Tuesday, June 29, 2010


There’s more to their good looks and admirable achievements. Here’s proof that even celebrities turn to good old books to keep learning about the world around them. ERIC FORBES takes a respite from reading and talks to famous Malaysians about their favourite books and how they find the time to read despite their tight schedules.

KUALA LUMPUR-BORN ALEX YOONG is most well known for racing in Formula One in 2001 and 2002. He has had a fascinating career as a race car driver and has raced on every continent except the Antartica. The personable racer is based in Malaysia working for Lotus Racing as Head of Driver Development (Asia). “Driver coaching and development is still at a rather immature stage compared to other sports and is constantly evolving,” he says. Besides this, he also does commentary work for ESPN Star Sports, which he says is “a lot trickier than driving.” ESPN Star Sports is based in Singapore which suits him fine because “Southeast Asia is a fun place to be right now” and it’s a personal passion of his to help grow motorsports in this region.

Interview by ERIC FORBES
Photograph courtesy of ALEX YOONG

How do you find the time to read with your busy schedule—career, family, etc.?
Yes, it is indeed challenging to find the time to read what with the demands of everyday life. However, I tend to get a bit of reading done before I go to sleep every night, and that helps a lot.

When you were little, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
I have always wanted to be a race car driver.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
When I was growing up as a teenager, books were very much a form of escapism for me, and sometimes I could not stop reading for days on end. I love reading because of the sense of wonder it evokes and the inventiveness of the authors. Reading science fiction and fantasy books keeps me open-minded in life and reminds me that nothing is as it first appears. It’s both a mind-blowing and mind-expanding experience. Some of my favourite books were Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, which comprises A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu and The Other Wind.

Who are some of your favourite contemporary writers? Why do you enjoy reading their books?
I enjoy reading good science fiction and fantasy books, and some of my favourite writers are George R.R. Martin, Greg Bear, Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), and even some good old-fashioned horror writers like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book) and Clive Barker.

Do you reread books you enjoy the first time round?
I always reread books I have enjoyed the first time round. I have a horrible memory and have on several occasions, believe it or not, read books almost till the end before realising that I have read them before!

Would you like to suggest a couple of good reads that haven’t got as much attention as they should?
There are a couple of books I would like to recommend: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower) which in my view are some of his best work.

Tell me what you are reading at the moment.
The late Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire—the second instalment in the Millennium trilogy that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is the concluding part of the trilogy.)

What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers?
I will always buy and collect books, but I also plan on getting an e-book reader one day because I love to carry four or five books with me when I travel and that just takes up too much baggage space. An e-book reader would surely solve the problem.

Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of June 5, 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

From Ang Mo Kio to … the world!


FROM HIS HUMBLE BEGINNINGS in the quiet neighbourhood of Ang Mo Kio, Singapore-born and bred O Thiam Chin now finds himself going places as an author.

In early 2010, he dropped by Kuala Lumpur for a weekend book tour. In May 2010, he was a guest author at WordStorm, the Festival of Australasian Writing held in Darwin, and will return to Australia again for the Byron Bay Festival in August 2010. After that, he will spend three months at the International Writing Program in solidarity with other writers at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa.

Book tours, festivals and residencies provide opportunities for an author to travel widely and meet other authors and book lovers. Thiam Chin made his first public appearance at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2009 after releasing Never Been Better (MPH Publishing, 2009), a haunting short-story collection. He explains that the title captures the essence of the stories: “In a way, all the protagonists in the stories in this collection experience a certain, revelatory moment in which their choices, whether good, bad or ambivalent, are revealed for what they are, and they have to give it up or stick to it with the optimism and faith that each holds, whether it’s for better or worse.”

Never Been Better has since been longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. It brings attention to Ang Mo Kio, the old housing estate Thiam Chin has lived in for the last 32 years, with honest revelations of the working class, and broken, despairing lives of people who don’t quite fit into guidebook descriptions of Singaporeans leading glamorous and dazzling city lives.

Yet despite finding himself in the limelight, Thiam Chin remains one of the most down-to-earth writers you would ever meet. Speaking to him is a joy, as he raves about books and other authors, every experience or idea that might serve as an inspiration for his next story. He is now working on a collection of microfiction, entitled Under the Sun (MPH Publishing, 2011). With such passion for his craft, you know his writing will go far.

Thiam Chin, I’m aware you are working on a new collection of stories, this time microfiction. Can you tell me more about it? Were these stories you’ve been working on for some time, or did you go on a roll writing these stories after publishing Never Been Better?
The new collection of microfiction, tentatively entitled Under the Sun, came about when I was wondering what to do with the few stories—all of them a page or two long—that somehow didn’t make the cut when MPH Publishing and I were selecting the pieces for Never Been Better. I didn’t want to cold-storage them so I started playing with the idea of creating a collection to house these stories.

To challenge myself, I decided to write one micro piece a day. It was challenging at first—there were some days when I woke up and the first thing I did was pray for an idea to hit me.

Thankfully, as I progressed with each story, I got better at it, and the ideas came naturally. I actually fell in love with the genre of microfiction as I was writing the stories.

