Saturday, May 31, 2008

Su AZIZ talks to Kunal BASU


Su Aziz spoke to Kunal Basu, the prolific Indian author whose work has been compared to that of Asia’s first literary Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.

DID YOU KNOW that short stories have their origins in “oral story-telling traditions and the prose anecdote, a swiftly-sketched situation that comes rapidly to its point?”

To me, a book of short stories is the perfect weeknight read simply because it disciplines me to stop only when a story ends. Happily, this is rather quick when compared to a novel.

Now the million-word question is, just how different is it to write short stories compared to full-length novels?

As the author of a recently-published collection of short stories, Kunal Basu thinks there is no difference between the two.

“One needs the same resolve to begin and enjoy the same sense of euphoria when satisfied with one’s writing.

“Only short stories require more urgency in bringing matters to a close. I love to both read and write such stories. But I also like to hone my craft via a wide spectrum of writing, from screenplays and poetry to journalism and academic non-fiction.”

A professor of marketing at Oxford University, England, the 52-year-old father of one admits there is no trick or method when it comes to writing short stories. “They’re just exciting tales that one’s dying to tell others.” Sounds simple enough!

Having completed and published three novels, or as Kunal called them, “historical fiction“ (The Opium Clerk, The Miniaturist and Racists), his latest is a collection of short stories titled The Japanese Wife.

With a publisher for a father and an author for a mother, it was natural that Kunal took to writing. “I have, as far back as I can remember, always written. First in Bangla, which is my mother tongue, as well as in English.”

Kunal’s early writings were mostly poetry and literary essays. He only started writing novels about a decade ago. “Writing is my passion, something that I have to do every day. It is of the order of a grand obsession.”

He has also acted on stage and for film, but it is a minor interest, he said. “I started acting in Indian cinema, then did theatre, both in India and in Canada, where I lived for 13 years.”

He recently made a cameo appearance in The Japanese Wife, which has been turned into a movie by India’s celebrated director, Aparna Sen.

The Japanese Wife is a dozen short stories, including an intriguing love story: a marriage of many decades but one that was never consummated, fuelled only by old-fashion snail mail, the couple being separated by 6,500km of distance.

This curious story stemmed from Kunal’s travels through rural India many moons ago. “I heard about a village man who married a foreigner, which I thought rather unusual. Many years later, I wrote the story of “The Japanese Wife.”

“Stories are products of daydreaming and I am an avid daydreamer. A sentence overheard on the street, a news snippet or something innocuous could start off a chain of thoughts that lead to a story. People have asked me why a Japanese wife? I don’t know. The image of a simple Japanese woman just came to my mind.”

He cites the various inspirations for each of his 12 tales in the book. “The Grateful Ganga,” for example, is about a lover of Indian popular music. As a father, “The Pearlfisher” makes him wistful whenever he thinks about his daughter living in California. “Father Tito’s Onion Rings,” about a priest in Yugoslavia embroiled in a communal riot, is his way of giving vent to his drive for defending the downtrodden.

“I love travelling and so there’s a story about a dalang Yogya in the book, which always brings a smile to my face when I read it as it reminds me of a real-life dalang who had become my friend.”

Having taken over a decade to put pen to paper for these tales, Kunal said each story in this collection reflects to some measure the key preoccupations of his life during this period.

The most memorable comment about the book was when a reviewer compared the stories to those of Rabindranath Tagore.

“Worthy of a Tagore,” the reviewer wrote.

“I didn’t believe it for a moment, but it set my spirit soaring!” A compliment of the highest order, indeed.

The Japanese Wife the movie is due for release later this year.

Kunal voiced his admiration for its director. “I have seen a partly completed version and have been touched deeply. She [Aparna Sen] captured both the lyrical and surreal nature of the story. It is very funny and the music score is breathtaking, blending the Japanese koto and sakuhachi with Indian flutes.

“This is the first time that a Japanese actor has been featured in an Indian film and Chigusa Takako has given a stellar performance as have Rahul Bose and Mousumi Chatterjee.

“In many ways, this is a film for a world audience, not a film to be distributed abroad for the Indian diaspora.”

Today, between Oxford, writing and the myriad other creative things he is up to, Kunal still has time to read Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan, about the personal memoirs of a dalit (the “untouchable” class in India). “It is a disturbing and deeply touching book,” he said.

If he had one wish, what would it be? “That the goddess of literature would descend on me and remain with me forever.”

His books are selling at MPH Bookstores and other major bookstores.

Interview courtesy of the New Straits Times of May 31, 2008

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Friday, May 30, 2008


NIKI AGUIRRE is a London-based fiction writer, born in Chicago to Ecuadorian parents. She studied English Literature at the University of Illinois and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London. Her début collection of short stories, 29 Ways to Drown, was published in 2007 by Flipped Eye Publishing and was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She is the recipient of the Birkbeck Oustanding Achievement Award for Creative Fiction in 2006 and a grant from the Arts Council of England in 2007. Her short stories have been published in Tell Tales, Mechanics’ Institute Review, X-24: Unclassified and LITRO Magazine. Aguirre is currently working on her first novel.

Aguirre recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from her home in London.

How did you find out about the longlist?
I returned from a wedding, a little tipsy from too much champagne, to find an e-mail from my publisher. I had to read it a few times to make sure I wasn’t imagining things.

What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
See champagne reference above. I did a little cabbage patch, ‘It’s your birthday, it’s your birthday,’ dance, before crashing. The next day I e-mailed family and friends and went out for a celebratory meal. Writers spend so much time willingly chained to our desks and laptops; it’s good now and then to step away and have fun.

What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
I recently read Vanessa Gebbie’s Words from a Glass Bubble and I’m currently reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. I’m looking forward to Clare Wigfall’s The Loudest Sound and Nothing and Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter. The fantastic thing about the Frank O’Connor Award is having a whole list of new collections and authors to read.

How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I first heard about it during the 2006 Small Wonder Festival, which is three days in Charleston completely devoted to short stories. Miranda July’s win last year for No One Belongs Here More Than You was also well publicised.

