Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Caricaturist Extraordinaire ... David LEVINE (1926-2009)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. Say You’re One of Them (Little, Brown, 2008/Back Bay Books, 2009) / Uwem Akpan
2. Chicago [trans. from the Arabic, Chicago (2007), by Farouk Abdel Wahab] (HarperCollins, 2008) / Alaa Al Aswany
3. A Gate at the Stairs (Faber & Faber, 2009) / Lorrie Moore
4. The Museum of Innocence [trans. from the Turkish, Masumiyet Müzesi (2008), by Maureen Freely] (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) / Orhan Pamuk
5. The Boat to Redemption (Doubleday, 2010) / Su Tong
6. Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2009) / Jeanette Walls
7. Marjorie Morningstar (first published in Great Britain in 1955 by Jonathan Cape) (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) / Herman Wouk

8. The Thing Around Your Neck (Fourth Estate, 2009) / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
9. Friendly Fire [trans. from the Arabic, Niran sadiqa (2004), by Humphrey Davies] (Harper Perennial, 2009) / Alaa Al Aswany
10. Ford County (Alfred A. Knopf/Century, 2009) / John Grisham
11. A Good Fall (Pantheon/Knopf Doubleday, 2009) / Ha Jin

12. Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life (Scribner, 2009) / Carol Sklenicka
13. Walking English: A Journey in Search of Language (first published in 2007) (The Overlook Press, 2009) / David Crystal
14. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Bloomsbury, 2009) / William Dalrymple
15. The Arabs: A History (Allen Lane, 2009) / Eugene Rogan

Friday, December 25, 2009


WHAT DO SUCCESSFUL MALAYSIANS READ? How or where do they find the time to read in their busy lives? Do they think reading matters today? What kinds of books did they read when they were growing up? Who are some of their favourite contemporary writers? What are some of their favourite contemporary books? Do they have an all-time favourite book? Do they prefer reading fiction over nonfiction, or the other way round? What do they think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? What are they reading at the moment? What are their thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do they think they will replace physical books one day?

These are just some of the questions I posed to a cohort of successful young Malaysians from various walks of life like Soo Wincci (model), Deborah Henry (emcee-television host), Lina Teoh (television/documentary producer), Will Quah (emcee-television host), Xandria Ooi (emcee-television host-producer), Tan Twan Eng (Man Booker Prize-longlisted novelist), Soo Kui Jien (television host), Owen Yap (newscaster), Reshmonu (singer-songwriter), Maya Karin (actress), Jo Kukathas (stage actress), Tina Kisil (author), Dave Nuku (personal trainer); Alex Yoong (race car driver); and Ezra Mohd Zaid (publisher).

Look out for some of their responses to these questions on this blog ... and in the April-June 2010 issue of Quill magazine.

Interviews by Eric Forbes

Monday, December 14, 2009


INTERVIEWS with Kate Furnivall (The Russian Concubine, Under a Blood Red Sky, The Concubine’s Secret), Olga Grushin (The Dream Life of Sukhanov, The Concert Ticket), June Hutton (Underground), Toby Litt (King Death, Journey into Space, Ghost Story), Annabel Lyon (The Golden Mean), Christopher G. Moore (Paying Back Jack, The Risk of Infidelity Index, Spirit House), Mary Novik (Conceit, Muse), Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (The Last Song of Dusk, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay), Tan Twan Eng (The Gift of Rain), Rana Dasgupta (Tokyo Cancelled, Solo) and Malaysian bookseller Abby Wong.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Feast of Ghost Stories


IT’S NOT A MALAYSIAN TRADITION to tell ghost stories at Christmas, but it used to be quite the done thing in Britain to gather around the fireplace at Christmas and swap spooky tales.

I suspect that the practice was greatly encouraged by the cold weather at that time of the year in Britain—ideal for huddling in front of a blazing fire. Christmas is also when the family gets together, so there’s a crowd listening together, and maybe even more than one storyteller. Of course, now that there’s television, and DVDs and such, no one wants to hear grandma tell how she met the devil in the churchyard one freezing winter’s night.

Christmas time also coincides with the Celtic midwinter (or winter solstice), supposedly the second most haunted time of the year (the first, for the Celts, is Samhain, celebrated at the end of October to mark the transition from “lighter” summer to “darker” autumn), and that must be another reason why ghost stories are told during the season.

For the Chinese, the most haunted time of the year is during the month of the hungry ghosts. This is when the spirits of those who died hungry, prematurely or unjustly are allowed back into the world of the living. They come seeking revenge and are mollified with offerings of food.

