Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Lieutenant (Text Publishing, September 28, 2008) by Kate GRENVILLE

Monday, September 29, 2008

Wena POON shortlisted for the 2008 Singapore Literature Prize

WENA POON, the author of Lions In Winter (MPH Publishing, 2008), who was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, has been shortlisted for the 2008 Singapore Literature Prize.

The following books were shortlisted:

1. Last Boy (poetry) / Ng Yi-Sheng
2. The Lies that Build a Marriage (stories) / Suchen Christine Lim
3. Lions in Winter (stories) / Wena Poon
4. Rainbows in Braille (stories) / Elmo Jayawardena
5. Five Right Angles (poetry) / Aaron Lee Soon Yong

Sunday, September 28, 2008

What’s on in October 2008

October 11, 2008 (Saturday)
Time: 3pm-4pm
Venue: Book Café, MPH Megastore 1 Utama, Bandar Utama, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
Event: Marie Claire and MPH announces the start of their joint book club, Coffee & Conversation, this month at MPH Megastore 1 Utama. A monthly event, this reader’s circle will include discussions on hot favourites and books recently reviewed in Marie Claire. This month, the club will talk about Evening Is the Whole Day by Malaysia-born, France-based author Preeta Samarasan. The book charts life in postcolonial Malaysia and touches on the May 13, 1969, riots in lyrical language, and is gaining widespread interest on local and international fronts.

The event is limited to 15 people, so register now at the MPH Megastore 1 Utama Customer Service desk, call 03-7726 9003 or e-mail csoneutama@mph.com.my.


October 14-19, 2008
Event: 2008 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Ubud, Bali
Authors: Segun Afolabi, Charlotte Bacon, John Berendt, Linda Christanty, Matthew Condon, Sadanand Dhume, Tishani Doshi, Camilla Gibb, Andrea Hirata, Jamie James, Dyah Merta, Moni Mohsin, Elizabeth Pisani, Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, Preeta Samarasan, Vikram Seth, Indra Sinha, Lisa St. Aubin de Terán, Bahaa Taher, Chiew-Siah Tei, Carrie Tiffany, Michael Vatikiotis, Tony Wheeler, Alexis Wright, Geling Yan, Lijia Zhang, etc.


October 24, 2008 (Friday)
Time: 8.00am
TV Show: NTV7’s The Breakfast Show interview with Preeta Samarasan


October 25, 2008 (Saturday)
Time: 11.30am-1pm
Venue: MPH Bangsar Village II, Bangsar Baru, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Event: The 15th instalment of the MPH Breakfast Club for Litbloggers will feature two Malaysian novelists: Preeta Samarasan and Chiew Siah-Tei. Preeta Samarasan is author of Evening Is the Whole Day. Samarasan—who was born and raised in Malaysia before moving to the United States to further her education and then to France where she now lives with her husband—recently won the Asian American Writer’s Workshop Short Story Award.

Chiew-Siah Tei is the author of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes.

Eric Forbes, senior editor at MPH Group Publishing, will introduce Samarasan and Tei while book editor Janet Tay will moderate the session. Food and refreshments will be served. All lovers of literature are welcome.


Time: 3.30pm-6.00pm
Venue: Seksan Design, No. 67 Jalan Tempinis Satu, Lucky Garden, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur
Event: readings@seksan with Preeta Samarasan, Chiew-Siah Tei & others


October 26, 2008 (Sunday)
Time: 2.30pm-3.30pm
Venue: MPH Book Café, MPH Mid Valley Megamall, Kuala Lumpur
Event: The Lit Addicts Meet discusses Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is The Whole Day; facilitator, S.H. Lim. The author will be present.

Participants will receive a coupon for a 25% discount off the book at MPH Mid Valley Megamall and will enjoy a complimentary cup of flavoured tea at the Book Café, courtesy of Coffex Coffee Sdn Bhd.


