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Monday, March 29, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
The Lost (Man) Booker Prize Shortlist
THE SHORTLIST for the Lost (Man) Booker Prize for Fiction was announced on March 25, 2010 (Thursday). The shortlist was announced at a special event at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. The six books are:
1. The Birds on the Trees (Virago) / Nina Bawden
2. Troubles (Phoenix) / J.G. Farrell
3. The Bay of Noon (Virago) / Shirley Hazzard
4. Fire from Heaven (Arrow) / Mary Renault
5. The Driver’s Seat (Penguin) / Muriel Spark
6. The Vivisector (Vintage) / Patrick White
Three of the authors on the shortlist have won or been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker in 1973; Muriel Spark was shortlisted for two of her novels, The Public Image (in 1969) and Loitering with Intent (in 1981); Nina Bawden was shortlisted in 1987 for Circles of Deceit. Patrick White, Mary Renault and Shirley Hazzard have never been shortlisted for the (Man) Booker Prize. There are only two living writers among those shortlisted: Nina Bawden and Shirley Hazzard, and both are published by Virago.
The winner of the Lost (Man) Booker Prize will be determined by international voting and will be announced on May 19, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Sherman ALEXIE wins the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
SEATTLE NOVELIST SHERMAN ALEXIE was named the winner of the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction on March 23, 2010, for his latest collection of stories and essays, interspersed with poems, War Dances (Grove/Atlantic, 2009). Alexie’s book, along with books by the other finalists, Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna (Harper, 2010), Lorraine M. López for Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories (BkMk Press, 2009), Lorrie Moore for A Gate at the Stairs (Knopf, 2009) and Colson Whitehead for Sag Harbor (Doubleday, 2009), was selected from about 350 novels and short-story collections published by American authors in 2009.
Alexie, who previously won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for his autobiographical novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, won for “a collection of structurally inventive pieces on the themes of love, betrayal, familial relationships, race and class.” Judge Al Young says, “War Dances taps every vein and nerve, every tissue, every issue that quickens the current blood-pulse: parenthood, divorce, broken links, sex, gender and racial conflict, substance abuse, medical neglect, 9/11, Official Narrative vs. What Really Happened, settler religion vs. native spirituality; marketing, shopping, and war, war, war. All the heartbreaking ways we don’t live now—this is the caring, eye-opening beauty of this rollicking, bittersweet gem of a book.”
Alexis recently picked up the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award. He is the author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, his first collection of stories which won a PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book in 1993. (One of the stories from the collection was adapted as a 1998 independent film, Smoke Signals.)
The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is an annual award given by the Washington, D.C.-based PEN/Faulkner Foundation.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Tash AW’s Snow Soong as the Anti-Stereotype?
JANET TAY looks at the diasporic (non-) identities of Chinese women in Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory
FROM THE EMPRESS DOWAGER to Suzie Wong, East Asian women are no strangers to being stereotyped by Western media as either the ‘dragon lady’ or more commonly, the bashful Oriental courtesan who is exotic and subservient, often to a white, dominant man. In the 1960 film based on the book by Richard Mason, The World of Suzie Wong, Suzie (Nancy Kwan), the archetypal ‘hooker with the heart of gold’ tries to don Western attire, a dress as she imagined Englishwomen would wear only to be angrily reprimanded by Robert Lomax, the character played by William Holden, and called a ‘cheap European street walker.’ In the chapter on ‘Representing Ourselves, Films and Videos by Asian American/Canadian Women’ by Marina Heung in Feminism, Multiculturalism and the Media: Global Diversities, reference is made to Marchetti who comments that ‘the Western gaze insists on maintaining categories based on distinct racial differences. According to her white lover, Suzie Wong must conform to his expectations of what a “real” Chinese woman looks like, so her putting on “Western” dress immediately earns her his abuse and rejection. Following the same logic, it is only when Suzie puts on a “traditional” Chinese costume that she wins her lover’s respect and approval (Marchetti, 1991, pp. 45-48)’ (93). Similarly, Anna May Wong, the first woman to portray the image of the Mysterious East on the American screen, played Hui Fei, a Chinese courtesan in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), and thus contributed to the image of ‘the oriental mystique.’ She does not speak much and is the epitome of ‘Chinese inscrutability’ (Pan, 202).
