Monday, August 31, 2009

Adam Jacot DE BOINOD

ADAM JACOT DE BOINOD (pronounced “jacko de bwano”) delves passionately into the quirkiness of foreign words and the English language in The Meaning of Tingo and The Wonder of Whiffling respectively

MY INTEREST in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when one day, working as a researcher for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that they have no less than 27 words for eyebrow and the same number for different types of moustache, ranging from a mustaqe madh, or bushy, to a mustaqe posht, one which droops down at both ends.

My curiosity soon became a passion. I was unable to go near a bookshop or library without sniffing out the often dusty shelf where the foreign language dictionaries were kept. I started to collect favourites: nakhur, for example, a Persian word meaning ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’; many described strange or unbelievable things. How, when and where, for example, would a man be described as a marilopotes, the Ancient Greek for ‘a gulper of coaldust’? And could the Japanese Samurai really have used the verb tsuji-giri, meaning ‘to try out a new sword on a passer-by’? And where would you expect to find a cigerci, the Turkish for ‘a seller of liver and lungs’?

Others expressed concepts that seemed all too familiar. We have all met a Zechpreller, ‘someone who leaves without paying the bill’; worked with a neko-neko, the Indonesian for ‘one who has a creative idea which only makes things worse’; or spent too much time with an ataoso, the Central American Spanish for ‘one who sees problems with everything.’

In the end my passion became an obsession. I combed over two million words in countless dictionaries. I trawled the Internet, phoned Embassies, and tracked down foreign-language speakers who could confirm my findings. I discovered that in Afrikaans, frogs go kwaak-kwaak, in Korea owls go buung-buung, while in Denmark Rice Crispies go Knisper! Knasper! Knupser!

I found beautiful words to describe things for which we have no concise expression, like serein, the French for ‘the rain that falls from a cloudless sky’; or wamadat, the Persian for ‘the intense heat of a sultry night.’ I found words for all stages of life, from paggiq, the Inuit for ‘the flesh torn when a woman delivers a baby,’ through Torschlusspanik, the German for ‘the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older,’ to mingmu, the Chinese for ‘to die without regret.’ I savoured the direct logic of Danish, the succinctness of Malay, the sheer oddness of Japanese.

All these, and more, can be found in The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World (Particular Books/Penguin, 2005).

My new book, The Wonder of Whiffling and Other Extraordinary Words in the English Language (Particular Books/Penguin, September 2009), on the other hand, is a tour around the language of the British Isles (with plenty of fine coinages from across the pond, Down Under and elsewhere).

I’ve discovered many old words that make very useful additions to any vocabulary today. Most of us know a blatteroon (1645), a person who will not stop talking, not to mention a wallydrag (1508), a worthless, slovenly person, and even a shot-clog (1599), a drinking companion, only tolerated because he pays for the drinks. Along the way I’ve discovered the parnel, a priest’s mistress, through the applesquire, the male servant of a prostitute, to the screever, a writer of begging letters. If the first two of these are now largely historical, the third certainly isn’t, nor is the slapsauce, a person who enjoys eating fine food or the chafferer, the salesman who enjoys talking while making a sale.

I’ve scoured the dialects of Britain. In the Midlands, we find a jaisy, a polite and effeminate man, and in Yorkshire a stridewallops, a tall and awkward woman. In Cornwall, you might be described as ploffy (plump); in Shropshire, having joblocks (fleshy, hanging cheeks); while down in Wiltshire hands that have been left too long in the washtub are quobbled. The Geordies have the evocative word dottle for the tobacco left in the pipe after smoking, while in Lincolnshire charmings are paper and rag chewed into small pieces by mice. In Suffolk, to nuddle is to walk alone with the head held low, while in Hampshire to vuddle is to spoil a child by injudicious petting.

How fascinating they are the journeys many words have taken from their original definitions with grape: originally a hook for gathering fruit and later a cluster of fruit growing together; friend: a lover later a relative or kinsman; sky: meaning a cloud; frantic: insane; corset: a little body; and mortgage: a death pledge. In Tudor times, drink actually meant to smoke tobacco; walk: to roll, toss, move about and later to press cloth; and steward: a keeper of the pigs and later, as wealth expanded, of herds of cattle and land.

ADAM JACOT DE BOINOD started reading Latin at seven, with a torch under his bedcovers, went on to study classics at Cambridge, opened an art gallery, and some time later became a researcher on the BBC quiz show, QI, hosted by Stephen Fry.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. Good Things I Wish You (HarperCollins, 2009) / A. Manette Ansay
2. The Time We Have Taken (Windmill, 2009) (first published in Australia in 2007 by Fourth Estate, /HarperCollins) / Steven Carroll
3. To Heaven by Water (Bloomsbury, 2009) / Justin Cartwright
4. Remarkable Creatures (HarperCollins, 2009) / Tracy Chevalier
5. Summertime (Harvill Secker, 2009) / J.M. Coetzee
6. The Concubine’s Secret (Sphere/Little, Brown, 2009) / Kate Furnivall
7. The Wilderness (Jonathan Cape, 2009) / Samantha Harvey
8. One More Year: Stories (Random House, 2009) (first published in the U.S. in 2008 by Spiegel & Grau) / Sana Krasikov

