Monday, March 31, 2008

POETRY ... Mary Jo Salter

“A Phone Call to the Future”
Mary Jo Salter

Who says science fiction
is only set in the future?
After a while, the story that looks least
believable is the past.
The console television with three channels.
Black-and-white picture. Manual controls:
the dial clicks when you turn it, like the oven.
You have to get up and walk somewhere to change things.
You have to leave the house to mail a letter.

Waiting for letters. The phone rings: you’re not there.
You’ll never know. The phone rings, and you are,
there’s only one, you have to stand or sit
plugged into it, a cord
confines you to the room where everyone
is also having dinner.
Hang up the phone. The family’s having dinner.

Waiting for dinner. You bake things in the oven.
Or Mother does. That’s how it always is.
She sets the temperature: it takes an hour.

The patience of the past.
The typewriter forgives its own mistakes.
You type on top sheet, carbon, onion skin.
The third is yours, a record of typeovers,
clotted and homemade-looking, like the seams
on dresses cut out on the dining table.
The sewing machine. The wanting to look nice.
Girls who made their dresses for the dance.

This was the Fifties: as far back as I go.
Some of it lasted decades.
That’s why I remember it so clearly.

Also because, as I lie in a motel room
sometime in 2004, scrolling
through seventy-seven channels on my back
(there ought to be more—this is a cheap motel room),
I can revisit evidence, hear it ringing.
My life is movies, and tells itself in phones.

The rotary phone, so dangerously languid
and loud when the invalid must dial the police.
The killer coming up the stairs can hear it.
The detective ducks into a handy phone booth
to call his sidekick. Now at least there’s touch tone.
But wait, the killer’s waiting in the booth
to try to strangle him with the handy cord.
The cordless phone, first noted in the crook
of the neck of the secretary
as she pulls life-saving files.
Files come in drawers, not in the computer.
Then funny computers, big and slow as ovens.
Now the reporter’s running with a cell phone
larger than his head,
if you count the antenna.

They’re Martians, all of these people,
perhaps the strangest being the most recent.
I bought that phone. I thought it was so modern.
Phones shrinking year by year, as stealthily
as children growing.

It’s the end of the world.
Or people are managing, after the conflagration.
After the epidemic. The global thaw.
Everyone’s stunned. Nobody combs his hair.
Or it’s a century later, and although
New York is gone, and love, and everyone
is a robot or a clone, or some combination,

you have to admire the technology of the future.
When you want to call somebody, you just think it.
Your dreams are filmed. Without a camera.
You can scroll through the actual things that happened,
and nobody disagrees. No memory.
No point of view. None of it necessary.

Past the time when the standard thing to say
is that, no matter what, the human endures.
That whatever humans make of themselves
is therefore human.
Past the transitional time
when humanity as we know it was there to say that.
Past the time we meant well but were wrong.
It’s less than that, not anymore a concept.
Past the time when mourning was a concept.

Of course, such a projection,
however much I believe it, is sentimental—
belief being sentimental.
The thought of a woman born
in the fictional Fifties.

That’s what I mean. We were Martians. Nothing’s stranger
than our patience, our humanity, inhumanity.
Our worrying about robots. Earplug cell phones
that make us seem to be walking about like loonies
talking to ourselves. Perhaps we are.

All of it was so quaint. And I was there.
Poetry was there; we tried to write it.

from A Phone Call to the Future:
New and Selected Poems
Mary Jo Salter
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. The Devil’s Footprints (Jonathan Cape, 2007; Vintage, 2008) / John Burnside
2. The Night of the Mi’raj (Little, Brown, 2008) / Zoë Ferraris

1. The Japanese Wife (HarperCollins India, 2008) / Kunal Basu
2. Taking Pictures (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / Anne Enright

1. The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature (Vintage Books, 2004) / Amit Chaudhuri (ed.)
2. Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993-2006 (Random House, 2006) / E.L. Doctorow
3. Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China (HarperCollins, 2006; Harper Perennial, 2007) / Peter Hessler

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rohinton MISTRY

MISTRY Rohinton [1952-] Novelist. Born in Bombay, India. Novels Family Matters (2002: winner of the 2002 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for Fiction; shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award); A Fine Balance (1995: winner of the 1995 Giller Prize for Fiction, the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Prize, and the 1996 Los Angeles Times Award for Fiction; shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize for Fiction and the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award); Such a Long Journey (1991: winner of the 1991 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the 1992 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize for Fiction) Stories Tales From Firozsha Baag (published in the U.S. in 1989 as Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag) (1987)

Friday, March 28, 2008

So many bad books to edit, so little time!