Edward W. Said uses the example of an Egyptian courtesan Flaubert called Kuchuk Hanem in his travel accounts of the East, on whom the latter based a model of the Oriental woman, who ‘never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her’ (6). According to Said, the fact that Flaubert was foreign, wealthy and male would have been dominating factors which allowed him to not only ‘possess [her] physically but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was ‘typically Oriental’ (6). Flaubert’s nineteenth-century portrayal of the stereotyped Oriental, Said states, has since been perpetuated through ‘standardization and cultural stereotyping’ of ‘the mysterious Orient’ (26). As Lynn Pan puts it, ‘[t]he China Doll and the Dragon Lady never really existed as such, except in the imaginations of Western men and women; but once invented, they took on a life of their own. And when a Western man looked at a Chinese woman, all too often it was the image rather than the reality that he saw’ (201).
What was and is still more worrying is Jessica Hagedorn’s notion of a ‘colonisation of the imagination’ when the general public ‘accept[s] stereotypes of Asian women as truth and then project them onto us without our consent’ (Pan, 201) and greatly affects how Asian women view and experience themselves. This form of ‘internalised colonisation,’ Hagedorn states, especially with reference to depiction of Asian women in films, can cause them to accept that ‘[they] are either decorative, invisible, or one-dimensional’ (201).
The representation of women in postcolonial literature, who are more often than not in ‘third world’ countries, often remains stagnant to the ‘demonology’—using the term coined by Edward Said—of exoticism and subservience that is the Western perception of the Eastern Oriental. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, in her essay, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,’ argues that the ‘average third world woman’ is usually depicted as leading ‘an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and being ‘third-world’ (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimised, etc.)’ whereas Western women are self-represented as ‘educated, modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decision’ (261). Trinh T. Minh-Ha in Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, explains that ‘... the Third World representative the modern sophisticated public ideally seeks is the unspoiled African, Asian, or Native American, who remains more preoccupied with his/her image of the real native—the truly different—than with the issues of hegemony, racism, feminism, and social change’ (267). She uses the example of what would be considered the ‘real’ type of Japanism; that in order to be truly ‘authentic’ to the Western eye, ‘Japanism ought to be in Japan’. The inaccessibility of this ‘made-in-Japan’ product makes it all the more trustworthy, she says, and creates ‘the desire to acquire and protect it ...’ (267).
Chinese Immigrant Women in Malaya
In Catherine Lim’s fiction, Chinese immigrant women are portrayed as either ‘single-mindedly in tune with the prevailing cultural environment and focus on achieving material comfort and socially-defined success, even to the extent of suppressing their own humanity and real emotional needs’ or alternatively ‘find romantic escape in rebellion and rejection of their current social norms, but usually to their own ultimate damnation and destruction’ (Koh, 364). The latter is frowned upon, certainly because traditional Chinese culture does not encourage and is even hostile to individualism (363). Society above self is almost a mantra, and the individual is constantly expected to obey authority figures, including parents. In order to ensure harmony, there is ‘a system of reciprocity of duties or responsibilities’ and to ‘ensure harmony’ one must repress one’s desires and wishes for ‘self-fulfilment, self-identify and self-actualization.’ There is no room to be, as Malaysian writer Lee Kok Liang states, ‘true to yourself’ (364).
Inevitably, money played a big part in ‘separating the wives and daughters of the rich from all the others.’ As Pan explains, ‘[o]ften one or more generations removed from their family’s immigrant roots, these well-to-do leisured women lived lives of great ease and luxury, were usually surrounded by servants, and were denied little in the way of material satisfaction’ (191). The character Snow Soong in Tash Aw’s novel would fit the description of these women from wealthy families in colonial Malaya. Her grandfather, as described by Aw in the novel, had come from a long line of scholars in the Imperial Chinese Court, and came to Malaya in the 1880s as ‘a traveller, a historian and observer of foreign cultures’ (67). He married a wife who was the daughter of one of the richest of the new merchant class of the Straits Chinese, a ‘nonya,’ which entrenched his status as a well-respected, wealthy man in Malaya.