In the small town in Malaysia where I grew up, the hungry ghost festival was marked with displays of food in the marketplace. I loved the spectacle of rows and rows of tables heavily laden with delicious edibles. Most eye-catching were the whole pigs, several in their pink skins, several more roasted a crisp golden brown, all with apples or peaches in their mouths.

A Banquet of Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (Henry Holt, 180pp) is inspired by this Chinese tradition, as well as the central place food and meal times have in the lives of the living Chinese (when we meet, we usually say “Have you eaten yet?”).

The eight stories are divided under three headings one would normally see in menus: Appetizers, Main Courses and Desserts. Accordingly, each story is named after a Chinese dish and the dish is always an integral part of the story.

For example, in “Steamed Dumplings,” a restaurant owner uses human flesh for his popular dumplings; in “Beef Stew,” this dish is served to a condemned prisoner as his final meal; and in “Eight-Treasure Rice Pudding,” the fragrant dessert is the instrument of revenge that the ghost of a father uses on the son who murdered him.

The stories are more gory than spooky as they feature many violent deaths and the ghosts aren’t subtle enough to make you shiver and glance over your shoulder. A Banquet of Hungry Ghosts works better as a book about food—Compestine describes all edibles in loving and mouth-watering detail.

Then again, readers may find that blood and gore don’t make very good appetizers. If this is the case, skip the stories and go straight to the recipes (there is one at the end of each tale). Telling ghost stories may not be part and parcel of Malaysian Christmases, but feasting most certainly is!

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of December 13, 2009

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


J.G. FARRELL (1935-1979) is one of my favourite authors. His three early novels, A Man from Elsewhere, The Lung and A Girl in the Head, have been overshadowed by his four later novels: the Lost Booker Prize-winning Troubles, the Booker Prize-winning The Siege of Krishnapur, The Singapore Grip and The Hill Station (uncompleted at the time of his death). In early 1979, the Liverpool-born novelist bought a farmhouse in Bantry Bay on the Irish coast. On August 11, he was caught in a storm while fishing from a rock near his home and was washed out to sea. His body was found a month later. He was a few months shy of 44. For a complete biography of J.G. Farrell, you might like to read Lavinia Greacen’s J.G. Farrell: The Making of a Writer, first published by Bloomsbury in 1999, and the recently-published J.G. Farrell in His Own Words: Selected Letters and Diaries (Cork University Press, October 2009), edited by Lavinia Greacen.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Poet wins 2009 BBC National Short Story Award

GLASGOW-BORN award-winning poet Kate Clanchy has won the 2009 BBC National Short Story Award with her short story, “The Not-Dead and the Saved.” She was praised by the judges for her “acute control of emotional tone” and the “vividness and generosity of [her] writing.” In this story, she dissects a difficult subject matter: the charged encounters between a mother and a dying son. Clanchy is the author of three collections of poetry, Newborn, Samarkand and Slattern, and a nonfiction book, What Is She Doing Here?: A Refugee’s Story (also published as Antigona and Me). Sara Maitland, who has published six collections of stories, was judged the runner-up for her story, “Moss Witch.” Previous winners of the BBC National Short Story Award include Clare Wigfall, James Lasdun and Julian Gough.

Monday, December 07, 2009


Ameen Merchant will be appearing at the 2010 Jaipur Literature Festival on January 21-25, 2010


ERIC FORBES engages AMEEN MERCHANT in a discussion about his poignant début novel, The Silent Raga, an intensely imagined and subtly nuanced exploration of the intricacies of family obligations and sibling relationships

AMEEN MERCHANT was born in Bombay in 1964 and raised in Madras. The Silent Raga (Douglas & McIntyre, 2007/HarperCollins India, 2008) is his first novel. In prose that moves from the sensuous to the sublime, and that recalls the rhythms and progression of the raga, Merchant the storyteller weaves a moving tapestry about the ties that bind us and the sacrifices we must make on the way to realising our destinies. It was shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean). He now lives in Vancouver, Canada, where he is working on his next novel.

Tell me something about yourself.
I was born in Bombay and raised in Madras. I moved to Canada to do my postgraduate work in Postcolonial/Cultural Studies, and now live, work and make my home in Vancouver.

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
When I was thirteen or fourteen. I still recall the excitement of seeing my first poem published in the “YouthInk” page of the Indian Express. Later, I wrote advertising copy for a living. When I quit that job to pursue academic work, my family and friends thought I was completely crazy.

