Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival has just opened in London, and runs until May 21.  This is the only festival in the UK dedicated to writing about Asia and Asians. The theme this year is changing values across Asia.  

For the past 8 years Adrienne Loftus Parkins has been the Director of the Festival.

After a successful career in marketing, Adrienne left her native Canada and started living, working, and reading in Bombay, Bangalore, Singapore, and Shanghai.  She then moved to London, where, in 2002 she established a literature programme at Asia House. In 2006 she founded the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, now sponsored by the Bagri Foundation. Adrienne also co-founded Anamika, a women’s educational group in India, and works closely with the Pan Asian Women’s Association to promote Asian women writers.  

After 8 years in the role, Adrienne has decided to step down as Director of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, although she will stay involved as an advisor and looks forward to seeing the Festival grow.

Adrienne gave me an interview via e-mail, from London.

How and why did you come up with the theme changing values across Asia? How do you think the theme is reflected in the programme?

I moved to India in 1992, when the economy of that country was just starting to open up to foreign investment.  While there we often heard colleagues and associates tell us that globalisation wouldn't work in Asia because their lives and businesses were conducted according to Asian values. These, they said, were never going to be compatible with the Western values that made multinational companies work.  Asians in general built their societies around working for the benefit of the family, holding true to tradition, and repressing the desires of the individual. 

Now, 22 years later, those companies that we saw open throughout Asia in the ‘90’s are still there and they have been joined by many more.  The globalisation of business, manufacturing, retail and communications has reached unprecedented levels.  Financial growth gave birth to the term Asian Tigers and many of those Asian friends who were so sceptical have thrived amidst the new realities that these businesses have brought with them.

With this growth has come a sea change in societal values.  To the outside observer there appears to be more emphasis on making money, on owning Western status symbols like cars, designer clothes, glamorous vacations and the latest electronics. Across the world, political upheavals have overthrown despotic regimes, giving a new confidence to citizens that want to overthrow governments and dictators that are holding them back.

Over the years that Asia House has been producing the Literature Festival, the number of books addressing the conflict between traditional values and modern ideas has grown. We decided to explore what has happened to values through focusing on writing that looks at these changes and how Asian values have reconciled with Western ones, and vice versa. 

Some events such as the Yiyun Li / Tash Aw conversation, Changing Sexual Mores, Burma: a work in progress, and Brave New Worlds: digital freedom in East Asia address changing values as expressed in writing in a straightforward way, while others like North Korea: threat or bluster, Cracking Up: the evolution of British Asian humour, The Shroud and New Pan-Asian Fiction, touch on the theme more indirectly. Changing Sexual Mores is one I'm particularly looking forward to as it will directly address a topic that until now has not generally been discussed in literature.

Do you try and present writing from all of Asia, or do you focus on specific countries, or regions, within the continent?

The Festival has always focused on a broad expanse of Asia. The 2013 Festival had events highlighting writing from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, South Korea, Nepal, Burma, Malaysia, Palestine and the Middle East as well as South Asian and British Asian writing. In 2104 we've added to that list:  Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakhstan and North Korea. Each year we endeavour to discover writing about a broad spectrum of Asian countries. We are still the only festival in the UK dedicated to writing about Asia in the broadest context, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Pacific.

Asia House participated in the British Council Korean Cultural Focus. (Click here for the relevant blog post.) Could you comment?

The event featuring Man Asian Prize winner Kyung-sook Shin and Krys Lee from Korea, along with Qaisra Shahraz from Pakistan, was very well received - we had a sell-out audience and audience and speakers alike seemed deeply interested in the topic.  The discussion took a more personal than political direction with each of the writers either experiencing a personal separation from their home culture because they have moved to a different culture or, in Kyung-sook's case, a separation from the other speakers because she has not left her home country.  Kyung-sook, who was speaking with the help of a translator, felt that language and the translation of spoken and written words creates its own kind of separation.  (The Asia House website has an article about the event, including some audio and video, click here to watch and listen.)

