Saturday, November 01, 2014

November 2014 Highlights

Novels
1. Far As the Eye Can See (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Robert Bausch
2. Amnesia (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Peter Carey
3. The Book of Strange New Things (Canongate, 2014) / Michel Faber
4. Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book (Ecco/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Richard Ford
5. A Map of Betrayal (Pantheon, 2014) / Ha Jin
6. Funny Girl (Viking, 2014) / Nick Hornby
7. The Laughing Monsters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Denis Johnson
8. Revival (Scribner/Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) / Stephen King
9. The Forgers (Mysterious Press, 2014) / Bradford Morrow
10. When the Night Comes (John Murray Publishers, 2014) / Favel Parrett

11. Shark (Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014) / Will Self
12. All Days Are Nights (trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann) (Other Press, 2014) / Peter Stamm
13. All My Puny Sorrows (McSweeney’s, 2014) / Miriam Toews

Stories
1. Infidelities (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Kirsty Gunn
2. Frog (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) / Mo Yan
3. Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Alice Munro
4. The American Lover (Random House, 2014) / Rose Tremain

Poetry
1. You Must Remember This (Milkweed Editions, 2014) / Michael Bazzett
2. One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Paul Muldoon
3. The Other Mountain (Carcanet, 2014) / Rowan Williams

Nonfiction
1. Loitering: New & Collected Essays (Tin House Books, 2014) / Charles D’Ambrosio
2. Visitants (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) / Dave Eggers
3. Where I’m Reading: The Changing World of Books (Harvill Secker, 2014) / Tim Parks

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sweet Passion

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH traces CHARMAINE AUGUSTIN’s journey from broadcasting and boardrooms to gourmet food and confectionery

Photos by AHMAD ZURIN NOH for Quill
Coordinated by ERIC FORBES

IF YOU WERE A CHILD of the Eighties growing up in Malaysia, chances are good that you will remember Charmaine Augustin. Back in the pre-American Idol days when TV3 was a brand-new television station, there was Juara Lagu and Muzik-Muzik. As co-host of the channel’s wildly popular singing competition and music show, Augustin’s visage graced millions of small screens across the country and around the region.

You might remember Augustin for her remarkable ability to connect and engage with live audiences and viewers, or how she seemed to effortlessly radiate glitz and glamour on the screen. Delve a little deeper, and it becomes abundantly clear that she is a deep thinker—a characteristic that she is well aware of.

Kuala Lumpur-born Augustin describes herself as passionate and intense, sensitive and very private. She also calls herself a “quiet observer,” a trait that was born of necessity when she was a child. Her late father, Dato Capt. Patrick Augustin, was in the Army and Special Branch, so her formative years were marked by travel and plenty of it. “On the move” is the phrase that best describes her childhood, she explains.

All that movement and change brought with it both the good and the bad. “My nomadic childhood created insecurities. It also built reserve and innate self-belief,” she explains, candidly. “I was an outsider, an avid observer of life, an adventurer. Incessant daydreaming was my insulation from the uncertainties of growing up. It was fertile ground for unbridled imagination.”

While a nomadic lifestyle created an unusually high level of unpredictability in her childhood years, Augustin also fondly remembers the good times. The middle child among three siblings and the only girl, Augustin recalls growing up in gorgeous Lutyens-style bungalows with gleaming arches and wide wooden verandahs, surrounded by lush spacious gardens. “There were gazebos, giant rubber and banyan trees with branches reaching to the sky. Sometimes we lived in forests in newly cleared jungles turned into housing residences. Other times it was by the sea.”

She also vividly remembers long bicycle rides with her younger brother, down winding paths that led to the beach when the family lived in Penang and Butterworth. “The breeze, salty from the sea, whiffed across our nostrils. We picked up starfish and endlessly tickled their legs. It was a favourite pastime.”

Seaside bicycle rides and playing with starfish are undeniably idyllic ways to while away the hours, but these days, Augustin has time to indulge in these pursuits only in her memories.

Today, Augustin, who speaks and writes French fluently, is a busy businesswoman who co-runs Passion Doux (which means “sweet passion” in French) with her best friend Lee Yulie. Passion Doux is a wholesale provider of premium gourmet foods. “We import and distribute gourmet and specialty fine foods with a penchant for confectionery. We also work with individuals with rare and specialty products. These include handmade award-winning nougats, pickles and jams, cookies, coconut candies, pate des fruits and calamansi honey nectar juice, among others.”

Passion Doux clients are highly discerning and demand the finest, but judging from the company’s growth, the two co-owners are more than able to deliver. “Our clients include five-star hotels, upscale grocery outlets, private premium gift retailers and blue-chip corporations. My roles and focus include product identification and development, packaging, sales, marketing and branding, client relationship, import and logistics,” explains Augustin.

So how did a renowned TV personality end up in the wholesale food industry? As it turns out, much like her childhood, Augustin’s career path is nothing if not unusual and her choices reflect the deep courage of a woman who isn’t afraid to follow her heart.

For those who remember her polished professionalism during her days at TV3, it would be hard to believe that the young broadcast announcer had no media experience or training at the time. Despite this “drawback” she enjoyed a meteoric rise up the ranks and while many others in her place would have played it safe, she dropped everything to go to college.

“My time in TV3 inspired me to go pursue a degree in Broadcast and Film. I left for Boston in 1991 and returned in 1994.” The Malaysian media landscape had changed dramatically in those three years and there were many more opportunities for Augustin to dive into. “Upon my return I joined MetroVision Channel 8, known as 8TV today, as Program Manager, followed by a stint as the Asian Managing Director with Articulate Asia, a Dutch telecommunications and content company.” Time at the telecommunications company proved to be a turning point in her career. “While in Articulate I realised that the future was in the direction of convergence of content, multimedia and technology.”

The next few years were a whirlwind of upward mobility and career changes, which included time working as a Marketing Manager at the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDC) when she became part of the pioneering effort that created the Malaysian Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC). Next she was headhunted to join Ericsson Malaysia as General Manager of Mobile Internet and Systems Integration and became the first Malaysian woman and the youngest person to take over the role.

Then it was on to Malaysia Biotechnology Corporation as Branding and Marketing Vice-President. Augustin’s corporate career culminated in 2008 when she was appointed General Manager for DDBPR, the public relations arm of Naga DDB, Malaysia’s largest marketing and communications advertising company. Like her decision to drop everything during the height of her success at TV3, Augustin made a decision to turn away from the corporate fast track to focus on her secret love—food. “Food has always fascinated me. It is one of the greatest pleasures of the senses and a playground for creativity and visual art.”

As with all her career moves, she combined heart with smarts and looked at ways to turn her love into a viable, lucrative business. This focus and direction inspired her to combine food with trading and thus Passion Doux was born. “I have always loved the idea of trading. Even in the companies I used to work for, wherever there was an opportunity, I would create business-inspired events,” she reveals.

These days, Augustin’s daily routine overflows with “work, work, and more work” plus time stolen here and there for leisure pursuits like reading and jazz piano classes but the popular media personality turned entrepreneur will have it no other way.

Other than serving an ever-expanding clientele, Augustin, along with Lee, works with less fortunate individuals and families who possess the fire and spirit of an entrepreneur but not the financial means to support their dreams. “We develop recipes, formulas and ideas with them and brand and market their products. This gives them sustainable income, new-found confidence and knowledge that they have special skills and are able to contribute to society and to their families.”

Passion Doux also serves as a channel for the two women to bring alive the food tradition and memories of their beloved mothers and grandmothers. “We resurrect long-forgotten or rarely produced traditional favourite delicacies like handmade coconut candies the way Granny used to make them.” Augustin says this brings back the past in a beautiful way while reviving disappearing tastes and senses. “We take quiet pleasure in seeing the look of happiness on the faces of clients who come across a long-forgotten aroma or a taste from their childhood.”