9. Let the Great World Spin (Bloomsbury, 2009) / Colum McCann
10. That Old Cape Magic (Chatto & Windus, 2009) / Richard Russo
11. Love and Summer (Viking, 2009) / William Trevor
12. Noah’s Compass (Chatto & Windus, 2009) / Anne Tyler
13. The Assassin’s Song (Canongate, 2009) (first published in the U.S. in 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf) / M.G. Vassanji

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Persephone Books, London

NICOLA BEAUMAN is the founder of the publishing house, Persephone Books, in Bloomsbury, London. London-born Beauman reprints neglected or near-lost novels, short stories, memoirs and diaries, mostly by women (and a couple of men) writers dating from the early to mid-20th century, in exquisitely bound volumes (with artistic covers), wonderful as gifts and for those who enjoy collecting books. She founded Persephone Books in 1999. (This year marks the 10th anniversary of Persephone Books.)

Beauman is also the author of three biographies: The Other Elizabeth Taylor (2009), Morgan: A Life of E.M. Forster (1993) and Cynthia Asquith (1987), as well as a collection of informal literary criticism, A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39 (1983).

Her latest biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, is the first biography of one of the greatest English writers of the last century. Taylor’s first novel, At Mrs Lippincote’s, was published in the same year actress Elizabeth Taylor appeared in National Velvet (1945). Over the next 30 years, “the other Elizabeth Taylor” lived and worked in Buckinghamshire and published several novels and short-story collections: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (which was shortlisted for the 1971 Booker Prize for Fiction), A View of the Harbour, Angel, amongst others. Beauman’s biography draws on a wealth of hitherto undiscovered material.

Persephone Books is at 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB

Friday, August 28, 2009


SUMMER WILL SHOW is the third novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) to appear as an NYRB Classic, having been preceded by Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. Townsend Warner is one of the most inventive, intelligent, and plain astonishing British writers of the twentieth century, fully the equal of such contemporaries of hers as Elizabeth Bowen and Henry Green, not to mention the slightly older Virginia Woolf. She is an unmistakably modern writer who, however, worked outside the conventions of literary modernism. That should make her particularly attractive to readers and writers of today, and adventurous younger novelists like Ali Smith and Sarah Waters have in fact praised her very highly in recent years.

Summer Will Show is a historical novel set in 1848, that famous disastrous year of revolutionary uprisings throughout Europe. It is the story of Sophia Willoughby, a headstrong and stubborn young aristocrat of—at least to begin with—ironclad Tory conviction. Having made an early marriage to a classic cad, Sophia has hastily borne two children before packing her cheating husband off to Paris and into the arms of his mistress. Now in rural English retreat, she has decided to devote herself to bringing up her children precisely as she was brought up—the only proper way, after all. But then the children die.

What to do? Grief-stricken, Sophia eventually makes her way to Paris, driven by the thought that her husband, whatever his failings, can at least supply her with more children. Paris, however, is in the throes of revolution. Sophia unexpectedly encounters Minna, the despised mistress, and the two women fall in love.

I’m not going to give away more of the plot of this exciting and surprising book, in which nothing is ever quite as it seems. It is an increasingly bloody carnival, a tale of modern metamorphosis to set beside Ovid’s ancient ones, and a book about the ways love remakes and unmakes people, one in which the politics of the heart exist in competition and confusion with politics as usual. It is a disconcerting, even radical book, and its central subject, as in much of Townsend Warner’s work, is the inherent strangeness of the self, resistant to control, insusceptible to coercion, demanding one way or another to be discovered and demanding more after that. How to come to terms with this insistent stranger within?

Throughout much of the last century, the historical novel was in very low critical repute; it was daring for Townsend Warner to take up this déclassé genre. Recently, however, the genre has had a surprising revival: think of E.L Doctorow’s Ragtime, J.G. Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or Hilary Mantel’s great novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. What the best of these new historical novels have in common is that they function not as period pieces but as a form of inquiry into history, an inquiry that implicates the present just as much as the past. Summer Will Show looks forward to these books—or they allow us to look back at it and read it with renewed appreciation for Warner’s achievement. In a year of revolution, Townsend Warner’s characters are all under the pressure of historical forces they can barely imagine. They feel themselves becoming ever stranger to themselves, ever more weirdly historical, with every step and quarrel and kiss. In 1936, when Summer Will Show was first published, history was of course very much in the air—but then it always is. Townsend Warner’s novel awakens us to the ways in which our lives are, as another great writer puts it, “historical, flowing and flown.”

Those words are Elizabeth Bishop’s, and it strikes me now that Townsend Warner’s work may remain underestimated for much the same reason that Bishop’s was throughout much of her life. Warner doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. She doesn’t make a point of writing about big important subjects in a big important way. (To write a historical novel like Summer Will Show in the 1930s was, among other things, very much not to write something like The Waves or For Whom the Bell Tolls.) Though utterly individual, she never cultivated a trademark style or subject—each of her novels is different from the last—and though she writes beautifully she is careful never to draw attention to her art.