What’s the difference between writing short stories and microfiction?
I liken a short story to a chain of moments, each moment linked to another to form a slice of life, a whole picture, like a pearl necklace, whereas a piece of microfiction is like a single pearl, full and complete, all by itself.

I’ve had a peek at your manuscript for Under the Sun and aside from the length of these stories, I also notice that the themes are darker, some even ghostly. There are dead bodies (“Lighter”), more despair, and the presence of past lives (“Brothers”), among others. Why is this?
Actually when I was writing these stories, I didn’t think too much about whether they were dark or violent or sexual. Usually I have a basic idea—a word, a person, an action—and as I write, the story becomes clearer to me, and by the time it’s done, it’d have taken the current form. As I write, and I’m gradually realising this, I do tend to focus on the darker, seedier realm of human existence, and draw my inspiration from it. But not to worry, there are also some “lighter” pieces in the new collection.

All your stories have a one-word title. Is there also a reason for this?
Since the new book is a collection of microfiction, short and concise, all around 500 words, I wanted the title of every story to fit into the overall tone and theme of the collection, to carry the absolute gist of each story. Each title, each word, holds the heart of the story.

Is there a novel inside you somewhere just waiting for you to give it life?
Yes, definitely. In fact it has been gnawing at me for quite a while, since the start of the year. I have been taking down notes and random sentences on the plot, scenes and characters of my novel. I have written a rough story arc—how it will unfold, the ending, and four pages of character development. The story revolves around two couples on a trip to an unknown island before and after disaster strikes, the memories they hoard and the losses they have to suffer.

You are so dedicated to your writing craft that you quit your previous job in order to write full time. You also once admitted that “writing fiction doesn’t pay at all.” This is quite unusual in our part of the world, where so many people are more keen to climb the corporate ladder. Tell me, what drives this passion of yours?
The compulsive need to write, to render life on the page. The pain of quitting a secure, stable job only started to sting six months after I left, when the savings ran out, and I had to look around for odd jobs to feed myself. But I never let myself lose focus on what I need to do: to write. When you take an eagle-eye’s view of life, a lot of unimportant things will fall away like fluff. It’s easier to write when life’s simplified.

Well, it looks like your hard work has paid off. Congratulations on getting longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award! How do you feel about that?
It’s really mind-blowing to be longlisted for this prestigious short-story award. Part of the excitement comes from knowing that a few of my favourite writers—Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri and Yiyun Li—have won this award in previous years, and now I’m in the longlist! There is a wonderful list of great writers on the list this year, such as T.C. Boyle, Sam Sheppard and David Means, and it’s such an incredible honour to be included amongst these writers.

Are you also a fan of the other previous Frank O’Connor winners such as Miranda July and Simon Van Booy?
Can I confess I love the works of all the winners? I picked up Van Booy’s book last year and was practically copying entire chunks of it in my notebook. It’s an achingly beautiful book, with prose that’s as smooth as silk. I love the off-kilter, quirkiness of July’s stories and the strong, robust style of Li’s. I look forward to the future works of these writers.

Looking back, any regrets with Never Been Better?
After the book was published, I had to read some of the stories at public readings, and with each read, I always felt the need to cut a word here, edit a bit there. I guess this comes with the gradual awareness of my own shortcomings as a writer. But any major regret about the book? No, definitely not. I love it the way it is now, with its strengths and its flaws.

Most of your stories are set around Ang Mo Kio, the neighbourhood you live in. Would you say your stories are moving away from Ang Mo Kio with Under the Sun or are there just too many stories you’re waiting to tell about your neighbourhood?
I guess I have moved away from Ang Mo Kio for a while in the new collection, to take a break and to gain some fresh perspectives. But the thought of it has never really left my mind. In the new stories that I’ve written this year, I have returned to my estate again, the geography of my inspiration, my muse; the mood, energy and character of Ang Mo Kio never fail to enliven my stories.

You recently returned from the WordStorm festival. How did it go?
It went very well. I gave three public readings and sat on a panel discussion at the Botanic Gardens in Darwin where WordStorm was held. I read some of the pieces from Under the Sun and was quite encouraged by the enthusiastic response to these stories. Plus, I got to hang out with a few writers from Australia, Indonesia and Timor. I even managed to talk to Germaine Greer—she recommended an Australian short-story writer I should check out, and autographed my copy of The Female Eunuch.

You’ll be heading down to Australia in August for the Byron Bay Festival. Are you looking forward to it?
Yes, I can’t wait! I heard many good things about this festival, that it’s somewhat like a literary “rock concert,” and in fact more than 50,000 people turned up for the festival last year. I guess the highlight of the festival, for me, will be to meet one of my favourite American writers, Bret Ellis Easton, who will be headlining the festival. Besides that, I’ll be giving a few readings and sitting on some panels to talk about the art and craft of writing short stories.