What do you do when you are not writing? Do you write full-time?
I am writing even when I am not writing. I don’t see writing as just sitting at the computer and letting it all pour out. A good part of writing is the processing that precedes the act of writing. In that sense, I think every author is a full-time writer. But when I really want to take a break, I cook, I listen to music, I catch a movie. If I want a long break, I visit my mother in India.

Was there much difficulty in getting your first novel, The Silent Raga, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
It is always difficult for first-time authors to find good publishers and agents, and I had my share of rejections and maybes. The first thing you learn is to not let that affect you too much. Sure, every time it happens you do feel letdown, but you have to put away that negativity quickly, which is always a hard thing to do. I taught myself to keep it at a distance by starting research on another project. A competent agent, a little patience, and a bit of good luck—and things do turn around. It just takes a few years for it to line up in that particular order.

I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite authors? Why?
I grew up in Madras, where the school and college literature texts were basically the English canon. Everything from Defoe, Fielding, the Brontës, and all the way to Woolf, Forster and D.H. Lawrence. There are so many writers that are a source of inspiration and guidance, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Toni Morrison’s Beloved affected me deeply, and I think there might be a trace of this regard somewhere in The Silent Raga.

What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I just finished reading Neil Smith’s amazing short-story collection, Bang Crunch. Next up is Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. I have two big nonfiction titles on my summer reading list: Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is.

Could you tell me a bit about your first novel?
The Silent Raga is the story about two sisters from a Brahmin family, and their struggle to find a place and identity in a fast-changing world. The book deals with the choices they make on their journey, and the consequences of those choices on their lives.

What are some of the themes you dealt with in The Silent Raga? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
All families are dysfunctional, and all families are dysfunctional in their own way. The Silent Raga explores this “difference” in the context of small-town, middle-class India. So, it would be safe to say that the book is about a family gone awry. But it is also about more than that: it also looks closely at the everyday trade-off between tradition and modernity, the role of religion and mythology in Indian women’s lives, the small moments of remembering and forgetting and the big moments of caring and forgiving. I knew all along what I wanted to explore, but the form it took was a discovery.

Why did you choose music as the device to frame your story?
Janaki, the protagonist, is a gifted veena player. The book is also a concert of quiet anger between the estranged sisters, and the title celebrates this internal narrative as a “silent raga.”

Why did you choose to focus on strong female voices?
Because I admire and value strong female voices. And strong, female readers have embraced the novel with great warmth! A few months after the book was published in South Asia, about 100-150 women got together in Madras to discuss the issues presented in the novel. They invited a classical musician to play a few Carnatic krithis mentioned in the novel, and they also recruited a theatre personality to read passages from the novel. The pièce de résistance? They put the whole event on a DVD and mailed it to me in Canada! Similarly, Canadian Living (a leading women’s journal in Canada) chose The Silent Raga as their “Book of the Month” just four weeks after it was published in Canada. I couldn’t have asked for a better reception!

“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
If it writes it like Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie, I’ll read it.

“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
The right question can be an answer in itself.

You were shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean). 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?
Creative writing courses may help you hone your skills as a writer, but they cannot teach you how to write. But if you can write, writing workshops are a great way to polish your work. It is always better to have a full manuscript before signing up to workshop it. That way, you can keep your creative vision intact, and still incorporate the structural suggestions gleaned from the workshop sessions. Prizes and awards are a huge source of encouragement for every author (particularly a first-time author), and a big boost for the profile and visibility of the book in a crowded marketplace. It was an honour and a privilege to be on the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlist.

In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
“Have you seen things this way?” That’s the essence of all good fiction.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve started work on a new novel. It is somewhat of a slow, steep climb right now!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

2010 Jaipur Literature Festival

IT’S FESTIVAL TIME AGAIN! The Jaipur Literature Festival is a celebration of Indian and foreign writers and encompasses a range of activities, including film, music and theatre. If you are keen on attending the festival, check out the festival website for registration and accommodation details. The 2010 Jaipur Literature Festival will be on from January 21-25, 2010. Authors appearing include Alexander McCall Smith, Ameen Merchant, Amit Chaudhuri, Andrew O’Hagan, Anne Applebaum, Anne Enright, Atiq Rahimi, Claire Tomalin, Esther Freud, Geoff Dyer, Hanif Kureishi, Helon Habila, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jamaica Kincaid, Kate Summerscale, Lawrence Wright, Louis de Bernières, Maya Jasanoff, Michael Frayn, Niall Ferguson, Pankaj Mishra, Roberto Calasso, Roddy Doyle, Sophie Hannah, Stephen Frears, Tania James, Tony Wheeler, Vikram Chandra, among others. What a stellar line-up of authors!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Return of Nevil SHUTE

REMEMBER NEVIL SHUTE? Yes, he is the famous British-born Australian novelist who gave us A Town Like Alice and other classic works. The great news is, his novels are being reprinted with beautiful covers by Vintage, starting with the four best-known titles: A Town Like Alice, Requiem for a Wren, Pied Piper and On the Beach. These were some of the books I remember seeing on my father’s bookshelves in the 196os. The only Nevil Shute book I read was A Town Like Alice. The best of the rest I will have to discover soon. His body of work includes 24 novels and an autobiography, Slide Rule.