Reproduced from the July-September 2014 issue of Quill magazine

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Verve & Versatility

Trainer, coach, cat lover, baker and author ANNA TAN shows SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH that self-improvement isn’t too much of a stretch

CATHOLIC SCHOOL, with all its rules and regulations and the nuns who enforce them, might not sound like a great way to spend most of your growing-up years. Anna Tan, however, has nothing but warm memories to share and credits those schooldays for inspiring her reading habit.

“My reading habit was inculcated by the nuns in the Catholic school I attended, called St Teresa, in her hometown, Kuching, Sarawak. The head nun—Mother Monica—started a library and stocked it with many Enid Blyton books as well as magazines from the Vatican City,” she explains. “So I read whatever Mother Monica brought to the library. My brother and I would compete to see who finished a book first!”

Mother Monica must have done a fine job because the consultant trainer, human resource practitioner and change leader is now a full-fledged author. Stretched: Unleash Your Team’s Potential by Coaching the “Rubber Band” Way! captures Tan’s proven coaching ideas and techniques and aims to guide readers to extraordinary growth and breakthroughs.

Tan says that the advice in her book, which is geared towards leaders, employers and managers who are keen to create passionate, productive, action-oriented teams, is based on long experience in the trenches. “In a career spanning over fifteen years, I worked in various multinational companies as a senior corporate leader helming the human capital and talent functions.” Her work exposed her to a vast range of people and corporate cultures. “I had the opportunity to interact and socialise with people at all levels, experiencing both Western and Asian leadership and cultures.”

Tan confides that she has always wanted to write a book and didn’t hesitate to grab the chance to do so when she took a six-month break from corporate work at the end of 2010. Any other hard-working denizen of the corporate world might have used the time to kick back and relax but she is nothing if not focused. “It was six months of ideas, writing fluidly, freestyle.”

Even after going back to work, Tan did not waver from her writing routine and completed the book at an admirably quick pace. “I went back to corporate HR and it was another six months of fine-tuning the typescript. Getting feedback from corporate folks, HR practitioners, college students and incorporating their input, editing by my publisher and publishing took another four months.”

Tan’s speed is also attributed, in no small part, to the fact that she is able to write “wherever I have my Mac” as well as to the way she thinks. Part of the writing process, such as creating the chapters—something that makes many other writers falter—turned out to be a breeze. “I am lucky that I think in ‘categories’ or have my ideas in buckets. Hence, dividing the chapters was quite easy.” However, she is also quick to admit that creating Stretched from scratch did have its challenges. The biggest among these was “simplifying the concepts without sacrificing the essence of the book,” she says, referring to the complex concepts related to coaching teams to do their best at work.

Tan admits that she loves her work but takes care to spend as much quality time as possible with her loved ones on weekends. In her case, her loved ones happen to include three felines. A huge cat lover, she describes her furry family members with some detail. “They each have very different personalities. Girlie, the eldest at twelve years, is the most introverted. Furrygamo is three and is your typical “scatty” cat. Cotton is two years old and is the most extroverted and social one.”

Weekends are also a time for pastimes most people would consider typical—save one. “During the weekends, we do normal things like house chores, cook [her husband Allen Yap does the cooking], catch up on reading, watch TV, entertain friends and trim the cat’s nails.” Tan confides that the last is more than a one-weekend job. “The cats hate having their nails trimmed so it has to be stretched over a number of weeks,” she laughs.

Another thing that she enjoys during her downtime is baking. As a coach who trains leaders and managers to find opportunities to bring out the best in themselves and their people, it appears that she walks her talk. Others would never view domestic work as anything more than what it is but she has managed to find a way to turn time in the kitchen into something of a self-improvement exercise. “I love to bake and I teach others to bake. I have learnt to master the challenging French macarons! Baking has taught me to be precise and to persevere.”

Tan hopes that her book will help shine a light on new and better ways to work and shift her readers’ perspectives. “The coaching way—as opposed to the autocratic where you just tell and issue instructions—is one that resonates with younger generations like the millennials. It is high time leaders replace some of their ‘die-hard’ ways to a coaching style that engages the hearts and minds of their team members—yes, be like the rubber band, stretch, be flexible and adapt.”

Coach, trainer and author Anna Tan shares three life-improvement tips that will help people create great teams at work (and maybe in their personal lives, too!):
• Talk less, listen more. 
• Give permission for others to be brave, and challenge the status quo. By doing that, you renew their hope of the possibilities of what they can be and more. 
• Don’t tell people what to do. Facilitate the conversation to enable them to come up with their own solutions. People are spurred to take action based on the solutions they come up with.

Reproduced from the July-September 2014 issue of Quill magazine

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A China Doll in KL, by Ewe Paik Leong

EWE PAIK LEONG talks about the kind of research he undertook while working on his novel, A China Doll in KL

THE STORY is set in the seamier side of Kuala Lumpur, where China dolls solicit clients in an infamous food court called New Peng Hwa. Meisu, the protagonist, comes to KL from Guilin (China) to seek her fortune as a hooker. She falls in love with her client Alvin Au, an alcoholic artist, who has a studio in Central Market. Against the backdrop of their tumultuous romance lurks a serial killer with a troubled past. He has murdered three China dolls and is targeting Meisu as his fourth victim. Meanwhile, Inspector Daniel Chu and his sidekick, Sergeant June Qwong, are assigned to nail the serial killer. The story reaches its climax when Inspector Chu races against time to save Meisu from the killer.

This novel was partly inspired by an accidental visit to New Peng Hwa in Pudu district in KL. One evening, I stepped inside the food court solely for a quick dinner. Dozens of girls and not-so-young women, carrying packets of watermelon seeds, were milling around. One by one, they approached my table and asked in Mandarin, “You want to buy watermelon seeds?” Only then did I realise that they were China dolls. When I said “no”, their next question would often be “Do you want to buy me?” Other girls used innuendos like “Do you want to be happy?” I was shocked by their audacity. The other half of the inspiration came from two novels which I’d read several years back: The World of Suzie Wong (1957), by Richard Mason, and A Woman of Bangkok (1956), by Jack Reynolds. “Why not a Malaysian version of those two books?” I asked myself as I recalled the novels while watching a few China dolls gyrating with their clients to loud music from the band on the stage.

Subsequently, I made more visits to the food court, inviting China dolls for drinks or dinner so that I could interview them. Several were friendly and chatty; others refused my offer. I also mingled around with customers and prospective johns to dig as much information as possible. A few plied me with stories of local men falling in love with the China dolls. Such romances mostly ended in financial ruin for the men except for a few rare cases of happy marriages.

Meisu, the novel’s protagonist, is a composite character of three real China dolls. They spoke to me about their aspirations, motivations and backgrounds. At the back of every China doll’s mind is the hope of snaring a boyfriend so that she can razor him financially or hook a husband and settle down in this country to escape poverty. A big-time john once gave me a tip on how to spot a China doll from a poor village. “Ask her to remove her shoes and feel the soles of her feet,” he said. “They’re often as hard as leather.” He pointed out that in the poor villages of China, almost all children are barefooted.

Meisu’s love interest is Alvin, an alcoholic artist who’s struggling to come to terms with his addiction. As the novel is written in close multiple third-person POV, there are many scenes where Alvin is the POV character. Therefore, I needed to experience what it was like being dead drunk. I don’t drink much except for a couple of beers during Chinese New Year, so I came back one evening with two bottles of cheap made-in-Thailand brandy. Sitting in front of the TV after dinner, I started to gulp down the brandy. My startled wife asked, “Wazzup, darling? You never drink! Are you in a funk?” I told her that I wanted to be in the shoes of my alcoholic character and she quipped, “I hope he’s not also a wife-beater!”