Her books, however, leave indelible marks. Lolly Willowes, published in 1926, was Townsend Warner’s first book and an improbable best-seller. It is the story of a spinster who cuts herself loose from the constraints of respectable family life by becoming a witch and entering into a pact with the Devil. It appears to be a straightforward, though in its day still provocative, feminist parable (call it A Broom of One’s Own), and yet the book takes a mysterious and troubling turn at the end, as the heroine renounces her witchcraft and takes to the road, sleeping out in the open and moving ever farther away from society—as if true freedom could only be had at the cost of a separation from humanity and even life.

Mr. Fortune’s Maggot may be the most perfect (even if perfection doesn’t admit of degrees) book in the NYRB Classics series—an immaculate work, the story of a missionary on a tiny island in the South Seas who falls in love with a young man (again a daring subject for its day) and loses his faith. Timothy Fortune isn’t your stereotypic fictional missionary, all dead dogma and dammed-up desire, but a genuinely good man for whom the discovery of love and the discovery of his utter aloneness come with a shock any of us can share. And yet nothing in Townsend Warner’s telling of his tale is melodramatic or sentimental. The “maggot” that sticks out of the book’s title means foible—Warner alluding almost ironically both to Fortune’s falling in love and falling from grace—but it also echoes the names of lute and keyboard fantasies by early English composers like Byrd and Dowland and Gibbons. These dance-inspired pieces, with titles such as “Lord Salisbury’s Pavan” and “Hugh Aston’s Ground,” are both stately and melancholy, brooding and quirky, light and dark—precisely the qualities of the book itself.

Sylvia Townsend Warner was a woman of extraordinary achievement—not only a marvelous novelist and writer of stories but a very fine poet and a notable musicologist to boot. Summer Will Show is perhaps her most out-and-out exciting book, but Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune’s Maggot are equally good places to start exploring the work of a wonderful writer who seems all the more central because she stands so beautifully apart.

Edwin Frank
Editor, NYRB Classics

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Amir MUHAMMAD ... From Screen to Page

AMIR MUHAMMAD ruminates on the differences between filmmaking and book publishing

FROM 2000 TO 2009, I made eight movies. Two of these were fiction while the rest were documentaries, hybrids of documentary and fiction, experimental, or however you want to describe things that are not multiplex-friendly. Also, I must have travelled to a few dozen film festivals by now.

In early 2009, I announced, to not much fanfare, that I would be taking a long break from filmmaking. I had a target of publishing 50 books first.

From September 2007 to September 2009, I published 10 books under my modest imprint, Matahari Books. Seven are nonfiction, two are tie-in screenplay books for films made by friends of mine, and one is an anthology that contains more fiction than nonfiction. The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 is the first writers’ festival I have ever attended.

Those observant enough to notice the numbers above would see that although I could make less than an average of one movie per year, I could average five books a year (as publisher, not always as writer or editor). Movies take up much more time.

The publicity mill tends to be similar, but on different scales. Film directors and actors are interviewed, as are publishers and writers. The crucial difference is that the people doing the interviews would have either seen the films, or can convincingly say that they want to see the films. People doing the interviews for books invariably would not have had the time to read the whole book. (Journalists have to do many other things, you know, such as watch films.) Even worse, journalists, when interviewing those in the book trade, put on the type of commiserating face they use when interviewing plucky folks with debilitating illnesses, or those soliciting funds on their behalf: “You wrote this book? Really? How … brave of you! Please don’t give up the fight! I haven’t had time to read it yet but … I’m cheering you on!”

Speaking of which, movie people actually relish publicity. Aside from the odd Stanley Kubrick or Chris Marker, filmmakers never saw a TV camera they didn’t like. There are many more examples of ‘reclusive’ writers, and even publishers who don’t get interviewed. People who go into filmmaking are invariably more social because:

Movies involve many more people whose functions sometimes overlap to an alarming degree. I once had a ‘financial controller’ tell me that an actress I had just cast was “too short.” This is because everyone needs to look busy to justify their salaries. Writers and publishers are more likely to own only one handphone per person and be seen lunching alone. This isn’t to say that one group of people is more ‘normal’ than another; they each have their own annoying quirks.

Films are pirated. Books aren’t. This means that books are so unpopular that no one wants to steal them! A blockbuster Malaysian film will sell 800,000 tickets in the first month. A blockbuster local novel (usually a Malay romance) will sell 100,000 in the first three years.

Movies need to be seen by many people in the first two weeks or it would be branded a flop. Even the tiny industry of Malaysia has caught on to the Hollywood mania of measuring first-day ticket sales, which can spark off either envy or Schadenfreude in time for next day’s breakfast. Books are allowed a bit more time to ‘build’ an audience, because book people aren’t that much into instant gratification, or are just slow to respond.

When filmmakers get together they tend to ask, “What camera are you shooting on?” rather than any deep, philosophical questions. When book people get together, they tend to ask, “What paper are you printing on?” rather than any deep, philosophical questions.

Movies tend to shift formats. We tend to take it for granted that if we miss it in the cinema, we can catch it on TV or buy the (usually pirated) DVD later. Books tend to stay in the same format, aside from minimal cosmetic changes (hardcover to paperback, different editions, new covers). Audiobooks never really caught on, at least in this part of the world. Perhaps the biggest ontological shift will come from those e-readers, when we can afford them. Perhaps the only big format shift associated with books is the alchemical process whereby they are transformed into … movies. The Bible is probably the most adapted book by now; the author must be rolling in royalties!