The Korean influence continues when John Everard, former British Ambassador in North Korea and author of Only Beautiful, Please:  A British Diplomat in North Korea,  joins Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia,  to analyse the threat posed by that country. What are you hoping for from that session? 

This should be a highly topical discussion of the threat that North Korea may pose to its neighbours and the rest of the world.  The speakers have both spent extensive time in North Korea and have studied and analysed the political situation there.  They will be looking at the current state of affairs in the country and, based on their knowledge of the situation, expressing their thoughts on the motives behind what Kim Jong-un has done and said in recent months.

Several authors are launching books at the Festival. Could you give details of new titles beyond what's on the website?  

We're delighted to be able to host 3 authors who will be debuting their novels in the UK. They will provide mini-interviews, in sessions called Extra Words, as a bonus to longer events scheduled with more high profile authors.  

The first Extra Words, on 8 May, will be with Omar Shahid Hamid, whose debut novel The Prisoner was a runaway hit at the recent Karachi Literature Festival.  As a former Karachi policeman, Omar has a unique view of what happens behind the scenes when the force is called upon to solve crimes.  The Prisoner is a gripping read, one that left me wanting to know if he was planning a sequel.  

Nepalese Indian author, Prajwal Parajuly, was part of the 2013 Festival when he spoke about his first book of short stories, The Ghurkha’s Daughter.  This year he comes back with his debut novel, Land Where I Flee, about a family gathering in Gangtok, Sikkum from across the globe to celebrate their grandmother's landmark birthday.  Prajwal was hailed at the Jaipur Literature Festival as one of the brightest young talents coming from South Asia.  His book is thoughtful and entertaining, and he himself has great insight into the clash between traditional family values and the modern world.

Finally, we are happy to have Tew Bunnag as our last Extra Words author. Tew has published several previous books, but Curtain of Rain is the first to be published in the UK, so he is new to our audiences.  His books deal with the contradictions between traditional values and consumerism in modern Thailand.

Censorship is a bigger issue in Asia than in the UK.  What do you think will be the main talking points at the digital freedom event? How do you think events held in the UK, but highlighting free speech in Asia, can help authors in Asia?  

One of the Festival's objectives is to promote understanding of Asia cultures and societies both here in UK communities and in Asia. This discussion of censorship of the Internet in some Asian countries raises awareness and helps Western audiences to understand some of the challenges to free expression that may be present in other societies. I expect the discussion to address how the Internet has opened up communication in some ways, but made it more difficult in other ways, and how writers are working within the parameters set for them, to express their opinions in as free a way as possible without fear of recourse.

To Participate From Asia

If you wish to participate in the Festival from Asia, click around on the following links:

English PEN showcases world literature on new site championing translation

English PEN celebrates the best writing in contemporary international literature with the launch of a new website. English PEN's World Bookshelf is an on-line gateway to some of the most exciting contemporary work in translation – essential reading for everyone who cares about world literature.
The World Bookshelf features more than 100 award-winning books supported by PEN. The site includes profiles of authors and translators, and offers readers the latest news about literary translation and exclusive blogs from veteran and up-and-coming translators from around the world.

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN said:"English PEN has been supporting literature in translation for almost a decade. The new site celebrates the remarkable range of writing that we’ve been proud to champion and is a great introduction for anyone seeking to navigate the thriving scene for international writing."

Author Elif Shafak said:"In a world divided by politics, religion and nationalism, there are goals that only world literature, only the ancient and universal art of storytelling, can achieve. Shortening the distance between Us and Them, and encouraging understanding and empathy are surely among these goals. English PEN has launched an exemplary project to endorse, extend and celebrate fiction in translation. The World Bookshelf brings us outstanding literature from all over the world and promotes, against all odds, a free flow of ideas and stories."