MORE STRANGE EXCHANGES from the publishing front. I can understand the logic behind mathematical and chemical equations and the theory of relativity and all that stuff, but there is one thing I can never understand, no matter how hard I try. There are some things that somehow defy explanation or logic. What is this with Malaysian writers who hate to be edited? (Personally and seriously, I don’t think it is worth our time—or anybody’s time—editing such bad writing!) Some say breaking grammatical rules make their writing more interesting! Here are two I encountered recently:


A: I will give you the proofs after I have edited them.
B: The articles I sent you are final copies and I do not expect any editing to be done. I am very particular about edits. I am very precise about what I write. I have done a lot of research.
A: It is normal to be edited. All writers, no matter how good they are, must be edited.
B: Even the magazine that publishes my articles do not edit them. Please do not edit them; just publish them as they are written. I will make an issue if any changes are made. I hope to see the proofs before they go to print and also the cover. I will give you a preface and a blurb.
A: You don’t really need a publisher.
B: What do you mean?
A: All you need is a typesetter and a printer—not a publisher. I can recommend you a couple if you want.
B: I want a publisher. It is more legitimate that way.


A: I would like you to publish my book.
B: Pray tell me what’s your book about?
A: It’s a law book!
B: We don’t publish law books, I’m afraid. Perhaps you would like to try some other publishers?
A: It’s not really a law book. It’s actually a real-life crime story.
B: Why don’t you email me the typescript and let me take a look?
A: I don’t feel comfortable emailing it over.
B: Just email me a chapter or two and I’ll let you know whether I want to read more chapters.
A: Could I just come see you?
B: It’s not necessary to waste your time.
A: Can’t you just publish it without looking at it? What if you don’t like it?
B: If I love it, dinner’s on me! If I hate it ...


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Chinese Stories

Call for Submissions

MPH GROUP PUBLISHING is pleased to announce an open call for submissions of short fiction for an anthology tentatively entitled Chinese Stories. We aim to publish the anthology in 2009, depending on the number and quality of submissions we receive.

The theme of the anthology will be on Chinese life in Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere, with writings that explore questions of fate and destiny, culture, spirituality, language, human longings and their consequences, ironies of life, identity and family. And the joy and turmoil of love, of course. Stories could be sweet or sour. Or places in between. Or issues that have not been explored before.

Stories must be original, between 3,000 and 5,000 words, and must not have been previously published. We invite submissions from both emerging and established writers. Stories for children are not eligible for this compilation. Manuscripts must be edited, typed double-spaced with 12pt font and e-mailed to Please include your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address. You may submit as many pieces as you wish. Faxed or handwritten submissions will not be entertained and manuscripts will not be returned. We will contact you only if your piece has been selected for inclusion in the compilation. Writers whose submissions are selected will be expected to work with the editors to fine tune their stories.

Deadline: 30 June 2008
Payment: A small flat fee and two copies of the anthology

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Isabel ALLENDE ... The Sum of Our Days (Harper/Fourth Estate, 2008)

Chilean novelist Isabel Allende has published a new memoir! Allende, of course, is the author of such wonderful novels as The House of the Spirits (1985), Of Love and Shadows (1987) and Eva Luna (1988), and such compelling memoirs as Paula (1995) and My Invented Country (2003). Her latest memoir is entitled is The Sum of Our Days (Harper/Fourth Estate, 2008).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

2008 Ondaatje Prize

NICOLA BARKER, Robert Carver, Orlando Figes, Rachel Lichtenstein, Robert Minhinick and Graham Robb have been shortlisted for the 2008 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. The £10,000 prize is awarded annually to a work of fiction, nonfiction or poetry which, besides being judged to be of the highest literary merit, best evokes a sense of place. This year’s judges include Russell Celyn Jones, Elaine Feinstein and Romesh Gunesekera.

The Shortlist
Darkmans (Fourth Estate) / Nicola Barker
Paradise with Serpents (Harper Perennial) / Robert Carver
The Whisperers (Allen Lane) / Orlando Figes
On Brick Lane (Hamish Hamilton) / Rachel Lichtenstein
Sea Holly (Seren) / Robert Minhinnick
The Discovery of France (Picador) / Graham Robb

Past recipients of the Ondaatje Prize include Hisham Matar, James Meek, Rory Stuart and Louisa Waugh.

