Thursday, 12 June 2014

Seen Elsewhere: Unlocking China's literary gems through translation / Chris Davis

Click here for Unlocking China's literary gems through translation, by Chris Davis, writing in China Daily, USA edition.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Book Club: On Such A Full Sea / June’s Pick / New & Notable

Asian Books Blog does not carry reviews. The book club is intended as another online platform where readers can offer comments on the month’s selected book, together with my responses - offered because otherwise there would be no sense of conversation at all. May’s pick was On Such A Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee. This post assumes you’ve read it; if you want a summary see here, but be warned the discussion won't make much sense if you've read only the summary, and not the novel.   

Lisha from Hong Kong said: I enjoyed thinking immigrants from “New” China might have made such an impact on an America of the future, and also reading about how aspects of Chinese culture had transplanted and thrived.  But where is - or was - “New” China?  And how did it differ from China?  Also, I never really understood how the originals of the B-Mors came to take over the city. What had happened to the residents of Baltimore?  If a global catastrophe had struck, why hadn’t it wiped out the New Chinese, too? 

I agree Chang-rae Lee leaves many details of the origin, operation and political organisation of his dystopia sketchy. I too quite often found myself asking but why…? Or how….? How come the B-Mors have a life in so many ways similar to life in America today, when the global network that makes possible contemporary suburban life in Cincinnati, or wherever, has broken down?  How come the tourists from Denmark seem to treat the counties as another planet? Does future-Denmark (D-Mar?) continue much as it is today? How, against the dystopian backdrop, does tourism continue? Was the catastrophe that befell America reproduced worldwide, or not?  Is America’s dystopian political organisation reproduced worldwide, or not? For each of the last two questions, sometimes it seems the answer is yes, sometimes no.   For myself, I decided to attempt to ignore nagging questions, and to immerse myself as far as possible in Chang-rae Lee’s world, even when the nitty-gritty was neither nitty nor gritty, so to speak.

Alison from Singapore said: the cartoon violence was off-putting, and unnecessary.

I too was a little baffled by the almost unrelenting grimness. I am sure Chang-rae Lee is right, a post-apocalyptic world would be a miserable place where the humanity and kindness made possible by safety, security, and the provision of basic needs would disintegrate into selfishness, and brutal power struggles of various types, but the world he describes is one where basic needs are met, even for counties people: they are not starving; their children can read; they have electricity and even handscreens for entertainment; many of them have jobs in the charter villages. Granted, inequality is horrible, and a growing problem even within the rich world, let alone between the rich world and the rest, but does inequality lead relentlessly to unprovoked violence, “keeping”, betrayal and so on?  If this book were read in the slums of Asia, then how would it make the slum dwellers feel to read it?  Would they recognise themselves in counties people?  I doubt it. Then again, since the dystopia first evolved, wouldn’t strongmen have arisen in the counties to impose order? Wouldn’t there be some form of government?  And would charter people be so different from modern Americans they’d allow “keeping”? Modern Americans wouldn’t countenance slavery. Why would their descendants countenance keeping?

Des from Singapore said: Who was / were the we narrating the story?  Why were they so interested in Fan and Reg? To me, Fan and Reg seemed pleasant young people, but the only reason for anybody to be interested in Reg was that he was C-free. I can see that would make him very interesting to the Directorate, and to the novel’s big pharma, but was it enough reason for the narrator(s) to be so interested in him? Meanwhile, would the fact Fan had left B-Mor for love, and was carrying Reg’s child, have been enough to sustain people’s interest in her?

I think the we narrator, and the unknowability of Fan and Reg, probably went to the heart of one of the things Chang-rae Lee was challenging readers to think about: individuality; how it can be sustained in the actual world we live in; why it matters that we manage to sustain it; how we balance the needs of the individual against the needs of society, the voice of the individual against the voice of the community...and so on. 

June’s Pick: Song for an Approaching Storm / Peter Fröberg Idling  

June’s pick is Song for an Approaching Storm, a political thriller set in 1950s Cambodia by Peter Fröberg Idling,  translated from Swedish by Peter Graves, published in paperback by Pushkin Press, priced in local currencies.

In 1955 Cambodia is on the brink of its first democratic elections.