Among the more conservative families, marriage to someone “in the film industry” is not encouraged, as film people are supposed to be lacking in morals. Among the more commercial families, marriage to someone “in the book industry” is not encouraged, as book people are supposed to be lacking in money.

Movies have to undergo a regimented form of censorship. You even need a permit to start shooting. You don’t need permission from anybody to publish a book in Malaysia. You don’t even need to set up a company; you can do it as an individual. When a documentary of mine (The Last Communist) got banned, someone asked a Cabinet Minister why the book that I got the facts from (Chin Peng’s My Side of History) was not banned. His reply: “Not many people read books in Malaysia.” Since this is a guy who has written several books himself, I assume he was speaking from bitter experience. This isn’t, of course, to say that books never get banned, just that they are easier to produce and sell, at least initially. This is actually an exciting creative opportunity, but many publishers still choose to self-censor themselves to an absurd degree.

The internet has altered the way both industries operate. People watch trailers online and get so excited that they rush to the cinema. (Most of us don’t have connections that are speedy or reliable enough to download entire films.) By contrast, people spend so much time reading their many friends’ Status Updates online that they can’t be bothered to then read books.

Cinema staff tend to know about the films playing. They can even make recommendations. One hilarious example was when an usher tried to dissuade a bunch of us from watching a local action flick even after we’d bought tickets. The staff at chain bookshops, alas, can’t say much about their wares. And we really don’t have enough non-chain bookshops. People who staff independent bookshops are more informed about books, but are somehow grumpier!

The final word must go to festivals. People who go to film festivals are there to watch films. You can watch up to five films a day. As a bonus, you may get to meet the filmmakers and cast. Whereas people who go to writers’ festivals are there to watch writers. It would be a bonus to the writer if his or her book had also been read. But this is difficult, because it might take five days to read. So, in an odd way, book people are here more ‘social’ than film people, after all.

Which is another way of saying: perhaps these differences between two media are all contingent and temporary. It’s the stories that are told that will be remembered long after celluloid and pages have turned to similar-looking dust.

Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

ESSAY ... O Thiam Chin

Singaporean writer O THIAM CHIN, author of the forthcoming short-story collection, Never Been Better (MPH Publishing, November 2009), talks about growing up with a love of words

IT ALWAYS STARTS WITH A STORY. Or something I remember clearly as one.

For a brief period in my childhood, I stayed in a kampung in Choa Chu Kang with my maternal grandparents. My parents were too busy working as hawkers to take care of us, so they arranged for my grandfather to pick my siblings and me up on a Friday, and bring us over to the kampung for the weekend. It was a carefree time of idleness and daydreaming, happy moments spent staging epic sword fights, picking rambutans off tall, craggy trees, and chasing clumsy chicks and ducklings around the huts in the compound. Of the many events that took place then, I recall one incident that changed the way I looked at and remembered my grandfather.

Near the main house, there was a large cage built on wooden stilts, with a flimsy wire mesh suspended a metre off the ground, where my grandfather kept the chickens. One day, while playing with my cousins, we chanced upon a flock of pigeons that had made their way into the cage, unable to escape. We dared each other to catch one of these birds and somehow I was chosen for this task. Standing wobbly on the edge of the cage, I ventured in and began chasing the pigeons around. The wire net gave way under my weight, and one of my legs went under, and the rusty wire pierced into my knee. I was too stunned to do anything but cry. My cousins, shocked, rushed back to the house for help. My grandfather soon came running to the cage. He made his way carefully to me and pulled me out of the tangle of broken wires. He held me closely without saying much, and carried me back to the house to nurse my wounds.

Since then, the kampung has been torn down to make way for a new housing estate and my grandfather passed on some years ago. Of all the memories I have of my grandfather, this is the one that sticks in my head. Memories narrated through the act of storytelling turned into a neat sequence of words and actions, and finally breathed into life, albeit an imagined one, in my head and on the page. Memories became stories, and the words that helped to build it became the cornerstones of my memories.

I never wanted to be a writer when I was growing up. While I loved to read since I was young, I had never fully associated the final product of a book to an actual person writing it. And I never gave much thought to the act of writing, of putting words onto a page. Words simply exist, like fish in the water or birds in the sky, they are always there. A book could be born from a tree, for all I know back then, and the writer was just a name on the book, nothing more.

Thinking back, I’m grateful to have the reading habit instilled in me from a young age, though it wasn’t structured in any way to facilitate learning, knowledge hoarding or to better my English. Reading to me was purely an act of seeking pleasure. The act itself is the reward. I read to be entertained, pulled along by a good story.