“I can’t leave New Peng Hwa and solicit business elsewhere as I’m contracted to my boss,” said a China doll to me. Her answer indicated that organised crime and vice goes hand-in-hand in New Peng Hwa. Anyone who goes there can see the presence of thugs almost everywhere. Some hang around with walkie-talkies hooked to their belts. Since New Peng Hwa has links to triads, I created a subplot in the story. In Act I, Ouyang Lifu, the head of the Red Centipede Society, tries to extort protection money from Meisu, but she challenges him to a card game instead. During the final hand of the game, Lifu raises the stake to “loser chops off the last finger.”

An unforgettable incident was when the place was raided one evening. I was sitting in Kim Wah Café in the first floor of Ace Electronics Building, adjacent to New Peng Hwa (which houses the apartments used by China dolls), when a lookout employed by the vice syndicate shouted, “Run! Police! Run!” The whole place was in turmoil as all the girls started to stampede down the broken-down escalator. One China doll slipped and nearly fell facedown and several others took off their stilettos and ran barefooted. When I reached the ground floor, I heard the clumping of heels coming from the fire-escape staircase as more China dolls came scrambling down from their apartments. Standing on the sidewalk, I saw a police truck up ahead on the road, trying to manoeuvre through traffic. It was like a scene from a TV cop show.

A China Doll in KL is published by Monsoon Books, Singapore

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

October 2014 Highlights

“It was OCTOBER, and the leaves of the oaks around the language school had turned gold and were batting light into its tall windows. A young Irish woman was seated alone in the teacher’s lounge. She had made herself a cup of tea on the range in the corner, and she was opening a tangerine on a paper napkin, with hungry carelessness.” CALEB CRAIN, in Necessary Errors (2013)

Novels
1. A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead, 2014) / Marlon James
2. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (Doubleday, 2014) / Rachel Joyce
3. The Boy Who Drew Monsters (Picador USA, 2014) / Keith Donohue
4. Leaving Time (Ballantine Books, 2014) / Jodi Picoult
5. Lila (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Virago/Little, Brown, 2014) / Marilynne Robinson
6. Electric City (Counterpoint, 2014) / Elizabeth Rosner
7. Lamentation (Mantle, 2014) / C.J. Sansom
8. Some Luck (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Jane Smiley
9. Sometimes the Wolf (William Morrow, 2014) / Urban Waite

First Novels
1. Crooked River (William Morrow, 2014) / Valerie Geary
2. The Lodger (Thomas Dunne Books, 2014) / Louisa Treger

Stories
1. The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (Press 53, 2014) / Wendy J. Fox
2. White Tiger on Snow Mountain (New Harvest, 2014) / David Gordon

Poetry
1. The Heart Is Strange: New Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / John Berryman
2. The Stairwell (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Michael Longley
3. Blue Horses (Penguin Press, 2014) / Mary Oliver
4. Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014) / Claudia Rankine
5. Playing House (Seren, 2014) / Katherine Stansfield
Nonfiction
1. Discontent and Its Civilizations (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) / Mohsin Hamid
2. Private Island (Verso, 2014) / James Meek
3. Ciao, Carpaccio! (Pallas Athene, 2014) / Jan Morris
4. The Best American Travel Writing 2014 (Mariner Books, 2014) / Paul Theroux (ed.)
5. Red Nile: A Biography of the World’s Greatest River (Thomas Dunne Books, 2014) / Robert Twigger

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Wisdom does not come with age ...

WISDOM, they say, comes with age. I once thought that wisdom was the sole province of the old. Now that I am all grown up, I have come to realise that that’s all balderdash. Wisdom is the province of those who possess it; age is quite immaterial. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet young people who are wise beyond their years, and I have also had the misfortune of meeting old people who have absolutely no wisdom at all.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rotten Durian Awards & Other Malaysiana Miscellany