Time: 4.30pm-5.00pm
Venue: Borders@The Curve, Petaling Jaya
Event: Meet Preeta Samarasan as she talks about writing her first novel, Evening Is the Whole Day


October 28, 2008 (Tuesday)
Time: 7.30pm
Radio Show: On LiteFM, PK and Sara interview Preeta Samarasan


Preeta Samarasan’s photograph courtesy of Miriam Berkley

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Austin CLARKE ... More (2008) & The Polished Hoe (2002)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Goodbye, Paul Newman

Paul Leonard Newman (1925-2008)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. The White Tiger (Atlantic/Free Press, 2008) / Aravind Adiga
2. The Wasted Vigil (Faber & Faber, 2008) / Nadeem Aslam
3. The Secret Scripture (Faber & Faber/Viking Penguin, 2008) / Sebastian Barry
4. The China Lover (Penguin/Atlantic, 2008) / Ian Buruma
5. The Glass of Time (John Murray, 2008) / Michael Cox
6. The Story of a Marriage (Faber & Faber, 2008) / Andrew Sean Greer
7. Late Nights On Air (McClelland & Stewart, 2007/Quercus, 2008) / Elizabeth Hay
8. A Most Wanted Man (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) / John le Carré

9. The Given Day (HarperCollins, 2008) / Dennis Lehane
10. Children of the Revolution (Jonathan Cape, 2007) / Dinaw Mengestu
11. Netherland (Fourth Estate, 2008) / Joseph O’Neill
12. Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) / Marilynne Robinson
13. Indignation (Jonathan Cape/Houghton Mifflin, 2008) / Philip Roth
14. An Atlas of Impossible Longing (Quercus, 2008) / Anuradha Roy
15. The Good Thief (Bantam, 2008) / Hannah Tinti

1. The Boat (Canongate, 2008) / Nam Le
2. The Other Garden and Collected Stories (Picador, 2008) / Francis Wyndham

1. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Railway Bazaar (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) / Paul Theroux

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Getting Printed


ADMIT IT. You have dreamt of writing a book and seeing it published. Well, it’s not such an impossible dream. Some teenagers have gotten their work published, with some talent and lots of determination. If you harbour such a dream but don’t know where to start, MPH Group Publishing editor Janet Tay has a few pointers and advice for you.


What does your publishing house look for in a newcomer’s manuscript before agreeing to publish it?
For fiction, we want a good writing style, a compelling story—the usual basic requirements. For nonfiction, it is also good writing and also whether the manuscript is on a topic or area that is of current or popular interest.

What about the storylines? Are they any good? What makes a good book?
Some are. In fact, there have been times where the story is better than the language, but sadly we’ve had to reject the manuscript because of poor English or a bad writing style. There’s no fixed formula to what makes a good book, and every book would have different requirements. I reiterate what I said earlier—the basic requirements are that the book has to be well-written, and for non-fiction, ideally something that would sell (popular topics, etc.) A good storyline is anything that’s interesting, and also delivered well. Any story can be interesting, really, if it’s written well.

Is it difficult to get published in Malaysia?
I don’t think our requirements are as stringent as British or American publishers, mainly because there isn’t as much competition here. But to maintain standards, we do still try to be as discerning as possible.

What is the level of writing among young writers who have sent their manuscripts to MPH Publishing?
I think there’s definitely a lot of potential but young writers still have a long way to go, especially with regard to fiction. There are one or two good young writers in our upcoming anthology of short stories and creative fiction, Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (forthcoming in February 2009), and from those pieces of work, I feel quite optimistic but there must be consistent efforts by the authors themselves to improve if they want to be good enough to be published not only in Malaysia but possibly even in Britain or the United States.

What are the common mistakes potential authors make in their manuscripts?
By the time a manuscript is sent to a publishing house, it should already be very clean, without grammatical or typographical errors. Typographical and grammatical errors, lazy writing or badly structured sentences can annoy the editor perusing your manuscript at the publishing house, because the message you’re sending out is, “I don’t care about my work”—so if you don’t, why should the editor? Sadly, there have been many instances where even manuscripts in incoherent English have been sent to us.