Then adolescence hit, and I discarded reading for other loves and distractions. I grew up during an exciting time in the early 1990s when film censorship was still a big debate, and the neighbourhood cinemas were showing Restricted (Artistic) [R (A)] movies, mostly from the US and Hong Kong. One particular movie caught my attention: Last Exit to Brooklyn, a film adaptation of Hubert Selby, Jr.’s novel. Since I was too young to catch an R(A) show (you have to be 18 then; later they revised it to 21), I could, I reasoned to myself, at least read the book to find out what was so ‘artistic’ about it. As luck would have it, it wasn’t too hard to find a dog-eared copy of it in my secondary school library. Little did I know what an impact it would make. Not only did the novel lay out all the imaginable crimes and vices of a city caught in a nightmare of its own making, it did so with a powerful, serrated language that was as distinctive and provocative as the city itself, a pure native tongue proudly spoken, without shame or guilt. I was bewildered, shocked and invigorated by the possibility of words and what they could do.

My love of books and the words that made them soon took a turn for the better. I became more conscious of what I was reading and began to read seriously to get the best out of this experience. And what I learned, on my journey to become a writer, was the growing awareness of the need to develop a significant sense of place and time in the stories I write.

Fictional characters are born with the might of a pen (or words typed on a laptop these days), and to have any semblance of a ‘real’ being, not only have to possess the tangible attributes of a believable person, but also needs to be firmly anchored in a particular culture or society—a product of its time. These vital ingredients are the soil, sun and water that nurture these characters, giving them the impetus to grow and develop. When I think of a character, a hazy, shadowy unknown at the back of my head, only a tentative outline at the start, my mind would also pull in the attendant aspects of the different parts that made up the story—how the character is placed within his milieu, his relation to his surroundings, to the people around him, and the constraints set by the boundaries of time and place. No fictional character in contemporary realist literature can exist without another human being, live in a vacuum, or be devoid of any circumstances that may shape his life.

Naturally, what I have written is, in one way or another, greatly influenced by what I see and observe around me and where I stay—in the ageing neighbourhood of Ang Mo Kio, smacked in the heart of Singapore. While I could have easily written about other people in faraway places, across vast lands and oceans, I have chosen to write something closer to my heart, something that stirred within me a warm feeling of familiarity, of a tangible sense of place, and the shared understanding of a mutual history or a period of time. I do not have to look far for ideas to write a good story; there are already enough story ideas around me to fill many books. The challenge is to find the right one to write about.

A writer cannot separate himself from his own upbringing, of being grounded and groomed by the society he grew up in. Essentially, he too is the product of his time. Because of that, he processes and filters much of his storytelling through the lenses of a particular age, tinted by its own prejudices, trappings and social mores. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing; if done with care and dexterity, it can potentially be a force in honing his craft as a writer. Beyond just writing a good story that captures the universality of human emotions, desires and hopes, a good writer, by infusing his story with the cultural specifics of his own country and milieu, can create a better world that is as realistic as it can be, one that pulsates under the skin of the real world.

O THIAM CHIN’s short stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Best of Singapore Erotica, Silverfish New Writing 6 and Body2Body, and his début collection of short stories, Free-Falling Man, was published in 2006.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Johan JAAFAR ... Flimsy reasons for banning and burning books

ONE CAN PERHAPS understand if Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were banned. There were those who considered the novels by Gustave Flaubert and D.H. Lawrence as immoral and containing “explicit sexual descriptions.” But Moll Flanders, Ulysses and Peyton Place? Well, Daniel Defoe’s story of the luscious Moll Flanders was considered “obscene.” Her insatiable lust was too hot to be handled by less discerning members of the public.

Ulysses is considered one of the most difficult novels in the English language. James Joyce, the author, wrote a text so dense in a style so obscure that even the most enlightened of readers find it impenetrable. There is an “intellectual industry” trying to make sense of the novel. In fact, Marilyn French came out with The Book As World arguing that after more than 70 years of “intelligent and dedicated exploration,” the “huge subcontinent” of Joyce’s novel has yet to be unravelled. So, why the reason for the banning? “Unusual frankness” was cited as one reason. The fact that it contains “the dirtiest language” in any novel was another. Luckily, one US judge decreed that the book was “not pornographic.” “I did not anywhere detect the leer of the sensualist,” said the learned judge.

“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.” Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place was made into a popular serialised TV drama back in the 1970s. When the novel was first published in 1956, it became a runaway bestseller. It sold three million copies in its first year, quite a feat at the time. The reason given was its treatment of the characters’ sexuality and promiscuity. In some places in the U.S., the novel was considered objectionable for anyone under 18.

Writers, too, have been involved in literary purges and intellectual witchhunts. Closer to home, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, one of the best writers Indonesia has ever produced, was involved in the Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat, better known as Lekra. It was controlled by Partai Komunis Indonesia and denounced works that were anti-rakyat or “irrelevant to the struggle.”

Writers were labelled, condemned and their books became bonfires. Sadly, Pramoedya’s chequered past in his involvement with Lekra caught up with him. Prominent Indonesian writers protested when he was conferred the Magsaysay Award for Literature. Their argument: he stifled creativity and suppressed literary works.

It is heartening to know that some of the greatest works of literature survived official purging and state censorship. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was understandably targeted. It was no “fairy story” as claimed by its subtitle. It is one of the most notorious satires ever written in any language. The author’s attempt to look at human beings from the prism of talking animals was not without purpose. It was the first book, so claimed by the author, “that fuses political and artistic purposes into one whole.”