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Questions & Answers with Daniel Seton

Daniel Seton is an editor with the UK-based Pushkin Press, which publishes novels, essays, memoirs, timeless classics, tomorrow’s classics…its lists are filled with exciting high-quality, writing from around the world.

Last November, Daniel was part of a delegation of UK-based editors who visited South Korea for a scoping and study trip jointly organised by The British Council, and The Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

Daniel gave me an interview via e-mail, from London.

Why does Pushkin Press publish so many titles in translation?

We want to publish the world’s best stories in English, which in practice means that we publish books that have already been successfully published elsewhere. They might be contemporary works or modern classics, and the great majority of the time they are translations, although not always - for example we had great success with the multi-prize-winning American Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, which we published in the UK for the first time in 2013.

How are translated books received in the UK? How enthusiastic are English speakers to read translated work?

At the heart of our publishing policy is the belief that a great book is a great book. If published correctly, readers simply don’t care whether it was translated or not. That’s not to underplay the importance of translators to what we do, but the mere fact that a book is translated shouldn’t be a positive or a negative for readers. It may sound trite, but it’s all about the writing.

Having said that, the market for translated fiction in the UK is clearly underdeveloped - only about 4% of fiction sales are of translated works. But we think this is a result of attitudes within the publishing and bookselling industries, rather than any aversion to translated fiction on the part of UK readers. The huge success in recent years of books such as the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which kicked off with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, illustrates this - who thinks of those books as translated fiction? They’re just addictive stories that readers devour, and the fact they were originally written in Swedish is irrelevant.

All this means we see the underdeveloped market for foreign fiction in the UK as a huge opportunity. There are so many amazing stories, from all over the world, that UK readers are currently missing out on. We want to put that right.

Do you have any Asian authors on your lists?  If so, who?  And where do they come from?   

Currently, all our Asian authors are Japanese.

We publish four titles by the sexagenarian enfant-terrible of Japanese literature Ryu Murakami, including the first English translation of From the Fatherland with Love, which imagines a North-Korean invasion of Japan.

We’ve also recently published Bullfight and The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, whose writing we love. We’re following these titles up in August with a collection of stories, Life of a Counterfeiter.

There are also two children’s books that we’re publishing next year: Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass - a kind of Japanese Borrowers - and The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine by Akiyuki Nosaka, a collection of beautiful and moving stories for children about war.

What drew you to visiting Korea as part of the British Council's delegation?

Pure curiosity! I was aware that there was a rich tradition of Korean literature, with which I was only vaguely familiar, through the works of authors such as Yi Mun-Yol. I also thought of Korea as having a very young, dynamic culture, all of which made me very grateful indeed for the opportunity to visit.

When you got there, what most surprised you about contemporary Korean books, literature and publishing?  

As I mentioned above, I had only a passing acquaintance with Korean literature before my visit, and, I’m afraid to say, next to no knowledge of the Korean publishing industry. I think one of the things a lot of British people hear about Korea is how long the hours are in school, as well as in the workplace, but I was very pleasantly surprised on my arrival by how relaxed and friendly everyone seemed. It must be all the soju!

I was also surprised to learn that, despite the ubiquity of Wifi and smartphones in South Korea, eBook sales are relatively smaller than they are in the UK. Perhaps, when wireless technology is everywhere, as it seemed to be in Seoul, physical books can be something of a refuge?

Have you bought any Korean titles as a result of the trip?

I’d love to say yes, but unfortunately we’ve yet to acquire our first Korean author. I have certainly grown much more familiar with Korean literature since my visit, and there are a number of titles we’re considering, so if you keep an eye on us we might have some better news soon…

Did you meet any exiled North Korean writers?  What, if anything, do you think Western publishers can do to help North Korean writers, whether in exile, or still trapped in the North? 

I didn’t meet any North Korean authors, unfortunately, but I think the world is becoming increasingly familiar with the story of what life is really like inside North Korea, and publishers can help by making sure that story is told.