What should writers include when sending in their manuscripts?
A cover letter with the first three chapters of the manuscript, or even the whole manuscript, a brief biodata with writing credentials, and contact details. We accept submissions by email too and usually do peruse the whole manuscript. Publishers in the U.K. or U.S. usually only ask for three chapters before expressing an interest, but we don’t have thousands of manuscripts flooding in like they do so we usually ask for the whole thing. I think some of the things one can leave out in their biodata are irrelevant credentials or even who they know! We don’t really care who the authors know or need to be convinced by how many copies they think their books can sell. As long as the writing is impeccable, we’re interested. So keep it simple: cover letter that briefly states the synopsis of the book, a brief biodata with writing credentials, and contact details. There’re many samples of cover or query letters on the Internet as reference.

Does the length of the manuscript matter?
The average length of novels, for example, would be in the range of 60,000 to 100,000 words or more. I would say for a proper book, perhaps at least 40,000 or 50,000 words minimum. Anything shorter would depend on what kind of book it is (picture book, children’s book, etc.)

Do you really read the whole manuscript before agreeing to publish it?
I’ve sort of answered that above, but to be more precise, it depends. There are manuscripts where you can almost immediately tell whether it’s good or bad. There are also some in-between ones that we take a pretty long time to pore over, to make sure that we’re not rejecting a potentially good book. But yes, unlike most British or American publishers, we do take time to give the whole manuscript a quick read.

What are the genres that are currently famous among beginners? Should they stick to that? Is there market for such genres in Malaysia?
I don’t think there’s such a thing. Every genre is specialised. Beginner writers should read whatever they want to write, for e.g., if you want to write horror, read Stephen King or any other famous horror writers; for literary fiction there’s a wide variety of writers to read and so on. So, no, there aren’t any training wheels for this, if that’s what you mean. All genres are unique and require different skills. There aren’t “easy” books to write.

What kind of money can young writers see? Can they expect to get rich after publishing just one book?
Far from it. Very, very few writers make money from writing (another point I can’t overemphasise enough). I think it’s best to just be happy if one is published—the money should be ancillary. You have to also consider the Malaysian market, which is tiny compared to that in Britain or the U.S., for example. The standard publishing contract offers 10 per cent of the book’s published price in royalties--you can imagine how little that can be if sales don’t do as well as expected. So, if one wants to write to make money, it’s a long shot.

What happens after a manuscript has been accepted for publication? How does a book end up on the shelf of a bookstore?
Briefly, once a manuscript is accepted, a publishing contract is negotiated then signed. The editing process then begins, and this may take anything between two and five months, depending. In the meantime, endorsements are also sought and sometimes pre-publicity reviews. Once the editing process is over, the draft is typeset and more proofreading or a last round of edits is done. In the meantime the cover would also be designed. Everything is then sent to the printers, and once the books are printed, they’re sent to the distributors and then to the bookstores.

Do you have any advice for budding writers?
Read, read, read. I can’t emphasise that enough. I think we do encounter a fair bit of writers who want to write but don’t pick up books themselves. It’s like a chef who doesn’t know how to eat or taste his food. It also depends on each individual, what works for them. Some choose to take writing classes or attend workshops. These can help, too. Or read their favourite authors and analyse styles. Also, self-editing is very important. I think another salient point I can raise is being professional. Being a published writer isn’t just about the glamour or being famous, if at all that happens. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of rejections and a lot of determination, resillience. It’s very much about being a strong person, having to weather all sorts of conditions, while maintaining a balance between being humble and being confident of your work. So for young writers, I would advise doing a lot of research (not just on improving their writing but also how to approach agents or publishers, etc.) and being very serious in the type of writing genre they intend to pursue. And never give up!

Are Malaysian readers into reading books by Malaysian authors? Namely the works of the young ones?
I’m afraid I don’t really know but I’ll have to assume that Malaysians would read books/stories that are well-written.