What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
Timing is crucial. In shorts you can’t get as carried away or ramble as much as you you’re allowed to in a novel. Short stories require decisiveness and precision. You have to make choices (often brutal) about what goes and what stays. A good story is like watching an Olympic gymnastics routine—years of training for a few breathtaking seconds, which could culminate in a spectacular fall or a flawless finish. You never know. In such a small space, everything counts; everything is possible. It is both exciting and terrifying to try to fill it with what you want to say. A longer narrative has interesting side streets to weave in and out of—pit stops and places where you unravel and tease out the telling. Timing is also important, but in a different way. As a reader, I am more forgiving of inconsistencies in the longer form. In 300 pages there are bound to be a few highs and lows, right? As long as I’m hooked on the narrative, I’ll continue. Most challenging in a novel is being able to sustain the energy and excitement I get from writing a short story.

Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Writers tend to publish their short-story collections after publishing their novels. What are your thoughts on this?
My first love is short stories. I love reading them. I love writing them. Until recently—minus a few painful years at university when I dressed in black and fancied myself a poet—that’s all I’ve ever wanted to write. So I’m glad I published my collection first before trying my hand at a novel. I hope to continue writing both. But to answer your question, I know there are short-story writers out there who feel they have to wrestle with a novel first in order to be taken seriously. This is partly because the publishing industry keeps insisting short stories don’t sell, so writers pen a few novels that will secure them agents and publishing deals, after which it is permissible to publish a collection. The opposite also happens, where unknown writers cut their teeth on short stories in order to get their name out. While this is a great experience that teaches the value of succinct prose and economy of language, few writers seldom return to the form after a novel. Without subsequent collections it is difficult to note progression. I don’t want to imagine a world where Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor stopped writing stories to dedicate themselves only to novels. I’d read them still—they are great writers—but what a loss! On a positive note, I was thrilled to find that the U.K. has an unprecedented 14 books on the Frank O’Connor list. That gives me hope that the short story is on the rise and on the way to becoming respectable again. The U.K. has often lagged behind the U.S. in terms of publications and outlets for writers of shorts. With the increase of small independent publishers and live events taking place in London, exciting things are starting to happen.

What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
That’s a tough question. I’d have to say it’s a tie between Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat and Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones. Both leave me awestruck for different reasons. Gogol because of his ability to combine humour with hopelessness, and Borges for his amazing ideas and the twisted worlds he introduces to his unsuspecting readers. To me these writers embody the things I love most about the form: dazzling intellects, amazing imaginations and heartbreakingly beautiful prose. And all in a few pages!

Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
Yes, I think publishers have a hard time selling collections, particularly small presses, which don’t have the big budgets or resources of the larger publishing houses. In addition, it is difficult to market collections from unknown writers. It is challenging to get people to review them and almost impossible to get them well-placed in brick-and-mortar bookstores, which often only want to stock books that sell by the thousands. The good news is that a lot of collections sell through word of mouth and self-promotion—so despite what the industry says, they do sell. I think one of the ways to get the word out is through high-profile events, like the Frank O’Connor, which highlights international writers. Readings are another way to publicise stories and a good place to network and meet other writers. I had the opportunity last year to read at the Brooklyn Book Fair and that was great fun. Finally, places that review shorts are very good for exposing new collections, such as The Short Story Review.

The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008

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Thursday, May 29, 2008


MONTREAL-born Alison MacLeod is the author of Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, 2007) which was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She grew up in Canada and has lived in England since 1987 when she accepted a place on the University of Lancaster’s MA programme in Creative Writing. She is also the author of two novels: The Changeling (Macmillan, 1996) and The Wave Theory of Angels (Hamish Hamilton, 2005). MacLeod lives in Brighton and teaches English and creative writing at the University of Chichester.

The Canadian author recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from her home in Brighton, England.

How did you find out about the longlist?
It was a complete surprise. Tania Hershman, the editor of the brilliant online The Short Review, e-mailed me her congratulations as soon as she heard the news.

What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
Some things never change—I phoned my mother. Then I picked up the battered copy of the collection that I use for readings. I had a flick through. I must admit, it was wonderful and strange to imagine the stories travelling more widely in the world. I write at a small desk in my front room in England, but of course you never know the spaces and worlds your stories will enter; the lives they will meet.

What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
It’s an impressive and exciting list. I know some of the British writers: Adam Marek, Wendy Perriam and Vanessa Gebbie—all of whom are terrific. I recently heard David Gaffney read from Aroma Bingo and enjoyed that a lot. I’ve been looking forward to reading Clare Wigfall’s collection and many of the others on the list. I get a bit compulsive about story collections.

How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I first heard about it when Yiyun Li won it for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a collection I admired. I think the Frank O’Connor Award is exciting because it’s truly international; it’s also genuinely about discovery—discovering the best new story writing, whether that writer is up-and-coming or a household name.

What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
If a novel is like a marriage between the writer and her story—something you settle comfortably into, the short story is more like an affair, urgent, poetic, and mysterious. I love both forms for very different reasons. I enjoy the big canvas the novel offers; the sense that, as a writer, you can transport your reader to a world very different perhaps from their own; that its characters will reveal themselves over time to us, as in life. But I also love the beautiful economy of the short-story form; the gamble of writing when every line counts; the quiet, internal pressure of the form that, as V.S. Pritchett once said, “should capture a character at bursting point.” And I love, above all, the resonant hum of a good short-story ending when you know you’ve got it right.

Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Writers tend to publish their short-story collections after publishing their novels. What are your thoughts on this?
This was my experience, too. I published two novels before Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2007. I’d been writing and publishing short stories for twenty years, but yes, there is often the belief in the major publishing houses that a new story collection by a previously unknown author will sink out of sight, no matter how good. Having said that, my publisher Hamish Hamilton, pride themselves on their eclectic list, and they were very open-minded from the outset. More generally though, in the U.K., the short story has not always flourished as it has in North America. I think many readers here have been unsure of how to approach collections until recently. Some readers don’t like the idea of having to imagine a new world and a new cast of characters every 10 or 15 pages—or they don’t until they discover the ‘rush’ of a short story, that is; the sense, with a good one, that you’ve had something like a hit to the brain. More and more readers in the U.K. are buying story collections now. That’s due, no doubt, to the attentions of awards like the Frank O’Connor Award, the National Short Story Prize and The Small Wonder Short Story Festival; also perhaps to the rise in MA courses in creative writing, where many people are discovering brilliant stories for the first time. Good independent houses like Comma Press, Salt Publishing and Serpent’s Tail have also taken risks—and made their reputations—with publishing short stories.

What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
That’s a tough one—and my answer changes whenever I’m asked so I must be fickle—but I’ll say Amy Bloom’s 1993 collection Come to Me. It’s daring, provocative even—but beautifully grounded in everyday lives and, at the same time, so tender.