The book achieved its moments of infamy. Every state had its reasons for banning the novel. Its satire was deemed to be dangerous. It was considered “problematic” to many booksellers fearing reprisals from leaders who found the book too dangerous to be read by the masses. The hugely popular Doctor Zhivago was banned for casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Bolshevik Revolution [1917-1918]. Boris Pasternak’s book was never published in Russia until much later despite its international appeal. The film based on the book, produced in 1965 and directed by David Lean, was a massive box-office hit. The Russians also banned The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The author was even banished and stripped of his citizenship. But, like many banned books, The Gulag Archipelago became an everlasting reminder of the notorious Soviet prison system.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, set in the times of the Great Depression in Oklahoma and California, has always been regarded as one of America’s [greatest] classics. But the path to glory was not easy. The Joads family was supposed to represent the era, but sadly there were those who believed the depiction was not natural, even distorted. Indecency, obscenity, abhorrence to the ways women were portrayed were among the reasons cited for its banning. You may want to know why another Steinbeck novel, Of Mice and Men, was also banned. Those against the book normally cited “obscenity” and the vulgar use of language as reasons.

You have probably watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the 1996 film directed by Milos Forman. Such were the characters in the original novel [by Ken Kesey] that when it was adapted for film, Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher won best actor and actress awards respectively. But the book invited controversy when it was first published in 1962. Again, “obscene, filthy language” was cited as the reason for the ban. The fact that the book deals with the inmates of a lunatic asylum did not count. The book was said “to glorify criminal activity” and had the tendency “to corrupt juveniles.”

Another mind-boggling situation was the ban on To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. The book touched a raw nerve in the U.S. when it appeared in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. It was the story of a white lawyer who defended a black labourer accused of raping a white girl. Atticus Finch, the lawyer, believed in the rule of law. He also believed that Tom Robinson was innocent. Alabama, in the 1930s, was no place for a black accused of rape, nor for his lawyer. But why ban the book? White supremacist groups took offence at the portrayal of Atticus as a crusading lawyer for a just cause. Some labelled it a “filthy, trashy novel”.

Censorship comes in many forms. Some of the books mentioned were not banned wholesale by governments, but there are Little Napoleons out there trying to show their power. It took someone with an axe to grind to initiate such an intellectual calamity.

Books are supposed to represent the best of the nation’s intellectual tradition. But, sadly, books are banned and burnt for challenging prevailing assumptions or deemed detrimental to the ruling elite. Worse, they are suppressed for being politically or religiously incorrect. Or for being different. Books are supposed to nourish the mind. Books help to inculcate good values in society, encourage healthy debate and enlarge the realm of learning. Banning books is not an acceptable method to suppress freedom of expression.

Reproduced from the August 8, 2009 issue of the New Straits Times with the permission of the writer

Monday, August 24, 2009

You know what they say about humour

Ghostwriter: Would it be possible for me to include another foreword in the book?
Editor: You already have two forewords, you know.
Ghostwriter: Is there some kind of rule or something that says you cannot have more than one foreword in a book?
Editor: Normally there is only one foreword for one book. There’re exceptions, of course: for such non-books as yours, there’re really no rules. You make and remake rules as you please. You may have 10 forewords if you want.
Ghostwriter: So, it is all right then?

Poet: I would like you to publish my poetry.
Editor: Before I thank you for the honour of doing that, I will need to take a look at your poetry.
Poet: And before I allow you to take a look at my poetry, I would like to know how much I will gain from this publishing deal. Do I get an advance? How much?
Editor: Of course, if you write as well as or better than T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney or Ted Hughes, I will publish your work. No questions asked. But then, if you do write like them, you would most probably get it published by Faber & Faber in the U.K. And no, we do not give advances for work we have yet to see. Would you like to email a sample of your work to me?
Poet: I’m afraid I can’t do that. My work is copyrighted and I’m afraid it may fall into the wrong hands.
Editor: Then let me wish you the best!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Abby WONG ... On a bookish household

Abby Wong has this advice for single young women: men who read are not only attractive but also make great husbands.

REMEMBER THAT BOOKWORM I was enamoured of because he was reading in public? The one I wrote about in “Read, men!” (Book Nook, The Sunday Star, April 19, 2009)? Well, I am happy to share with you, dear reader, that bookish fate not only brought us together again but that we then chatted, dated, and are now husband and wife, living with two young children who are showing early signs of bookishness. Those who don’t love books might think my life with a bookworm would be boring. On the contrary. Though not as intense a reader as he was when I first laid eyes on him, Mr Bookworm still reads—and still isn’t satisfied with merely reading about things and places. He has to also see it, smell it, feel it, use it, observe it or even live it. And that, dear readers, certainly makes for an interesting life!

Once, a few years ago, mesmerised by the crowded and filthy [city of] Bombay (now Mumbai) that he read about in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Mr Bookworm booked a flight to Bombay for the two of us—his curiosity about the city described in those pages would not let him rest until he had been there. So, with book in bag and camera in hand, we were soon standing on top of a hill overseeing the Indian city’s slums. Quietly observing, he paid little attention to the pungent smell that emanated from the garbage all around us, and was absolutely saddened by the filth the people had to live in.