Friday, December 04, 2009


Robert Chandler, the translator of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and Everything Flows, talks about the works of the writer

I FIRST HEARD of Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) nearly 30 years ago. I went to see my friend Igor Golomstock, an émigré Russian art critic. He held out a large volume—the first, Swiss-published edition of the Russian text of Life and Fate—and said, ‘Robert, if you want to establish yourself as a translator, you should translate this!’ In reply I simply laughed and said, ‘Igor, I don’t even read books as long as that in Russian, let alone translate them!’ Igor, however, is not someone easily deflected. A few weeks later he sent me the transcripts of four half-hour programmes about Life and Fate that he had done for the BBC Russian Service. I read these transcripts and was gripped. I quickly discovered, as many other people have done since, that once I began reading Life and Fate—instead of just worrying about its length—I found the book surprisingly hard to put down. Grossman’s descriptions of the fighting at Stalingrad seemed extraordinarily vivid. I could sense a bold and powerful intelligence behind the passages comparing Nazism and Stalinism. And the last letter written by the hero’s mother from a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, before her death in one of the massacres that were the first stage of the Shoah, was as moving as anything I had ever read. Somehow I ended up doing as Igor suggested ...

Now, decades after Igor first introduced me to Grossman, I am more grateful to him than I can say. Not only does Life and Fate itself seem still finer than I had realized, but I have also come to see that Grossman wrote a number of short works that are no less great.

When I received the first copies of this NYRB Classics edition of our translation of Everything Flows, my first feeling of all was surprise. I felt startled by the small size of the book. I could hardly believe that so many unusual perceptions about so many subjects—marriage, the ‘Russian soul’, Lenin, Stalin’s paranoia, the whole sweep of Russian and Soviet history— could have been compressed into such a small space. A fifth of the length of Life and Fate—which once looked so frighteningly long—this odder, more modernist, more idiosyncratic novel now seems equally broad in its scope and still more profound in its insights.

To translate a writer means to live in their world for a long time. There are fine writers—Isaac Babel is one—whose worlds I find so disturbing that I do not want to inhabit them again. There are other writers whose company, no matter what subjects they write about, is always a joy. Translating Alexander Pushkin always leaves me feeling clearer-headed, deeply refreshed. Translating Andrey Platonov—the only one of his contemporaries, incidentally, whom Grossman whole-heartedly admired—jolts me into glimpsing whole new worlds of thought and feeling. As for Grossman himself, I think of him as a supremely trustworthy guide. There is an integrity in him that enables him to write about the most terrible matters—the Gulag, the Shoah, the Terror Famine in the Ukraine—without making the reader feel violated. Many writers write about these horrors because they are in pain and they imagine that their own pain will lessen if they manage to hurt their readers. Other writers are like prosecuting lawyers. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for example, sometimes appears to seize on each new horror with delight—as if he looks on some terrible evil simply as a piece of evidence, as a weapon that will help him to make his case. Grossman, in contrast, seems uncommonly pure. He appears to write simply because he knows that a particular story needs to be told, that it is man’s duty to remember the dead. His chapters about the Shoah and the Terror Famine have the healing power of ritual lament, of the finest passages of Dante or the Bible. After a French-language staging of ‘The Last Letter’, a play based on the famous chapter from Life and Fate, a Jewish member of the audience said to the director, ‘I never received a last letter from my mother. Now it feels as if I did.’ It is hard to imagine a more moving tribute—to the director, to the actor and to Grossman himself.

The French poet Eugene Guillevic, whose ‘Charnel Houses’ (1947) is one of the first, and finest, poetic responses to the Shoah, once wrote, ‘Yes, even horror can be lived out in poetry. This is not to say that poetry weakens or diminishes horror—what it perhaps means is that poetry translates horror to that level where, lived out through poetry, it is no longer degrading.’ These words seem more applicable to Grossman’s sober, factual, yet strangely luminous prose than to any other literature that I know.