I met you for the first time at the Singapore Writers Festival in October 2009. What are your thoughts on literary festivals? How much do you enjoy them and do they encourage you to become a better writer?
I like the atmosphere during literary festivals, the solidarity, and a sort of shared bond between writers. I get to take a peek into how another writer works, the long hours he spends, the sacrifices he has to make. During WordStorm, I stayed with a fellow Singaporean writer, the Cultural Medallion award-winning writer, Isa Kamari, and he was sharing with me his own journey in writing, the ideas behind his books (he has written seven novels!) and his utmost devotion to his writing is really unquestionable and it’s very infectious.

I know you’ve met some famous people. Who are the authors you’ve been starstruck by?
Miguel Syjuco (Ilustrado) and Dai Sijie (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress); the former for his easygoing, humble personality despite his current accolades, and the latter for his willingness to share his own experiences writing in French, his adopted tongue.

Congratulations on getting onto the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme! When will you be heading to the U.S.? In your opinion, do you think residencies, retreats and workshops matter for writers?
The three-month residency will begin at the end of August and I’m looking forward to attending this famous writing workshop. Based on the schedule and types of activities that are lined up this year, it’s going to be very rewarding and fulfilling. I strongly believe that residencies and retreats are important as they allow a writer the time and space to focus on developing his craft, more so than just spending time to write, though the latter is fundamentally important to the working out of one’s craft. To build a good foundation, to find your own voice, to develop a distinct style; these are the cornerstones of what makes a writer.

What are the most useful tools for you as a writer?
A quiet place to write, that’s for sure, and the simple belief that you want to write. Also it’s very important to read as much as you can, specifically and widely. What you are as a writer depends on what you read.

What are you currently reading?
I usually juggle a few books at the same time. Short-story collections are a must in my reading diet, and right now, I’m reading the earlier works of Alice Munro. Her latest book, Too Much Happiness, was phenomenal, and I’m slowly devouring her other works, not hurrying so I can get full pleasure from them. It’s an extremely humbling experience to read her, and to know how far I fall short when it comes to writing a short story. I’m only just starting out, a novice. I’m also digging into Andre Aciman’s Eight White Nights; his first novel, Call Me by Your Name, was a tour de force.

What continues to inspire your stories?
I get my materials from all over, be it from current news, gossips, personal anecdotes or books. I’m always keeping my eyes and ears open for anything that may stir or fire me up, to make me want to write stories about them. Sometimes I get flares of inspiration from reading works of fiction by writers I like, and I’d write a piece that may revolve around a similar theme or issue.

With two collections out (Never Been Better and Free-Falling Man) and another on the way, how can you tell that your writing is improving?
I do hope my writing is getting better over the years, as more of my stories are being accepted for journals and anthologies, though this is hardly a gauge on their improvement or quality over the earlier ones that I have written. The more I write, the more conscious I am of my own shortcomings, and sometimes it can be quite frustrating when I just can’t seem to break through to another level when I write a new story. But I have also learnt to be more patient and forgiving with myself. There are fewer bumps now as I write, but it never gets any easier.

Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of June 5, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010


TINA KISIL was a loner in a brood of twelve. A misfit and a misunderstood child, her shyness often misconstrued as arrogance, she began observing people at a tender age and took refuge in the world of books. Forced to quit school at eighteen to help support her younger siblings through school, she was told by her mother to choose: be a nurse or a teacher. Since blood makes her faint, she chose the latter. After earning her teaching diploma, she dedicated the best 35 years of her life to her students. She now lives a quiet life in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, where she catches up on her reading and tries to charm her backyard into a garden. She still finds refuge in the world of books.

Her first book, Footprints in the Paddy Fields (MPH Publishing, March 2010), is both a family portrait and a childhood memoir, set against the vanished world of bamboo huts on spindly timber stilts, a world where one’s prized possessions were makeshift farm tools and a buffalo or two, and where the dead were placed in stone burial jars. Those were the days when removing human heads was a sport, and the only mode of transport was a pair of good legs. In her memoir, Kisil takes the reader on a fascinating journey into a world seldom seen, to see how the Dusuns in Sabah on the island of Borneo lived at a time when wealth was measured by the amount of rice a farmer harvested and a hard-working sumandak made a more alluring bride than her pretty sister. Written to preserve some of the old Dusun beliefs and customs, this engaging memoir is a delightful reminiscence of what it was like to be a child growing up in the 1960s when Sabah was still known as British North Borneo.

Kisil thinks she is a little weird because she enjoys her own company and likes to think and ruminate about things. “I’m at the moment taking a short break after finishing my first book, Footprints in the Paddy Fields, and trying to read as many books as possible between cooking, washing and everything else a homemaker does,” she says. She is also polishing a story for a picture book, trying to tone it down so it doesn’t turn into a horror story for kids. She doesn’t like horror. She’d love to attempt a short story or two or a novella.

Interview by ERIC FORBES
Photograph courtesy of TINA KISIL

How do you find the time to read?
Even when I was working, I found the time to read. You need not finish a book in one sitting. Five minutes stolen here and ten minutes there can add up to a certain number of hours per week. I always have a book with me to read while I wait for my turn at the bank, post office, clinic, etc. Now that I’m retired, I’ve the luxury of time and I can read whenever I want to. I also read before turning in, usually around one in the morning.