At the University of Chichester, do you encourage aspiring writers to publish a collection of short stories first, or should they start with a full-length novel?
It really depends on the writer and the story he or she wants to tell. Publishing single short stories is no mean feat, and it’s a great way to build a track record; agents and editors will respect that. I have one MA student whose story collection seems to be on the brink of finding a good independent publisher. Other students are natural novelists and write ‘big’ narratives more easily; they can’t always work with the economy of the short story. But, as I say, the story—whether it’s a novel or a short story—has to come first. If you set out firstly to publish, rather than to write, you can get yourself into a muddle. Every writer needs to be realistic and aware, but you also need to protect the private, free-wheeling space of your writing. If you’re thinking about what you ‘should’ be writing, if you don’t takes risks of one kind or another, nothing happens.

How do you manage your time between teaching and writing?
I don’t always! It’s a very tricky balancing act, both time-wise and financially. I lecture part-time (3 or 4 days a week), so that’s a substantial commitment with a new novel to write, new stories on the go, and so on. I’m very fortunate, however, to have some wonderful colleagues at Chichester, including other writers from whom I’ve learned a great deal. It’s a very creative community, and, in spite of the old image of the writer in the garret, most writers need, at least some of the time, the company of other writers, readers and artists. I know I do.

Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
Yes, publishers and editors might themselves appreciate the power of a great short-story collection, but they do usually find them hard to sell. And these days, editors are very accountable to their company’s accountants. I think the situation is improving with the success of some high-profile collections and story writers in recent years. Short-story events at festivals (or entire short-story festivals like The Small Wonder Short Story Festival) are vital because that’s where the unbeatable ‘word of mouth’ factor can begin for new collections. Also, practically speaking, short-story awards are an enormous help to publishers simply because they know we’re all a bit obsessed with ‘literary fashion’ these days. But I think publishers need to do a lot more work at the ‘front line,’ perhaps changing the attitudes of their own sales reps and the perceptions, above all, of the large book retailers. Perhaps organisations (in the U.K.) like the Book Trust (wonderful supporters of the short story) could help with this kind of ‘re-education’ initiative. After all, the large bookshop chains have so much power in determining our literary culture they need to be aware of the impact they’re having on literary culture and the writers who ‘feed’ them. Also, I’m afraid agents, brilliant as they often are, can also be a block in the process, only because any advance for a story collection will be significantly lower than that offered for a novel, so the commission they’ll earn probably won’t merit the work it will take to place it. As a result many agents simply won’t consider story collections and that has a domino effect in publishing. Agents might also worry that their novelist-client’s sales figures will be lower for a collection and that could be damaging. So only when large booksellers change their ideas about the commercial potential of stories, and promote them in the same way they do new novels, will other areas of resistance in the publishing chain begin to shift.

The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

4 Delectable Asian Novels

All titles available at MPH Mid Valley, Kuala Lumpur

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Chiew-Siah TEI ... Little Hut of Leaping Fishes (Picador, 2008)

A SWEEPING, GRIPPING TALE of rebellion and discovery, Chiew-Siah Tei’s Little Hut of Leaping Fishes (Picador, June 2008) traces one man’s journey to seek a life of his own in the slipstream of historic change.

About Little Hut of Leaping Fishes
Mingzhi was born to be a mandarin. As the first grandson of the formidable Master Chai, his life is mapped from the moment of his birth. But times are changing in China, and as Mingzhi grows, he begins to question his privileged status and the secrets and shadows that lurk in the corners of the Chai mansion. Eager to flee from the corruption, treachery and rivalries of his family—Master Chai, who farms opium poppies and beats out orders with his dragon stick; the jealousy of his second mother and half brother; and his opium-addict father—Mingzhi soon realises his only path to freedom is through learning. But as the foreign devils begin to encroach on China, Mingzhi is torn between two cultures; he must make his choice between the past and the future.

Chiew-Siah Tei

About Chiew-Siah Tei
Chiew-Siah Tei was born and raised in Tampin, a small town in southern Malaysia. A bilingual writer, she has won a series of awards for her Chinese prose, including the Huo Zong International Chinese Fiction Award. She wrote the script for Night Swimmer, which won Best Short Film at the Vendome International Film Festival, and her play, Three Thousand Troubled Threads, was staged at the Edinburgh International Festival. She left for the U.K. to study in the 1990s, and now lives in Glasgow, Scotland. Her first novel, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, was longlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A sneak peek at the July-September 2008 issue of QUILL magazine

THERE IS LOTS of stuff to read in the July-September 2008 issue of Quill, the only magazine about books and reading in Malaysia. Look out for the following stories:

The indefatigable Sharon Bakar speaks to PREETA SAMARASAN, the latest Malaysian writer to make it internationally with her début novel, Evening Is the Whole Day

Début novelist Preeta Samarasan on why fiction matters in more ways than one in “No More Dirty Laundry: In Defence of Fiction”


In “To Know Malaysia Is to …,” Shannon Teoh vanquishes hordes of silverfish to unearth some old books alongside some notable contemporary ones that should bring the new crop of political enthusiasts up to speed on how Malaysia got to the year where we are now

Daphne Lee tells us why the Chinese-sounding Tam Lin, a character in Scottish folklore, has such sizzling sex appeal in “Smouldering Scottish Folk Tales”

In “If Only Books Could Talk,” Lydia Teh, the best-selling author of Honk! If You’re Malaysian and Life’s Like That, imagines what books would say to us if only they could talk and speak their minds


Tan May Lee and Eric Forbes talk to 17 of the 39 writers who were recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award: Niki Aguirre, Elizabeth Baines, Richard Bardsley, Carys Davies, Gerard Donovan, David Gaffney, Vanessa Gebbie, Marianne Herrmann, Tim Jones, Nam Le, Alison MacLeod, Donald Ray Pollock, Wena Poon, Mary Rochford, Robert Shearman, Elizabeth Smither and Clare Wigfall


Tech-savvy Chet Chin enlightens us on her torrid love affair with digital books in “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways”

Feeling stuck in a career rut with no place to go and no idea how to get out of it? Trent Hamm shows you how you can take action right now and revitalise your career in “15 Things You Can Do Right Now to Rejuvenate Your Career”


Best-selling British crime novelist DAVID HEWSON talks to Tan May Lee, Janet Tay and Eric Forbes about crime mysteries, literary fiction, and what he thinks of the Man Booker Prize and the Dan Brown phenomenon