What kind of support does your publishing house give to the young authors under its banner? How does your publishing house support up and coming young authors? Are there any programmes or workshops that they can join?
At the moment MPH Bookstores does organise writing workshops now and then. There are plans to encourage writing short stories underway, but we’ll only be announcing these plans later in October. There are some workshops being planned for the end of the year and next year.

Do you think that most young authors there deserve to have their work published? If no, why?
I can’t say I’ve read many young authors who’ve had their books in print. But at the moment, I haven’t read any Malaysian young writers who have made any kind of impact to the literary world. Take Booker Prize-winning Ben Okri, for example, who published his first novel at 18. I haven’t read any young Malaysian writer of his calibre at that age.

What do you think of self-publishing young authors? Any advice for them? How different is self-publishing from getting published by an organisation like yours?
Self-publishing just means the authors would have to pay for printing costs themselves. They would have to decide everything--layout, cover, edit text themselves and so on. I think it can be pretty tough unless you know exactly what you want. Being published in a publishing house just means everything’s more or less done for you, but of course for a publishing house to invest in that kind of time and money, the quality of the book has to be high. For people who decide to self-publish, it’s important to consider how you would want to market your book and yourself, how big your budget is, who can distribute for you and who you can approach to edit your book. Even if you’re excellent at self-editing, it never hurts to get a fresh pair of eyes to look at your work.

How long does it take before one knows whether their work is accepted or not?
It depends. It can range from a week to a month or two. Usually it’s not that difficult to spot something we definitely don’t want to publish or ones that we want to. It’s the in-betweens that usually make us very indecisive. So for young writers, I would advise doing a lot of research (not just on improving their writing but also how to approach publishers, agents, etc.) and being very serious in the type of writing/genre they want to pursue. And never give up!

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Star of September 24, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wena's Roar

The well-composed and intelligent Wena Poon belies a fire within. She reveals how she transformed from a shy little girl into the go-getting lawyer and writer she is today.
Text by Shanti Ganesan

WHILE OTHER 14-YEAR-OLDS were out engaging in the latest fads, Singapore-born writer-lawyer Wena Poon was at home diligently working on a sci-fi novel. It appeared her being accepted in Singapore’s Gifted Programme was already bearing its fruit of success. “Less than 10 of us were selected from my school,” she says. “We were too young to know what it was all about. But then, looking back as an adult, I realise that that was one of the great things to happen to you as a nine-year-old because you’re put on a special track.”

Today, 34-year-old Wena is a corporate lawyer specialising in international mergers and acquisitions and capital markets, and a member of the New York and California State Bars. She is also a writer and produces work in other genres alongside her literary efforts. But until Wena was about 10 years old, she was very shy, timid and a bit fearful. An only child till she was 11, she was shielded by protective parents. The prodigy wasn’t able to truly explore her talents until much later and Wena’s meekness offered her nothing but the ability to fade into the background.

“When I was about 14, I started having a voice of my own,” she says. “The same group of girls were kept together and we were all very bright. We were very competitive and I think we had a bit more aggression and ambition than most girls our age. We just became more demanding of what we expected from life,” she notes. “I was 14 when I wrote my first novel. There was really nothing we couldn’t do. We always had a vision ahead of our time,” she adds.

She eventually went to the U.S. in 1991 where she read English Literature at Harvard University, graduating with honours before moving on to complete a law degree at Harvard Law School.

“I think living in the U.S. is very different. Even today, if you take a 17-year-old out of Singapore and put her in the U.S., even with the Internet and everything, there will be a difference. It’s obviously an immersion into another culture. The biggest thing that hit me and still hits me today is how we treat our children. In Singapore we tend to be very protective, there are certain things that girls can’t do. The standards are different. But I think in the U.S., they really teach children to do whatever they set their hearts on. And again, there’s nothing you cannot do. No child is too small. They are taught to dream big. They’re only limited by their own talents and not their society,” she says.

That is perhaps why in her début short-story collection, Lions In Winter (MPH Publishing, 2008), Wena shares 11 stories about displaced Singaporeans living abroad. Wena tries to keep them diverse in terms of age, gender and social class and even gets under the skin of all her characters.