Despite the dividing factor of wealth, Chinese women in diaspora were nevertheless still subject to age-old rule of having their husbands chosen for them. Pan states:
[T]hey were not offered many chances of personal fulfilment. Their place was in the home, and their contribution to the world was in their reproductive capacity. Each would have had her husband chosen for her by her elders, was usually in her teens when she went to him, and it was generally only a matter of time before she stood by while he took a concubine. (191)Snow is no exception to the rule as despite her education, which would have been considered extensive for a woman in colonial Malaya and a rarity as such, she was nevertheless considered only by the worth of the husband to whom she would be married:
As with all beautiful young women of a certain background, Snow had already had a good deal of experience of suitors and tentative matchmaking. All of these possibilities had been created and choreographed by her parents. They took her to Penang, KL and Singapore, where she was displayed like a diamond in a glass box. (70)Despite seemingly having little choice in determining their fates in marriage, Pan argues that the fact that the immigrant woman is exposed to other cultures, style and manners in her adopted country, the ‘moneyed overseas Chinese woman [was] a different creature from her sisters in China. Standards were bound to be less absolute overseas, and, for all the restrictions of the feminine status, she could stand outside convention more easily than could her contemporary in the home country’ (Pan, 191). Indeed this seems true to form in The Harmony Silk Factory—Snow does not fit the stereotypical Oriental as depicted in some Western literature and certainly enjoys more freedom and has access to a wider array of choices than a mui tsai (literally ‘little sister,’ a Cantonese euphemism for bond maidservant) who were girls born to poor families, ‘prostitutes or unmarried mothers and sold off to rich families to be brought up as unpaid domestic servants or as future concubines for the household’s male masters’ (191).
Snow Soong as the Anti-Stereotype
In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts—a collection of semi-autobiographical stories depicting her experience as a Chinese-American in America—the protagonist, a Chinese girl in the story entitled ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’ describes her disgust at the idea of ‘fragility’ and meekness in the quintessential Chinese girl:
I hated her weak neck, the way it did not support her head but let it droop; I wished I was able to see what my own neck looked like from the back and sides. I hoped it did not look like hers; I wanted a stout neck. I grew my hair long to hide it in case it was a flower-stem neck. I walked around to the front of her to hate her face some more. (158)Hong Kingston also describes Chinese girls as quiet and who barely spoke, compared to their American counterparts: ‘The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl’ (150). The quiet Chinese American girl or woman in diaspora in Hong Kingston’s experience seems to entrench the idea of the Chinese woman as quiet and submissive, to be seen but not heard. Shirley Geok-lin Lim, in her poem ‘Between Women’ describes what is presumably the modern Chinese-American woman, the ‘[t]aller, tougher curved Amazon’.
Which then is Snow Soong in Aw’s novel? The ‘taller, tougher curved Amazon’ or the meek Oriental courtesan? As the novel has three narratives, it is difficult to ascertain Snow’s actual appearance. The first narrator, Snow’s son, Jasper, can only regurgitate his mother’s features from what he has been told:
When she was born the midwives were astonished by the quality of her skin, the clarity and delicate translucence of it. They said that she reminded them of the finest Chinese porcelain [...] A visiting Chinese statesman once famously compared her appearance to a wine cup made for the Emperor Chenghua: flawless, unblemished and capable of both capturing and radiating the very essence of light. As if to accentuate the qualities of her skin, her hair was a deep and fathomless black, always brushed carefully, and usually for her time, allowed to grow long and lustrous. (66)With skin like the ‘finest Chinese porcelain’ of the wine cup of an emperor and ‘long and lustrous,’ ‘deep and fathomless black’ hair, Snow appears dangerously close to the stereotypical conception of Asian beauty. Her height, however, rescues her from this fate; as Johnny Lim meets her for the first time and is surprised by the fact that she is not a ‘tiny, exquisite jewel’ but ‘instead he found himself looking up at a woman who seemed to tower endlessly above him’ (74). It is also rather amusing that Snow’s height or general appearance causes somewhat of a role reversal as regard the Chinese man and woman interaction—quite far apart from the shy and demure Chinese woman who, under the veil of Orientalism, would not have stared ‘intently into [Johnny’s] eyes,’ causing him to ‘quickly lower[ed] his gaze’ (74).
