange reserves, and in 2012  was vying with China as the biggest holder of American debt.

Despite being the single most vulnerable nation in the world to earthquakes, and having recently suffered the catastrophic triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown – where parts of Japan shifted 13 feet to the east and the earth was knocked off its axis, altering its spin and shortening our days – Japan has a great ability to bend adversity to its advantage. More, it is a fascinating microcosm through which to view the current global economic situation. The new monetary stimulus plan puts the United States and Europe to shame and has the potential to lift Japan out of inflation. In many ways, Pilling notes, the Western world has much to learn when it comes to Japan and its innovative people and culture.

With years of experience living in Japan, and with interviews from students to government ministers to award-winning novelists, Pilling explores the country’s politics, history, culture, economics and society to get behind the relative formality and restraint of the public Japan to discover a far more anarchistic, peculiar and irrational place, which nonetheless remains one of the most vital and relevant countries today – and one whose art of survival we ignore at our cost.

David Pilling is the Asia editor of the Financial Times.  Previously, he was the paper’s Tokyo bureau chief.  He has twice been named Best Commentator by the Society of Publishers in Asia for his columns on China, Japan, India and Pakistan.  He lives in Hong Kong.

Bending Adversity is published by Penguin / Allen Lane in hardback and eBook, priced in local currencies.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Women of Letters

Is the art of letter writing dying?  Australians Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire don’t think so. In homage to letter writing, they founded the literary salon Women of Letters, which invites women to write in with their own letters: love letters; letters to love itself; letters of revenge; of hope; of political anger; of reportage; whatever women feel moved to write about, addressed to whomever they wish.  They have a few brave male correspondents too, some of them writing to the women who’ve changed their lives.

Of course, letter writing no longer means simply putting pen to paper, it can just as easily mean tapping at a keyboard, and then pressing send on an e-mail. Women of Letters embraces the technological changes that have themselves changed letter writing.

Last year, Women of Letters ran a tour in Indonesia. This year, the salon is teaming up with the Ubud Writers and Readers’ Festival (UWRF) in an initiative called From page to homepage: letter writing goes digital. 

Here, Marieke and Michaela write you a letter explaining how you can participate, even if you can’t make it to Ubud, either now or for the Festival, which will take place in October.  For those of you who have an Asian language as your mother tongue, please note that the language of Women of Letters is English. 

Dear readers of Asian Books Blog,

We've curated Women of Letters events in Australia and all over the world to focus on the value of letter writing and reviving the lost art of written correspondence. 

Now you can share your letters from Asia with the Women of Letters online letter writing platform on the UWRF website.  
Building on the momentum of previous workshops and events held in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Ubud – which included lit-world luminaries like Anne Summers, Lionel Shriver, Ayu Utami and musician Clare Bowditch – our innovative letter writing portal encourages entries via snail mail, digital upload, video or soundbyte submission. Each month we will explore a different theme, the first being A Letter to a Wish.  
It’s easy to do – here’s a simple guide to get you started: 
Point your mouse in the direction of
Head to the About section, click on the Women of Letters button.
Browse the selection of letters already posted, or else submit your own digital version. This can include a postcard image of where you are, and can be personalised with different handwriting styles and letter design. Opt to go public or stay anonymous – it’s up to you. 
You can also link to a Soundcloud file or a YouTube video (like an audio/video book, but letter form). Try and ensure these are no longer than 5-10mins. 
Finally, for those who want to keep it completely old-school, letters can be sent by post to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival - the address is on the website - who will then scan and upload the letter for you. This is also a great option if you have a story to share, but no access to a computer or internet connection. 
We hope you will use this platform to explore your creative side while connecting with other women writers.

We're so proud that what began as a slightly mad idea to single-handedly revive the lost art of correspondence has spread so far across the world. It's our wish that you will use this beautiful platform to continue sharing your stories and your letters

We look forward to reading your letters,

Warm regards, Michaela McGuire & Marieke Hardy, Women of Letters 

Women of Letters  is supported by the Australian Government through the Australia International Cultural Council, an initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.