“As a writer, you invariably bleed every part of yourself because you empathise with your character. It’s almost like being an actor playing different roles. If you don’t play the role yourself, you cannot possibly write empathetically about that one character. So, even in the character of a man who was afraid of ATMs, I felt I was inhabiting his personality and seeing his point of view,” says Wena.

When asked about her experiences when she went to the U.S., Wena explains how miserable she was in her first year.

“When the snow started falling … that’s when I really felt like I knew I was not in Asia. I just felt it was all weird. I felt nostalgic and in fact I just recently saw the movie, The Namesake, and the first scene was when a woman got married and flew to New York. She was wearing a saree in the winter and she was just so cold and miserable. The director, Meera Nair, said in an interview that she was just trying to capture how she felt herself … When I saw that movie I knew that horrible alienating feeling being in that bitter cold and not having the right clothes,” she recalls.

In her many years living abroad, Wena has of course learnt to not only get used to the cold, but blend in with her surroundings. In all that, there is still a part of her that will always remain true to her roots.

Wena was raised by her grandmother in her formative years and a lot of the paths she’s taken today stem from her teachings. Values taught to her by her grandmother are still firmly embedded in her soul. Her grandmother may have been an illiterate who never went to school, never had a job and was always at home, but Wena always found that her lessons were almost Western and very progressive.

One of the things she instilled in her grandchildren was never to be racist, prejudiced and to always have an open mind. “For someone who was in an arranged marriage, who grew up in a kampung (village) in Singapore, she actually had a very large embrace of the world. Maybe it’s because she practised Buddhism but she loved people no matter what colour they were,” she says. “So, that’s something she’s taught me and she’s always been a good source of support. She would always tell me to go for anything I wanted to pursue and that life was just too short,” Wena adds.

Armed with such a great outlook on life and people, Wena bloomed into the person she is today and has managed to find her true calling.

“It should have been sooner but it wasn’t till I was about 25 years old. Sometimes I feel if you discover yourself earlier in life, you could have a longer runway to develop. I know people in their late 30s who have a lot of family obligations and they’re still fulfilling them … unable to meet their own priorities. That’s sad because I feel like you’re inhibited from developing as a human being.”

Wena’s high energy has allowed her to produce a lot of work. “I’m constantly writing, I don’t stop, but my work as a lawyer is another 110% as well. So, I’m pretty high energy. I don’t know how I do it. It gets worse with age, too. The older I get, the shorter the time span I have, so I expect more in an hour of myself and in other people. I was just talking to my husband’s mum about it and she was saying how hummingbirds don’t experience time the way other animals do because they have thousands of beats per second and they have relatively short life spans. She then told me how I’m like a hummingbird and warned me that I may burn out. But I know myself too well. I tried to explain to her it has something to do with being a lawyer, because we bill our time. My firm bills my time US$550 an hour. So, clients don’t like to pay for nothing. Somehow I think that has influenced me psychologically over the years. I think that has something to do with the frenetic energy,” she laughs.

By the end of this year, Wena plans to finish two books. The first is about the friendship between two women. They met in kindergarten and the book follows them to their deaths. “The idea came to me during a recent trip to Singapore when I was talking to some of my friends back home and they were telling me what happened to some of our friends from high school and how people have different paths,” she says. “The other book I’m working on is the third book to my sci-fi trilogy that I self-published on the web.”

No doubt, Wena’s roar will be heard, loud and proud in the coming years. The world is waiting for it.

Reproduced from the July 2008 issue of the Malaysian edition of Marie Claire

Monday, September 22, 2008

The 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize for Young Writers: Shortlist

THE 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize for Young Writers is Britain’s most lucrative literary award which promotes English-language poetry and drama as well as novels and short-story collections and is restricted to authors under the age of 30. With this prize, the spirit of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is kept aflame. Believe it or not, the winner of the prize gets £60,000 (US$115,000), which is £10,000 more than the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The inaugural 2006 Dylan Thomas Prize was won by Welsh poet Rachel Tresize for her first collection of poetry, Fresh Apples.

