Tuesday 11 November 2014

This Week In The Asian Review Of Books / Murakami Wins Welt Literature Prize

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:

City of Darkness Revisited by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot reviewed by Mark L. Clifford
From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army: The Experience of Chinese Labourers in Russia during the First World War and Bolshevik Revolution by Mark O’Neill reviewed by Juan José Morales
Living Karma: The Religious Practices of Ouyi Zhixu by Beverley Foulks McGuire reviewed by John Butler
The Battle of Penang: World War One in the Far East by JR Robertson reviewed by Tim O'Connell

Also, over in Germany Haruki Murakami has been awarded the Welt Literature Prize.  Click here for coverage in the Japan Times.

Monday 10 November 2014

Gentlemen, Samurai, and Germans in China / guest post by Oleg Benesch

Oxford University Press has recently published Inventing the Way of The Samurai, by Oleg Benesch. The book offers a re-evaluation of some of the longest-standing myths about Japanese thought and culture. Oleg Benesch here further explains…

One hundred years ago today, far from the erupting battlefields of Europe, a small German force in the city of Tsingtau (Qingdao), Germany’s most important possession in China, was preparing for an impending siege. The small fishing village of Qingdao and the surrounding area had been reluctantly leased to the German Empire by the Chinese government for 99 years in 1898, and German colonists soon set about transforming this minor outpost into a vibrant city boasting many of the comforts of home, including the forerunner of the now-famous Tsingtao Brewery. By 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region. Given its further role as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy, however, Qingdao was unable to avoid becoming caught up in the faraway European war.
The forces that besieged Qingdao in the autumn of 1914 were composed of troops from Britain and Japan, the latter entering the war against Germany in accord with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Alliance had been agreed in 1902 amid growing anxiety in Britain regarding its interests in East Asia, and rapidly modernizing Japan was seen as a useful ally in the region. For Japanese leaders, the signing of such an agreement with the most powerful empire of the day was seen as a major diplomatic accomplishment and an acknowledgement of Japan’s arrival as one of the world’s great powers. More immediately, the Alliance effectively guaranteed the neutrality of third parties in Japan’s looming war with Russia, and Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sent shockwaves across the globe as the first defeat of a great European empire by a non-Western country in a conventional modern war.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: New Books from Ethos

On the last day here at Singapore Writers Festival local publishing house Ethos launched two new poetry titles - with a twist.  Each anthology was produced entirely by Singapore's next generation of poets, fresh new voices from the creative writing programmes at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and The National University of Singapore (NUS).

NUS students offered Red Pulse 11: poetry to a local beat, edited by Kevin Lam and Tan Xian Yeow. Thanks to Singapore's minuscule size on the world map, its inhabitants often refer to it, affectionately, as The Little Red Dot. Kevin and Xian Yeow explained that their title turns the dot into a pulse, to reflect Singapore's dynamism, the furious pace of life here, and the constant movement.

You can't get much faster than an F1 race. Kevin presented his wonderfully zooming poem The Singapore Grand Prix - presented, not read, because this is a poem that has escaped text, and gone roaring off into the digital world.  You can experience its multimedia energy by clicking here and scrolling down 

Xiang Yeow read Definition of Long-Kang noun. A long-kang is a monsoon drain, and in the poem a man recalls the pleasure he derived, as a boy, from catching guppies in a long-kang, and his disappointment when his mother rebuffed his gift of those guppies by warning him long-kangs are dangerous.  In the present, he is disturbed to find the long-kang has been cemented over. 

NTU students offered Kepulauan, edited by Zhang Jieqiang, Hidhir Razak and Marcus Tan Yi-hern. Hidhir explained that pulau is Malay for island, whilst kepulauan is Malay for archipelago, their title thus plays with ideas about insularity and isolation, as well as making a geographical reference to the once Malay, now Indonesian, archipelago.

On Tuesday the Singapore Literature Prize for English language poetry was awarded jointly to two men,  Joshua Ip and Yong Shu Hoong, much to the disgust of Grace Chia, who was a contender for her collection Cordelia - click here for full details. Consequently, accusations of gender bias in the local poetry scene have been flying about all week.  At this evening's launch, the moderator, Ng Kah Gay, from Ethos books, alluded to the controversy when he challenged all the editors to explain why neither anthology had a single female editor. Hidhir and Xian Yeow each denied there was anything sinister going on. Hidhir said Kepulauan had initially had some women editors, but they had dropped out for various reasons. Xiang Yeow said Red Pulse 11 had plenty of female input from NUS staff.

Given this background, it was great to hear young women poets taking to the mic with confidence. Debra Khng, a contributor to Red Pulse 11, sang a poem about Robert Frost, to the accompaniment of a guitar. Shane Lim Han Jung, a contributor to Kepulauan, read a spiky challenge to unthinking acceptance of the strategies of nation building - a live subject of discussion in Singapore, which won independence only 50 years ago. The Merlion, a mixed creature, half lion, half fish, dreamed up by a marketing man, was for many years used by the Singapore Tourist Board as logo. Shane Lim Han Jung's poem Merlion addressed ideas about Singaporean identity, and explored the extent to which manufactured myths are believed.

At the close of the evening Ng Kah Gay commented that anybody wanting to get both anthologies signed by all the authors would have a long time to wait.  Likewise, it is difficult to mention all the contributors in a single blog post. But Red Pulse 11, and Kepulauan show the future of poetry in Singapore is, as they say, as bright as the tropical sun!

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.