Starring at his face, I knew then my life would never be boring with Mr Bookworm because, together, we would learn and experience the world through reading and travelling. It was our love for books that brought us together, and it is this love that has helped us build a beautiful home for our two young children. Not that our home is neat and tidy because books often lie around everywhere for various reasons.

Sitting in the garage these days is my copy of The Forever War by Dexter Filkins that I read whenever I am in there watching over my daughter as she plays. Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—an old book from 1998 that I’m only reading now for some unfathomable reason—sits on our kitchen table amidst the clutter, ready for me to enjoy when I have my afternoon coffee and cookies. Randy Charles Epping’s interesting The 21st Century Economy is on the bedside table, weekly magazines are scattered in the bathroom, readily allowing us to catch up on worldly affairs during our own private moments.

But in the early days, Mr Bookworm would stare at me from the corners of his eyes and frown at the books I’d leave scattered everywhere at first, silently protesting my habit of cluttering up the house. It was not until a few years ago when we ran out of space on our bookshelves did he join me in my way of living. One day, to my pleasant surprise, Mr Bookworm placed bookends on some of the window sills in the house. “In this crazy world of hassling and bustling, a row of books in a window next to a potted fern can be highly effective in paring down our overly heightened senses,” Mr Bookworm pronounced. I could not agree more. And so, even our windows became cluttered with books. Though some of the potted ferns have disappeared, our home remains obstinately full of bookish charm. I think so, anyway.

Perhaps I feel this way because I did not grow up in a book-cluttered house. Neither Mr Shakespeare nor Mr Orwell nor other great literary names were housemates then. My obsession with books did not start until I was in my teens, when my habit of spying people reading officially became a fetish at my first workplace, a bookstore. What I did not experience in my childhood I do not want my children to miss. The best way, we figure, to make books their best friends is by creating a home in which books get in their way, in which books are often pronounced lost but later found in the most unexpected of places, in which books are like spices, bread, pencils, utensils, plants, constantly reminding our children of their importance—as well as unimportance in that they are an ordinary, not-to-be-remarked-upon part of life.

As my six-year-old son begins to take his first tiny steps into the magical world of Harry Potter, Mr Bookworm is scouting for a bigger house to make room for a bigger nook to accommodate the growing number of books and bookworms. “The ferns have to be outside this time,” he says, “but the bonsai stays in.” What can I say? Bonsai has become his new engrossment, thanks to a copy of Bonsai Basics he recently borrowed from the local library. As with Mumbai, he has to see it, smell it, feel it, use it, observe it, and live with it. My kind of guy.

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of August 23, 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

2008 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and Biography

A WORK OF FICTION and another of biography have been declared the winners of the 2008 James Tait Black Memorial Prizes, Britain’s oldest literary awards, it was announced on Friday, August 21, 2009, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Acclaimed Irish novelist Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture (Faber & Faber, 2008) won for Fiction, while one of the UK’s foremost biographers Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families (Chatto & Windus, 2008/Vintage, 2009) won for Biography.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sadie JONES ... Small Wars (Chatto & Windus, August 2009)

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Roxana Robinson
ROXANA ROBINSON is an American novelist, short-story writer, biographer, and essayist. Born in Pine Mountain, Kentucky, U.S., Robinson is the author of four novels: Cost (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008/Picador USA, 2009), Sweetwater (2003), This Is My Daughter (1998) and Summer Light (1988); three collections of stories: A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories (2005), Asking for Love (1996) and A Glimpse of Scarlet and Other Stories (1991); and a biography: Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life (1989). Her latest novel, Cost, explores the intricacies of family relationships during times of crisis, particularly the trials and tribulations of a family torn asunder by the life-threatening heroin addiction of one of their young adult sons. A resident of New York City, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, More, and Vogue, among other publications. She has taught creative writing at the University of Houston and Wesleyan University, and now teaches at the New School in New York.

Please tell me something about yourself.
I love horses, and I have ridden since I was a child. Two years ago I went riding cross-country in Mongolia, which was the best trip I have ever taken.

Where were you born and raised? What was it like growing up?
I was born in Kentucky, but grew up in Pennsylvania. We lived in an old farmhouse in beautiful farming country. I had a horse which lived in a tiny barn behind our house. I rode all the time, in a very unprofessional way, often bareback. I read all the horse books I could find. I subscribed to horse catalogues and I pored over descriptions of martingales and stirrup leathers, curry combs and ankle boots.

When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I was always a writer, starting in first grade.

What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?
I like the control over the word on the page. I like being able to set down exactly what I want.

Could you describe your writing process? What part of the process do you enjoy most as a writer?
When I write a novel, I start out with a conflict and a set of characters, and I let the characters create the narrative. It’s different with a short story. I rewrite constantly. I like all aspects of the process—and find them all difficult.

Was it difficult getting your first novel, Summer Light, published in 1988? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
My first novel was published first in England, by a sort of fluke. I was publishing short stories in a literary magazine there, and an editor wrote and asked if I had a novel. I was having a more difficult time in the U.S., and the novel wasn’t published there for another year. My first agent sent it to six houses and she gave up on it, and me. I found another agent, and he found me a publisher.