Authors tend to be shy and evasive when it comes to having their photographs taken, but an amazing photographer like MIRIAM BERKLEY manages to capture and elicit the best in her subjects. In “The Eyes of Miriam Berkley,” Tan May Lee and Eric Forbes talk to the famous New York-based photographer about books and photography, among other things

In “The Freedom to Make the Right Choices,” Tan May Lee speaks to cardiologist SARADHA NARAYANAN who decided to hang up her stethoscope and write her first novel, The Freedom of Choice


The Monkey Island
In “State of Irritation Address,” our U.K.-based columnist Tom Sykes pokes fun at the realities of culture and life in present-day Britain

That’s Just the Way the Cookie Crumbles
Is chivalry extinct? Not quite, as our intrepid columnist Alexandra Wong discovers much to her surprise in “In All the Right Places”: true-blue gentlemen are still found in an idyllic retreat surrounded by equally blue horizons on the little fishing village of Pulau Ketam

Deconstructing the Classics
In “The Stone’s Famous Story,” Tan May Lee commends translators for the English edition of Dream of the Red Chamber, the Chinese classic that inspired the TV series and the architectural design of two scenic spots in China


In “Malaysians Abroad,” Yang-May Ooi regales us with stories of baked beans, soggy toasts, the enduring nature of the Malaysian palate and how food signifies love and is pivotal to cultural exchange


Imagining the lush gardens and plum blossoms portrayed in the Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, just isn’t enough for Tan May Lee. She headed off to Daguanyuan to see the real thing


All these and lots more in the July-September 2008 issue of Quill!

Photograph of Preeta Samarasan © Miriam Berkley
Photograph of David Hewson © Mark Bothwell

Sharon Bakar / Miriam Berkley / Chet Chin / Trent Hamm / Daphne Lee / Yang-May Ooi / Preeta Samarasan / Tom Sykes / Lydia Teh / Shannon Teoh / Alexandra Wong

Quill is a quarterly book magazine coordinated and edited by Tan May Lee, Janet Tay and Eric Forbes and published in Malaysia


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Janet TAY reviews Jhumpa LAHIRI's Unaccustomed Earth (2008)


By Jhumpa Lahiri
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 352pp)
ISBN 978-0676979343

Review by JANET TAY

JHUMPA LAHIRI is perhaps best known for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 with Interpreter of Maladies, her début collection of stories about the Bengali Diaspora in the United States.

At the time, The New York Times compared her writing style to that of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway—luminaries of the short-story genre—undoubtedly because of her sparse yet elegant and often deeply moving prose that borders on the poetic while remaining unassuming.

Lahiri, to me, is yet another one of those immensely talented authors who simply never writes often enough to keep her readers satiated in between books. (Ben Okri with his five-year intervals between books is another one.)

Interpreter of Maladies was published in 1999 and it was three long years before the début of her novel, The Namesake, a story about Bengali couple Ashoke and Ashima who leave their homes in Calcutta to begin married life amidst the loneliness and foreignness of 1960s surburban America.

The Namesake seems, arguably, slightly more subdued, and lacks the impact of Interpreter of Maladies, though that could be due to the different forms rather than quality.

India-born, U.S.-based filmmaker Mira Nair adapted The Namesake for the big screen. The movie is an admirable effort and further accentuates the best the novel has to offer.

More than half a decade after her first novel, Lahiri is finally back in print, this time with another short-story collection, Unaccustomed Earth.

The length of time between works is likely due to Lahiri’s constant revision of them. In an interview with Jill Owens on, Lahiri says that she had worked on most of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth for several years before publishing them, and that they had been “simmering for two to three years, minimum.”

The writer’s perfectionism is evinced in her well thought out and finely crafted stories.

The title story is in two narratives: Ruma, a young mother who tries to come to terms with her mother’s unexpected death on the operating table, and her father who worries about telling her that he has a new companion.

Ruma’s narrative reads almost like a kind of eulogy: a touching meditation of the past when mother and daughter disagreed and reconciled; when mother and daughter became grandmother and mother respectively; when everything fell into place perfectly until that untimely death.

It is Lahiri’s careful choice of words and ability to infuse them with emotions touching anyone who has loved and lost that magnifies the melancholy of this story, transforming ordinary grief (if there is such a thing) into extraordinary, tragic sentiments: “There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her. But she knew that this was an illusion, a mirage, and that the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding.”

Amidst Ruma’s grief and wonderment, she grapples with the awkward relationship she has with her father and with the void left by the loss of her mother, until she comes to the realisation that, unlike her, her father has moved on.

In ‘Hell-Heaven,’ a Bengali student finds himself a surrogate Bengali family in America, where being alone in a foreign country means that you have to make new friends who become almost family; people who are initially tied together only with the string of racial sameness and later take the places of parents, children and siblings. When his own parents do not approve of his marriage to an American woman, he seeks blessings from his surrogate parents: ‘“I don’t care. Not everyone can be as open-minded as you,” he told my parents. “Your blessing is blessing enough.”’ Trouble brews, however, when the mother falls in love with the student—an almost incestuous act—and in the process Lahiri shows that the breaking of taboos is only human.

In the second part of the book, Hema and Kaushik are the protagonists in three linked stories: a boy and girl who meet as teenager and child when the former is forced to share the latter’s home as a favour to his parents while they look for a new house in America.

The linked stories reveal the bittersweet connections between individuals that seem to unexpectedly share fates and destinies. The imagery of Hema’s departure from Kaushik is unforgettable—she leaves behind not only her childhood memories and all that Kaushik represented from her past but also her gold bangle with “small four-petaled flowers threaded along a vine.”

Mingled with Hema’s quiet devastation at leaving Kaushik is her superstitious dread at having left behind a piece of jewellery she had not taken off since childhood—she is left feeling as if “she had left a piece of her body behind.”

The effect Lahiri’s imagery and symbolism has—expressed through that solitary bangle—is not to be underestimated. Hema is drawn to Kaushik when he pulls her hand in his direction by hooking one of his fingers, “lightly but possessively” around the bangle, remembering that she had worn it as a child.

Although this love story is beautifully written, there are times when the events feel too coincidental and placed—their meeting in Rome after all those years apart and developing romantic feelings seem a little far-fetched. Here, Lahiri wavers a little in her attempt to create the pair’s temporal world.