SOME MANUSCRIPTS are so bloody horrendous that I literally get sick editing them! I feel feverish, headachy, and all-over-the-body-achy. Seriously, one of these days we must consider giving out a slew of ROTTEN DURIAN AWARDS for the worst Malaysian books of the year. I know for sure there won’t be a dearth of contenders for these uniquely Malaysian awards where MEDIOCRITY is the only yardstick of greatness and celebrated with customary pomp and ceremony! Perhaps I will start the ball rolling with that pathetic attempt at a book ... yes, that particular pseudo-book! It reminds me of the opening lines to Keir Alexander’s excellent The Ruby Slippers (Corsair, 2014): “She stinks. It has to be said. Stinks to high heaven.”
***
MALAYSIAN EDUCATION should start focusing on understanding and critical thinking skills. There is a serious dearth of these basic skills: reading, writing, thinking, criticism, creativity and imagination; there is also an absolute lack of interest or intellectual curiosity about the world. We need graduates who can not only eat but spell chocolate! Education per se is quite irrelevant; one must have the right mindset to use the knowledge acquired and make one’s life useful and meaningful to society. The idea of education is to make every one of us into critical, empathetic, intelligent, logical, thinking beings. If not, what’s the point of being alive?
***
SERIOUSLY, do we really have a publishing industry in Malaysia? I sometimes wonder, more often lately. A SAD FACT: Malaysian writers can’t write and don’t want to be edited at all. Those who can the writing is hollow, lifeless, insipid, puerile, dispirited, uninspiring and lackadaisical. ANOTHER SAD FACT: Editors don’t know how to edit. (Editing is not just about grammar and spelling.) Most of them lack the most basic of editing skills (grammar and spelling); if they can’t even handle basic editing, surely they are in the wrong profession, no? Editors are unwilling to learn and tend to miss more than they spot errors (and introducing new ones at the same time). And many are averse to research and fact-checking. Designers don’t know how to design and typeset. Most of them are not designers; they are more typesetters than designers. Most, sadly, have no grasp of the aesthetics, whether in the design of covers or typesetting, and are not open to constructive criticism. There is absolutely no passion to push boundaries. Translation standards are dismal. (Translation is not just about translating words to another language; it’s also about translating cultural and other creative nuances; the translated text must make sense. A good translator must not only possess a solid grounding in both languages but a strong grasp of idioms as well.) A vicious cycle. So, do we really have a publishing industry in Malaysia? I believe what we have here is more akin to some kind of stunted offshoot of public relations, rather than publishing as we know it. It never fails to amaze me how publishers always find reasons to justify the publishing of substandard books as though producing as many such books as possible is some kind of noble calling or something!
***
EVIL, THEY SAY, NEVER DIES ... it claws its way back from the pits of hell to haunt the living. We are in the midst of editing the worst manuscript on the planet … rejected by all who had a chance to look at it but somehow foisted on us editors for the stupidest of reasons. And to think that the British once colonised us, you would expect a certain standard of English. After the last disaster of a book, we thought we had seen the last and worst of horrendous books. No-o-o-o … that’s too good to be true. Ladies and gentlemen, Evil is back in business and is here to haunt the living daylights out of us. Just goes to prove that there are some things money can’t buy … for instance, to write well and tell a wonderful story (fiction or otherwise). Some publishers claim they publish these rejected manuscripts under the pretext of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). Seriously, you can call them anything you want; I prefer to pile them under SHIT/POO and flush them down the LOO where they belong for all time. Of course, under normal circumstances these manuscripts would not see the light of day. I fail to understand what joy these author-wannabes derive from being published under such circumstances!
***
AND THEN there are those so-called Malaysian authors who insist that we do not comply with standards and conventions when editing their so-called manuscripts! As the Backstreet Boys would croon back in the late 1990s, They want it that way! You can have it any way you want, Sweetheart, as long as you pay the production costs and buy up all the stocks and keep them locked up in your room! And maybe toss them in with the carrots, potatoes, onions and tomatoes when your mummy make chicken soup.
***
REMEMBER THE GOOD OLD DAYS when we used to have meals and lovely conversations without interruptions? We used to eat and talk, and eat and talk, all the while enjoying ourselves. Those were the days when we used to really talk with one another and conversations were long, and there were jokes and laughter, and time just passed without us realising it. Those days are long gone. People nowadays are more interested in their smartphones, internet, text messaging, etc., and seem to prefer to communicate with people not dining at the table but elsewhere, reading news updates, etc. You may have the whole wide world at your fingertips, but you don’t seem to be aware of the immediate world around you. Once in a while, think about the person sitting opposite you.
***
POMPOUS LASS: Only native speakers can edit me! No Malaysian editors for me, please!
Publisher: You mean someone from Good Olde Mother England?
Pompous Lass: Of course—if English is their mother tongue!
Publisher: Why’s that?
Pompous Lass: Because my book is for the wonderful people of this planet. I want it to be perfectly edited for all my readers from around the world …
Publisher: Would you like to bear the cost of getting someone from England to edit it then?
Pompous Lass: Will that be cheap?
Publisher: What do you think? Everything is cheap except you?
Pompous Lass: I wouldn’t want to spend my money on that! If it’s too expensive, a local editor should be all right, I guess!
***
WATERLILY: I want to talk to the editor?
Receptionist: Who’s calling?
Waterlily: Lily!
Receptionist: Lily who?
Waterlily: Water “I-can’t-tell-you-my-real-name” Lily!
Receptionist: How can I help you?
Waterlily: I want to talk to the editor about my manuscript?
Receptionist: What’s your manuscript about?
Waterlily: I can’t tell you that! I don’t know who you are. You may just steal and profit from my hard work! I want to speak to the editor!
Editor: Could you send us samples of your work, Water?
Waterlily: I can’t do that either.
Editor: So what can you do, Water?
Waterlily: Why do you need samples of my work?
Editor: So that we could assess your writing and decide whether we want to publish it or not!
Waterlily: Why do you want to review it? I am a famous writer and my work is quoted in all the leading journals all over the galaxy!
Editor: That’s nice and all. However, we would still need to assess it.
Waterlily: Will you be distributing my book in the US and the UK?
Editor: No. We only sell foreign rights for those markets. And over the internet.
Waterlily: Looks like you are not the right publisher for me. Goodbye!
***
AUTHOR: Would you like to publish my book?
Publisher: Well, it depends …
Author: Depends on what?
Publisher: Whether you have a manuscript.
Author: I haven’t written a book. Can you get it written for me?
Publisher: Why is that?
Author: I can’t write.
Publisher: But you have studied for a couple of foreign degrees … and you have lived overseas for many years. With your fake accent and all, I’m sure you could write English.
Author: I’m very bad at grammar. Could you get me a writer whom I could talk to, take down notes and put them all in a book for me? I can talk very well. I just can’t write.
Publisher: Can’t imagine how you manage to pass all your exams over the years!
***
AUTHOR: Can you label me a best-selling author on the cover of my new book?
Editor: No! You are not a best-selling author. And you’ve never have been one.
Author: It’s a way of MARKETING the book!
Editor: I don’t think that’s MARKETING; that’s CONNING. Your first book sold less than a thousand copies in over five years. That, to me, is a disaster of epic proportions!
***
AUTHOR: And on what grounds are you rejecting my manuscript?
Editor: Well, it sucks, for one!
Author: What! How dare you insult me! Everyone who has read it thinks it is a magnificent piece of work!
Editor: Who, pray tell, read your magnum opus?
Author: My dear husband and children, friends and relatives! And my dearest mummy and daddy, too!
Editor: Of course!
Author: So can I take it that you are not interested in publishing my manuscript?
Editor: Duh!
***
AUTHOR: Yahoo! My book is a runaway bestseller!
Editor: How’s that possible?
Author: I got every one of my friends to buy 500 copies of my book. Time for a reprint?
Editor: What do you expect them to do with all the copies of your book?
Author: Who cares what they do with them? Perhaps they can make vegetable stew with them?
***
AUTHOR: I would like you to publish my book?
Editor: Your manuscript, you mean? Well, it all depends on the quality of your manuscript.
Author: What? I know your Financial Controller and the Top Man, you know!
Editor: Ooh, I’m shivering! Of course, we will publish your book—even though it sucks big time!
Author: What?
Editor: Isn’t that what you’re suggesting?

Monday, September 01, 2014

September 2014 Highlights

“Autumn seemed to arrive suddenly that year. The morning of the first SEPTEMBER was crisp and golden as an apple.” J.K. ROWLING, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

Novels
1. Broken Monsters (Mulholland Books, 2014) / Lauren Beukes
2. The Betrayers (Little, Brown, 2014) / David Bezmozgis
3. A History of Loneliness (Doubleday, 2014) / John Boyne
4. Outline (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Rachel Cusk
5. The High Divide (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014) / Lin Enger
6. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (trans. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) (Europa Editions, 2014) / Elena Ferrante
7. Edge of Eternity (Pan Macmillian/Dutton Books, 2014) / Ken Follett
8. The Secret Place (Viking Adult, 2014) / Tana French
9. Mr Mac and Me (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Esther Freud
10. Arctic Summer (Europa Editions, 2014) / Damon Galgut

11. Flood of Fire (John Murray, 2014) / Amitav Ghosh
12. All the Days and Nights (The Friday Project, 2014) / Niven Govinden
13. The Monogram Murders: The New Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot Mystery (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014) / Sophie Hannah
14. The Soul of Discretion (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Susan Hill
15. Printer’s Devil Court (Profile Books, 2014) / Susan Hill
16. Neverhome (Little, Brown, 2014) / Laird Hunt
17. Black Dance (Black Cat/Grove Press, 2014) / Nancy Huston
18. J (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Howard Jacobson
19. The Moor’s Account (Pantheon, 2014) / Laila Lalami
20. The Day of Atonement (Random House, 2014) / David Liss

21. The Undertaking (Grove Press, 2014) / Audrey Magee
22. Station Eleven (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Emily St John Mandel
23. An Event in Autumn (Harvill Secker, 2014) / Henning Mankell
24. Accidents of Marriage (Atria Books, 2014) / Randy Susan Meyers
25. The Bone Clocks (Sceptre/Random House, 2014) / David Mitchell
26. The Taxidermist’s Daughter (Orion, 2014) / Kate Mosse
27. Us (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) / David Nicholls
28. The Dog (Pantheon, 2015) / Joseph O’Neill
29. When the Night Comes (Hatchette Australia, 2014) / Favel Parrett
30. Quartet for the End of Time (William Heinemann/Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2014) / Johanna Skibsrud

31. How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) / Ali Smith
32. A Sudden Light (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Garth Stein
33. The Paying Guests (Virago/Riverhead, 2014) / Sarah Waters

First Novels
1. Under the Tripoli Sky (trans. from the French by Adriana Hunter) (Peirene Press, 2014) / Kamal Ben Hameda
2. The Banks of Certain Rivers (Lake Union Publishing, 2014) / Jon Harrison
3. The Bully of Order (Harper Press, 2014) / Brian Hart
4. Rainey Royal (Soho Press, 2014) / Dylan Landis
5. We Are Not Ourselves (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Matthew Thomas

Stories
1. The Emerald Light in the Air (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Donald Antrim
2. Stone Mattress: Nine Tales (Nan A. Talese/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Margaret Atwood
3. Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined: The Selected Stories of Stella Duffy (Salt Publishing, 2014) / Stella Duffy
4. The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014 (Anchor, 2014) / Laura Furman (ed.)
5. Doll House (Dock Street Press, 2014) / Sara Lippmann
6. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (Fourth Estate/Henry Holt, 2014) / Hilary Mantel
7. Lovely, Dark, Deep (Ecco Press, 2014) / Joyce Carol Oates
8. Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) / Paul Theroux

