Saturday, 8 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: A Packed Saturday

Today at Singapore Writers Festival was packed to say the least! 

I began the day at a panel discussion Translated Literature: A dynamic Conversation. The highlight of this, for me, was hearing Hungarian-born, British-resident, English-language poet George Szirtes reading in Hungarian, a language in which I couldn't even recognise sounds as words - it reminded me of hearing Chinese for the first time, when I was similarly clueless as to which sounds made words.

I then went to a panel Love Stories, which paired two bestselling women writers, UK novelist Adele Parks, and Indian author Ira Trivedi, whose latest book, India in Love: marriage and sexuality in the 21st century  is an examination of contemporary attitudes to love, sex and marriage in India. 

After that I caught part of a discussion Morality And Writing, which was about the role, or otherwise, of writers and literature in "teaching" values.  All the panellists, including internationally-acclaimed Karen Joy Fowler, were much taken with a metaphor suggested by Singaporean-Malay novelist Isa Kamari, who said he thought novels need not be about drawing bold lines, but could rely on dotted lines, with the interesting things happening between the dots - including discussion on morality.

Next I went to hear Geoff Dyer, a British essayist previously unknown to me, in conversation with Robin Hemley, head of a local creative writing programme linked to Yale, which has a campus in Singapore. Dyer read a very funny passage about attending a  fashion show in Paris, whilst knowing nothing about couture. I now intend to seek out his books. 

I finished my day at another event featuring Adele Parks, also Indian novelist Ashwini Devare, and Straits Chinese novelist Lee Su Kim.  The formal topic of discussion was Women At The Crossroads, and the three authors  explained how this meant different things in their three different cultures - the most impassioned advocacy on behalf of women came from Devare, who pointed out that 50% of women in rural India are still illiterate, still have few choices, or chances, and have yet to reach any of those crossroads women in other parts of the world take for granted - whether to marry, whether to have children, and so on. 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: New Books from Monsoon

Singapore publishing house Monsoon has launched four new titles at the Singapore Writers Festival coupling two debut novelists, PP Wong (The Life of a Banana) and KH Lim (Written in Black), and two seasoned novelists, Patricia Snel (The Expat) and SP Hozy (The Scarlet Macaw). Raelee Chapman reports.

London born and schooled Singaporean based author PP Wong’s first, and autobiographical, novel The Life of a Banana is about growing up as what some Chinese call a banana – yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Wong describes her novel as primarily about racial bullying and told the audience about her own experience when, at age eight, as a tall Chinese girl with a strong sense of justice, she tried to break up a fight between to two boys who then began to racially vilify her. Wong is also an actor, and after describing to a famous South East Asian film director her experiences of being bullied as a child, he replied: “Weren’t we all?” This prompted her to begin to collect other horrific examples of bullying from fellow bananas abroad, and to start thinking about a novel to encapsulate their feelings of isolation, of not being popular, and not knowing where you fit in. Wong read for the crowd two very funny passages, in one the main protagonist, Xing Li, goes shopping with her grandmother and watches mortified as her embarrassing relative causes a scene on public transport, in the other Xing Li feels uneasy in a school history lesson, when the content  fails to reflect her own ancestors' experience.

KH Lim’s debut novel, Written In Black, is a coming of age novel set in his native Brunei. Phil Tatham, Monsoon’s founder, and moderator for the evening, pointed out that so few novels are set in Brunei this one is naturally intriguing. He added that when Lim was pitching the novel he claimed all his patients loved it - Phil later found out Lim is a pathologist! Lim himself explained that after an earlier unsuccessful attempt to write a novel he worked out that for a story to be really successful it should have some basis in reality. He decided then to pillage from what he knew best – his home country. He was also aware that barely anything is written about Brunei. Lim describes the major themes in his novel as exploring self-determination versus consequentialism, however, he assured the crowd that it is not all grim and includes much humour - as an afterthought he described Written in Black as Kafka combined with Calvin and Hobbes. The novel features a dysfunctional family and Lim said that while his own family are relatively normal (they were in the crowd!) a dysfunctional family made sense because it meant the main protagonist is not too perfect, and must rise above his problems and soldier on. 