I recently met Grossman’s daughter, Yekaterina Korotkova, in Moscow. She has just written this to me, ‘I have always thought that the two chapters from Everything Flows about the Famine in the Ukraine are the most powerful in all Grossman’s work. Terrible, shocking chapters, written from inspiration. I especially admire the brief second chapter—the unbelievably sad, yet radiant story of the life of a small family. A story about modest people who had led a difficult life, about their self-abnegation, about their great love. I do not know whether Grossman met these people in reality, or whether he imagined them. I know only that he truly loved them. He wrote about this family twice: in the novel For a Just Cause and in Everything Flows.’ Yekaterina Korotkova goes on to say how upset she was when a literary editor in the days of perestroika, who had agreed to publish these two chapters in a journal (the journal’s title—as it happens—was ‘The Family’!) chose to omit this last chapter without consulting her. When he eventually told her what he had done, he dismissed this chapter as ‘a mere makeweight’. Korotkova, naturally, was deeply upset. This is not, of course, the only time that Grossman’s work was mauled by editors and censors. I do not, in fact, know of any other writer every step of whose career—both during his life and after his death—has been marked by such long delays and tedious, protracted battles. There are, for example, twelve extant complete versions of For a Just Cause, and there were no less than three occasions between 1949 and 1952 when the journal ‘Novy Mir’ had the novel set up in type—only for the authorities to change their minds and give orders for the type to be broken up. As for Life and Fate— even after the satirist, Vladimir Voinovich, had smuggled a microfilmed text to the West, it took him almost five years to find a publisher for the Russian text—mainly because of antisemitism among Russian émigrés.

Grossman’s thoughts are almost always more subtle, more unexpected, often more poetic, than is immediately obvious. I am grateful to Anna Aslanyan for checking our translation so thoroughly and bringing my attention to the many passages I had unwittingly obscured or over-simplified. I am grateful, as always, to my wife, Elizabeth, who has worked with me on every sentence of the translation. And I am grateful for the understanding of my editor, Edwin Frank, who, after reading this translation for the first time, wrote: ‘The book is, in spite of the story it tells, wise and beautiful ... The book is an act of witness but it is also literature—literature reconceived in response to the obligation to witness. And it is, in its own way, as vast a book as Life and Fate.’

VASILY SEMYONOVICH GROSSMAN was born on December 12, 1905, in Berdichev, a Ukrainian town that was home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. In 1934 he published both “In the Town of Berdichev”—a short story that won the admiration of such diverse writers as Maksim Gorky, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaak Babel—and a novel, Glyukauf, about the life of the Donbass miners. During World War II, Grossman worked as a reporter for the army newspaper Red Star, covering nearly all of the most important battles from the defense of Moscow to the fall of Berlin. His vivid yet sober “The Hell of Treblinka” (late 1944), one of the first articles in any language about a Nazi death camp, was translated and used as testimony in the Nuremberg trials. His novel, For a Just Cause (originally titled Stalingrad), was published in 1952 and then fiercely attacked. A new wave of purges—directed against the Jews—was about to begin; but for Stalin’s death in March 1953, Grossman would almost certainly have been arrested. During the next few years Grossman, while enjoying public success, worked on his two masterpieces, neither of which was to be published in Russia until the late 1980s: Life and Fate and Everything Flows. The KGB confiscated the manuscript of Life and Fate in February 1961. He was able, however, to continue working on Everything Flows, a work even more critical of Soviet society than Life and Fate, until his last days in the hospital. He died on September 14, 1964, on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of Berdichev, in which his mother had died.

ROBERT CHANDLER’s translations of Sappho and Guillaume Apollinaire are published in the series “Everyman’s Poetry.” His translations from Russian include Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Aleksander Pushkin’s Dubrovsky and The Captain’s Daughter. Together with his wife, Elizabeth, and other colleagues he has co-translated numerous works by Andrey Platonov. One of these, Soul, was chosen in 2004 as “best translation of the year from a Slavonic language” by the American Association of Teachers of Slavonic and East European Languages (AATSEEL); it was also shortlisted for the 2005 Rossica Translation Prize and the Weidenfeld European Translation Prize. Chandler’s translation of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway won the AATSEEL Prize for 2007 and received a special commendation from the judges of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize. He is the editor of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and the author of a biography of Alexander Pushkin.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Petina GAPPAH wins the 2009 Guardian First Book Award

PETINA GAPPAH’s début collection of stories, An Elegy for Easterly (Faber & Faber, 2009), has won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award. Gappah, a lawyer with the Advisory Centre on WTO Law in Geneva, is working on her first novel, The Book of Memory, which will be published in 2011.