Poetry
1. The Whole & Rain-domed Universe (Picador, 2014) / Collette Bryce
2. Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Carcanet Press, 2014) / Louise Glück
3. Habitation: Collected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2014) / Sam Hamill

Nonfiction
1. The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (W.W. Norton, 2014) / Diane Ackerman
2. On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press, 2014) / Eula Biss
3. Epilogue: A Memoir (Liveright, 2014) / Will Boast
4. While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal (Seal Press, 2014) / Elizabeth Enslin
5. Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul (W.W. Norton, 2014) / Charles King

6. Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / David Kynaston
7. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Bloomsbury Circus/W.W. Norton, 2014) / John Lahr
8. The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics (Melville House, 2014) / Kenan Malik
9. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Allen Lane/Viking Adult, 2014) / Steven Pinker
10. Between Gods: A Memoir (Doubleday Canada, 2014) / Alison Pick

11. Scorsese: A Retrospective (Thames & Hudson, 2014) / Tom Shone

Friday, August 15, 2014

The AWFUL, AWFUL Malaysian Authors

I HAVE YET TO FULLY RECOVER from producing a spate of horrendous books these couple of months. Yes, months of slow, mind-numbing torture. All right, let me be honest here, these are really bad books that I am talking about. And I am not joking. Seriously. I am calling them “books” here for lack of a better word. On second thought, “trash” would probably be a more appropriate word to use! Worst of all is being literally forced to produce books from manuscripts that have been rejected, but somehow claw their way back from the depths of Hell to scare the bloody living daylights of Humankind. (These nightmarish books to end all nightmares are lethal enough to kill you instantly!) Publishing in Malaysia is like running on a treadmill; you just go nowhere even after much painstaking exertion. Here are some of my not-so-favourite things about being a book editor!

ONE, authors who are willing to (and actually do) pay others to write about them for them (in biographies or autobiographies) and praise them to high heaven. (In this age of self-absorption, self-aggrandisement and shameless self-promotion, there are people who are so obsessed about seeing their names in print that they are willing to pay others to write their books for them!) Some enjoy praising themselves in their badly self-penned autobiographies!

TWO, authors who are ungrateful to their editors and waste their time when their so-called books fail to make a dent in the local or global marketplace.

THREE, authors who plan their all-important book launches (and the food, of course!) without having completed writing their manuscripts or going through their final proofs. Book launches (at opulent five-star hotels and exclusive golf clubs, no less!) are planned even before the ink on the pages has dried—sometimes even before the book is written! (These are a dime a dozen.) It is so easy to get published in Malaysia; there is only one qualification you need: just write badly! Too many authors fall in this category. (I have edited some of the worst autobiographies not only on this planet but the whole galaxy.) And they are such a waste of precious life and prime retail space.

FOUR, psychotic authors who “hijack” the whole publishing process and behave like prima donnas and divas. (There are many of these prancing around like peacocks and peahens.)

FIVE, authors who think the publishing house belongs to their daddies or granddaddies. Believe it or not, money does buy you everything nowadays—despite what they teach you in philosophy school!

SIX, authors who are under the delusion that they write better than V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and R.K. Narayan put together! (An indepth study definitely should be done to delve into this very strange Malaysian malaise.) This state of overconfidence is frightening.

SEVEN, authors who are supposedly graduates of some of the finest universities on the planet, and yet are unable to string proper sentences together or organise their (unintelligible) prose into paragraphs. (Who was it who said that education makes one a well-rounded person? He obviously haven’t had the misfortune of meeting such a creature as a Malaysian. (“If you can’t do such simple things, you might as well flush your degree down the you-know-where,” a schoolmaster once told me in the late 1960s.)

EIGHT, authors who demand advances even though they have no manuscript to show. (Go figure this one out!) For some reason or other, they also want to know their sales figures before sitting down to write the book they say they were put on earth to write. And (this is a good one) they always want to know when their books will be available in the bookshops (when they have yet to write anything)! (I was told by Mama that this sort of behaviour is rooted in one or a combination of these: traumatic childhood experiences, psychological trauma or defective upbringing!)

NINE, authors who do not allow editors to edit their books (and who, for one reason or other, do not edit their own books themselves, usually due to pure laziness, pomposity or other human flaws which should make the Devil so proud of them). They also demand an assurance from the editor that as editor he will be personally responsible for reading every line or word of the atrocious manuscript to ensure that the book is perfect! They just love contradicting themselves, don’t they? (“Don’t you dare edit my work; you are solely responsible for every mistake that occurs in my book and make sure my author photograph is in colour; I want the graphs and tables to be in colour, too. What do you think?”) It’s no surprise to find more than one preface and/or five or six forewords in these books! This group of authors also loves launching their masterpieces and making a public spectacle of themselves! (On the other hand, there are authors who keep amending their work, even after their books have been on bookstore shelves for months!) Or how about this evergreen: “All my friends and relatives have read my manuscript and they all think it’s perfect; there’s no need for more editing to be done.” Or this chestnut: “Why so many rounds of editing-huh?” Or this: “I need the comma there. I dont feel comfortable without it.”

TEN, most potential authors just want to get published; it doesn’t really matter whether their writing is good enough. But it does matter in more ways than one as we all very well know.

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST, authors who cry and wail over the phone and who won’t take no for an answer because they have already invested so little time on the manuscript. (Somehow, they don’t seem to understand why I have rejected their yet-to be-written manuscripts. “I’ll only write it if you want it,” they lament!)

Ironically, authors who write well tend to give editors less problems than those who can’t write!

Rare though they are, I have had the privilege of working with authors who have become great friends over the years. Editing can be a very traumatic experience, but when both writer and editor work well together, the end product is something to behold. I always look forward to working with writers who believe in and are not afraid of rewriting and revising their work; such writers are a joy to work with because they are really passionate about their work and are not afraid of pushing themselves beyond the boundaries.

Do you belong to any or a combination of these stereotypes? I hope not, because these are not exactly role models worth aspiring to!

Friday, August 01, 2014

August 2014 Highlights

“July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden AUGUST sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it.” GERALD DURRELL, from My Family and Other Animals (1956)

Novels
1. Before, During, After (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Richard Bausch
2. The Betrayers (Viking, 2014) / David Bezmozgis
3. Lucky Us (Random House, 2014) / Amy Bloom
4. Outlaws (trans. from the Spanish by Anne McLean) (Bloomsbury Publishing) / Javier Cercas
5. Sweetland (Doubleday Canada, 2014) / Michael Crummey
6. Falling for Hugh (Doubleday Canada, 2014) / Marina Endicott
7. The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus/Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Richard Flanagan
8. The Secret Place (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) / Tana French
9. If Nor For This (Red Hen Press, 2014) / Peter Fromm
10. The Far Side of the Sun (Sphere, 2014) / Kate Furnivall

11. The Magician’s Land (Viking Adult, 2014) / Lev Grossman
12. Tell (HarperCollins Canada, 2014) / Frances Itani
13. The Ghost in the Electric-Blue Suit (published in the U.K. as The Year of the Ladybird) (Doubleday, 2014) / Graham Joyce
14. Twilight of the Eastern Gods (trans. from the French by David Bellos) (Canongate Books, 2014) / Ismail Kadare
15. Windigo Island (Atria Books, 2014) / William Kent Krueger
16. The Lotus and the Storm (Viking, 2014) / Lan Cao
17. Diary of the Fall (trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) (Other Press, 2014) / Michel Laub
18. The Golden Age (Vintage Australia/Random House Australia, 2014) / Joan London
19. Bittersweet (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Colleen McCullough
20. He Wants (Salt Publishing, 2014) / Alison Moore

21. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (trans. from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel) (Alfred A. Knopf/Harvill Secker, 2014) / Haruki Murakami
22. The Long Way Home (Monotaur Books/Sphere, 2014) / Louise Penny
23. The Sheltering (University of South Carolina Press, 2014) / Mark Powell
24. The Girl Next Door (Hutchinson, 2014) / Ruth Rendell
25. A God in Every Stone (Atavist Books, 2014) / Kamila Shamsie
26. Friendswood (Riverhead, 2014) / Rene Steinke
27. Anna Karenina (a new trans. from the Russian by Rosamund Bartlett) (Oxford University Press, 2014) / Leo Tolstoy
28. The Tongues of Men or Angels (Corsair, 2014) / Jonathan Trigell
29. The Thing About December (Steerforth, 2014) / Donal Ryan
30. The Story Hour (Harper, 2014) / Thrity Umrigar

31. Their Lips Talk of Mischief (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Alan Warner

First Novels
1. Painted Horses (Grove Press, 2014) / Malcolm Brooks
2. The Miniaturist (Ecco, 2014) / Jessie Burton
3. Season of the Dragonflies (William Morrow, 2014) / Sarah Creech
4. Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) / Lisa Howorth
5. What Ends (Oneworld Publications, 2014) / Andrew Ladd
6. Dear Daughter (Viking Adult/Harvill Secker, 2014) / Elizabeth Little
7. The Feathers (Piscataqua Press, 2014) / Cynthia Lott
8. The Invention of Exile (Penguin Press, 2014) / Vanessa Manko
9. Your Face in Mine (Riverhead, 2014) / Jess Row
10. The Story of Land and Sea (Harper, 2014) / Katy Simpson Smith

11. The Scatter Here Is Too Great (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Bilal Tanweer
12. We Are Not Ourselves (Simon & Schuster/Fourth Estate, 2014) / Matthew Thomas
13. The Girls from Corona del Mar (Hutchinson, 2014) / Rufi Thorpe

Stories
1. Mr. Tall (Little, Brown, 2014) / Tony Earley
2. The Liar’s Wife: Four Novellas (Pantheon, 2014) / Mary Gordon
3. The Dog (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Jack Livings
4. Night: Collected Stories (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Edna O’Brien
5. Flings (Harper, 2014) / Justin Taylor

Poetry
1. Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Liz Berry
2. Poems of the American South (Everyman’s Library, 2014) / David Biespiel (ed.)
3. Standing Shadows (Faber & Faber, 2014) / David Harsent
4. The Stairwell (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Michael Longley
5. Where the Wind Sleeps: New & Selected Poems (Salmon Publishing, 2014) / Neil Monahan
6. Moscow in the Plague Year: Poems (trans. from the Russian by Christopher Whyte) (Archipelago, 2014) / Marina Tsvetaeva

Nonfiction
1. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press, 2014) / William Deresiewicz
2. Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Jean Findlay
3. Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014) / Roxane Gay
4. Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014) / Adrian Goldsworthy
5. Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Dianne Hales
6. The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (Current/Penguin USA, 2014) / Michael Harris
7. Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar (Faber & Faber, 2014) / James Harvey
8. The Homing Instinct: The Story and Science of Migration (William Collins, 2014) / Bernd Heinrich
9. The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (Graywolf Press, 2014) / Carl Phillips
10. Berlin Now: The City After the Fall (trans. from the German by Sophie Schlondorff) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Peter Schneider

11. Susan Sontag: A Biography (trans. from the German by David Dollenmayer) (Northwestern University Press, 2014) / Daniel Schreiber
12. Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918 (Allen Lane, 2014) / Alexander Watson

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

July 2014 Highlights

“They talk about big skies in the western United States, and they may indeed have them, but you have never seen such lofty clouds, such towering anvils, as in Iowa in JULY.” BILL BRYSON, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006)

Novels
1. Mr. Gwyn (trans. From the Italian by Ann Goldstein) (McSweeney’s, 2014) / Alessandro Baricco
2. The Incarnations (Doubleday, 2014) / Susan Barker
3. The Disappearance Boy (Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) / Neil Bartlett
4. The Symmetry Teacher (trans. from the Russian by Polly Gannon) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Andrei Bitov
5. Arts & Entertainments (Ecco, 2014) / Christopher Beha
6. Broken Monsters (HarperCollins, 2014) / Lauren Beukes
7. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands (Random House, 2014) / Chris Bohjalian
8. Touched (Hammer, 2014) / Joanna Briscoe
9. Wayfaring Strangers (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / James Lee Burke
10. Aren’t We Sisters? (Fig Tree/Penguin, 2014) / Patricia Ferguson

11. The Narrow Path to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Richard Flanagan
12. John the Pupil (Fourth Estate, 2014) / David Flusfeder
13. Sisters of Treason (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Elizabeth Fremantle
14. Vixen (The Borough Press/HarperCollins, 2014) / Rosie Garland
15. The Fortune Hunter (St Martin’s Press, 2014) / Daisy Goodwin
16. Upstairs at the Party (Virago, 2014) / Linda Grant
17. The Emperor Waltz (Fourth Estate, 2014) / Philip Hensher
18. Thirst (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Kerry Hudson
19. The Sea Garden (Orion, 2014) / Deborah Lawrenson
20. Road Ends (The Dial Press, 2014) / Mary Lawson

21. The Hundred-Year House (Viking Adult, 2014) / Rebecca Makkai
22. Little Lies (published as Big Little Lies in the U.S.) (Penguin/Putnam, 2014) / Liane Moriarty
23. The House of Small Shadows (St Martin’s Press, 2014) / Adam Nevill
24. The Final Silence (Harvill Secker, 2014) / Stuart Neville
25. Painting Death (Harvill Secker, 2014) / Tim Parks
26. Breakfast with the Borgias (Hammer Books, 2014) / DBC Pierre
27. In Love and War (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Alex Preston
28. Evergreen (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Rebecca Rasmussen
29. Red Joan (Europa Editions, 2014) / Jennie Rooney
30. Skylight (trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) (Harvill Secker, 2014) / José Saramago

31. The Dark Meadow (trans. from the German by Anthea Bell) (Quercus, 2014) / Andrea Maria Schenkel
32. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (Atria Books, 2014) / Genevieve Valentine
33. The Storms of War (Orion, 2014) / Kate Williams
34. The Care and Management of Lies (Harper/Allison & Busby, 2014) / Jacqueline Winspear

First Novels
1. Panic in a Suitcase (Riverhead, 2014) / Yelena Akhtiorskaya
2. A Man Called Ove (trans. from the Swedish by Henning Koch) (Atria, 2014) / Fredrik Backman
3. Life Drawing (Random House, 2014) / Robin Black
4. The Miniaturist (Picador, 2014) / Jessie Burton
5. High as the Horses’ Bridles (Henry Holt, 2014) / Scott Cheshire
6. The Angel of Losses (Ecco, 2014) / Stephanie Feldman
7. In the Beginning Was the Sea (trans. from the Spanish by Frank Wynne) (Pushkin Press, 2014) / Tomás González
8. Friendship (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Emily Gould
9. Ishmael’s Oranges (Oneworld Publications, 2014) / Claire Hajaj
10. Love, Love Me Do (Piatkus, 2014) / Mark Haysom

11. Nobody Is Ever Missing (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Catherine Lacey
12. The Home Place (William Morrow, 2014) / Carrier La Seur
13. California (Little, Brown, 2014) / Edan Lepucki
14. Lay It On My Heart (Mariner Books, 2014) / Angela Pneuman
15. Last Night at the Blue Angel (William Morrow, 2014) / Rebecca Rotert
16. Mating for Life (Washington Square Press, 2014) / Marissa Stapley
17. The Girls from Corona del Mar (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Rufi Thorpe
18. Drifting (Akashic Books, 2014) / Katia D. Ulysse
19. The Great Glass Sea (Grove Press, 2014) / Josh Weil
20. Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead, 2014) / Tiphanie Yanique

