Sunday, 2 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: China, Literary Powerhouse

Day three of the Singapore Writers Festival included an English-language panel discussion: China - a new super (literary) powerhouse?  Moderator Phil Tatham, publisher at Monsoon Books, didn’t mention the strange use of brackets, but he did point out that the question mark was not necessary; there is no doubt China is a literary powerhouse.  That established, the panellists, who both write in Chinese, were free to explore the ways in which, through translation, Chinese literature can act as a bridge between cultures, and can engage and interact with readerships globally.

The panellists were Dorothy Tse, who is Hong Kong Chinese, and Zhang Ling, who was born in Zhejiang Province, but who now lives in Canada – she was the first overseas Chinese to be awarded China’s People’s Literature Award. Oddly, there was no Mainland Chinese writer on the panel.

Tse’s third book, Snow and Shadow, a collection of surreal stories set in a fantastical version of her hometown, is available in English through Hong Kong University Press.  Tse read an extract from the story Blessed Bodies, set in Y-land, a place famous for its sex industry, where men who otherwise couldn’t afford the prostitutes can barter their own limbs for sex – the amputated limbs are sold on.  Tse then discussed differences between Hong Kong writers, and Mainland writers.  She said she thought Mainland writers knew they had a large home market, and so they worried about meeting the demands of that market, whereas Hong Kong is so small, that its writers do not think of it as a market at all, and thus they take risks and experiment, free of commercial pressures.

Zhang read from her novel Gold Mountain Blues, which is available in English through Penguin Canada.  It is an historical novel chronicling the lives of five generations of a Chinese family originally from Guangdong Province, but soon transplanted to Gold Mountain, the Chinese name for Canada’s West Coast. Zhang explained that she cannot pin down her own identity:  in China they call her Canadian-Chinese; in Canada they call her Chinese-Canadian; she speaks English in her daily life outside the home, but Mandarin within the home; she dreams in Mandarin, but tells her Canadian friends her dreams in English.

Co-incidentally, both authors share a translator, Nicky Harman, who also contributed an introduction to Snow and Shadow.  They discussed the pleasures and perils of working with a translator, with Zhang telling how her French translator insisted on disambiguating the ambiguities of Chinese – ambiguities both she and Tse said they relished. 

Tse said she was relaxed about mistranslations. She made the point that readers often misread texts in their own language – misreadings, she said, are part of reading, and can have interesting, fruitful results, and she felt the same about mistranslation.  That’s a positive attitude that could surely serve writers well, throughout Asia?

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: History Day

Highlights from the second day of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) included two sessions on history.

In the panel discussion The World Before Singapore moderator Lai Chee Kien initiated a conversation that ranged from the myths surrounding Singapore’s past, to the continuities between the Singapore of the 1840s, and of today, to ethical dilemmas faced by historical novelists.The panellists were: John Miksic, an archaeologist, and the author of many books, including, most recently, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea; John Van Wyhe, an historian of science who has written extensively on Alfred Russell Wallace, the great 19th Century naturalist who based himself in Singapore for several years, during which time he explored the region, resulting in his famous book, The Malay Archipelago; Malay novelist Isa Kamari, some of whose novels, including 1819, are available in English, through Malaysian publisher, Silverfish.

Miksic addressed head-on the myth that before Raffles landed on Singapore the island was a barely inhabited haunt of pirates.  Van Wyhe pointed out that every branch of knowledge has its own myths, commenting that if people think they know anything about Wallace at all, then what they think they know is usually wrong.  Isa Kamari considered a problem faced by historical novelists everywhere: to what extent, if any, should they stick to the (so-called) facts?  

Later in the day another history-oriented panel made reference to Salman Rushdie's 1982 article The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance. How did, or how do, post-colonial voices respond to their experience of colonialism?  That, roughly, was the subject of The Empire Writes Back, moderated by Neil Murphy, who is currently writing a book on John Banville and art. The three panellists were: Singaporean Walter Woon, whose novels explore the experience of the Straits Chinese community in Singapore in the lead up to independence; Australian Dawn Farnham, whose novels are set in colonial Singapore; Kamila Shamsie, the UK-based Pakistani internationally-renowned author of Burnt Shadows, and more recently of A God in Every Stone, set in Europe and Peshawar, during the early part of the last century.

Members of the audience asked some really interesting questions.  One person seemed to be asking whether it was time for us to start re-evaluating the legacy of colonialism, and to look for the good things it brought to colonised people.  This prompted a politely angry response from Shamsie, who made the point that colonialism was a morally bankrupt system – she added the fact that some men were nice did not render patriarchy morally acceptable.  Who would disagree?  But I thought the questioner was trying to suggest that we should consider the way colonial innovations / impositions - perhaps such as railways and the civil service? - brought continuing benefits to local communities, and opening up that conversation, rather than shutting it down by invoking the moral bankruptcy of colonialism might have been interesting. There was also much discussion of when we’ll move on from talking about post-colonialism. Shamsie said she thinks if people applied to her the label post-independence writer that might be more accurate than post-colonial writer.  It might be even better if people stopped applying labels to writers at all, but that's another story...