Nevertheless, Lahiri, in this new collection, continues to create characters and stories that express the loneliness of human beings, whether due to Diaspora or their struggles to live with irreconcilability. There is always this feeling that one is leaving or has left something behind in situations often unavoidable; difficult decisions are made by Lahiri’s people, despite the pain of making them.

Her ability to stun the reader with a sentence is what makes her work a pleasure to read, as she deftly reflects real life and makes something meaningful out of the unspoken grief that sometimes permeates our seemingly ordinary lives.

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Friday, May 23, 2008


ELIZABETH BAINES was born in South Wales and lives in Manchester. She has been a teacher and is an occasional actor as well as the prize-winning author of plays for radio and stage, and of two novels, The Birth Machine (1985) and Body Cuts (1988). Her award-winning short stories have been published widely in magazines and anthologies. Balancing on the Edge of the World (Salt Publishing, 2007), her first collection, was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

The British author recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from her home in Manchester, England.


How did you find out about the longlist?
I subscribe to Google Alerts, and although I wasn’t alerted to the award web page, I was alerted to a blog which announced the news!

What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
Well, of course I went and looked at the official page, and was immediately staggered to see some of the impressive names I was up against!

What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
It’s a pretty long list, and I have to say I don’t know many of them, but I’m thrilled to discover how many collections of short stories are now being published, and look forward to reading many of them. There are collections on the list I know and love—Clare Wigfall’s The Loudest Sound and Nothing, for one. My publisher, Salt Publishing, who specialise in short stories (and poetry), have eight books on the list altogether, and two of them I have read: Carys Davies’s Some New Ambush and Vanessa Gebbie’s Words from a Glass Bubble—both stunning. I love and admire Anne Enright’s writing, so I know I’m going to relish her collection, Taking Pictures.

How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I first heard of it the year Yiyun Lee won with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. That’s a wonderful book.

What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
There’s a big difference, of course, not simply in length. It’s hard to generalise, but short stories employ a different kind of ‘grammar,’ as I call it, from that of novels—they’re more implicit and work more via association and ellipsis—rather, I suppose, in the way that poems do. So for me when I’m writing short stories I’m thinking in a different way from when I’m writing novels. When I write novels I’m often thinking forward, and the writing is a kind of rush forward, but when I’m writing a short story I feel as if I’m concentrating on the point where I’ve dropped a stone into a pool, and the view is clearing and widening as the circular rings move outwards.

Short stories appear to be getting more popular. What are your thoughts on this?
I’m thrilled. Short stories are my first love, the first kind of writing I ever did, and the kind of writing I love to read. For a long time there seemed such a prejudice against the short story and of course print outlets became all but non-existent. I do wonder if the rise of literature on the Internet has had a lot to do with the resurgence of short stories, but I also think that the new blossoming of independent presses is partly responsible—an impressive number of the Frank O’Connor-longlisted books come from small independent presses.

What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
It’s impossible to say. Just to dip in: I love the short stories of Anne Enright, Ali Smith, A.L. Kennedy, Alice Munro, Juno Diaz and plenty more ....

Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
I often hear the argument—usually from people trying to promote the short story—that short stories are ideally suited, indeed more suited than novels, to the pace of modern life, since our time is now limited. Stories suit the snatched periods we have now for reading, this argument goes, and for this reason it’s baffling that short stories don’t sell well. I think this is to misunderstand the nature of the short story. I have indicated that writing short stories takes a different kind of attention than that required for writing novels, a more contemplative, still kind of attention, and we need same kind of attention for reading them. It’s precisely the kind of attention we find it hard to give things nowadays, and in those snatched periods. But, in my opinion, if there’s one thing in this contemporary world we need to remember how to do it’s to contemplate, and so for me the short story has a very political role to play in our culture. And I do think it’s possible to sell stories, after all: I think it only takes the will to do so, and some inspired marketing—which I think my publishers, Salt Publishing, are proving!

The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008

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Thursday, May 22, 2008


SINGAPOREAN WRITER WENA POON is the refreshing new voice who is bringing Asian writing to a new place. She was born in Singapore, and has lived in Hong Kong and the U.S. She read literature and law at Harvard University, and is currently a deal lawyer in San Francisco, California. Her début, Lions in Winter (MPH Publishing, December 2007), is a compilation of short stories, some of which have been previously published in journals and anthologies around Asia. Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction have been widely anthologised and published in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Lions in Winter was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Poon recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from San Francisco, California.


How did you find out about the longlist?
My husband registered my name on “Google News Tracker” to alert me of any new articles about me. He then Blackberry’d me and said “FYI.” And I was like, Huh? What’s this?

What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
I bought a bottle of Prosecco and some peach juice and mixed two Bellinis by myself to celebrate. Yes, it’s a disgusting drink, but I like it because it makes me think of sunshine and Venice.

What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s work because she captures the pathos and pain of Indians coming to America, in the same way I try to do with my stories about Singaporean Chinese people. I haven’t read Unaccustomed Earth, but I saw Mira Nair’s movie of The Namesake. That movie captures some of the themes I tried to bring out in Lions in Winter, especially the scene of the new Indian bride in a brutal, snowy East Coast environment, struggling to bring laundry to the laundromat and shivering in her sari. I can totally identify with that! The longlist has introduced me to many writers and their work. I am keen to read Tubal R. Cain’s Dandaula and Other African Tales (Nigeria) and the Maori writer Witi Ihimaera’s Ask the Posts of the House (New Zealand). I loved Whale Rider the movie and would like to read more of Ihimaera. You can tell I love films—I cannot talk about literature without talking about films; to me they’re inextricably linked.

How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I’ve heard of it, as it is usually enumerated in an awards list in some famous author’s biography, but the editors of MPH Publishing told me it is famous for the large cash prize. Frankly, I would be thrilled to get any prize, cash or no cash, for my work. I’ve struggled for many years to get respect for my fiction, so to be recognised internationally alongside famous authors really means a lot to me.

What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
Writing a book of short stories is like taking a stroll through a zoo. You look into every cage and see the different animals, you pass through “Tropical Zone” and “Arctic Zone” and have all kinds of different experiences, but they are still related by the confines of a zoo. Writing a novel is like spending a lot of quality time with one particular dog and taking it on a long hike. In order for me to write a novel, I have to really love the material (or this hypothetical “dog”), as it takes a longer time. I didn’t write a novel for 13 years, and the first one I completed (I started out a few that I abandoned) was Biophilia in 2005 and I wrote its sequel, Cryptic Tonic, in 2007. It’s remarkable that I finished them both but that’s because I am propelled to completion by the sheer fun of the story. There’s also the pragmatic aspect. I started out by writing novels as a teenager, instead of short stories. Nobody took me seriously or wanted to publish them. Then someone told me it’s easier to get publishers to publish short stories because publishers don’t want to take a huge financial risk by bringing out a whole novel on an unknown writer. That turned out to be true in my case.

Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Anne Enright published their short-story collections after their award-winning novels. What are your thoughts on this?
Actually Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake, came only after her first short-story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was published and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. This may prove my theory that it’s easier to début with a collection of shorts than début with a novel. I have a theory that short stories will indeed experience a comeback because of our escalatingly fast-paced lifestyle. For example, I never write an email that is longer than the Blackberry screen. A 10-minute phone call, to busy lawyers, is a huge investment of time, and we learn to get a lot of information through in those 10 minutes. Youtube movies are just a few minutes long. Our attention span is being crammed into smaller and more compact units. Short stories fit into our dense and abbreviated lifestyle. How many of us started reading a novel that we never finished? In order for busy readers to invest time in reading a whole long novel, it better be good—a gripping pageturner.

What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
Most of the fiction I love are linked to the movies. If a story is very good and the characters come alive for the reader, the reader will be able to envision the movie right away and the material-hungry studios will definitely exploit it. Therefore, I love the short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, who’s one of those authors that translate into film easily. I’m biased because he wrote about Singapore and I love reading about early Singapore through the viewpoint of British authors. I love the films of Alfred Hitchcock, many of which were based on short stories, such as The Birds (based on a short by another one of my favourite authors, Daphne du Maurier) and Rear Window (based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich). But the best short story of all—actually a one-act play by Noël Coward—that was ever made into a film was David Lean’s Brief Encounter. I adore that story. It’s about how two people accidentally meeting, have a brief experience that lasts a lifetime. For me, that is the quintessence of a short story—fleeting, but infinitely memorable.

The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

MPH Breakfast Club with ... Elmo JAYAWARDENA


The 14th MPH Breakfast Club on Saturday, June 28, 2008, at 11.30a.m. to 1.00p.m., will be featuring Singapore-based Sri Lankan novelist and short-story writer Elmo Jayawardena, the author of such novels as Sam’s Story (Vijitha Yapa Publications, Sri Lanka, 2000; Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2004) and The Last Kingdom of Sinhalay (M.D. Gunasena & Co., Sri Lanka, 2003), as well as a self-published collection of short stories, Rainbows in Braille (Elmo Jayawardena, 2007).

Elmo Jayawardena writes novels and short stories when he is not flying jets for Singapore Airlines or working for his charitable foundation, AFLAC International. His first novel, Sam’s Story, was first published in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications in 2000 and in Singapore by Marshall Cavendish in 2004, and was awarded the prestigious 2001 Gratiaen Prize for the best literary work in English in Sri Lanka. (Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize for The English Patient in 1992. In 1993, he gifted his prize money to institute a literary award in Sri Lanka, called the Gratiaen Prize, for the country’s best creative writing in English.) The Last Kingdom of Sinhalay, his second novel, won the State Literary Award in Sri Lanka for the best book of 2005. Jayawardena retired from Singapore Airlines in 2007 and now trains pilots for Sri Lankan Airlines.

Eric Forbes will be introducing Elmo Jayawardena while Janet Tay will be moderating the session.

Date June 28, 2008 (Saturday)
Time 11.30a.m.-1.00p.m.
Venue MPH Bangsar Village II Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2 Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Phone (603) 2287 3600

Food and refreshments will be served
All lovers of literature are most welcome

Elmo Jayawardena will also be doing a reading at readings@seksan’s at 3.30p.m. on the same day. Seksan Design is at No. 67 Jalan Tempinis Satu, Lucky Garden, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Michelle de KRETSER wins the 2008 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

MELBOURNE NOVELIST Michelle de Kretser has won the 2008 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, the biggest of the New South Wales Premier’s literary prizes announced in Sydney on May 19, 2008. Her third novel, The Lost Dog, also won the Book of the Year Award.

The Lost Dog was first published in Australia by Allen and Unwin in November 2007. The British edition is published by Chatto and Windus in May 2008.

DE KRETSER Michelle [1958-] Novelist. Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). Novels The Lost Dog (2007: winner of the 2008 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction); The Hamilton Case (2002: winner of the 2004 Encore Award and the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, Southeast Asia and South Pacific); The Rose Grower (1999) Edited Brief Encounters: Stories of Love, Sex & Travel (1998)

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Monday, May 19, 2008

2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize Overall Winners

THE OVERALL WINNERS of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize were announced on May 18, 2008, at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in Franschhoek, South Africa. The Overall Best Book Prize was awarded to Canada’s Lawrence Hill for his novel, The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins Canada, 2007) while the Overall Best First Book Prize was awarded to Bangladesh’s Tahmima Anam for her first novel, A Golden Age (John Murray, 2007).

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Sunday, May 18, 2008


CLARE WIGFALL was born in Greenwich, London, in the summer of 1976. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and London, lived in Prague for some time, and now lives in Berlin. Her first book, The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber and Faber, 2007), is a collection of disturbing and darkly provocative stories. This collection was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

The British author recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from her new home in Berlin, Germany.


How did you find out about the longlist?
When my book first came out a friend told me about Google Alerts so I set one up for the title of my collection—it lets me know whenever it receives a mention on the web. So it was actually Google who drew my attention to the list—sending a link right into my mailbox.

What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
I wrote to tell my family in London and they wrote back immediately, so we had a little buzz of excited e-mails batting back and forth.

What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
The Frank O’Connor has a history of highlighting new talent, so it’s heartening to see this tradition continuing with a longlist that honours a number of début authors alongside some very well-established names. I’m familiar with a few of the writers, but the majority are new to me, so I feel I have a lot to discover.

How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
More familiar than most, perhaps. I had the honour of being invited to read at the 2007 Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, where they award the prize each year. My collection had only been released the previous week and it was one of my first public readings—I was absolutely terrified and giddy with excitement in equal measure! I had an extraordinary time. I was struck by how dearly Ireland holds the short story in high regard, even though perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me because Ireland is a nation of born storytellers (just spend a night in an Irish pub and you’ll see what I mean!). It was a thrill to be amongst people who loved and respected the short-story form—that felt very special. The award is still young, but each year it’s growing in international renown and I think that’s wonderful and important as it’s angling a spotlight on a literary form which deserves more of the world’s attention.