Song for an Approaching Storm

In March, Pushkin Press published Song for an Approaching Storm, by Peter Fröberg Idling, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves.

Peter Fröberg Idling spent two years in Cambodia, where he was formally employed by Forum Syd, a Swedish NGO, but where he spent most of his time as a legal advisor to Star Kampuchea, a local NGO.

Song for an Approaching Storm draws on his local knowledge.  It is a political thriller set in Cambodia in 1955. The country is on the brink of change, with the first democratic elections just around the corner.

Sar, a quiet, likeable man in his early thirties, is campaigning for the opposition, but secretly working for an armed Communist takeover. In the years to come, the world will know him as Pol Pot.

Somaly is Sar’s beautiful, wilful, fiancée, with an agenda of her own. 

Sam Sary, the deputy prime minister, is Sar’s political rival.  He too becomes interested in Somaly.

Over the course of thirty days, and against the backdrop of political power games, the love triangle of Sar, Somaly and Sam Sary unfolds in the sweltering summer heat, in an atmosphere tense with ambition.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Book Club: Mr Selden’s Map of China and May's pick

April’s pick was Mr Selden’s Map of China, by Timothy Brook. I assume you’ve read it; if you need a summary of the contents see here

I happened to be reading this in Singapore, deep within nanyang, but wherever you read it, I expect you couldn’t do so without pondering the ongoing squabbles about how the map should be drawn today – squabbles which Brook of course discusses. Hence it was interesting to learn the Selden Map was not in fact drawn to support territorial claims and can now be of no use in arguments about who owns which uninhabited patch of rock jutting from the sea, or which air force can fly where, but was purely a navigational chart enabling early seventeenth century pilots of merchant vessels to navigate from A to B.

I also found it interesting that nobody in England seems to have learned anything much from the Selden Map in the years immediately after it arrived there – partly because nobody in the country could read Chinese.  

What kinds of context can we use to understand the Selden Map today?  Brook seems to see it through a lens looking forward from its own time to colonialism, or backwards to it from ours, but with the map’s emphasis on trade, and indifference to territorial claims, it could equally well foreshadow today's more equal trade patterns in South East Asia. I found the passages on the early Europeans' encounters with Chinese fixers hilarious, and saw in these encounters examples of the clever, canny Chinese ripping off the whites – yes the canny Chinaman is a cliché, but why is a cliché a cliché? Brook, however, probably a nicer person than me, refused to be so uncharitable, generously absolving the Chinese of taking the ang mo for a ride.

In Singapore, ang mo, or ang moh, is the current slang term, and these are the current Romanised spellings, for a European – like gweilo / gaijin / bule / farang / mat salleh in other places. Until I read this book I thought it was a nineteenth century term, but it seems it dates right back to when Chinese people first encountered Westerners, and were shocked by their red (ang / hung / hong) hair (mo / moh / mao). 

The chapter which contains this information, Reading Chinese in Oxford, I found one of the most interesting in the book.  It set me to wondering: can Mr Selden’s Map of China be read in Chinese in Beijing? Is there a Chinese translation available?  I haven’t been able to track one down – but then, I don’t know how to render Mr Selden or Timothy Brook into Chinese, so doing an internet search was difficult. But if there isn’t a Chinese translation, I think Timothy Brook (ti mu xi bu lu ke?) should provide one forthwith – maybe adding a chapter Reading English in Renmin?

But enough of what I thought. What did others think?

Jen from Hong Kong was not wildly enthusiastic.

The history is interesting, but I find cartography less than grabbing, so I found myself skipping, especially in the chapters on the compass, and on the idea that earth is square.

I suppose it is undeniable that if you don’t like maps, then this is not a book for you, but considering he was writing about a map, I thought Timothy Brook kept his book remarkably free of technical discussion of cartography. I didn’t find the cartography overwhelming, although I didn’t always completely follow it - I don’t think Brook can be held responsible for that, I’m just too dim to grasp how a sphere is drawn on a flat piece of paper. I enjoyed Brook’s clear, precise and yet inviting style - I thought his use of the first person worked well.