The winner will be announced on April 29, 2008

Monday, March 24, 2008

Uwem AKPAN ... Say You're One of Them (Little, Brown, 2008)

UWEM AKPAN was born in Nigeria. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 2006. He made his fiction début in The New Yorker in 2005 and currently teaches in Zimbabwe. Get ready, he will be the next big thing in world literature!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sharon BAKAR reviews ... Growing Up in Trengganu (2007)

Sip slowly to relish

A blogger who shifted from the screen to the printed page offers a very personal book that it is also a cultural record of a time and place greatly changed

By Awang Goneng
(Monsoon Books, 336pp)
ISBN 978-981-0586-92-8

THERE is a delicious irony about the fact that a book as distilled from memory and marinated in the rich spice of nostalgia as Awang Goneng’s Growing Up in Trengganu actually owes its existence to the electronic media. For this is one of Malaysia’s first “blooks” (as books based on blogs or websites are known).

Awang Goneng is actually the nickname of London-based veteran journalist Wan Ahmad Hulaimi who began his Kecek-Kecek (which means “just chatting” in the Terengganu dialect of Malay) blog as a way of recording what his childhood was like for his children who have grown up in Britain.

The blog (which can still be read online at would probably have remained online had it not been for proactive publisher Philip Tatham of Singapore-based Monsoon Books who contacted Wan Ahmad and asked him whether he thought there was a book there.

While the material has been re-edited and reorganised for print, the book retains many of the characteristics of the blog, and I’d say is enhanced by this, rather than otherwise.

Just as the online reader drops by a blog casually and may read posts out of sequence, the reader of this book can dip into it at any point since each short piece is self-contained and satisfying, often flowing in stream-of-consciousness style from a thought or a photograph.

This is not a book to be hurried through, but rather sipped slowly and relished.

Interaction with readers plays a very important part in shaping a blog, and Pak Awang (for so I shall call him) soon acquired a following of readers whom he credits with filling in gaps in his own recollection.

Not that he seems to have too many of those, for although he protests at one point that, “The light of the present has limited recall when you open the door slightly to the dark back room of your past,” what amazes the reader is the detail in which he is able to render each scene, bringing vividly alive the sights, scents and tastes of his childhood.

Whether he’s describing listening to storyteller by lamplight, talking about how the people of Terengganu coped with the monsoon season, letting us in on the secrets of making the infamous anchovy sauce budu, ruminating on the role of chickens in kampung society, or describing a family Hari Raya celebration, Pak Awang proves himself an erudite and gently humorous companion, weaving personal recollection into the rich tapestry of everyday life of Terengganu of the period.

It is, though, the recollections of ordinary people, shopkeepers, hawkers, kampung folk, imams and teachers—each of them described with respect and love, none of them too humble to be noticed—that most strikes a chord.

Another of the great delights of the book is the insights it gives into “Terengganu-speak,” a dialect (which I’ve always found impenetrable and mysterious) that has a word for everything, for, “There are as many ways to speak as there are chairs for cats to scratch,” as Pak Awang says.

While Growing Up in Trengganu is a book that is intensely personal, it is also a stunning cultural record of a time and place greatly changed, and not necessarily improved, by “progress.” The crowds flocking to the launch of the book in Kuala Terengganu and to author events in Kuala Lumpur earlier in the year have clearly taken the book and its author to their hearts.

Since its publication late last year, the book is now almost through its third reprint and the publisher, Monsoon Books, except to order a fourth soon. That’s not bad going for a writer who hadn’t even thought about making a book from his blog!

Review first published in The Sunday Star, March 23, 2008

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tobias WOLFF ... Our Story Begins (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

“… this is a volume that belongs on everybody’s shelf along with Hemingway’s In Our Time, Salinger’s Nine Stories and the collected works of Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Gabriel García Márquez, William Trevor and Alice Munro.”
Marianne Wiggins, in the Los Angeles Times

“Wolff’s alchemy in these stories is oddly and deeply transformative. They inevitably rise above their ostensible subject into some universal terrain. How Wolff achieves this effect is something of a miracle. He manages without a particularly striking prose style. What he has in spades, though, is intelligence, compassion and a radical openness to life’s unfathomable surprises.”
Dan Cryer, in the San Francisco Chronicle