The shortlist for the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize is as follows:

1. God’s Own Country (published as Out Backward in the U.S.) (Viking, 2008) / Ross Raisin
2. Blood Kin (Atlantic, 2007) / Ceridwen Dovey
3. Blackmoor (Simon and Schuster, 2008) / Edward Hogan

4. The Boat (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) / Nam Le
5. Children of the Revolution (Jonathan Cape, 2007) / Dinaw Mengestu

6. Trouble Came to the Turnip (Carcanet, 2006) / Caroline Bird

The winner of the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize will be declared in November 2008

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sharon BAKAR interviews Chiew-Siah TEI in Off The Edge

Yet another Malaysian writer receives world attention as the debate on indigenous and immigrant Malaysians enter unchartered waters

WRITING in The Independent in July 2008, critic Salil Tripathy noted the “quiet emergence of new Malaysian writing,” naming novelists Tash Aw, Rani Manicka and Tan Twan Eng among those who had put the country on the world stage. And, of course, Preeta Samarasan, whose first novel, Evening Is the Whole Day, he was reviewing at the time. Then, barely a month after the launch of Samarasan’s novel, we found ourselves cheering for yet another Malaysian author published internationally.

Chiew-Siah Tei won critical acclaim for her novel even before its publication in June 2008. Little Hut of Leaping Fishes was longlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 while still in manuscript form. The book was launched in Kuala Lumpur in June 2008 at an event jointly organised by The British Council and book distributors Pansing Marketing, ahead of its U.K. launch in early July.

Tei grew up in small-town Tampin, Negri Sembilan, one of seven children in a cramped, wooden shophouse which housed three generations of the family. Describing herself as a sensitive child she says she found her escape from the noise and chaos through fiction. The parents of a playmate were teachers and had a house full of books which became her refuge. She most vividly remembers how she devoured the picture books of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, most especially The Little Match Girl, as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince.

Her grandfather also fed her imagination with stories about the old days when she used to accompany him for his morning yam cha as his guide after he lost his sight. From him she heard tales of the young Emperor and the Dragon Lady, and the Boxers who fought the white devils, and of his parents’ journey to Malaya on a fishing boat. It was all material that would resurface in her work.

“The instinct of storytelling came to me very early,” she recalls, and her early attempts at writing were fostered by a teacher at the local Chinese-medium school she attended. “When I was ten, the teacher began to teach us composition in the Chinese school. I wrote my first story and he liked it and asked me to copy it down on ‘proper paper.’ Then he sent it to a Chinese newspaper (I think it was Sin Jiew Jit Poh, which at that time had a children’s section), and it was published. He gave me so much encouragement and he began to ask me to write compositions with different titles from other students, so I wrote more. I loved it, and I learned more quickly than other students, and the habit of writing started from there.”

Tei’s Chinese-language fiction won a series of awards, including the Hua Zong International Chinese Fiction Award. Now that her first novel is published, will we be seeing translations of those early works? Tei says not. “The prose style would be very different. The essence would be lost, and it would be like writing a new book.”

Tei admits that she is much more widely read in Chinese literature than Western, but the two authors who have left a lasting impression on her life are not Chinese: “When I finished secondary school, the first two books by international writers I read were Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, both of which opened her eyes to the possibilities of literature.

Tei studied media at Universiti Sains Malaysia, staying on to teach there before embarking on media and film studies at Glasgow University in 1994, to fill a personal void she could not explain. She had no scholarship and had to work to support her studies by working part time, although she had supportive friends and family members who also helped her out.

Two years later, a chance participation in the BBC Scotland’s Migration screenwriting workshop fused her love of film and creative writing; her film, Night Swimmer, won best short film at the Vendome International Film Festival in 2000.

Then out of the blue one day, she received an email from literary agent Toby Eady after a friend of Tei’s had sent him a copy of her film. He asked her to send him samples of her work for him to read. “At that time I didn’t have anything,” she says “But I began to keep in touch with him.”