Sar, a quiet, likeable man in his early thirties, is campaigning for the opposition, but secretly working for an armed Communist takeover. Many years later, Sar will become known to the world as Pol Pot, but for now he is a man in love, thinking about his fiancée, Somaly:  the outcome of the election will determine whether they have a future together.

Vice-Premier Sary, Sar’s political rival, also notices Somaly, and tries to win her affection.

Meanwhile Somaly, young, bored, and beautiful, has an agenda of her own.

Discussion of Song for an Approaching Storm will be posted on Sunday July 13, so please get in touch with your comments by then.

Both On Such A Full Sea and Song for an Approaching Storm 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 & Notable 

There is a constant stream of great books about Asia coming out, and the blog can't cover them all. With each month's book club, I highlight a couple of new titles that look particularly interesting. Last month I spotted Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China by Leta Hong Fincher, and North Korea: State of Paranoia by Paul French

Leftover Women uses personal stories to illuminate how the resurgence of gender inequality has impacted on the lives of women in China today. In the early years of the People's Republic, the Communist Party sought to transform gender relations. Yet those gains are now being eroded. Hong Fincher debunks the popular myth that women have fared well as a result of China's recent economic reforms and breakneck growth. Laying out the structural discrimination against women in China, she addresses broader problems with economy, politics, and development.

Leta Hong Fincher is an award-winning journalist who is now based at Tsinghua University.

North Korea is a major new history of the world’s most secretive and oppressive state, which includes intimate details of everyday life in the country. It provides assessments of North Korea’s relationships with other Asian countries, notably South Korea, Japan, and China, and also with America.  There is up-to-date discussion of Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

Paul French is an Asia expert and a best-selling crime novelist. He is based in Shanghai.

Both books are published by Zed Books, in hardback, paperback, and eBook, priced in local currencies. 

Friday, 6 June 2014

500 Words From Brian Stoddart

500 Words a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books.  Here Brian Stoddart explains the background behind A Madras Miasma, published by Crime Wave Press.  

Brian Stoddart is a writer, blogger, commentator, and academic.  He is a former Vice-Chancellor and President of La Trobe University in Australia where he is now an Emeritus Professor, in addition to being a Distinguished Fellow of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne. Brian has lived and worked all around the world, most recently in Phnom Penh and Damascus - he wrote about the city in A House in Damascus: Before the Fall, an account of life immediately prior to the present conflict. He has published widely on aspects of India’s modern history. 

A Madras Miasma is Brian's first novel. It introduces Superintendent Chris Le Fanu of the Indian Police Service, who heads a new investigative crime unit in 1920s Madras. He clashes with the city’s Commissioner just when the rise of Gandhi’s nationalist movement is making the European community fear for its future. Le Fanu thinks political change is inevitable, so he is considered almost a traitor by his colleagues. Meanwhile, his wife has left him, and he is now controversially involved with his housekeeper, a mixed race Anglo-Indian. When a young Englishwoman is found murdered, Le Fanu uncovers a drug ring led by the city’s leading European businessman, thus further upsetting the city’s elite and putting his career at risk.

So:  500 Words From….Brian Stoddart

Madras, now called Chennai, was the first non-Western city I lived in way back in the last millennium, and remains a favourite anywhere among many. I read about it extensively in my PhD research so “knew” it as an entity when I arrived. Crime fiction does that, too: I “knew” where to go in Venice when I arrived there, having read all Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels! My cultural knowledge of Madras, though, grew over years as the city, like most in India, changed greatly but somehow retained its distinctiveness.

My research on British India’s Madras Presidency revealed as much socially as it did politically, and introduced me to many characters whose real lives sounded like fiction. I mention in particular Arthur Galletti, an extraordinary Anglo-Italian who served as an Indian Civil Service officer in Madras from 1900 to 1934. I decided he was so interesting I wrote his biography. Click here for details.

My dissertation concerned the rise of Indian nationalism in the south, but I became just as fascinated by people like Galletti and their families who shipped out from Britain to find themselves hundreds of miles from a major centre, overseeing millions of people as the Raj clung precariously to power. What made these people tick?