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)
A collection of 31 stories from one of the leading practitioners of the short-story form. Wolff is the author of three story collections, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Back in the World (1985) and The Night In Question (1996). His new collection gathers 21 of his most popular stories from his previous collections and 10 new ones, all arranged chronologically.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The thing about life is that one day we will all be pushing up daisies

AT THE END OF THE DAY, when everything has been said and done, nothing really matters. Every day of our lives, we make choices that affect us and others. Whether we like it or not, we will die one day. The thing about life is that one day we will all be dead. Yes, that’s the title of David Shield’s new collection of essays about humanity and mortality written in the form of a novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). The surest thing is somehow the most difficult thing to understand. It’s a heartwarming book about confronting our fears, especially the fear of ageing and dying. What we learn from this heartwarming cockle of a book is to appreciate life and being alive. Shields is not afraid of laughing at himself and that’s what makes his book such an engaging read.

The subject of death, and discussing it, has always been our biggest fear. Renowned Stanford psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom’s Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (Jossey-Bass, 2008) makes easier the understanding of death. Fiction writers who have written on similar themes recently include J.G. Ballard with Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography (Fourth Estate, 2008), a frank and poignant piece of life story, and Julian Barnes with Nothing to be Frightened Of (Jonathan Cape, 2008), a personal memoir infused and suffused with black humour and lots reminiscences. You might recall that Staring at the Sun is also the title of a novel by Barnes published in 1986. In his last collection of stories, The Lemon Table (Jonathan Cape, 2004. Picador, 2005), the thread that connects the stories is encroaching old age and how we respond to mortality: fear, disappointment and regret. Many of the characters die in the end; however, they are not as depressing or cheerless as they sound, because he enlivens them with dollops of wry humour.

On the poetry front, there is Alan Shapiro’s Old War (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), a consistent collection of poems that is haunted by the echoes and shadows of death and the hereafter. Grace Paley’s posthumously published collection of poems, Fidelity (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) also uses ageing and death as themes.

Can you think of any other novels that explore death, mortality and other such ticking-of-the-clock issues?

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Jhumpa Lahiri’s new collection of eight stories, Unaccustomed Earth (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), will be out in April 2008. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway Award for her début story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 1999) in 2000. And her first novel, The Namesake (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), was adapted as a movie by celebrated Indian filmmaker Mira Nair in 2006.

The title “Unaccustomed Earth” is borrowed from a line in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House,” from the introduction to The Scarlet Letter (1850): “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What I Found at ... MPH Mid Valley, Kuala Lumpur

1. A Golden Age (John Murray, 2007) / Tahmima Anam
2. The Kindness of Women (Picador, 2007) (first published in 1991) / J.G. Ballard
3. The Opium Clerk (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001; Phoenix, 2002) / Kunal Basu
4. The Miniaturist (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003; Phoenix, 2004) / Kunal Basu
5. Racists (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006; Phoenix, 2007) / Kunal Basu
6. The House of Blue Mangoes (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002; Phoenix, 2003) / David Davidar
7. The Secrets of the Fire King (1997) / Kim Edwards
8. The Madness of a Seduced Woman (Dutton, 1983; Pocket, 2008) / Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
9. The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago/Little, Brown, 2008) / Linda Grant
10. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (New York Review of Books, 2008) (with an introduction by Susanna Moore) / Patrick Hamilton
11. The God of Animals (Scribner, 2007) / Aryn Kyle
12. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Random House, 2005; Harper Perennial, 2007) / Yiyun Li
13. The Raj Quartet: The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion (Everyman’s Library, 2007) / Paul Scott
14. The Raj Quartet: The Towers of Silence, A Division of the Spoils (Everyman’s Library, 2007) / Paul Scott

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

2008 Orange Prize for Fiction Longlist

ESTABLISHED IN 1996, the Orange Prize for Fiction (now known as the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction) has always courted controversy over the years. Despite what its detractors say, the prize, according to the organisers, is still very much a celebration of women’s fiction. All novels written in English and published in the United Kingdom are eligible for this international prize. This time seven first-time novelists are up against some of the most celebrated women writers in the English language such as Stella Duffy, Jennifer Egan, Anne Enright, Linda Grant, Tessa Hadley, Nancy Huston, Gail Jones, Charlotte Mendelson, Deborah Moggach, Anita Nair, Elif Shafak, Scarlett Thomas and Rose Tremain. The seven first-time authors are Anita Amirrezvani, Sadie Jones, Lauren Liebenberg, Heather O’Neill, Dalia Sofer, Carol Topolski and Patricia Wood. Anne Enright’s The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2007. Linda Grant won the Orange Prize for Fiction for When I Lived in Modern Times in 2000. Charlotte Mendelson won the Somerset Maugham Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her second novel, Daughters of Jerusalem in 2003. Elif Shafak writes in Turkish, but The Bastard of Istanbul, is her second novel she wrote in English. And Rose Tremain is of course Rose Tremain, one of the wonders of English fiction.