Could you tell me a bit about your latest novel, Cost? What was the seed of the novel? Did it evolve into a work different from what you imagined it to be? If so, in what way? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
In writing Cost, I started first with the idea of the difficulty of being a good adult child. Of how hard it is, when you are with your parents, to be the good grownup you think you are—how often you hear yourself speaking in the voice of a needy six-year-old, or a rebellious adolescent, or a superior twenty-one-year-old. I wondered when it was you would be calm and adult, an equal, with your parents. I thought this would be the only theme, and that the book would be very quiet and meditative, but then it turned out that one of the characters, a twenty-two-year-old son, is a heroin addict, so that changed things dramatically.

Did the writing of this novel require much research?
I did a great deal of research for Cost, of all sorts.

I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their early or developing years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary heroes?
I read every book about horses I could find when I was a child. Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet was a great favourite. I also began reading more grownup books; I loved English writers, and many of my favourite writers are part of that Anglo-American line of descent: Elizabeth Bowen, E.M. Forster, Henry Green, Shirley Hazzard, Rosamond Lehmann, Paul Scott, Elizabeth Taylor, William Trevor and Virginia Woolf. Also Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

Who are some of your favourite contemporary novelists? What are some of your favourite contemporary novels?
I think John Updike was our greatest American 20th-century writer; he’s a great hero of mine. Some favourite novels: J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

Who are some of your favourite American authors? Could you suggest a good read that hasn’t got as much attention as it deserves?
Updike, as I said. And Lydia Davis, Stuart Dybek and Edith Wharton, of course. A wonderful book that didn’t get the attention it should have is Lily Tuck’s Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man.

Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I don’t know about competitions. I think very basic writing courses would help in producing better writers. Writing students need to be able to write simply and correctly before anything else.

In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
What I look for in good fiction is beautiful language (language in which each word is chosen precisely); complex and sympathetic characters (a psychopath and a Pollyanna are equally boring, as they are both without ambiguities); and emotional and intellectual engagement. Both levels of engagement are essential to me. A book that exists on a purely intellectual level, and doesn’t engage the reader emotionally is as dull as one that only attempts an emotional connection. I want everything!

What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre?
I just finished reading Independent People, by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness [winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature], which I liked a lot. I’m now reading Kristin Lavrandsdatter, by a Norwegian writer whose name escapes me at the moment [Sigrid Undset, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature]. I read at random, often fiction, often not contemporary, often nonfiction about the natural world. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction as research for the book I’m working on now.

Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
The Collected Works of Anton Chekhov, all 13 volumes. Some favourites in it: “At a Country House” and “Three Years.”

Do you think short stories are gaining more popularity?
It’s hard to say. Probably not. Very few magazines publish them anymore. Even writing students don’t subscribe much to literary magazines. I know a writer who was in graduate school and her teacher required the students, as part of the course work, to look over a list of literary magazines and then to bring in to him a check for a subscription to the journal of choice. Taking out a subscription was one of the requirements for passing the course.

Publishers find story collections a hard sell. Do you think it is harder to publish story collections than novels? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
It is harder to publish short-story collections than novels, because they don’t sell as well. I love short stories, and I’ve written three collections of them. Why don’t readers like short stories anymore? I don’t know. It may be a collectively diminishing attention span: I think short stories require close attention and close reading, which many people don’t want to give. On the other hand, poetry also requires this close attention, and poetry seems to be thriving. I don’t know why there is the decline in readership. Maybe there is less of an agreement, now, on what constitutes a short story. Is it science fiction, or magic realism? Is it realistic? Should it have an epiphany, some sort of change? All those questions are answered differently now, by different writers. The form is looser and less defined, and maybe that has lost it some readers.

Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
There is an enormous difference between writing short stories and novels. I like both forms, but they have very different sets of problems. When I write a short story, I start out with a particular moment that I find very compelling. Usually it’s one based on reality—something I’ve seen or been part of, or heard about. Then I write the story towards that final moment, trying to create a narrative that will deliver the moment with as much power as it had for me. I write novels very differently. I start off with a conflict and a set of characters, and when I know the characters well enough they create the narrative.

What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
The short story is actually a much more demanding form than the novel. The short story demands perfection: it is like a fish. It must have a perfect arc, without digressions, without any extraneous parts or forms. Every part of it must be integral and essential. The words and sentences are like the scales—each one must fit perfectly over and under the one next to it, smooth and polished. The short story must be perfectly shaped, starting at the clear beginning, ending at the inevitable end. There is such a thing as a perfect short story, we all know them.

Roxana Robinson
The novel, on the other hand, is a pair of overalls—baggy and capacious. The novel has room for everything, digression, meditation, false starts, diversions. The novel has room for a whole chapter on the whiteness of the whale. It can roll and bump along, or it can roar, or tiptoe. There is no such thing as a perfect novel; all novels contain flaws. Novels needn’t be perfectly shaped. They acquire strength through the incremental layering of words and images and emotion and narrative. All novels are flawed, even the great ones, but it doesn’t matter.

What are you working on at the moment? Another novel? A new collection of stories?
Both, actually. When the new novel feels stalled, I work on stories. The impulse comes from different places, so there isn’t much interference.

Reprinted in The Malaysian Insider of August 21, 2010