Do you think reading matters?
I believe very much so. Besides being an enjoyable activity, reading fiction makes us aware of a bigger world and takes us to places we may never even dream of going to. Reading gives us countless opportunities to walk in other people’s shoes and to experience their emotions, their worldviews, etc. We learn to care for and to empathise with fictional characters. This helps us to understand the real people we meet, perhaps even become less judgmental and critical. We develop as social beings and we understand ourselves better.

What kind of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
There wasn’t a wide choice of reading materials for children when I was growing up, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth! I loved the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Enid Blyton was very popular then and I read many of her books although I wasn’t too fond of Golliwog, Noddy or talking toys as I was past the age for talking toys when I came across her books. I read most of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five series. I remember thinking she was a brilliant storyteller.

When I was a little older I read the usual stuff girls read: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, etc. At thirteen, I read Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel. It made such an impact on me that I remember the title to this day. I found an abridged version of it recently and plan to revisit it to see why it stayed with me all these many decades!

Who are some of your favourite contemporary writers? Why do you enjoy reading their books?
Contemporary? I don’t know if the writers I read are contemporary. When I check a potential read, I look at the blurb, flip through a few pages and decide whether to read it based mainly on the style of writing. I like books which tell me something new. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed Arthur Hailey’s novels. Reading his books was like watching a documentary on Discovery or National Geographic. I also loved Wilbur Smith and his sagas about powerful South African families amidst the wilds of Africa. After my teen years, I never liked mushy love stories. I don’t think I read more than a handful of Denise Robbins and Barbara Cartland—the equivalent of M&Bs during my teenage years.

I like Roald Dahl—Matilda is one of my favourites among his many books. I think Dahl’s Revolting Poems are outrageously funny! Recently I borrowed My Uncle Oswald from the library, thinking that it was similar to Matilda (and therefore skipped reading the blurb) and got the shock of my life! I’m still reeling like a drunk after that ride with Dahl. Enough said.

What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
I happen to like older works, especially stories about Asians such as those written by Han Suyin, Pearl S. Buck and W. Somerset Maugham. They tell about a different world, a different time. I liked Ha Jin’s collection of stories, The Bridegroom, and his sad love story of a novel, Waiting. I thoroughly enjoyed Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. (I’m especially drawn to books about the Chinese written by Chinese authors, such as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, Ningkun Wu’s A Single Tear and Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai.)

Why do I enjoy reading them? They transport me beyond my four walls and make me experience a wide range of emotions. I laugh and cry and marvel; I feel anger, hope, despair, horror, love and disgust. In short, I feel and am reminded I have a heart in my chest—not a piece of rock.

Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
I have new favourites all the time! But two favourites from long ago include Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Both have the ability to evoke such strong emotions. I always reread books I enjoy and can never bear to give them away.

Assuming you enjoy reading fiction, what are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? In other words, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? (If you prefer reading nonfiction, tell me why. Perhaps you enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction?)
I read both fiction and nonfiction. I find memoirs fascinating and I love their novel-like quality. I guess I’m curious about people and reading about them satisfies this curiosity. Before memoirs of ordinary people became popular, I preferred biographies and history to other genres. One of the first autobiographies I read was Christiaan Barnard’s One Life. I was hooked immediately and returned to the library for more.

For me, a great story must have believable characters who are neither saints nor devils. Everyone has some good and bad in different proportions in them. It is important that I care for the protagonist. A good plot is important as well as an easy-to-read style. I find long, unbroken paragraphs of descriptions tedious and prefer them to be woven into the narratives and dialogues. Scenes and characters from great novels keep coming back to haunt you long after you’ve finished the book.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring which I liked very much and I’m finishing Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. (I’m surprised that the novel has been around for over half a century!) I usually read two or three books at once, mixing fiction with nonfiction. It takes me ages to finish a book, especially when I like it tremendously because I tend to go over the bits I find beautiful or fresh, much like caressing them with my eyes.

What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think the sale of e-books and e-book readers will have a repercussion on the sale of physical books in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
I like books. I like the way they feel, the way you could flip through the pages, write notes in the margins, etc. I think many people my age find it difficult to visualise other forms of books such as e-books and e-book readers. I guess when e-book readers are more affordable and the price of downloading a story is a fraction of the price we pay for a real book, fewer people would buy books in the bookshop. Most readers, after all, just want to read the stories and it makes no difference whether they’re flipping the pages of a physical book or clicking a button on a piece of plastic. However, books may not disappear completely if they become another collectors’ item. On the plus side, more trees will be saved, it’s lighter to travel even if you’re ‘loaded’ with books, and there’ll probably be less clutter at home. I’m just wondering, what are we going to put in the libraries?

Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of May 29, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hilary MANTEL wins inaugural Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

HILARY MANTEL’s Wolf Hall has won the inaugural £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for her 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning novel. The prize’s judges, including novelist Allan Massie and The Scotsman books editor David Robinson, said of Wolf Hall: “This is as good as the historical novel gets—immersive, engaging, beautifully crafted, and compulsively readable. Choose any superlative: it will fail this book. Mantel’s empathy for, and assimilation of, her world is so seamless and effortless as to be almost disturbing.”