What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s much more difficult to write a good short story than it is to write a novel, but I haven’t written a novel yet so I’m not sure if this is true. Certainly writing a short story presents its own specific challenges. One aspect I appreciate is the economy of the form; the story must create a world, a mood, a plot, wholly-real characters, an exploration of life and its complexities, and all within the space of only a few pages. There’s something almost beautifully mathematical and precise about it, and what you leave out is as important as what you leave in. For that reason, I suppose in a way your safety net is taken away, because when you write a short story you’re relying on an unknown quantity: your reader. With a novel you have the space to fill in all the gaps, with a short story you’re forced to leave these for your reader to complete—the difficulty for the author is getting the balance perfectly right, creating something that will satisfy. This is probably what makes short stories—when they’re written well—such an intellectually demanding form of literature, and I suspect is why so many readers shun them. Those who like to stretch their minds and imaginations when they read often feel passionately about the form. A great short story may be brief, but it demands and relies upon personal investment from the reader. I believe this is why the very best short stories can haunt you long after you’ve read the concluding line, because so much of the experience is not just about the words on the page, but is individual to you and the way your own brain interprets and digests what you’ve read. There’s something magical about that.

Short stories appear to be getting more popular. What are your thoughts on this?
Yes, it’s an odd phenomenon, and a pleasing one—it does seem that readers are growing more interested in short stories. There’s been much in the British press recently about how short stories are coming back in vogue. Simon Prosser, an editor at Hamish Hamilton, has even gone so far as to say that the short-story form is “better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel.” Perhaps he’s right. When our time is so much in demand, there’s something very satisfying about how well short stories can fit into our busy lives. You can read one on the commute to work, in bed before you turn out the light, as you wait in a doctor’s office, you can even download them from the internet and listen to them as podcasts (the PRI’s Selected Shorts or the New Yorker story podcasts are some of my favourites), and somehow because a story can be enjoyed in its entirety in this time slot it feels like the time has really been used to its full. The increase in high-profile novelists releasing story collections is definitely positive as it helps to introduce new readers to the form, and increases public respect for it, but I do wish publishers would take more risks with debut story writers. It’s still very difficult to succeed as a young writer if you’re writing short stories. But as the renown of prizes like the Frank O’Connor increases this will definitely help as it offers publishers much-needed exposure for their new writers, so I’m hopeful that slowly, slowly things are changing.

What is your favourite short story or short-story collection?
This is a tough question. I’m afraid I’m not very good at picking favourites. I love J.D. Salinger’s stories—I’ve read all but one: “Teddy.” I want to save that one because I know that once I’ve read it I might never again have the pleasure of reading something by Salinger that is totally new to me. But there are so many other short-story writers I love and look up to, such as Alice Munro, Claire Keegan, Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, and I always recommend people to read Truman Capote’s stories—they haven’t received the attention of his longer works, but they’re brilliant.

Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
I believe the main problem is that short-story collections rarely receive the kind of exposure necessary to achieve strong sales or recognition. There are a myriad number of reasons why this is the case, but I also think that too often short stories are marginalised, deemed to be of minority appeal and therefore marketed as such, so it’s no surprise that they sell poorly. The irony is that when a collection does receive the kind of high-profile media attention and in-store promotion usually reserved for the novel, its sales can be comparably strong; look at the success of Jhumpa Lahiri’s two collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, for instance—they’ve achieved phenomenal sales, deservedly so, and totally disprove any notion that short stories can’t be popular. If the writing is of exceptional quality, there is clearly a large audience out there who aren’t put off by it taking the form of stories. So why does the myth prevail that people won’t buy short-story collections? People don’t buy them because they don’t hear about them, I suspect it’s as simple as that. I know it’s a many-layered problem, and you can point the finger of blame in a number of directions, but I think that if publishers really want to start seeing a change then they have to stop being defeatist and start taking more risks. If they truly believe in a writer, whether they’re writing stories or novels or something else entirely shouldn’t be of consequence. This is a great book, they should be telling us, this is writing you must read. If they shout loud enough, I think people will start to listen.

The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008

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Saturday, May 17, 2008


NAM LE was born in Rach Gia, Vietnam, in 1979, and raised in Melbourne, Australia. He worked as a lawyer before winning the Truman Capote Fellowship to Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he wrote The Boat (Alfred A. Knopf, May 13, 2008), his first collection of seven stories written over the last four years. This collection was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Michiko Kakutani, in The New York Times, wrote, “Mr. Le not only writes with an authority and poise rare even among veteran authors, but he also demonstrates an intuitive, gut-level ability to convey the psychological conflicts people experience when they find their own hopes and ambitions slamming up against familial expectations or the brute facts of history.” Le, who used to be a corporate lawyer in Melbourne, is the fiction editor of Harvard Review.

The début author recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from his home in Exeter, New Hampshire.


How did you find out about the longlist?
A friend of mine had come across it in a blog, and forwarded it to me.

What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
My lawyerly instincts kicked in and I instantly looked for corroboration.

What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
I’m not as familiar with many of them as I’d like. I’ve read some, and heard of others, and frankly it seems a pretty intimidating list.

How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
Not terribly familiar, although the inaugural winner, Yiyun Li, is a friend of mine. (She was racking up prizes at a good clip back then, which is why we fans didn’t have time to dwell on any one!)

What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
I feel underqualified to answer that question—I’ve only written one novel and all that taught me was how not to write novels. I guess the sensible answer is apparent: a full-length novel is longer, takes longer to write, and carries with it all the potentialities and pitfalls of the longform.

What is your favourite short story or short-story collection?
Contemporary (with all the usual caveats): Charles D’Ambrosio, Tim Winton, Deborah Eisenberg, Lorrie Moore, Thomas McGuane, Edward P. Jones, Denis Johnson, Andre Dubus, and many others.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Amitav GHOSH ... Sea of Poppies (John Murray, 2008)

BESIDES Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber, May 2008), David Park’s The Truth Commissioner (Bloomsbury, February 2008), John Burnside’s Glister (Jonathan Cape, May 2008), Tim Winton’s Breath (Picador, May 2008), John Harwood’s The Seance (Jonathan Cape, April 2008) and Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago, February 2008), the next novel I am really looking forward to reading is Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (John Murray, May 2008). From what little I have managed to read, these books stand a very good chance to be on the Man Booker Prize longlist and shortlist this year. Who else do you think should be on the longlist and shortlist this year?