Friday, 31 October 2014

Singapore Writers Festival 2014: The Proletariat Poetry Factory

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore, where the annual Writers Festival (SWF) has just kicked-off, with a knees-up much enlivened by the presence of The Proletariat Poetry Factory. This wonderful literary initiative consists of 25 or so Singaporean poets who write poems for the masses.  The poets sit behind old-fashioned typewriters, and the clicking of the keys as they tap out their words makes a distinctive soundtrack to their work.  They dress in bright red jumpsuits, each stitched with a label reading Servile Poet.  They write, or perform, at factories and flea markets, as well as at events such as the launch of SWF. 

Those wishing to receive a poem from The Proletariat Poetry Factory suggest a kernel word, and hey presto some time later - usually about 20 minutes to 1 hour depending on the poets' workload – they pick up the poem sprouted from it in the mind of one of the servile poets.  In return for their poem, they are asked to make a donation, the amount is up to them, and the money raised is used to pay The Proletariat Poetry Factory’s expenses.

Tonight, people wanting poems had suggested kernel words as various as ginger, nutmeg, Manila, love, peace….According to one of the servile poets the worst words for inspiring poems are Happy Birthday

One woman I talked to had given the poets the made-up kernel word Numnums.  This was her pet name for her husband.  She was delighted with her poem: “I love it!” She said.  But she seemed less sure what her husband would make of it: “I have no idea what he will think – but the poem is sweet and endearing.”

Naturally, Asian Books Blog asked The Proletariat Poetry Factory for a poem.  I left the kernel word words, and here is the resulting poem:

So do you have any words to say to me?
I looked outside, the sun
Set with a tired pallor,
A beautiful glow to it.
I’d learned how to avert gazes
All my life, I thought,
As I navigated the rough
Liminal spaces, forgotten identities
And timid hopeful smiles.

In what must have been an hour to you
I looked out of the window
To find these words: forgive me
For I do not know what I want:
What I need or what I have.

Not bad, huh?  I especially like the image of the sun setting with a tired pallor.

The Proletariat Poetry Factory writes only in English.  Its workshop will be open for creating poems at SWF from noon on Sunday 2 Nov, and again on Sunday 9 Nov.  

Happy Halloween! 500 Words From Andrew Lee

500 Words a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books.  Here, for Halloween, Andrew Lee explains the background behind his Asian Spine Chillers series. The four volumes bring together macabre stories from Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, as well as letters to Andrew from terrified readers sharing their supernatural experiences. In addition, with the use of innovative augmented reality technology, readers can bring their print books to virtual life, by using their smartphones, or tablets, to watch a bonus hidden story, The Devil’s Blade, told in twelve episodes.

So, over to Andrew…

“Greetings from the Dark Side!

Asian Spine Chillers was in a great part prompted by my childhood reading. From a very early age I was attracted to the macabre. I forwent the childish tales most kids my age enjoyed. While my classmates were reading Enid Blyton, I read Poe and Edgar Wallace, along with many other authors of tales of horror and the supernatural. Throughout my childhood I sought out and found books, and later videos and films, of the sort that most parents would consign to the rubbish heap, or to a locked cupboard, if they ever found them. However, my parents were not like most. My mother had significant clairvoyant skills, and my father was an atheist who suffered severe depression, or what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Second World War had scarred him deeply and the images, sounds and memories of that war never left him. He was a deeply unhappy man and, lost in his own darkness, he didn’t see or care what I chose to read or watch. Both parents are now long in their graves.  My father bequeathed to me a degree of blackness, and from my mother I have inherited The Sight – it is not as powerful in me as it was in her, but at times it provides me with great insight.

And so I grew up with a love of the unusual, and the supernatural. Then, in my teenage years I met and lived with a genuine Romany gypsy princess who had incredible psychic powers. She further fuelled my interest in the supernatural. I began writing down the tales that came to mind from this point.

I have lived at various times in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore and Bangkok. In each place I spent time talking to local people, particularly country folk and those from out of the way corners where life is a little less plastic and regimented than in the cities. They told me tales passed down from generation to generation, and I became like a sponge, absorbing their stories. Sitting with a coffee, tea or beer and talking to these people, the stories, real or imagined, grew and kept on growing.

Sometimes not a person, but a place suggested a story. One of my favourite places for inspiration is Pulau Ubin, a tiny island off Singapore where life is still mostly rural. When I visit Singapore from my current home in New Zealand, I go to Pulau Ubin and spend the day walking, thinking, and soaking up the atmosphere, letting my imagination run free. Also in Singapore, the abandoned Second World War fort on Sentosa, another island off the mainland, likewise holds magic for me. I will go there, find a quiet corner and spend hours, notebook in hand catching the thoughts that come. Hong Kong has its magic corners for me too, as does every city and country I have visited.