The narrative of Peter Wormwood is arguably more accurate and believable—an Englishman who one might assume would have, from the three narrators, the highest propensity to impose a stereotypical description of Snow Soong, does not do so:
I know she is a woman, but her body has the straight lines of an adolescent boy, flat-chested and slim. She is taller than any woman I have seen in the Orient; her face is almost level with my collarbone. (263)His comparison of Snow Soong with the other women is even more illustrative of his perception of how the average woman in the Orient looked. Moreover, Wormwood’s views of Snow’s physical traits—describing her as almost androgynous—as well as what he perceives as her boldness, lack of demureness and even being devoid of the child-like quality that formed part of the misguided Oriental description, would certainly cast her away from the definitive stereotypical Oriental woman indeed:
She spoke in a very direct manner, open and forthright, unlike the charmingly veiled way in which the other young women in the rooms poke. It was impossible to tell how old she was. Her face was distinctly pubescent, yet there was something in her features that made her seem harder than a mere teenager—a quality of manliness, I thought. The way she carried herself, too, lent her an air of maturity. (279)Despite his earlier descriptions of Snow however, Peter Wormwood does occasionally succumb to, or one might even argue, insist on fitting Snow Soong into a mould that he cannot shake off in his mind of the Oriental beauty. Although Snow is often depicted in the novel as wearing loose-fitting trousers and a blouse, the traditional samfoo, he describes her, in that same outfit, as looking very ‘refined, just like an imperial Manchu consort’ (292).
Although there remain certain inconsistencies of her description by different narrators, the fact that she does not conform to the Western perception of the stereotypical Asian beauty is still discernible. In addition to non-conventional physical traits, Snow also appears to be indifferent to her own looks, debunking the gender-biased myth that women are usually more concerned about their appearances than men, and further entrenching Snow Soong’s characterization as an anti-stereotype by her lack of adherence to the aggrandized notion of femininity prescribed for an Asian woman:
The wind continued to sweep through my hair. I made no attempt to smooth it away from my face as I had done earlier, but instead enjoyed the sensation of knowing that here, in the open seas, no one would comment on my appearance. (182)Snow is depicted in the novel as an educated, well-read and articulate woman; she reads widely, speaks good English and is well-versed in Western literature and music. She is not afraid to voice her thoughts, although she still conforms to what is considered proper etiquette and decorum for a young lady—she is almost Victorian at times, like an Asian Elizabeth Bennet who speaks her mind whilst maintaining a certain degree of propriety. One might contrast her with Lemon who is almost the total opposite of Snow:
Her name was Lemon and she was not yet married. She led me by the hand down the dim corridor leading to my bedroom; she padded quickly across the bareboards, the pale soles of her bare feet flashing against the dark teak floor. Giggling she locked the door. She could not wait to speak about the experience of being married. [...] “Surely it must be more exciting now, what with a man in your room!” (131)She throws her head back in laughter, constantly giggles, and is the epitome of the child-like Oriental woman envisaged by the West. Even Snow herself admits that she feels “tall and ungainly” next to the delicate Lemon. The latter’s feminine wiles and behaviour is further illustrated when she is asked to play the piano, which is naturally a skill learnt by women in well-to-do families so that they could perform for guests at their parents’ or husband’s will. Lemon plays a piece that is not recognised by Snow, pouts ‘like a girl ten yours younger’ and said, ‘Oh, Uncle TK, you know what it is, don’t you?’(133)
Despite Snow’s seemingly independent behaviour, she seems to still be tied to the idea of a woman’s fate to submit to forced marriage and its ensuing consequences. Snow’s diary starts with the words ‘[a]ccept your fate. Accept your fate. Mother’s words invade my dream’ (123)—words that echo throughout her life, but instead of ‘accepting her fate’ as her mother drones, Snow Soong’s diary is peppered with her intentions to tell her husband, Johnny Lim, that she intends to leave him. There is a confusion here as to Snow’s true inclinations—does she accept her fate? The answer appears to be ‘no’ as she clearly demonstrates her boldness in her interactions with Mamoru Kunichika, to whom she is greatly attracted and even swims in the river with him, with flirtatious overtures (208). There is a further ‘love’ scene where she “reached out to [Mamoru] and gathered him in [her] arms” (219), exhibiting not only maternal instincts but also strength, as well as an even more apparent gesture of defiance against staying in a troubled marriage in resignation.