Here’s the longlist:
  1. The Blood of Flowers (Headline Review, 2007) / Anita Amirrezvani
  2. The Room of Lost Things (Virago, 2008) / Stella Duffy
  3. The Keep (Abacus, 2007) / Jennifer Egan
  4. The Gathering (Jonathan Cape, 2007) / Anne Enright
  5. The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago, 2008) / Linda Grant
  6. The Master Bedroom (Jonathan Cape, 2007) / Tessa Hadley
  7. Fault Lines (Atlantic Books, 2008) / Nancy Huston
  8. Sorry (Harvill Secker, 2007) / Gail Jones
  9. The Outcast (Chatto & Windus, 2008) / Sadie Jones
  10. The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam (Virago, 2008) / Lauren Liebenberg
  11. When We Were Bad (Picador/Houghton Mifflin, 2007) / Charlotte Mendelson
  12. In the Dark (Chatto & Windus, 2007) / Deborah Moggach
  13. Mistress (Black Amber, 2007) / Anita Nair
  14. Lullabies for Little Criminals (Quercus, 2008) / Heather O’Neill
  15. The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking, 2007) / Elif Shafak
  16. The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco Press/Picador, 2007) / Dalia Sofer
  17. The End of Mr Y (Canongate, 2007) / Scarlett Thomas
  18. Monster Love (Fig Tree, 2008) / Carol Topolski
  19. The Road Home (Chatto & Windus, 2007) / Rose Tremain
  20. Lottery (William Heinemann, 2007) / Patricia Wood
A shortlist of six novels will be announced on April 15, 2008. The winner of the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction will be announced on June 4, 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

Words come easy to Wena POON

Some in the literary circle have hailed her as an exciting young talent to watch out for. INTAN MAIZURA AHMAD KAMAL finds out more about Wena Poon in an e-mail interview

AT THE AGE OF 10, Wena Poon was among the first group of children enrolled in Singapore’s Gifted Education Programme. Today, the 33-year-old Singaporean, who divides her time between San Francisco and Austin in Texas, is hailed as one of the most gifted young writers in the literary circle.

Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction works have been widely anthologised and published in Asia, Europe and her adopted country, the U.S. But it is her debut outing, Lions In Winter—a collection of 11 wonderfully insightful stories that examine the lives of displaced Singaporeans living abroad and those in Singapore who are torn between two worlds in their search for an imaginary homeland—that has excited some of her more illustrious contemporaries.

Poon’s love for writing and literature began very early. By the time she was 14, she’d already completed the first of many series of novels. At 16, she graduated top of her class in Literature at Raffles Girls’ School and was subsequently awarded a Humanities Scholarship to Raffles Junior College. The History-loving Capricornian went to the U.S. in 1991 to study English Literature at Harvard University. She went on to graduate with Honours before moving on to complete a law degree at Harvard Law School. It was here, with her professors’ support that Poon started to publish film reviews in the U.S.

In 2002, Poon, daughter of a businessman and a schoolteacher mother, began publishing stories and poems about Singapore. Her work has appeared in The Merlion and The Hibiscus by Penguin Books, From Boys to Men by Landmark Books, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Silverfish New Writing, Yuan Yang and many other literary journals in Asia and Australia. In 2005, Milanese publisher Il Saggiatore selected her work for Italian translation in an anthology called Singapore, showcasing new writers from around the world. In 2006, her short fiction was featured in Island Voices, a Singapore literature textbook for Secondary 3 and 4 literature students.

Poon, a corporate lawyer specialising in international mergers and acquisitions and capital markets, and a member of the New York and California State Bars, also produces work in other genres alongside her literary efforts.

In 2005, she completed a science fiction action adventure novel, Biophilia. Its sequel, Cryptic Tonic, followed suit two years later. Targeted primarily at the American youth market, Poon, who’s been married for the last eight years to Bailey Korell, designed and retailed these books herself on and featured them at Alternative Press Expo in California.