Stories
1. Noontide Toll (Granta Books, 2014) / Romesh Gunesekera
2. The Best British Short Stories 2014 (Salt Publishing, 2014) / Nicholas Royle (ed.)
3. Animals in Motion (Roundabout Press, 2014) / David Ryan
4. England and Other Stories (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Graham Swift
5. Last Stories and Other Stories (Viking, 2014) / William T. Vollmann

Poetry
1. The Orchid Boat (Enitharmon Press, 2014) / Lee Harwood
2. Second Childhood (Graywolf Press, 2014) / Fanny Howe

Nonfiction
1. Pericles of Athens (trans. from the French by Janet Lloyd) (Princeton University Press, 2014) / Vincent Azoulay
2. The Iceberg: A Memoir (Atlantic Books, 2014) / Marion Coutts
3. The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle (Grove Press, 2014) / Francisco Goldman
4. Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar (Faber & Faber, 2014) / James Harvey
5. My Two Italies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Joseph Luzzi
6. H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Helen Macdonald
7. The Removers: A Memoir (Scribner, 2014) / Andrew Meredith
8. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee (Penguin Press, 2014) / Marja Mills
9. This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War (Penguin Books India, 2014) / Samanth Subramanian
10. World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II (Allen Lane, 2014) / Hugh Thomas

11. Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown, 2014) / Wallace J. Nichols
12. More Curious (McSweeney’s, 2014) / Sean Wilsey
13. A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War (Hutchinson, 2014) / Sebastian Faulks & Hope Wolf (eds.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

FUNNY PEOPLE

Three well-known Malaysian comedians, HARITH ISKANDER, DOUGLAS LIM and KUAH JENHAN, speak to NAJUA ISMAIL and shed light on the serious side of stand-up comedy in Malaysia

Photography by KENNY LOH
Hair & Make-up by AMBER CHIA ACADEMY

OUR COVER STORY is all about people who make a living by making others laugh. Malaysia’s well-known professional stand-up comedians, Harith Iskander, Douglas Lim and Kuah Jenhan, have a way of tickling our funny bones. While each of them has attained a measure of success, they are quick to acknowledge that pleasing a crowd is no walk in the park. They spend a lot of time researching their funny stories, observing everything around them, and drawing inspiration from their own lives.

HARITH ISKANDER
On Merdeka Day 22 years ago, Harith Iskander stood in front of a small audience of about 12 at the lobby lounge of the Subang Airport Hotel and told them his “funny stories”. He didn’t realise it then, but that was the beginning of his professional journey as a stand-up comedian.

A few weeks later, he was at a bar in SS2, Petaling Jaya, watching a performance by Rafique Rashid. During a break, someone mentioned to the singer that Harith tells funny stories and he was invited on stage. He got a good response and was asked to come back the following week. People who came to watch began asking him to do the same at their functions and events.

“And that’s how it started. There wasn’t any planning. I knew it was stand-up comedy but the audience didn’t know,” says Harith. At the time, there wasn’t really a stand-up comedy scene in Malaysia. Unlike today’s generation of stand-up comics who have access to YouTube and other social media channels for reference, Harith’s sole resource was Eddie Murphy’s comedy sessions that were available only on VHS.

“Someone had gone to the US and had brought a copy of Delirious and Raw, which were Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy shows on film.” He watched and learned from Murphy and then other comedians as his stand-up career took off. “I got my friends to send me more VHS tapes of people like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Billy Connolly so I could study them.”

For a long time, he was the sole stand-up comedian in the country. However, when others began to emerge on the scene, Harith took them under his wing, offering people like Douglas Lim and later Kuah Jenhan the opportunity to open his shows. While both have said he made a difference in their careers, one can’t help but ask why he embraced the competition when he had the market cornered.

“It keeps me on my toes because for 15 years I could just sit back and not feel the need to get better but with the new comedians coming up, I’m forced to keep getting better and I welcome that,” he says. Harith also points out that there are currently a few comics catering to the corporate crowd.

“I know the younger ones want to break into the corporate market but it’s tough. Douglas and I started doing corporate shows but the young comedians today are cutting their teeth in clubs.”

It’s a different ballgame, says Harith, who explains that it’s easier to get a laugh in the clubs where people come expecting their funny bone to be tickled. “It’s like a slap in the face when nobody laughs at you in a corporate show after you’ve had the crowd in stitches at a club.” However, having more stand-up comics in the market is not only good for variety, it also helps create appreciation for what more experienced performers can bring to the table, he reveals.

There was a time though when Harith had trouble seeing the value in his own work. “For the first 12 years, I was earning what I considered a lot for doing this but deep down I actually thought I didn’t deserve it.” However, an encounter with a fan at Afdlin Shauki’s open house changed his mind. “There was this Chinese gentleman in his mid-forties who came up to me and said, ‘Hey Harith, I’m a big fan, thank you very much, I love your jokes, you’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing ...’, and he kept going on and on and it was getting a bit embarrassing,” he recalls.

He began to see the man in a different light when the gentleman told Harith what he did for a living. “He was a paediatrician and he started telling me about the many children he had to treat every day because of a dengue outbreak at the time. Some he could save, and some he couldn’t. Then I was really embarrassed. This guy saves children’s lives and for the last five minutes he has been telling me how good and important I am!”

But the doctor put things into perspective for him. “He faces death every day and what he needs after work is to go to a club or function and ‘laugh at Harith’. It was only then that I realised what I do has a value.”

Quick & Quirky Q&A
What is usually the first thought you have when you wake up?
Did my wife sleep well and how is the baby?

Name one thing you’d do if you were Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Eliminate the four boxes denoting race on forms. Only one box will do: Malaysian. I’ll make that a ruling, put it out there and see what happens.

If you could date a cartoon character, who would you pick and what would the date be like?
Veronica from the Archie comics. I’ve never been into blonde Mat Sallehs. When I was studying in Australia for five years, I wasn’t attracted to any blonde chick but I was attracted to the Asian-looking chick, the Spanish-looking chick, the ones with dark hair. I think that started because of Veronica. So, on the date, I’d tell her she’s The One.

If your son told you he wants to move to LA to do stand-up, what would you say to him?
I’d say, go! Because my parents were like that with me. Do whatever you want to do.

***

DOUGLAS LIM
According to family lore, at the age of three or four, Douglas Lim proclaimed that he wanted to be a clown. “I guess what resonated with me at that age is that it’s synonymous with humour,” says Douglas. “I guess I liked this whole idea of laughter and being part of it, and if possible being the cause and catalyst of it.”

That ambition, however, was soon forgotten as he grew older and began pursuing other interests such as singing and songwriting. He even cut an album at an early age but admits that things didn’t work out as he hoped. One of the songs from the album, however, was selected as the theme song for local sitcom Kopitiam and Douglas, who was only 17 at the time, also became a cast member. “From then on, comedy came back into my life in a very big way,” he remembers. “I’ve always liked making people laugh but then I had proof that what I did was funny.”

This confident outlook was put to the test when he made his debut as a stand-up comedian at a show called Comedy Pest at the Actor’s Studio (then in Bangsar) in 2002. “The Star gave me a scathing review and tore me apart,” he recalls. This was followed by a show at the Beach Club, which on hindsight, Douglas realises, he should have turned down. “You can’t do stand-up there! There are distractions of a very ‘alluring’ nature. How can you compete with that?” he chuckles.