Yet there are troubling contradictions—it is unclear whether Snow was forced to marry Johnny—Lemon asks whether the rumours of Snow marrying Johnny against the will of parents is true; her parents are described as being agreeable to the marriage as Johnny was a wealthy textile merchant, wealth is a deciding factor in the eligibility of the groom as is apparent from Jasper’s narrative:
[...] To top it all, Snow and the boy looked such a pretty pair and would surely attract all the right comments when the time came for them to venture into the public eye ... Thankfully, before such an understanding was reached between the parents, TK and Patti discovered that the boy’s parents were not quite as wealthy as they seemed. The Superintendent’s lavishness at the races had taken its toll on the family’s finances, and it was thought that much of his wife’s fabulous jewellery were borrowed from sympathetic relatives. It was clear that the dowry which TK and Patti expected in return for the hand of their daughter could never be fulfilled.’ (71)Whether Snow was indeed forced into the marriage, or as Lemon speculates, had married Johnny against her parents’ wishes, she later shows her resolve in leaving the marriage but at the time constantly hesitates in making her wishes known. The fact that Snow’s narrative is in the form of a personal diary is telling—the voice of an Asian woman in the 1940s would not have been allowed to be forthright and honest as it would be otherwise. Despite Snow’s boldness and unstereotypical ways, there are nevertheless still traces of her upbringing in a time of gender bias, ironically mainly exhibited by her mother who insists on objectifying and trivialising women:
‘This is our daughter, Professor,’ Mother said. ‘Nothing to look at, I told you, didn’t I?’ (124)We may well ask the same question as Johnny Lim who says, ‘How would you know what her self is?’ (308) referring to Peter Wormwood commenting that Snow is not herself. Not only does Snow make her decisions on contradictory terms, it appears to be difficult to pin down her definite sense of identity as an immigrant Chinese woman in Malaya. She is different from her counterparts in the ancestral homeland in China, and yet she displays no affinity to her adopted homeland either. What can be noticed is simply her collage of habits which almost mirror her as a Victorian woman, but at the same time she retains the values of her upbringing, to accept her fate in a loveless marriage. Her efforts to seduce Mamoru Kunichika do not fully materialise, and even more so when he tries to later rape her and appears to be unsuccessful.
‘[...] you would not be interested in a thing like her!’ (125)
‘You are his wife,’ she said simply and laughed, as if there was no more to say ... (139)
In the kitchen Mei Li was sitting on a low wooden stool, dipping little pink balls of sweet dough into a bowl of flour.
‘Don’t sit with your legs like that,’ mother hissed at her. ‘Only whores behave like that.’ She looked to see if I was listening. ‘Only whores behave like that,’ she said again. (136)
Snow Soong as anti-stereotype is at best half convincing—even as she is a far cry from her oppressed counterparts who have no access to education nor possess any of the myriad of privileges and choices that she does, her identity is ill-defined or even non-existent. The only thing that remains constant is her dependence upon a colonial source of one kind or another, be it one that is gender-based or from the imperialist coloniser of her adopted homeland. She is, in effect, doubly colonised—with remnants of her cultural obligations when she is groomed for her looks and ability to present herself, only to later die during childbirth, clashing with a legacy of literature and music not of her own culture. As much as it might have been intended for Snow Soong to be depicted as the antithesis of the stereotypical Oriental, in the end, she is left with a mishmash of a cultural personality; an identity that is neither emancipated nor certain in its definition.
AW, Tash, The Harmony Silk Factory, London: HarperCollins, 2005
HEUNG, Marina, ‘Representing Ourselves: Films and Videos by Asian American/Canadian Women,’ in Angharad N. Valdivia (ed.), Feminism, Multiculturalism and the Media: Global Diversities, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995
HONG KINGSTON, Maxine, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, London: Picador, 1981
KOH, Tai Ann, ‘Tradition and Modernity in the Fiction of Lee Kok Liang and Catherine Lim: Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese Perspectives,’ in Leo Suryadinata (ed.), Ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia: A Dialogue between Tradition and Modernity, Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2002
LIM, Shirley, ‘Between Women,’ in Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford (eds.), A Double Colonization: Colonial and Post-Colonial Women’s Writing, Oxford: Dangaroo Press, 1986
MINH-HA, Trinh T., ‘Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism,’ in Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989
MOHANTY, Chandra Talpade, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,’ Boundary 2, 12(3) (Spring-Autumn), 1984
PAN, Lynn, Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora, New York: Kodansha America, 1994
SAID, Edward W., Orientalism, New York: Random House, 1979
JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009). She is also a contributing editor at Quill magazine.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
An Interview with Clare WIGFALL
THE LOUDEST SOUND OF LITERARY SUCCESS
ERIC FORBES and TAN MAY LEE talk with CLARE WIGFALL about her first book, The Loudest Sound and Nothing, a collection of stories
CLARE WIGFALL’s début collection of disturbing and darkly provocative stories demonstrates that the form is alive and well.