She keeps herself busy and has freelanced as a journalist, editor and film reviewer for various newspapers and magazines. Her interest in film and languages led her to interpret and write the English/Mandarin subtitles for the recent Hollywood film, Nanking, produced by an Oscar-winning director. This is the transcript from an e-mail interview with the writer:

Q. What inspires you?
Asian women of my generation who are amazing. I recently saw the Filipino-born Broadway star Lea Salonga in concert. She’s pretty close to my age. Her talent and the work she has put into her artistic career has inspired me and about five million Asian girls worldwide.

Q. Where do you get your ideas?
Like many writers or film directors, I observe people. Something poignant would occur in my daily life—I would notice a stranger on the street and think, “There is a great story behind this person.” I love the dramatic possibilities of ordinary life. I spend a lot of time writing down interesting monologues that ordinary people deliver in my presence, unconscious of the fact that they are actors on a stage of their own design. For example, I think cab drivers, when they go on a rant, are absolutely hilarious.

Q. Who is your literary hero?
E.M. Forster. He didn’t write many novels, but they were all elegant and sympathetic observations of the human condition. He’s also easy to read.

Q. What was your first novel about (when you were 14)?
A boy sorcerer who goes off to defeat a demon, aided by his sorceress girlfriend and her wizard father. This was way before Harry Potter. Over three years, I completed an entire fantasy trilogy (about 120,000 words) with these characters. This was in the 80s, before I had a computer. I typed it manually and used up reams of paper. When I ran out of paper, I would type on the backs of photocopied documents, on lined paper, on whatever I could find. I was like Jack Kerouac and I hadn’t even heard of Jack Kerouac! When I asked local publishers to publish the manuscripts, they thought I was insane because I was just a kid.

Q. What do you enjoy most about what you do?
The opportunity to connect with people and hear their stories. Finding kindred spirits.

Q. What do you consider to be your biggest challenge with what you do (with writing)?
It’s easy to have lots of ideas. It’s hard to make them coherent and understandable to your audience. You have to constantly self-edit.

Q. What kind of writing do you enjoy most?
Easily readable, beautiful sentences, stories that have universal themes. Like Shakespeare. Maybe it’s because by day I’m a corporate lawyer in a fast-paced environment, but whenever I come across a ponderous piece of fiction with all these long, droning sentences and complex structures, I throw up my hands and go, “WHAT is he trying to say! Good God! Next!”

Q. How would you describe your style?
I shoot straight from the hip. I try to communicate simply, effectively and elegantly. I don’t mix metaphors, I don’t try to strive for effect. I write exactly the way I think. As Keats said, “poetry should come as naturally as leaves to a tree.” If you push yourself too hard, you’re doing it wrong.

Q. How much has your writing changed? How much has living abroad contributed to your process as a writer?
My writing style has evolved to become simpler and clearer. In my teens I thought being literary-sounding was cool but now I think it’s cooler to be sharp, focused and easy to read. Less is more. Living abroad has been critical in my development as a writer. It gave me material to write about, but more importantly, it gave me confidence. In Singapore, I was taught, “children should be seen and not heard”. In America, children are told that they can change the world, and that they better start now. I arrived in the U.S. at 17 and realised that my peers were way ahead of me and that I had better look sharp.

Q. What does Singapore mean to you?
It’s a question of the heart. I’m pretty sentimental about Singapore as I grew up there for the first 17 years. I want more people to know about Singapore, that it’s not just a tropical touristy place, that it’s not just about the chewing gum ban and caning, but that it is a unique, diverse, complex and amazing place. But we can’t do that until we believe in it ourselves first. Ironically, many Asians think Americans do not have moral values, but it was the Americans who taught me to be proud of my roots. They taught me patriotism, to treasure what I have instead of saying it’s not good enough.

Q. Tell us about Lions In Winter. How long did it take you to put it together?
And what inspired you to write this book? Was it tough? The stories were written over five years. I wrote many short stories and a couple of novels during that time, and the published short stories drew the attention of Silverfish and MPH Publishing. It’s never tough for me to write. But I admit, for most writers, it is very tough to be published. I’m incredibly lucky that MPH Publishing appreciated my material and its editors have been marvellous about putting the book together.