In fact, Tei says, she initially had the idea for Little Hut of Leaping Fishes as early as 1999, but felt that she couldn’t begin writing it until she felt more confident of using the English language. English is her fourth language behind Hokkien, Mandarin and Malay, and even now she finds herself modestly apologising for not speaking the language very well.

When she embarked on a cross disciplinary PhD at Glasgow University in 2002, she turned up in class with part of a first draft of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes in her hands. Fellow course-mate and recently published novelist Rodge Glass, writing recently in the Glasgow Herald, remembers her as “a mature, interesting writer who was far ahead of most of us.”

Her professors, who included renowned Scottish novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, and poet and dramatist Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard, gave Tei the encouragement and confidence she needed to move forward with her novel.

Tei sees herself primarily as an artist, and exhibits the qualities of tenacity and masochism that romanticise the breed. “That’s why I like to take up challenges; I like to experiment with form and medium. I’m not satisfied if something is easy.” And when she was commissioned to write a play for the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, she wrote an ambitious piece called Three Thousand Troubled Threads, the title referring to a Chinese phrase using hair as a metaphor for the difficulties and challenges in life. “I tried to put film on stage, but not all people liked that kind of approach,” she says.

If Tei’s first play was not entirely a critical success, her novel struck gold. She sent Eady her finished manuscript in March 2007 and was thrilled when he replied with the following four days later: “It touched my heart.” Eady immediately became her agent and the novel has also been launched in Australia and the U.K. and is being translated into several languages.

Set in late 19th-century China, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes tells the story of Mingzhi, the treasured first grandson in the Chai Mansion in Plum Blossom Village. His grandfather a feudal landlord who soon learns that opium is a more lucrative crop than rice, rules the household with an iron fist. Mingzhi’s future as a scholar and later a mandarin is mapped out for him, but this sensitive soul finds an escape learning from the cloying atmosphere of the household with its rivalries, adultery and addiction through books and learning.

But Little Hut of Leaping Fishes is as much a story about China as about the characters. “These historical events in 19th-century China are woven into Mingzhi’s life. He is not just a witness of these events. He is part of them,” says Tei.

Tei says that she did a lot of research to get the details right. “I found out the timeline of historical events which was very useful. I merged every important period in Mingzhi’s life with important events in Chinese history. When I realised that Emperor Guangxu was enthroned in 1875, I arranged for Mingzhi to be born in that year. When Mingzhi’s wife dies with their child while in labour, it is on the same day that the Hundred Days of Reform failed, and the reformers are toppled by the empress. When Mingzhi is waiting for his wife to give birth, he counts to a hundred and just can’t get past that number. There are many tiny details like this I don’t know if everybody will get them.”

Tei says film is her primary language, and she employs minimal dialogue and vivid images in her writing. Indeed, with its sentence fragments and use of the present tense, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes sometimes reads like a film script. The imagery if often striking, while the relative simplicity of the language, as well as its working of resonant themes, should win the novel a broad readership in Malaysia.

The end of the novel has Mingzhi and his friends escaping to Malaya, along with a whole wave of Chinese immigrants fleeing poverty.

Is the novel in anyway based on the lives of Tei’s own ancestors who arrived on these shores at about the same time? Tei says that she doesn’t really know much about her great grandparents, but she does remember seeing a black-and-white photo of someone in a Mandarin’s costume that used to sit on the family altar, although she has no idea who he was and how he was related to her.

The novel is actually planned as the first part of a trilogy, all centred on the concept of “home,” a theme which has particular resonance for Tei, living between a Scotland where she still feels an outsider and a Malaysia where she feels like a tourist on her return visits.

The sequel to Little Hut of Leaping Fishes takes place in the early 20th century when a conflicted Mingzhi tries to remake home in the new land. “So he has to think, what is home to him, here or there? There is a conflict.”

The third and last book in the series will be set between the 1990s and the present. “It will redefine the concept of home in modern society when everything is moving so quickly and people become so busy. People can just go from one place to another so easily and some people even have houses in different places. So it explores how we define home and how sometimes home just equals a sense of belonging.”