Wigfall was born in Greenwich, London, in 1976. She grew up in Berkeley (California) and London. She lived in Prague for some time, and now lives in Berlin, doing face-painting for children to support her passion of writing short stories. Her début, The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber & Faber, 2007), showcases a collection of stories that have been featured in magazines as early as 1997. It was longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The first story in the collection, “Numbers,” was set in Outer Hebrides and is the only story written in the Gaelic vernacular, also using digits to depict a girl’s obsession with numbers and how they “lend a logic to the world.” “Numbers” won the 2008 BBC National Short Story Award, with two-time Whitbread Prize-winner Jane Gardam a close runner-up. (Gardam won for her short story, “The People on Privilege Hill,” from a collection of the same name.) The other writers on the shortlist included Adam Thorpe (“The Names”), Richard Beard (“Guidelines for Measures to Cope with Disgraceful and Other Events”) and Erin Soros (“Surge”). Wigfall received £15,000 for the story—the largest award in the world for a single short story.
According to the chair of the judging panel, broadcaster and writer Martha Kearnsey, “It’s exciting that a relatively unknown voice, in fact the youngest writer on our shortlist, has distinguished herself amongst some very well-known authors as a leading talent in the world of storytelling. Clare’s evocation of superstition and frustrated lives on a remote Scottish island is an act of historical ventriloquism. She shows just what the short story can achieve, conjuring up a whole world in microcosm. The strength of our shortlist ranging from the gothic to the comic demonstrates that the short story is alive and well, the perfect art form for a time-hungry age.”
We began corresponding with Wigfall way before she was longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Saying that the short story is a subject close to her heart is an understatement. In an article she wrote for a website, she talks about her love of reading and writing short stories: “I have known that junkie craving one can feel as you work your way through a brilliant collection, aching for the next 15-minute or half-hour slot of time when you can sit down and read a story through in one sitting, hitting the high with its conclusion and feeling the effects long after you’ve left the story behind.”
She is now working on a novel and a new collection of stories.
The British author spoke to us in an e-mail interview from her new home in Berlin, Germany, where she lives with her husband Troy Giunipero and their baby daughter Elsa Rowan.
Photographs of Clare Wigfall by Tan May Lee
Location: MPH 1 Utama, Petaling Jaya
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
More familiar than most people, 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.
Because the Frank O’Connor committee decided to award Jhumpa Lahiri the prize and bypassed the shortlist, did winning the BBC National Short Story Award with the first story in your collection make up for this decision?
The Loudest Sound and Nothing is only my first book and I’m still a young writer, so to even be nominated for either of these high-profile awards, where the calibre of the other entrants was so high and their careers so well established, in itself felt like an achievement worth celebrating. Of course, you hope the judges might like your work, but I certainly wasn’t holding my breath. When it was announced that the BBC judges had chosen to give my story the award, I was totally overwhelmed.
How pleased were you with the BBC National Short Story Award of £15,000—the largest award in the world for a single short story? What will you do with it?
The prize money is indeed a godsend. It will afford me the luxury of being able to write full-time. So, dull as it might sound, I’m afraid I’m going to be very sensible and eke out the money carefully so that it can keep paying the bills for as long as possible. However, I did allow myself one treat though: I bought a bicycle. Everyone in Berlin cycles and I’ve been longing to join them.
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.
Aside from winning literary prizes and selling many copies of a book, how do you know that you’ve written a brilliant story?
I’m always filled with self-doubt when I finish a story, and am constantly reading other authors whose work convinces me that even when I do my best, I’ve still got a lot to strive for. But when a reader tells you they loved one of your stories, or that it has moved them, or gripped them, or given them a window into another world, or made them think about their own life, well, then you begin to give your story a little more credit, because you know that it’s given something to the lives of others.
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 must 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.