Q. It says that your book “… examines the lives of displaced Singaporean living abroad and those in Singapore torn between two worlds in their search for an imaginary homeland”. Do you feel displaced? Are you torn between two worlds?
From time to time, I do feel caught between two worlds but it’s not a bad feeling. It’s not depressing or anything. I think it’s challenging and interesting. The Singaporean diaspora is only going to grow. Nowadays Singaporeans go to China, Hong Kong. They say it’s tough to make it in Singapore so they export themselves, sometimes leaving family behind. This makes for very interesting literature.

Q. When did you have your work published by Silverfish New Writing? How did that come about?
I published quite a few stories with Silverfish between 2003 and 2007. The Singapore community of writers and poets is very small and generally very supportive of each other. They told me about Silverfish in Kuala Lumpur. Though my stories were about Singaporean Chinese people, the Kuala Lumpur-based publisher took them. I was living in Hong Kong and the U.S. then and submitted my stories via e-mail, with a brief e-mail hello. I let the work speak for itself. It’s easy to submit for anthologies. Everyone who has written something should try it. The worst that can happen is that you get rejected.

Q. What is your proudest achievement?
I discovered that Lions In Winter was No. 6 on The Straits Times Top 10 Bestseller List for fiction on February 3. To me, that is a bigger achievement than making The New York Times Bestseller List. It was the only book on that list that is by an Asian Press and a local writer. I ranked above Stephen King! My American friends got a real kick out of that.

Q. Tell me about your childhood and what kind of environment did you grow up in? What was your childhood aspiration? How much of an influence were your parents? How did you grow to love writing and books? Did anybody guide you when you first started?
Because I got into the Gifted Program when I was 10, I went to school with well-off kids whose parents were lawyers, bankers, and professors. But I wasn’t one of them. Before me, nobody in my extended family had even gone to university. I didn’t have any mentors or role models, except those in books and films. I was discouraged from pursuing the arts, writing or literature because “it doesn’t make money”. Did this stop me from applying to Harvard? No. Did this stop me from writing? No. So for all those self-doubting teens out, I hope they’re reading this and changing their minds. In America, I was taught that if you persist in doing what you love, regardless of whether you would become rich doing it; you will eventually get somewhere, even if it takes years. Whereas in Singapore, you tend to hear the opposite, that you shouldn’t engage in something that doesn’t make money. I believe there are a lot of frustrated people out there who are limited by this sentiment and never got to pursue their true passion.

Q. Where is home for you?
After living in Singapore, Boston, New York, Hong Kong, I now live in San Francisco. I chose to live here because of its natural scenery. Some parts up north look like Wales or Ireland or what you would think C.S. Lewis’s Narnia looks like. As one of my American friends says, “It’s God’s country.”

Q. What’s your ultimate dream?
You’re going to laugh, but since it’s too late for me to be a teenage model, I guess it would be to have one of my novels made into a film that would win an Oscar. Something like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours which I thought was fabulous. My husband knows this. I already have an Oscar gown picked out. Very important, you know! You don’t want to be caught not having anything to wear at the last minute!

Interview courtesy of New Sunday Times, Malaysia
Photography by Kim of Avenue8 Photographers, Singapore

Lions In Winter is available at all major bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore. Poon will be making store appearances on:

Saturday, March 22 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.: MPH Breakfast Club, MPH Bangsar Village II, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
Saturday, March 22, 3.30p.m.: Readings@Seksan’s, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
Saturday, March 22, 5.00p.m.: Borders at The Curve, Petaling Jaya
Sunday, March 23, 1.00p.m.: MPH Mid Valley MegaMall, Kuala Lumpur

Sunday, March 16, 2008

MPH Breakfast Club with ... Wena POON & CHUAH Guat Eng

Check out the New Sunday Times interview with Wena Poon today!

The 12th MPH Breakfast Club on Saturday, March 22, 2008, at 11.00a.m. to 12.30p.m., will be featuring Singaporean writer Wena Poon, whose début collection of stories, Lions in Winter: Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2008), was published by MPH Group Publishing in December 2007. Poon left Singapore as a teenager and has lived in Hong Kong and the U.S. Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction have been widely anthologised and published in the U.S., Europe and Asia. She read literature and law at Harvard University and currently lives in San Francisco, California.

In this collection of eleven insightful stories, Poon examines the quiet lives of displaced Singaporeans living abroad and in Singapore who are often torn between two worlds in their search for an imaginary homeland.