Friday, June 18, 2010

José SARAMAGO (1922-2010)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Another début novel clinches the world’s richest book prize

A WORK OF TRANSLATED FICTION has won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Gerbrand Bakker of the Netherlands has won the world’s richest book prize for his début novel, The Twin (Harvill Secker, 2008/Vintage, 2009/Archipelago Books, 2009). It is translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. The prize-winning novel was first published in Dutch, Boven is het stil, in 2006.

The panel of judges found the novel a convincing piece of fiction. “Though rich in detail, it’s a sparely written story, with the narrator’s odd small cruelties, laconic humour and surprising tendernesses emerging through a steady, well-paced, unaffected style,” said the judges. “With quiet mastery the story draws in the reader. The writing is wonderful: restrained and clear, and studded with detail of farm rhythms in the cold, damp Dutch countryside.”

The Twin is the third début novel in a row to win the prize, following Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down in 2009 and Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game in 2008.

Romancing the Japanese Occupation

Text and photographs by TAN MAY LEE

BEFORE THE HIGHLY ACCLAIMED TASH AW AND TAN TWAN ENG, there was Rani Manicka who also put Malaysia on the international literary map. While the rise of Indian writers in the late 20th century made it seem like there was no room to fit another epic story surrounding Indian culture, Manicka came along to offer a tale many authors couldn’t relate to—one of Indians who left their homeland for Malaya in the early 20th century.

Publishers recognised this unique insight and Manicka’s The Rice Mother became one of the most fiercely-contended manuscripts. Hodder & Stoughton won the battle to publish the novel (it was published in 2002), and it has since been translated into 23 languages. It also won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region for Best First Book.

Despite her success, her second novel, Touching Earth, and a recent reprint of The Rice Mother that includes a study guide, Manicka the author remains an enigma to many. The public doesn’t see much of her—she humbly suggests that “author appearances are for really big authors, like John Grisham or Frederick Forsyth. Then you have a queue of people and it’s worth it.”

Yet there’s no denying the excitement when news of her third novel, The Japanese Lover, informed that it was slated for release in May 2010. Last Saturday, she returned to Kuala Lumpur for one of her biannual visits, timely as she presents herself with her novel fresh from her distributor’s warehouse.

In person, Manicka looks elegant, with the charm of other illustrious Indian authors such as Jhumpa Lahiri. She speaks with only a faint accent despite living in England for about 20 years. With a smile, she describes herself as “a rootless person,” who returns to Malaysia twice a year to see her family, but otherwise “can just go and land anywhere” and be at home. Her words are measured when she talks about her latest novel, which details the life of a girl who leaves Ceylon to become the mistress of a wealthy household in Malaya. However, the heroine Parvathi fails to experience love in her arranged marriage. When the Japanese arrive in Malaya, she sacrifices herself to become the comfort woman to Hattori, and in the enemy’s embrace, she discovers the passion that she has always been yearning for. However, this is not just a love story; The Japanese Lover, at its depth, addresses the cultural tensions in Malaysia’s past and present.

TAN MAY LEE spoke to RANI MANICKA on May 25, 2010 in Petaling Jaya:

How long did it take you to write the new novel?
I didn’t spend a lot of time on this book, because it’s very similar to The Rice Mother. I didn’t need to research because I already had it all in my head. A friend of my grandmother’s inspired most of the book. It was kind of like her life story. She had a really hard time [during the Japanese Occupation]. She obviously didn’t have a Japanese lover though.

What would you say is the protagonist Parvathi’s main conflict or desire in The Japanese Lover?
There is only one real goal, and that’s looking for love. I think all the characters portray that, expressing love in different ways. From Parvathi’s love with Hattori, with her husband, even the love between her and her maid Maya, her son who does horrible things but she still loves him. It’s an idea of all the aspects of love.

I found it very interesting that Parvathi couldn’t find the passion she wanted in her husband, but she found it with Hattori. What are your thoughts about cross-cultural love?
We can’t tell who we fall in love with. Sometimes we fall in love with people whom we never thought we’d ever fall in love with. Parvathi had an idea of love in her head so she was only looking out for it. She just happens to find it in Hattori, immediately wanting him, and he also wants her and that makes it explosive.

Could you tell me more about the character of the Japanese lover, Hattori?
Hattori is a complete figment of my imagination, because when I wrote The Rice Mother, I had given such bad press to the Japanese and I thought, “Okay, let me put a nice Japanese guy.”

A very interesting scene for me is where Hattori dresses Parvathi up as a geisha. What was the significance of that scene?
I think I wanted to portray masks. In a way, we all put on masks and nobody ever sees our real person. How you are with me wouldn’t be how you are with your mother or lover. You just show one side of yourself, so that’s one side of Parvathi that she didn’t know about herself.

Was it necessary to include pivotal events such as May 13, 1969, and the more recent events with Hindraf?
With May 13, because mainly it was the trouble between the races in Malaysia buried underground, and it’s still underground. When you read the papers, it isn’t there. Any foreigner coming to the country would think, “Look at the three races living happily together,” but it’s not true. There’s all these undercurrents that you feel at the market, on the road and in the housing market, everywhere. In a way, May 13 marked the beginning of this tension. In order to tell Indians to look at themselves and think, “I’m not that bad, I’m okay,” you know you have to start somewhere, so you start there.