It must have been heartbreaking at the time but today Douglas laughs as he recalls his early struggles as a stand-up comic, especially when doing shows for the corporate crowd. “It was a year to a year and a half of bad shows. Some were so bad, they didn’t want to pay me. They were like, ‘You were rubbish!’ ” He had a pillow thrown at him at a slumber party for a VIP. During another corporate event, the band actually crept back onstage, first to help out by having the drummer cue the audience to the punchline and when that didn’t work out, to play him off the stage!

The turning point came when Harith invited Douglas to open his shows. “I started learning from Harith what you are supposed to do or what helps in an entire stand-up performance. And it’s not just your jokes.” Douglas points out that, unlike public shows, audiences at a corporate function are not there for the sole purpose of watching a stand-up performance. “They are there to meet their friends, eat, drink, network, and maybe win a fridge. You are just a pleasant distraction, if at all,” he reveals.

“What I learned from Harith about corporate shows is that its success really starts before you even come on stage. You have to make sure there is an atmospheric change.” Aside from the humour, logistics is what makes stand-up comedy successful, says Douglas, who further explains that lights should be dimmed or completely blacked out before the comedian makes an appearance, and for very large crowds, big screens should be installed.

“It’s also hard to do comedy and get a response when the prawns are out on the dinner table,” he contends. “You cannot compete with prawns no matter how funny you are! For comedy, it has to be vegetables or rice ... better still, no food should be served during a stand-up set.”

What’s also important in stand-up comedy is to understand the audience. “Why is stand-up associated with urban crowds instead of rural audiences? It’s because of the scepticism expected from audiences who come to watch stand-up comedy. The audience must know what irony is, they must be slightly jaded, so when the comedian says something, they understand the meaning behind it,” explains Douglas.

“Like when I go on stage and say the Malaysian police force is the most efficient police force in the world, an urban audience would understand what I’m talking about. When I did it with a rural crowd, they started applauding! Then I thought, uh-oh, this joke is not going to work!”

Getting a negative response or no feedback at all from the audience is not only disheartening, but also has a physiological effect on him. “My tongue goes dry, the throat catches, and I start to sweat. Fortunately (or unfortunately), he has done enough bad shows to persevere in the face of a hostile or indifferent audience. “Just keep trying and don’t give up. If something’s not working, I’ll try something different, maybe something more physically or accent based.”

While he maintains that stand-up comics tend to remember their bad shows instead of their good ones, Douglas says a highlight in his career was going to Australia to perform for Malaysians who were living or studying there. “It was great to see the response from the audience over there. Not only were they laughing at the jokes, you could hear in the laughter that tinge of homesickness and it was beautiful! It felt so nice to bring them a piece of home for a while.”

Quick & Quirky Q&A
What is usually the first thought you have when you wake up?
Is it lunch time ... and what do I want for lunch? I wake up at about 11.30am.

Name one thing you’d do if you were Prime Minister of Malaysia.
I would write a book while I was still in office.

If you could date a cartoon character, who would you pick and what would the date be like?
I would date Jem from Jem and the Holograms. We would sing songs and just jam at a karaoke session so she would know I’m a much better singer than her boyfriend Rio.

If you had a kid, and he told you he wants to move to LA to do stand-up, what would you say to him?
Make sure you pack everything!

***

KUAH JENHAN
As a schoolboy, Kuah Jenhan dreamed of performing at the Actor’s Studio in Bangsar. His chance came about a couple of years after he left school. “There was an event called Free Flow, which was an open-mike show at the Actor’s Studio. The rule was you pay RM10 and you get 10 minutes on stage to do a comedy bit,” he recalls.

Jenhan enthusiastically forked out the RM10 and told the organisers he would be doing a sketch. “They told me this is stand-up comedy—just one man telling jokes,” says Jenhan. “I was like, ‘Got such thing ah?’, so they booked me for the last day.”

Jenhan admits his first show was a hit and miss. However, the friends he gained through the experience alerted him to another opportunity a few months later. A club in Avenue K was organising a comedy competition but Jenhan was reluctant to take part until he heard that the top prize was RM500.

“My second show was the preliminaries and I made it to the finals. My third show as a stand-up comedian was the finals,” Jenhan recounts. Not only did he win, he also received a surprising offer. “The emcee, who was also the event organiser, came up to me and said, ‘Boy, do what you just did at my event and I will give you the same amount of money,’ and I actually asked him, ‘You mean this is a job?’ ” That was the first time Jenhan learned he could actually earn a living doing stand-up.

He had second thoughts, however, about pursuing a career in comedy when he fared “horribly” on the two professional assignments he was given. Jenhan was largely ignored during the first show, which was a networking event. “People go to meet and talk with other people—not to keep quiet and listen.”

While he described the second show as a “teenage boy’s wet dream”, Jenhan admitted the experience turned out to be a nightmare. “It was in a club called Babe with an all-female audience,” he recalls. Unfortunately, English was not the audience’s first language. “The girls didn’t really understand my jokes and there was free flow of alcohol, so they just talked to each other.”

Jenhan was crushed by the reception. “If there are 300 people in the audience, it feels like 300 people have just dumped you and they are now forming an ‘anti-you’ club and they are bitching about you right in front of you!”

He put comedy on the backburner for three years to pursue his studies and made a grudging comeback at the urging of his friends when the Actor’s Studio Bangsar was closing. Returning to the stage where he made his debut as a stand-up comedian proved fortuituous. While he was watching the show after his performance, a “drunk Indian guy” looked at him and said, “Meet me outside.”

“It was Indi Nadarajah!” Jenhan exclaims. Indi had been one the judges of the comedy competition at the club in Avenue K. He asked Jenhan why he disappeared from the comedy scene. “I told him, ‘Indi, I’m too afraid to do comedy, I doubt myself too much.’ ” Then, the seasoned comedian gave the young neophyte “the best advice I’ve ever been given”, as Jenhan puts it.

“He said, ‘You should be happy you doubt yourself because when you doubt yourself, you know you are real, and when you know you are real, the audience will know you are real. The worst thing that can happen for a comedian is overconfidence.’ ”

Not long after that, Jenhan was back to resume his stand-up career. The going was tough in the beginning and for a long time, Jenhan was only earning RM200 a month performing at open-mike shows. He took it in stride, though. “I thought to myself, I’d rather invest time working on myself because when you’re good, people will know,” he says. “At the end of the day, you can sell yourself however much you want but you still have to perform. I think that was a good move.”

It appears so, as Jenhan has joined the ranks of established names like Harith Iskander and Douglas Lim. He expects more people to join the fray in the future, which he views as a positive development. “When there are more comedians, that means there is a higher demand. When there is more demand, more people will want to watch stand-up comedy.”

Quick & Quirky Q&A
What is usually the first thought you have when you wake up?
What day is it? Probably because I have the luxury of not having a routine, so there are times when I’m damn busy and others when I’m very free, that’s usually when I have no idea what day it is.

Name one thing you’d do if you were Prime Minister of Malaysia.
I will implement an incentive to encourage more people to pay their taxes. It will be a lottery system that is only eligible for taxpayers. One name will be pulled from this system every day and that person will be escorted by outriders to work and back during rush hour for the day.

If you could date a cartoon character, who would you pick and what would the date be like?
I would date Sailor Venus (from the Japanese anime series Sailor Moon) and tell her that even though she is not the leader of the gang, she is still my favourite. I would take her out for some nice yakitori because she’s probably more comfortable with Japanese food. I’ll make sure there’s a full moon, we would go to the lake and I’d say, “Do you see the big moon behind me? I don’t care about Sailor Moon, all I care about is you.”

If you had a kid, and he told you he wants to move to LA to do stand-up, what would you say to him?
Go ahead … but if you fail, I’ll have more jokes for my routine!

Reproduced from the October-December 2013 issue of Quill magazine