The two more established  Monsoon authors, Patricia Snel and SP Hozy have both used Singapore as the setting for their most recent books.

Snel's The Expat, originally written in Dutchhas sold over 50,000 copies in Holland. It is a story based loosely on news headlines about human trafficking. Snel said that the story is a blend of fantasy and reality which she started when she was living in Singapore and witnessed - through her bird watching binoculars - a man hitting a woman in a neighbouring condominium. In a strange twist the neighbour then in turn started spying on her! This blend of strange reality, and headlines grabbed straight from the newspapers, enabled the bones of a novel to take shape.  Snel now  aims to turn her novels and short stories into screenplays. There is already talk of a film of The Expat - Snel said it will undoubtedly be filmed in Singapore which pleased the crowd!

Canadian author SP Hozy’s literary novel The Scarlett Macaw presents two entwined mysteries that unfold over two different time periods in Singapore, one in the present day and the other in the 1920s. The contemporary mystery concerns an artist named Maris who is shattered by the death of her mentor, gallery owner Peter Stone. Stone left Maris a trunk of old letters and books by British author E. Sutcliffe Moresby (based on W. Somerset Maugham). The letters tell of  a tragic love story. Hozy read a passage about a newlywed couple caught in the Botanic Gardens during one of Singapore’s torrential downpours. Afterwards, as the couple head home in a rickshaw, they witness an elderly Chinese woman dying in the street; the earlier carefree moments they spent enjoying the splendour of the gardens have gone, and the bride realises she and all others are at the mercy of strangers.

With long signing queues and a large turnout, these four authors can feel assured their new novels will be future book club favourites.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: Ministry of Moral Panic Wins Prize

A quick update from the Singapore Writers Festival where it has been announced Amanda Lee Koe has won the English language section of the Singapore Literature Prize for her debut collection of short stories, Ministry of Moral Panic.

Click here for coverage in The Straits Times.
Click  here for my review in Asian Review of Books.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: New Books From Epigram

Singapore publishing house Epigram Books has launched two new titles at the Singapore Writers Festival: The Space Between the Raindrops by Justin Ker and Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and Other Stories, a collection of short stories from one of Singapore’s most illustrious poets, Cyril Wong. Raelee Chapman reports.

The Space Between the Raindrops is a collection of forty-two pieces of flash fiction. Justin Ker said he likes the form as it condenses difficult ideas into something tight and concisely written. He added it is a great form for writers who have only an hour here or there to write – and he works full time as a doctor, so he should know!  He gathers ideas for stories on early morning runs, then returns home and jots them down; he said that not having much time is exactly what you need to distill your ideas. His flash fiction focuses on stolen moments - the space between the raindrops of his title - and he shared with the crowd his recollection of one such stolen moment, the seed of the story Open Reduction Internal Fixation. Justin was assisting in surgery to mend the hipbone of a 100-year-old woman and his colleague asked him to reach out and touch the bone. Justin asked the crowd: “Have you ever felt a 100-year-old bone? Bones are a record of all the experiences and weights we have ever borne throughout life, whether it be carrying a child or a sack of rice.”  

Cyril Wong explained the stories in Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me concern that which may lie beyond a closed door, or a shut window. He read from the title story, a moving, semi-autobiographical account of the God-awful relationship he had with his father.  The passage described the teenage protagonist being driven home from catechism class by his father; the teenager begins singing along to the radio in a loud falsetto; a boiling point is reached as the father can no longer ignore his son’s burgeoning homosexuality.

Cyril recently announced he was considering stopping writing. Thankfully, he seems to have changed his mind.  He said he will always write poetry - he likes to text himself lines throughout the day, as they come to him. He said he is always writing, always has a blank word document open  - even if it stays blank for some time the cursor sitting there blinking at him prompts him to write. However, he said he no longer feels the desire to publish, or the need to support a culture that does not support him. 

This week in the Asian Review of Books

Asian Books Blog is not a review site.  If you want reviews, see the Asian Review of Books.  Here is a list of its newest reviews, plus links to original short fiction on-line, and its latest commentary on the current situation:

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...