1. The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber, 2008) / Sebastian Barry
2. Glister (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / John Burnside
3. Sea of Poppies (John Murray, 2008) / Amitav Ghosh
4. The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago, 2008) / Linda Grant
5. The Seance (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / John Harwood
6. The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate, 2008) / Philip Hensher
7. The Lost Dog (Chatto & Windus, 2008) / Michelle de Kretser
8. Netherland (Fourth Estate/Pantheon, 2008) / Joseph O’Neill
9. The Truth Commissioner (Bloomsbury, 2008) / David Park
10. Breath (Picador, 2008) / Tim Winton

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Singaporean Diaspora?

Impressive first collection of stories about leaving Singapore

Lions in Winter
Wena Poon
(MPH Group Publishing, 2007)

AMONG THE STEREOTYPES surrounding Singaporeans who leave the country, two are prevalent: someone who leaves the country is either an overachiever seeking greener pastures abroad, or a wastrel running away from responsibilities back home. In this respect, Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter, a collection of 11 short stories which largely portray the lives of Singaporeans living abroad, is important for the challenges it poses to such stereotypes. Here, a comparison can be drawn between Poon’s Lions in Winter and Simon Tay’s Stand Alone. While Tay’s collection is about the coming of age of Singapore as a nation, Poon’s collection, published 16 years after Stand Alone, tells the tale of the coming of age of a shifting, fluid and disparate group of people whom could be termed a ‘Singaporean diaspora.’

Poon’s stories are populated with characters living in cities in Canada, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Even as they negotiate the unfamiliar terrain of their respective host cultures, Singapore continues to loom large in their minds. A love-hate relationship between Singapore and the individual characters is a constant motif. The following question posed in Lions in Winter sums up this conflicted relationship: “Why do we constantly turn our prows to distant shores? When do we know when to leave, and when to return? Could we really, really bear to leave those we knew behind, even if we no longer loved them? … Too hot, too cold. One had to find a world that was just right …”

The volume’s title holds a figurative resonance: on the one hand, the tropical climate of Singapore, popularly known as the ‘Lion City,’ is felt by the characters peopling the stories to be uncomfortably warm; on the other hand, to live anywhere else, for example, in cooler climes, is to inhabit a foreign environment.

Poon’s stories are rich with ambivalence, which lends a thematic complexity to her writing. A personal favourite, ‘The Man Who Was Afraid of ATMs,’ explores the theme of xenophobia. Chang is a retiree living with his son’s family in Ontario. As a Chinese-educated former teacher, he has many difficulties adjusting to his host culture. When Chang is confused by the instructions on an ATM screen, a man behind him in the queue utters, “God, don’t you love these people?” in exasperation. Yet the story does not allow us to sympathise with Chang. Readers are told that back in Singapore, he was as critical of foreigners as the man standing behind him: “He used to say ‘these people’ when he was in Singapore. He used the phrase to refer to the Indian immigrant workers who lined the streets of Little India on weekends; the Filipino maids crowding the front of a shopping mall in Orchard Road. ‘These people are really too much,’ he used to say, whenever he drove past them. ‘So noisy.’ And now, someone was referring to him in that tone.”

The irony here would not be lost on the reader.

In many ways, Lions in Winter is a letter to Singapore from abroad, which also takes on the country’s emerging social issues. ‘Addiction’ recounts the story of Alistair, a homosexual male in London whose life is at odds with the familial and social expectations of upper-middle-class Singapore. As his cousin tells him: “You guys are the new generation that have to bear the burden so that more people like you can be accepted back home for who they are. You’re paving the way for future kids.”

These stories also demonstrate the generation gap between Singaporeans in their thirties who are based overseas, and an older generation of Singaporeans who have remained. In “Those Who Serve, Those Who Do Not,” Joanne, who has migrated with her family to Australia, muses upon what she perceives to be the provincialism of everyday life in Singapore: “She looked over the inky-blueness of Singapore in the twilight. Thousands of orange-white dots blinked in the endless kingdoms of HDB flats that stretched as far as the eye could see. Tiny people leading tidy little capsuled lives.”

In contrast, for Madam Teo, who has lived through World War II, the contemporary Singaporean ‘heartland’ is a haven compared to what she has experienced: “They were just relocating from one housing estate to another. They were getting a new flat. How could this be sadness? Sadness was war, was famine. Sadness was seeing your father-in-law in China lose all his rice fields when the Communists took over. Sadness was watching your father crawl home after being bayoneted by Japanese troops in 1942. Sadness was watching your pregnant mother contract malarial fever in occupied Singapore, not having any drugs to allay her fever …. Sadness was finding her drowned pregnant form by moonlight, and knowing that you had to be the one to run home to wake your father and tell him the news.”

Between the Madam Teos and Joannes of Singapore, between those who choose to leave and those who stay, there is a gap to be traversed.

In terms of technique, discreetness is Poon’s strength. She does not draw undue attention to her language; rather, the stories are mainly character-driven, and words are used with skill and economy. A good example is ‘Dog Hotpot,’ which manages to humorously convey through a series of dialogues the underlying anxiety of Chinese Singaporeans living abroad over being trapped within media stereotypes of Chinese people.

There are two moments in Lions in Winter I wish to highlight: first, when the story’s narrator Freddie uses the word ‘patois’ instead of ‘Singlish’ to describe everyday informal speech in Singapore; and second, when he refers to women in Singapore who “did not complete high school.” The choice of the word ‘patois’ indicates a glossing-over of the term ‘Singlish,’ implying that Freddie’s words are aimed at a non-Singaporean audience, while ‘high school’ bears relevance more to North American and Australian contexts rather than to the Singaporean. One may speculate whether these moments are illustrative of Freddie’s alienation from Singapore, or whether these were genuine slips on the author’s part. Poon’s stories would be much more poignant if the latter were the case, for this would demonstrate that her struggle as a writer is a function of the tensions which pervade her stories, in that she is negotiating multiple readerships much in the same way that many of her characters are negotiating multiple cultures.

Lions in Winter is an impressive first collection with much to offer its readers, sitting comfortably within an emerging constellation of works such as Fiona Cheong’s Shadow Theatre and Hwee Hwee Tan’s Mammon Inc., which explore the predicaments of individuals whose identities and allegiances are dispersed among various transnational locations.

Reproduced from Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Vol. 7 No. 2 April 2008

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