Although my academic interests later varied, India always remained a focus. So did my reading of crime fiction. Much is now written about the genre, but one driving interest for me was always the interaction between characters, events and places with locations shaping stories. The Kiwi crime writer Ngaio Marsh set the pace when from the 1930s to the 1950s she had her main character relocate from London to New Zealand in several stories, but the real trend for linking crime and place came later. It is typified in the so-called tartan noir of Ian Rankin and his successors and in writers like Barbara Nadel (Istanbul), Andrea Camilleri (Sicily), Jason Webster (Spain), Michael Walters (Mongolia), Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Kenya) and numerous others. This is the social geography of crime, represented in Southeast Asia by writers like Colin Cotterill, Sharmini Flint and Tom Vater, to name a few.

Given my background, when I wanted to write about British India in a different way, an historical crime novel was the obvious choice - and that led to Superintendent Le Fanu. A little research will reveal three things: there was a nineteenth century Madras Indian Civil Service officer called William Joseph Henry Le Fanu; he was a relative of another Le Fanu who became Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia; and he was also related to the Irish crime/horror writer Sheridan Le Fanu. The name selected itself. Similarly, much of the context for A Madras Miasma is formed by the actual events of the early 1920s and some real historical figures appear, hopefully adding authenticity to the story.

A Madras Miasma is the first title in a projected series. The second Le Fanu novel is under way - he will return with another case later this year or early next. Once again, the story is as much about Madras as about him, the city is his marker.

A Madras Miasma is currently available as an eBook.  A paperback is forthcoming, the date to be announced. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Tiananmen 25 Years On

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. 

As reported last week Louisa Lim has just brought out The People's Republic of Amnesia, published by OUP.

Meanwhile Rowena Xiaoqing He has published Tiananmen Exiles, through Macmillan.

Both books include eye witness accounts of the events of 1989. Both have been extensively reviewed outside Asia - and seemingly not at all within Asia.  Follow the links below for a sample of international reviews.

The UK Daily Telegraph

The New York Review of Books

The Economist

Click here for journalist and author Mishi Saran's account of Tiananmen in the LA Review of Books.

For a full round-up of books on the Tiananmen Square massacre click here.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Applications for the M Literary Residency Programme, 2015-16, now open

Applications for the sixth M Literary Residency Programme, 2015-2016, are now open.  The Residency Programme funds residencies for two writers, one in India and one in China - a three month stay either in Shanghai or at Sangam House, outside Bangalore.  

Brainchild of M Restaurant Group founder Michelle Garnaut and award winning author Pankaj Mishra, the residencies are fully funded by M Restaurant Group, which has two restaurants and a bar in China: M on the Bund and the Glamour Bar in Shanghai; Capital M in Beijing.

Cultural events are a core part of the M Group's ethos: there are talks, concerts and events throughout the year.  The Group also hosts major annual literary festivals in Beijing and Shanghai - these have become highlights of the cities’ cultural calendars.

“The residencies grew from our literary festivals, as we heard from writers about what else was needed to nurture and produce the best writing in this region,” says Michelle. So what is Michelle looking for from applicants?  “First, and always, quality writing and a topic that will benefit from the location, and a writer whose work will fulfil the goals of the residencies, specifically to disseminate a broader knowledge of contemporary life and writing in India and China today and to foster deeper intellectual, cultural and artistic links across individuals and communities. Those are our ambitions for next year, and, really, for every year.”

The residencies are open to writers of fiction, literary nonfiction, dramatic prose, and poetry, writing in English.

Previous residency recipients include emerging and unpublished authors, as well as more established names. For bios and the writers’ thoughts on their residency experience, as well as application forms, guidelines and frequently asked questions click here.

Applications accepted until 20 June 2014

Results announced 24 October 2014

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Published Today: The People's Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim

On June 4, 1989, People’s Liberation Army soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing, killing untold hundreds of people.  A quarter-century later, Louisa Lim charts how the events of June 4th changed China, and how China changed the events of June 4th by rewriting its own history.

This book reveals new details about the fateful days in Tiananmen Square including how one of the country’s most senior politicians lost a family member to an army bullet, and uncovers the inside story of the young soldiers sent to clear Tiananmen Square.   Louisa Lim introduces us to the individuals whose lives were transformed by the events of Tiananmen Square. For example, one of the most important government officials in the country became one of its most prominent dissidents post-Tiananmen.