Poon’s portraits of various lives share a common, constant yearning to belong in a place made foreign whether by time or space. Occasionally humorous, but always with compassion, she captures the rich inner lives of individuals who form part of the kaleidoscopic modern history of Asian migration in their quest for modern lives.

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


We will also be featuring Chuah Guat Eng, the author of Echoes of Silence (Holograms, 1994), who has just come out with her first collection of short stories, The Old House and Other Stories (Holograms, 2008).

“There is much to admire in the quiet craftsmanship of Guat’s stories, and I do hope there is more of them to come.” Sharon Bakar

Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee will be introducing Wena Poon and Chuah Guat Eng respectively while Janet Tay will be moderating the session.

Date March 22, 2008 (Saturday)
Time 11.00a.m.-12.30p.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


“Travel broadens the mind, but emigration often carries with it the dilemmas of dislocation. It is often a question of knowing when to leave and when to return. Wena Poon’s stories dissect this question delicately, ironically, wickedly. Hers is a voice that should be heard: its wry mirth bubbles beneath culture clashes, runs between the hidden agenda of generations and genders, washes over the quotidian clangour of transculturation. These stories are a classic mixture of city and jungle. Poon rattles the familial cage with wit and vigour.” Brian Castro, author of Shanghai Dancing (2003) and The Garden Book (2005)

“A commendable début, refreshingly unpretentious and heartfelt. Wena Poon’s writing is confident and deft, and she doesn’t resort to fashionable and intrusive postmodern gimmicks. As a result, her stories are so much more effective and powerful.” Tan Twan Eng, Man Booker Prize-longlisted author of The Gift of Rain (2007)

Wena Poon’s stories are both delicate and explosive. In Lions in Winter she writes about people at the margins of our lives, people who are so because we fail to invite them closer. Here they insist on the invitation and each new encounter is a revelation.” Brian Leung, author of Lost Men (2007) and World Famous Love Acts (2004)

Wena Poon’s frank, refreshing stories bravely reject the pat stereotypes of Asia so common in the West. Asia desperately needs more narratives like hers to cancel out all the foolish, precious exoticism, pagodas and bound feet and concubines everywhere. Instead, she gives us complex characters negotiating urban realities. Her characters wrestle with dislocation, hybrid identities, tradition and modernity, and ultimately demonstrate, as the best literature always does, that so much of the human experience is universal, whatever its geographic and cultural particularities.” Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening Is the Whole Day (2008)

“Evocative.” Tinling Choong, author of FireWife (2007)

“Reading this book was like attending a family reunion at which each of my warped, wacky, flawed relatives took turns to drag skeletons out of closets and regale me with anecdotes that were by turns funny, dramatic, thought-provoking or tragic.” Alexandra Wong, in The Sunday Star

“Refreshingly direct, absorbing from each opening paragraph. I thoroughly enjoyed Wena Poons storytelling.Lansell Taudevin

“Although several of the stories in Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter have been published in different places and at different times, the collection as a whole is unified by the common thread of displacement. Like the Chinese lions in the snowy New York landscape in the title story, many of her characters are Asians transplanted to the west. Sometimes they also make the journey back to Singapore, giving us the chance to see the country through their eyes. Poon’s great gift, though, is to keep that freshness of vision and to bring out the extraordinariness of the ordinary lives she describes, looking not only at immigration and the sometimes painful path to assimilation, but also questioning just what it means to be Singaporean. She writes beautifully in a style that is both informal and conversational, and there are clever little asides thrown into the narrative that really tickle the funny bone.” Sharon Bakar

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 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. … In many ways, Lions in Winter is a letter to Singapore from abroad, which also takes on the country’s emerging social issues. … 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. … 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.” Eddie Tay, in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore

Poon writes about the Asia I know, and she does so with grace, insight and compassion. In these eleven stories, East and West do not inhabit one-dimensional roles—submissive versus dominant, traditional versus modern—but mingle to produce the knotty realities of globalisation.” Preeta Samarasan



April 19, 2008 (Saturday): Kunal Basu, the author of such novels as The Opium Clerk (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001/Phoenix, 2002), The Miniaturist (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003/Phoenix, 2004) and Racists (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006/Phoenix, 2007) as well as the short-story collection, The Japanese Wife (HarperCollins India, 2008)

Kunal Basu will also be doing a reading at readings@seksan’s at 3.30p.m. the same day