Will you come visit us in Kuala Lumpur?
Faber & Faber have asked me to write two more books for them: a novel and another collection of stories. You might be surprised to learn that the novel is set in British Malaya. It will be fictional, but is loosely based on the story of my grandmother who grew up in Penang and about her mother who left her when she was a small baby. I am very excited to say that in order to research the novel I am going to Malaysia in March 2010, together with my baby daughter Elsa Rowan and my husband Troy. I am still piecing together our travel plans, but we intend to visit Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya at some point during the trip and I hope I might have the opportunity to finally meet both of you as well as other book lovers.
I still can’t quite believe we are making the trip—Berlin is still cloaked under what seems to be a never-ending layer of ice and snow. Will spring never come? It will really be surreal to arrive in Malaysia with its tropical climate! Just yesterday I was talking with my husband and saying I wonder what my grandmother would think to know her granddaughter and great-granddaughter are now tracing her footsteps.
Isn’t it funny that having come into contact with you almost by chance a couple of years ago [in September 2007], I now have the opportunity to visit Malaysia and meet you?
I can’t believe we are leaving soon. This morning I woke up and realised that this time next week we’d be in Kuala Lumpur and I would be doing the reading! And it is still snowing outside! It’s minus 4 degrees tonight here in Berlin. It really is the longest winter ever. I was just out walking our dog and shivering, hardly able to believe that in just a few days we’ll no doubt be sweating. I am very much looking forward to meeting you all soon; I feel like you’re all old friends already!
An updated version of an interview published in the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine
ERIC FORBES is a senior book editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. After reading economics for a degree, which he didn’t particularly enjoy but somehow endured, he had a succession of jobs before joining the publishing industry. He has been in bookselling and publishing for over 20 years now. He can’t imagine doing anything else. He is also a contributing editor at Quill magazine.
TAN MAY LEE graduated from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, where she was awarded the Bonamy Dobree Scholarship for International Students to do her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Language. She also trained as a Master Practitioner in Neuro-Semantics Neuro-Linguistic Programming. She is the editor of Quill magazine.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
2010 Orange Prize for Fiction Longlist
TWENTY BOOKS have been longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction from a pool of some 129 submissions, a mixed bag of established (M.J. Hyland, Barbara Kingsolver, Andrea Levy, Hilary Mantel, Lorrie Moore, Sarah Waters) and first-time (Rosie Alison, Eleanor Catton, Laila Lalami, Nadifa Mohamed, Amy Sackville, Kathryn Stockett, Attica Locke) novelists. Of course, Levy has won the prize before for Small Island in 2004 and Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for Wolf Hall. Faber & Faber has three books on the longlist: The Lacuna, The Wilding and A Gate at the Stairs, while Canongate has two: The Twisted Heart and This Is How. Will Levy, Mantel and Waters make it to the shortlist? What about Craig, Hyland and McCann?
1. The Very Thought of You (Alma Books) / Rosie Alison
2. The Rehearsal (Granta) / Eleanor Catton
3. Savage Lands (Harvill Secker) / Clare Clark
4. Hearts and Minds (Little, Brown, 2010) / Amanda Craig
5. The Way Things Look to Me (Pan Books, 2009) / Roopa Farooki
6. The Twisted Heart (Canongate, 2009) / Rebecca Gowers
7. This Is How (Canongate, 2009) / M.J. Hyland
8. Small Wars (Chatto & Windus, 2009) / Sadie Jones
9. The Lacuna (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Barbara Kingsolver
10. Secret Son (Viking, 2009) / Laila Lalami
11. The Long Song (Headline Review, 2010) / Andrea Levy
12. Black Water Rising (Serpent’s Tail, 2009) / Attica Locke
13. The Wilding (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Maria McCann
14. Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, 2009) / Hilary Mantel
15. Black Mamba Boy (HarperCollins, 2010) / Nadifa Mohamed
16. A Gate at the Stairs (Faber & Faber, 2009) / Lorrie Moore
17. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (Simon & Schuster, 2009) / Monique Roffey
18. The Still Point (Portobello Books, 2010) / Amy Sackville
19. The Help (Fig Tree, 2009) / Kathryn Stockett
20. The Little Stranger (Virago, 2009) / Sarah Waters
A shortlist of six novels will be announced on April 20, 2010