For the first time, Lim exposes the details of a brutal crackdown in a second Chinese city, Chengdu. By tracking down eyewitnesses, discovering US diplomatic cables, and combing through official Chinese records, Lim offers the first accessible, English-language account of a story that has remained mostly untold for twenty-five years.

Louisa Lim began her journalistic career in Hong Kong, and was later appointed as the BBC's Beijing Correspondent. She has reported from China for the past decade, most recently as NPR's Beijing Correspondent. She has made a very rare reporting trip to North Korea, covered illegal abortions in Guangxi province, and worked on a major multimedia series on religion in China, New Believers: A Religious Revolution in China.  

Early praise for The People’s Republic of Amnesia

“A deeply moving book—thoughtful, careful, and courageous. The portraits and stories it contains capture the multi-layered reality of China, as well as reveal the sobering moral compromises the country has made to become an emerging world power, even one hailed as presenting a compelling alternative to Western democracies. Yet grim as these stories and portraits sometimes are, they also provide glimpse of hope, through the tenacity, clarity of conscience, and unflinching zeal of the dissidents, whether in China or in exile, who against all odds yearn for a better tomorrow.”
–Shen Tong, former student activist and author of Almost a Revolution

“Astonishingly Beijing has managed to obliterate the collective memory of Tiananmen Square, but  a quarter-century later Louisa Lim deftly excavates long-buried memories of the 1989 massacre. With a journalist's eye to history, she tracks down key witnesses, everyone from a military photographer at the square to a top official sentenced to seven years in solitary confinement to a mother whose teenaged son was shot to death that night. This book is essential reading for understanding the impact of mass amnesia on China's quest to become the world's next economic superpower.”
–Jan Wong, author of Red China Blues and A Comrade Lost and Found

People's Republic of Amnesia is published in hardback by OUP, priced in local currencies.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Alice on Self-publishing: The Hong Kong Writers Circle

Alice Clark-Platts writes our monthly column on self-publishing. Here she discusses the work of the Hong Kong Writers Circle.

The world of self-publishing can be a tortuous and labyrinthine place to the uninitiated. For the less well-travelled writer, a comforting path to self-publication is sometimes offered by joining forces with a writers’ group.

Formed in 1991, the Hong Kong Writers Circle (HKWC) is one such organisation with writers of all levels, from all genres. Amongst its members are professional writers as well as those who work in the publishing industry, journalists and editors. Many members have themselves published books.
The Circle exists primarily as a social group with monthly meetings where authors can critique others’ work, but it also provides opportunities for writers to further their craft; to network and meet industry professionals; receive feedback on their work; and to take part in workshops. And once a year, it publishes an anthology of short stories, non-fiction and poetry.

Yearly elected editors are responsible for everything to do with the anthology - from theme conception to marketing the book once it’s been published. The theme of the anthology is chosen via consultation with a combination of those editors, the organising committee and the members themselves. The theme tries to be specific, but at the same time broad enough for members with different styles and interests to want to contribute. All members of the group are invited to submit to the anthology with the editors deciding ultimately which pieces are published.

The latest anthology published by the HKWC has the theme of Another Hong Kong – delving into an unknown side of the city where the writers live.  It explores aspects of the place hidden from the traditions and clichés a reader may expect.

For the past few years Inkstone Books have printed the anthologies. This means that the group has had the same copy-editor, designer and printer for most of the anthologies. The current chair, Melanie Ho, says that because the editors change every year, it is helpful to have the same partners working with the production of the anthology year after year.

Melanie describes the publication process of the anthology as a learning experiences for editors and authors alike. It is the production of the book which floats their junk, rather than traipsing around bookstores and actively marketing its sales. Having said that, some of the writers involved produce blogs documenting the whole process and carry copies of the books wherever they go - in order to make sure they never miss a sales opportunity!

Most of the sales of the anthology are print copies in Hong Kong, although they also use print-on-demand through Amazon - as well as eBook sales. The group uses print runs conservatively – usually 200 or 300 copies at a time – although some of the anthologies are now into their second or third print runs.

The HKWC exists to provide opportunities for writers in the city to grow and develop their craft.  The yearly anthology is a large part of this and offers a safe launching pad for authors to experiment in the field.

Another Hong Kong can be purchased from Amazon or at