Brian also from Hong Kong also had quibbles, although not about the book, about the format he chose to read it in.

I read the book on a kindle, and I found it very badly organised.  I couldn’t find the map, or see it very well.  The map should have been more prominent, and should have been reproduced more clearly.

I too read this book as an eBook, and I too would have found flipping to the map, and to the other illustrations, easier in a printed book, but I think this is more of an issue for the people who design eBooks, than for a book club?

May’s Pick: On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

Korean-American Lee’s oeuvre is largely made up of novels about Asians assimilating into American society and in some ways this one is no different. Fan, a young woman of Chinese descent, leaves her native Baltimore to find her disappeared lover, Reg.  However, the near-future America she travels through is going off the rails, enabling Lee to ponder how crisis stratifies society and collapses morality.

Lithe and tiny, Fan is a diver at the New China settlement of B-Mor, a worker colony long-ago known as Baltimore, her circumscribed world the temperature-controlled fish tanks that feed a contaminated continent, and Reg, the golden-skinned, simple-hearted man she loves.

Rigorously pressurised and demarcated, the America that Fan serves is ruled by the professional Charter caste. While B-Mors are obedient and tranquillised by duty and the fear of chaos, the pampered, ruthless Charters inhabit idyllic, over-supplied communities behind whose gates they jostle ceaselessly for dominance. Estranged from nature, B-Mors and Charters alike shy from the spaces between, where outcasts, free-thinkers and renegades, bandits and pedlars forage and grub and steal and kill. One quiet day Reg is removed from the colony - whether for a nameless infraction, or because he is disease-resistant in a world where no one is C-free, it is impossible to say. Fan decides she must follow. But her departure threatens to disrupt the whole order of B-Mor society, and only savage action can hold it together.

On Such A Full Sea is published by Little, Brown, in paperback and eBook formats, priced in local currencies. 

Both  Mr Selden’s Map of China and On Such A Full Sea 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: Decoded / Mai Jia

Decoded tells the story of Rong Jinzhwen, one of the greatest code-breakers in the world. A semi-autistic mathematical genius, Jinzhen is recruited to the cryptography department of China's secret services, Unit 701, where he is assigned the task of breaking the elusive 'Code Purple'. Jinzhen rises through the ranks to become China's greatest and most celebrated code-breaker; until he makes a mistake. Then begins his descent through the unfathomable darkness of the world of cryptology into madness.

Decoded was an immediate success when it was published in 2002 in China. With the pacing of a literary crime thriller, the novel combines elements of historical fiction and state espionage. Taking place in the shadowy world of Chinese secret security, where Mai Jia worked for decades, it introduces us to a place that is unfamiliar, intriguing and authentic. And with Rong Jinzhen, it introduces us to a character who is deeply flawed and fragile, yet possessing exceptional intelligence. Decoded is an unforgettable and gripping story of genius, brilliance, insanity and human frailty.

Mai Jia (the pseudonym of Jiang Benhu) is arguably the most successful writer in China today, with total sales of over three million copies of his books. He became the highest paid author in China last year with his new book, Wind Talk. He has achieved unprecedented success with film adaptation: all of his novels have been made into films or TV series, the screenplays of which are often written by Mai Jia himself. He has created a genre that combines spy craft, code-breaking, crime, human drama, and historical fiction. He has won almost every major award in China, including the highest literary honour - the Mao Dun Award.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Second Islamabad Literature Festival

The second Islamabad Literature Festival starts today.  The Festival was co-founded by Ameena Saiyid, of Oxford University Press Pakistan, and the company is a sponsor. Dr Federico Bianchi, First Secretary, Head of the Economic, Cultural, and Press section of the Embassy of Italy to Pakistan will give the opening address, followed by keynote speeches from Urdu poet and scriptwriter Zehara Nigah, and from short story writer and critic Aamer Hussein. The Festival runs until Sunday.  Click here for full details of the programme.Click here for the Facebook page.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Alice On Self-Publishing: Once Upon a Mulberry Field

Alice Clark-Platts writes our monthly column on self-publishing. Here she talks to C L Hoang, who has recently self-published his first novel, Once Upon a Mulberry Field, through Smashwords.