Would you say this reflects your point of view on the current political situation?
Yes, I suppose I can’t help but write from my point of view. I can’t write from anybody else’s.

What do you think of all the ongoing conflicts in Malaysia?
I think it’s quite sad because Malaysia is such a rich country. The level of poverty of some of the races in this country is not necessary. Saying this is going make me unpopular, but if I had three kids, and I spoilt one kid to the exclusion of the other two, and I give that kid everything, when my kids grow up, the kid I spoilt would be the worst of the lot, no matter if I thought I had given him the best. At the end of the day, that kid would not be able to stand on his own two feet. The other two kids, whom I gave nothing to and deprived them of everything, they’d probably become much tougher, much more able to fend for themselves. The policy of wanting to lift up a race by giving it everything is actually self-defeating. Even if you had this for another 40 years, they would not be better off. Maybe a few people would be extreme billionaires, but the rest of them would soon become backward.

Do you feel that the past has more to offer, and is that why you chose to write about events set in the past in The Rice Mother and The Japanese Lover?
I think that the present and future hold more hope. I started to write about the past simply because my grandmother inspired The Rice Mother and after that I wrote a book [Touching Earth] which had nothing to do with the past. Then I wrote another one set in ancient Persia, just for the fun of it, but it was deemed not commercial enough, so I put it aside. I wrote The Japanese Lover as a follow-up to The Rice Mother because that’s what the publisher wanted.

Do you think the book industry is dictated by what publishers and agents say?
I think it’s dictated by what people want to read—books that are easy to read, things they can digest for a little while, then go watch their videos or play their computer games.

Should writers give in to what readers want all the time?
Let’s say that I didn’t want to give in and wanted to write what I wanted to write. There wouldn’t be anyone who would want to publish me, and there wouldn’t be any point, would there? You should either write what people want to read, or you’re wasting your time. It’s like going into a bakery and buying a delicious cake. The next time you ask for that kind of cake, and bite into it and it’s different, you feel disappointed. It’s the same thing with books. There are some authors who get away with it though.

Would such a novel then be, to an extent, not genuine?
The thing is, you have to write from the heart, and I don’t think you can write a really good book unless you felt it. If you decide to write for the sake of money, then you’d write a simple thing that you don’t put your heart into, producing two or three books in a year using a formula. That’s how Barbara Cartland did it. She dictated stories and put out three or four books a year. But she had a real talent for that.

Currently, what are you reading?
I have just finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and All the Pretty Horses. Now I’m going to read Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.

Do you feel any pressure from the expectations people might have because you had so much success with your first book?
No, I don’t have expectations. I always just write for fun, just to please myself. If it [success] happens, then it happens.

Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of May 30, 2010

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Here’s your guide to getting out of here


ROLF POTTS’S Vagabonding “can teach you how to travel for the rest of your life.” I thought this meant living out of a suitcase at various beach resorts and Marriott hotels through skilfully co-ordinated job contracts, press trips and love affairs. If this is true, book me the next AirAsia RM0.00 flight!

Alas, Potts quashes my “escapist cliché” in Chapter 9 and writes: “In all likelihood, your enthusiasm for sitting around smeared in cocoa butter will run out before your money does.”

Before we get to Potts’s how-to for travelling forever, we must first establish why we want to get away.

Escaping the responsibility of voting for a bad or badass government aside, the idea of taking six months or two years off work to travel, of “vagabonding itself is unorthodox.” Potts also told me in an email that: “One shouldn’t travel unless one has the passion for it.”

It’s only with this passion that we transcend the “short, frenzied bursts” of vacationing, recognise that long-term travelling is a choice we can make for our life, and, as Vagabonding declares, become “an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word.”

Potts’s own journey shows that it doesn’t take a sugar daddy or the ability to ride a bicycle for miles to travel the world. Although his travel credentials now include hitchhiking from Poland to Hungary and getting stranded without water in the Libyan Desert, he didn’t even see the ocean until he was 16.

Upon this realisation that time is “our only real commodity”, the next step—leap, more like it—involves applying for a sabbatical or quitting your job, and not worrying about it. Potts, who calls his work “antisabbaticals” to fund his vagabonding, does his best to take you through almost any anxiety and challenge you will face as you earn and plan your travels.

He also advises, “There will always be people who question and criticise your love for travel, and that’s fine. You will probably never convince them otherwise, so the best option is quietly let your travels enrich your life.” Vagabonding reassures readers with anecdotes and excerpts from the works of famous vagabonds.

For instance, he presents a bite of Henry David Thoreau’s meditative Walden, “Explore your own higher latitudes. Be a Columbus to whole new continents within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”

Potts also points out that Thoreau never travelled far outside of New England, but “he promoted an uncommon view of wealth that is essential to vagabonding.” This is the simplification of life. Thoreau only had to work six weeks a year, and dedicated the rest of his time for his passion. “Travel by its very nature demands simplicity. If you don’t believe it, just go home and try stuffing everything you own into a backpack,” Potts writes.