Her writing is, Tei says, much influenced by film, which she describes as her primary language, and she is concerned with using minimal dialogue and vivid images to tell the story.

Indeed, with its short sentences and sentence fragments, and its use of the present tense, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes sometimes reads like a film script. The writing is very visual, the imagery is often striking, while the relative simplicity of the language, as well as its working themes, will be very relevant to the local audience, should win the novel a broad readership in Malaysia.

Although Tei has her hands full with the writing projects at the moment, she says that she sees all her work as interconnected and does not rule out a return to filmmaking. She may also return to writing in Chinese, although she says she does not know when yet.

So how does it feel being one of the growing list of Malaysian authors who are winning recognition overseas and locally? Tei says she was tremendously encouraged seeing Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winning recognition for their work. And it is an encouragement that she no doubt will be passing forward in turn.

Reproduced from the August 2008 issue of Off The Edge magazine

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Yiyun LI ... The Vagrants (Random House, February 2009)

YIYUN LI’s first novel, The Vagrants (Random House, 2009), will be published in February 2009. She is the author of the staggering first collection of stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Random House, 2005), which won a slew of literary awards and prizes all over.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. Goodbye Lucille (2007) / Segun Afolabi
2. Palace Walk (1956) / Naguib Mahfouz
3. Palace of Desire (1957) / Naguib Mahfouz
4. Sugar Street (1957) / Naguib Mahfouz
5. Out Stealing Horses (trans. from the Norwegian by Anne Born) (2006) / Per Petterson
6. In the Wake (trans. from the Norwegian by Anne Born) (2003) / Per Petterson
7. To Siberia (trans. from the Norwegian by Anne Born) (1998) / Per Petterson
8. Shame (1983) / Salman Rushdie

1. A Life Elsewhere (2006) / Segun Afolabi
2. The Separate Heart and Other Stories (2007) / Simon Robson
3. East, West (1994) / Salman Rushdie

1. A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) / Maya Angelou
2. This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind (1978) / Ivan Doig
3. Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 (2002) / Salman Rushdie

Monday, September 15, 2008

2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fiction Longlist

THE 2008 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE jury announced its longlist of books in the running for this year’s prize, it was announced in Toronto today. “These fifteen books vary widely in technique, in setting, and in tone—from the historical to the contemporary, from the comic to the satiric to the tragic, from the local to the international. Nothing unites them but the jury’s belief in their accomplishment: each contributes something fresh, original, thoughtful, or vital to the practice of fiction.” The judges, comprising Margaret Atwood, Colm Tóibín and Bob Rae, have longlisted the following novels and short-story collections for this year’s prize:

1. The Lost Highway (Doubleday Canada, 2007) / David Adams Richards
2. The Retreat (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) / David Bergen
3. Through Black Spruce (Viking Canada, 2008) / Joseph Boyden
4. More (Thomas Allen, 2008) / Austin Clarke
5. The Sealed Letter (HarperCollins Canada, 2008) / Emma Donoghue
6. Good to a Fault (Freehand Books/Broadview Press, 2008) / Marina Endicott

7. The Cellist of Sarajevo (Knopf Canada, 2008) / Steven Galloway
8. Cockroach (House of Anansi Press, 2008) / Rawi Hage
9. Blackstrap Hawco (Random House Canada, 2008) / Kenneth J. Harvey
10. Red Dog, Red Dog (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) / Patrick Lane
11. The Ravine (Random House Canada, 2008) / Paul Quarrington
12. The Origin of Species (Doubleday Canada, 2008) / Nino Ricci
13. The Boys in the Trees (Henry Holt/HB Fenn, 2008) / Mary Swan

1. Barnacle Love (Doubleday Canada, 2008) / Anthony De Sa
2. The Withdrawal Method (House of Anansi Press, 2008) / Pasha Malla

The shortlist will be announced on October 6, 2008
The winner will be announced on November 11, 2008