C L Hoang was born and raised in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, he then moved to the United States in the 1970’s. Like many authors, C L conducts his writing life alongside his primary profession – in his case, working by day as an electronic engineer whilst scribbling away at night.
C L began Once Upon a Mulberry Field in homage to his Vietnamese father, so as to capture the memories of family life in Saigon during the war. Later, C L discovered that the stories he unearthed deserved their place in a novel. He wanted to write about the experiences of the Vietnamese in a country destroyed by war, juxtaposed with the fates of the American servicemen who fought against them.

Once Upon a Mulberry Field is set in Bien-Hoa Air Force Base near Saigon in 1967, at the height of the Tet Offensive. The novel explores the blossoming romance between a U.S. Air Force doctor, Roger Connors, and Lien, a young Vietnamese widow working as a hostess at a Saigon club.

"Writing the novel has been the hardest task I have  ever undertaken." Says C L.  "It took me six years to finish but, if I was ever going to write a book, this was the one I wanted to write."

The choice to self-publish was as a means of achieving creative freedom: "It was a way of telling my story in the way I thought best. The process gave me the independence to choose the layout and design of the book – every aspect of the novel has been specifically selected by me."

C L admits that the learning curve has been steep. In line with the message of last month’s column, he advises that the input of professionals and experts is invaluable when it comes to the technicalities of editing and cover design etc.

The hardest part of the project was publicising and marketing the novel. "After doing your best on social media; writers’ platforms; and even working with a book publicist, the fruits of your labours are outside your control." He warns, adding that prior to publication is is a constant worry whether anyone will  actually buy the book.

Sales of Once Upon a Mulberry Field have been steady but C L admits that striving forth without the backing of a big publishing house is challenging, especially for an unknown, first-time author in a competitive market.

C L says whether he is inspired to write another novel remains to be seen. But, he adds, Vietnam is a beautiful country with a rich cultural heritage and an ancient folklore that highlights the universal human condition and spirit. "I hope to be inspired again to share that with my reading public."

More information

Click here for the Once Upon A Mulberry Field site. 
Click here for the page on Smashwords.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

World Book Day

Today is World Book and Copyright Day, organised by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. 

The connection between 23 April and books was first made in 1923 by booksellers in Spain as a way to mark the death date of the author Miguel de Cervantes. In 1995, UNESCO decided to adopt it as World Book and Copyright Day. The date is also the anniversary of the birth and death of William Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, this World Book Day is marked by sadness in Asia. The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, yesterday presented the people of Myanmar with her condolences following the death of journalist and poet U Win Tin, laureate of the 2001 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

U Win Tin co-founded Myanmar’s National League for Democracy in 1988.  He was arrested soon afterwards and spent nearly 20 years in prison before being released in 2008.  While he was behind bars, Win Tin continued to advocate for free speech and democracy, even writing a letter to the United Nations that led to an extension of his sentence.

“The death of U Win Tin is a loss to the people of Myanmar and to champions of freedom of expression all over the world,” declared Irina Bokova.  “It is also a loss for UNESCO, whose values U Win Tin promoted with exemplary selflessness before his country embarked on the process of democratisation that is presently underway.”

U Win Tin died on 21 April after being admitted to hospital because of kidney problems.

On a happier note, you can celebrate World Book Day by joining in with worldwide debate via UNESCO’s Facebook page: click here.

To mark World Book Day, the on-line magazine In Asia has a feature on elevating growth in Cambodia through combating illiteracy.  Click here.