Vagabonding is not exactly a book you can digest from cover to cover. I found myself picking it up and flipping to a chapter or section I’d like to reread, say, on how to befriend locals (“One simple option is to approach local folks and ask them where you can find a good restaurant. Even if they can’t understand you, most people will take an interest and try to help.”) Alternatively, the resources at the end of every chapter point me to a new website to visit, or I find myself Googling for more information about the authors he quoted.

“Vagabonding has been essential to my career, but it came after I’d found a bit of success in the travel-writing realm,” Potts said of his beginnings as a writer for Salon. After becoming a columnist, snapping up more travel assignments and publishing Vagabonding, he put together a collection of his best travel stories in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There.

I am impressed with this collection because it reveals not just what Potts achieved as a travel writer and his adventures (or misadventures), but also his literary prowess. If there is a way to go vagabonding and be a brilliant writer, Potts is the best guide to show you how to do it.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is ‘Turkish Knockout,’ where Potts is drugged and mugged in Istanbul. This is not just because it’s a scary story for travellers, but he recounts it in the style of a whodunit. In ‘Tantric Sex for Dilettantes,’ he uses a second-person narrative—rare in fiction, let alone travel writing—to write about learning Tantra in hopes of mastering a technique “that allows you to have sex for hours and hours at a stretch.” While his travels don’t always result in some form of spiritual enlightenment, his travel writing is always crafty, humorous and, in revealing moments, moving, like when he searches for Mr Benny in Ranong, Thailand, to give the barber a copy of his favourite English-language book, but never finds out where the Burmese man has disappeared to in ‘Death of an Adventure Traveller.’

Marco Polo Didn’t Go There ambitiously includes everything: Potts’s adventures and misadventures, acknowledgement of his tourist persona, press trips, and it ends with a mock travel-writing tutorial that really is an Andorran sojourn. “Intentional or not, it was a keen observation about the postmodern reality of far-flung lands,” he writes in his introduction of the titular phrase he got from an inmate at Bangkok’s women’s prison, who chided him for his plans to visit Chiang Mai. Her observation changed the way he travelled.

Here is a guy who didn’t just do a bungee jump and call it an adventure; Potts structured his stories, spoke at great lengths to locals and befriended some of them (although he runs away from an overbearing and bellowing Mr Ibrahim in ‘My Beirut Hostage Crisis’), and he even includes endnotes. “My endnotes might reveal some of the idiosyncrasies of the nonfiction/travel-writing process, but I’m just showing what all writers are dealing with,” he told me.

In a gross generalisation, I suspect many Malaysians think a lot about travel and migration, and no doubt the MATTA Fair, price wars between the airlines and working holiday visas seduce us with all sorts of possibilities.

“I do think that nomadism is a huge part of our collective human past, and to travel is to get in touch with a very essential human part of ourselves,” Potts also reckons.

Tragically, he has never been to Malaysia “even though I lived in southern Thailand for quite some time.” He’s looking forward to visiting Malaysia though, “possibly as soon as this fall, possibly a couple of years from now.”

That’s the life of a vagabond for you. When he gets here, he’ll probably appreciate the botanical, social and even the political landscapes that Malaysia has to offer, dare I say, more than some of us.

As for the rest of us, reading Vagabonding would give us a fresh perspective on how to travel right, no matter how short or long the vacation or vagabonding period is. And if we don’t get to go anywhere, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There makes an inspiring read for couch travellers.

Reproduced from the The Malaysian Insider of May 22, 2010

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Barbara KINGSOLVER takes the Orange!

KENTUCKY-BORN NOVELIST BARBARA KINGSOLVER has won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel The Lacuna (Faber & Faber, 2010) while IRENE SABATINI took the 2010 Orange Award for New Writers for her first novel, The Boy Next Door (Little, Brown, 2009). Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible (1998), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1999. It was also shortlisted for the 1999 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


MALAYSIAN NOVELIST TAN TWAN ENG was longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for his début novel, The Gift of Rain (Myrmidon, 2007/Weinstein Books, 2008). The Penang-born novelist, who now lives in Cape Town, South Africa, lived in various places in Malaysia as a child. He studied law through the University of London, and later worked as an advocate and solicitor in one of Kuala Lumpur’s leading law firms. His second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, will be published in February 2012.

Interview by ERIC FORBES
Photographs courtesy of TAN TWAN ENG

Could you write a description of yourself and an update on what you have done or are doing?
I love using words, playing with them, and I’m always trying to come up with new ways to say something. I’m trying to finish the first draft of my second novel and therefore I’m irritable, anxious, distracted, exhausted and tense. Normally I’m polite and friendly but I don’t suffer fools gladly. I am cynical and irreverent about many things. I’m diplomatic but political correctness pisses me off greatly, as does censorship in any form. We’re all adults and we don’t need anyone telling us what we should or should not read, see, watch, hear or do.