As an author, it is wonderful when you find a place where magic lies in wait, ready for you to unleash it and capture it on the page. It is even better that now, with augmented reality technology, you can unleash it in sound and pictures as well.  My publishers, Monsoon, have made available a free augmented reality app so readers can access The Devil’s Blade, I hope they will be captivated by what awaits…

The readers’ letters that are becoming such a feature of the Spine Chillers started purely as a writer’s device. However, since word about the series started to spread, Monsoon has been finding more and more letters arriving in their mail as people share their unearthly experiences. I am writing further volumes and I encourage anyone with a tale of the macabre and the supernatural to email it to me at:”

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Indie Spotlight: Timothy Brennan

Indie Spotlight is our monthly column on self-publishing. This month, Raelee Chapman talks to Timothy Brennan, whose eBook Lucky Rice won the 2014 eLit Award for Best Multimedia Produced eBook.

Lucky Rice: My Story is Your Story is a fictional philosophical conversation about nature between the book’s main character Mr. Tim, and a Balinese rice farmer. The eBook is interspersed with stunning photography of rice paddies and beautiful digital sketches, hence its inclusion in the multimedia category of the eLit Awards.

Tim was inspired to write Lucky Rice to relay some of the philosophical answers he had found to life’s big questions to his five adult children. He chose fiction as his form as it enabled greater freedom of expression than non-fiction.

I asked Tim why he chose ePublishing, and how he would describe the process from start to finished product.

“I felt the traditional path to publishing is too congested, but ePublishing sidesteps this problem. Right from the start I chose to write Lucky Rice in Apple Corp's iBook Author. It's the only authoring software tool that allowed me to integrate word, audio, images, video and digital drawing. Looking ahead I see the reading experience in 2020 will be with iPads and smart phones. In the next few years special headsets such as Google Glass will heighten the reading experience. This is the marketplace I want Lucky Rice to be in.”

Tim’s editor recommended he compete in the multimedia category of the eLit Book Awards, 2014. Tim reacted to winning with modesty: “I was surprised Lucky Rice won because it's a global competition and there were so many other great books involved. Receiving professional recognition has been a great boost.”

Perhaps because of this recognition, Lucky Rice was this year accepted as the first eBook ever to be launched at the Ubud Writer's Festival.

I asked Tim how well the book went down in Ubud: “Lucky Rice was really well received. Everyone seemed to like the book and the multimedia format. For someone like me, launching my first book at the Writers Festival was a lot of fun. Being thrown into the literary world was a new experience.”

Tim’s next goal for Lucky Rice is to have it translated into some of Asia’s regional languages.  Currently it is being translated into Indonesian.

Tim jokes: “Someone along the way once told me there is only one thing more challenging than finishing your first book - wrestling a crocodile! I would agree!” However, he is already working on the sequel to Lucky Rice. This will see the main characters reconvening after twenty years.

Lucky Rice is available on Amazon and iBooks. For more information see:

If you would like your book to be featured in Indie Spotlight, please e-mail Raelee Chapman at  

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Introducing Raelee Chapman

Raelee Chapman is Asian Books Blog’s new correspondent for e-books, self-publishing, book groups and writing groups. She is to take over our monthly Indie Spotlight, which covers all aspects of self-publishing, and she will also write occasional posts on the other areas under her remit. Here she introduces herself.

“I am an Australian freelance writer living in Singapore, and a member of the Singapore Writers Group. My fiction, non-fiction and book reviews have been published in Australia and overseas, most recently in Singapore-American Newspaper and Singapore Review of Books.

I formed the Singapore Ladies Asian Literary Book Group through earlier this year. It started as a ladies night out - if enough bookworms of the opposite sex join we can definitely change the name! The group was not initially focused on books with Asian interest. But, to my surprise, though wide and varied, the book choices members put forward each month inevitably had Asian authors, or were set in Asia. As a group, we realised we all just clicked with this theme and decided that these are the kind of books we want to continue exploring. We started with Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, and then progressed to Singaporean author Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Delights - Ovidia was kind enough to attend our meeting. Since then we have progressed to read a WWII drama set in Singapore, a comedy regarding a love-match marriage in India, a Khaled Hosseini novel and now we are reading Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. New members are welcome to sign up and join through the meetup site:

My first Indie Spotlight, later this week, will find me in conversation with Tim Brennan, author of Lucky Rice, winner of an eLit Award for e-books (multi-media production).”

If you would like to see your work highlighted in Indie Spotlight, or if you are a member of a writing group or a book group you would like to see featured on Asian Books Blog, then please get in touch with Raelee at