Where do you find the time to read with your busy schedule?
Like all worthwhile things, one has to make time to do it. If it means I watch no TV in order to get time to read, then I’ll happily do so. I usually read for an hour or two before going to sleep. I always carry a book with me everywhere I go. If I have to wait somewhere then I’ll use the time to read (instead of just fiddling with my cell phone). I’m also a ruthless reader; if I find the book too dull or too filled with pretentious and fashionable textual gimmicks, or if it’s badly written, I usually will drop it and go to another book.

Do you think reading matters today?
Of course it does. More so than ever. We’re so inundated with unreliable information everywhere we go that we have to train ourselves to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the only way to do this is to read widely.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
Everything I could lay my hands on—from children’s books to adult bestsellers. Malaysian bookstores in the 1980s stocked mostly commercial fiction, and that’s what I—and many of my contemporaries—read when I was growing up. I started reading from a young age. There were too many books that impacted upon me to mention here, but I remember reading Shirley Conran’s Lace when it was first published and I was not even ten or twelve years old then, I think. But how could anyone resist a book which had the tagline on its cover, “The Bestselling Novel That Teaches Men About Women, and Women About Themselves”? and also one of the greatest lines of all time, “Which one of you bitches is my mother”? The wonderful thing about the 1980s was that there were so many brick-sized ‘guilty pleasure’ novels being turned into television mini-series and Lace was one of them. I’m going to sound like an old fart now, but I can still recall how much I paid for that book—RM8.80!

I remember the mini-series; it had Phoebe Cates, Bess Armstrong, Brooke Adams and Arielle Dombasle in the leading roles … and, of course, that infamous line! Hard to believe that that was some 25 years ago—a quarter of a century ago! So who are some of your favourite contemporary writers? Why do you enjoy reading their books?
Julian Barnes (The Lemon Table is one of the most extraordinary collections of short stories I’ve ever read), Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro. An extremely underrated author would be Martin Booth—sadly he died a few years ago. His novels, Hiroshima Joe, The Industry of Souls (nominated for the Booker Prize in 1998) and Adrift in the Oceans of Mercy, are very good and difficult to obtain as they are out of print. And Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a work of genius—in Humbert Humbert we have one of the saddest, drollest, funniest, most intelligent, most human characters ever to run rampant between the pages of a book. And the girl Lolita wasn’t as innocent as many people wish to think!

What are some of your favourite contemporary books?
Julian Barnes’s The Lemon Table, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, Mary Yukari Waters’s The Laws of Evening and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading and rereading it?
I have too many books I wish I have the time to reread. If I have to really choose, then An Artist of the Floating World is something I keep going back to again. It’s much better than the better-known Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day, I feel. And it’s short enough that I can reread it quickly. The book is about an old Japanese man who was once a well-known artist before and during World War II in Japan, and how he copes with the changes the war has wrought on his life, his family and his society, and how he comes to terms with the role he played in it. All the themes which obsess me are there: regret, the unreliability of memory, the pains of ageing, solitude, loneliness. Ishiguro’s very spare style of writing appeals to me, and really, nothing much happens in the book at all, and yet something about it haunts me every time.

Assuming you enjoy reading fiction, what are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? In other words, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? (If you prefer reading nonfiction, tell my why. Perhaps you enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction?)
The art of telling a good, powerful story seems to have been lost. The poetic (but logical and precise) use of language also appeals to me as well. Great novels are those which don’t have to rely on the improper or non-use of punctuation and/or typefaces which look as though they’ve been set by a dyslexic typesetter. I do read nonfiction, too, but mostly history and biographies of writers and tempestuous opera singers. I can’t bear self-help or motivational books and misery memoirs.

What are you reading at the moment?
James Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerontius. It’s a fictionalised account of Sir Edward Elgar’s ship voyage from Southampton to the Amazon just after World War I. He is past his peak, and is a tired, disillusioned old man, bitter about his life despite all the glories which have been heaped upon him for his music. There’s no plot or anything by way of a story, but the writing is powerful. Hamilton-Paterson is a science writer with a poet’s soul, and it comes through in the way he makes use of scientific terms and phrases and descriptions and imbues them with a breathtaking beauty. Each word he uses is precise but evocative. The many, many pages of discussions on the issues of artistic creation are thought-provoking, as are the questions raised about memory, age, regret, lost loves and opportunities carelessly discarded.

Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat. A very difficult read, so I’m proceeding very slowly with it. It was originally written in Afrikaans and was translated into English. Both versions have won major prizes in South Africa. It’s published in the United Kingdom as The Way of the Women. The novel is about an old white woman, Milla, who is suffering from a motor neuron disease, and her relationship with her coloured servant of many years, Agaat, as well as a story of a farming community in South Africa, and how the country and its people have changed over the decades.

What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one of these days?
I think e-books will be the iPods of the near future. They’ll bring us convenience but we’ll miss the days of having a book in our hand (and its smells, weight and feel) and return to books again. It’s just like the iPods—I bought a CD recently (which I haven’t done for a while) and realised how nice the physical thing was. It wasn’t just some intangible collection of data streamed over the ether into my computer. I’m not interested at all in acquiring an e-book reader though.

Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of May 22, 2010