Thursday, July 29, 2010


JANET TAY looks at some of the pitfalls writers should avoid when writing short stories

IN THE LONG AND OFTEN ARDUOUS PROCESS of writing and rewriting your story, it is useful to bear in mind some of the common problems that may be encountered in producing creative work. Using the short story as an example, and the flaws that occurred most often in manuscripts received and rejected by MPH Group Publishing, as well as the entries for the MPH-Alliance Bank National Short Story Prize 2009, here is a list of pitfalls that should be avoided:

1. There’s no need for a moral in the story
A story doesn’t have to end with characters being repentant or turning over a new leaf. A protagonist can experience a change, but the change does not always have to be a positive one. A writer should not write a short story to deliver a moralistic message but simply to tell a story. Leave it to the readers to make their own judgments.

2. Too much sentimentality
A tendency to be overly sentimental may result in self-indulgence. Not everyone may share your nostalgia for that old coffee shop you used to visit in Taiping in the 1960s or your first love. There’s nothing wrong with writing about either subject but do make sure you think of your reader as well before you launch into a reminiscence that only you might find interesting.

3. Written like a school essay
Fiction, and short stories are no exception, require a great deal of creativity. Do not submit work that read like secondary school essays with assigned titles. This is why reading other novels or short-story collections is important so you can compare your work and see the difference.

4. Bad grammar and spelling
Grammar is something that can be learnt and improved. Don’t let bad grammar ruin that fantastic story you have, hidden under piles of errors. An editor gets put off by an abundance of grammatical errors and may reject your work based on the fact that you lack even the basic skills in wielding the language.

5. Written like reportage
Short stories are supposed to be creative and fluid. Don’t just tell us what you see, let us know what the story is too.

6. Bad dialogue
Make dialogue believable and natural. In real life, people don’t always speak in complete sentences and often interrupt each other. Don’t have people speaking in complete or formal sentences if it is an informal setting. Your characters need to be alive and breathing, not talking cardboard cut-outs. When you watch a movie, the actors inhabit the characters they play. In Saving Private Ryan, for example, it is the voice of Captain John H. Miller that should be apparent, not Tom Hanks the Hollywood actor.

7. No story, just observations
Make sure you know what a short story is. A 5,000-word piece on your reflections on life and society is not a short story. Remember, there has to be a story to tell. This may seem obvious but there is still a need to say it.

8. Too much telling, not enough showing
This is perhaps one of the most common rules that have been broken time and again. There’s nothing wrong with breaking rules, but know them first. Whenever possible, show how the characters feel instead of telling the reader.

9. Too gimmicky
There’s no need to impress the reader with your knowledge of various styles and gimmicks in writing. You may think writing in the second person is stylish but it is unlikely that anyone would want to read something that has style but no substance. Ultimately, they may ask themselves, what was the point of reading this? Always put the story first and think of the most interesting way to tell it.

10. Verbiage
Keep your story simple and precise. Every word and sentence is there for a purpose. Excise unnecessary descriptions or explanations and use fewer words to avoid convoluted, confusing sentences.

11. Sesquipedalian?
I had to look up this word and can still barely spell it. Try to avoid big or unfamiliar words that don’t sit well in the context of your story. If you must use polysyllabic words, then use them wisely. If your character is not an obsessive physics professor who can’t stop talking in jargon, don’t make him or her sound like one.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009). She is also a contributing editor to Quill magazine.

Reproduced from the July-September 2010 issue of Quill magazine

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction LONGLIST

HERE’S a list of 13 novels that made it to the longlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It’s a predictable-in-a-nice-sort-of-way kind of list; no surprises, except for a couple of strange choices:

1. Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Peter Carey
2. Room (Picador/Pan Macmillan, 2010) / Emma Donoghue
3. The Betrayal (Fig Tree/Penguin) / Helen Dunmore
4. In a Strange Room (Atlantic Books/Grove Atlantic, 2010) / Damon Galgut

5. The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, 2010) / Howard Jacobson
6. The Long Song (Headline Review/Headline, 2010) / Andrea Levy
7. C (Jonathan Cape/Random House, 2010) / Tom McCarthy
8. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton, 2010) / David Mitchell
9. February (Chatto & Windus/Random House, 2010) / Lisa Moore

10. Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2010) / Paul Murray
11. Trespass (Chatto & Windus/Random House, 2010) / Rose Tremain
12. The Slap (Tuskar Rock/Grove Atlantic, 2010) / Christos Tsiolkas
13. The Stars in the Bright Sky (Jonathan Cape/Random House, 2010) / Alan Warner

Chaired by Andrew Motion, the line-up of judges in 2010 include Rosie Blau, Deborah Bull, Tom Sutcliffe and Frances Wilson.

The shortlist will be announced on September 7, 2010, and the announcement of the winner will be made on October 12, 2010.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


KUNAL BASU ON LITERARY FICTION: Helping us to navigate the rough seas of life

KUNAL BASU was born in Calcutta, India, but has spent much of his adult life in Canada and the U.S. He has taught at the McGill University in Canada and has been a Professor of Marketing at Templeton College, Oxford University, England. He has also acted in films in India and written a screenplay, Snakecharmer, as well as written and directed two documentaries. Basu is the author of three acclaimed novels, The Opium Clerk (2001), The Miniaturist (2003) and Racists (2006); he has acted in films and on stage, written poetry and screenplays. His first collection of short stories, The Japanese Wife and Other Stories, was published by HarperCollins India in January 2008. His story, “The Japanese Wife,” from the collection, has been made into a film by India’s celebrated director Aparna Sen with Rahul Bose and Chigusa Takaku in leading roles.


Define literary fiction and give examples of some books that you consider to be works of literary fiction.
It’s hard to define literature just as it is hard to define art. A fictional piece of work that raises an individual’s aesthetic appreciation of life’s many facets would perhaps qualify as such. Its key distinction with popular fiction lies in its ability to probe a deeper consciousness within which the essence of humanity is revealed beyond the unfolding of simply a plot. Examples include War and Peace, Oliver Twist, Germinal, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Waiting for the Barbarians, and many, many more. Take J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, for example. While on the one hand it’s a brilliantly searing story about a powerful minority brutalising a whole society, it speaks as well to the evil that lurks within all of us no matter where we live.

What enjoyment do you get from reading such works (if you do enjoy them, that is). If you don’t, explain why.
For me, it creates an ‘out of body’ experience. It makes me connect, emotionally and cerebrally, with the wider humanity. Day-to-day life is, by definition, constricted to a specific context. I live in a small town [Oxford] and rub shoulders with my neighbours and colleagues at the university. Virtual contact over the internet creates an illusion of community. Yet it is fiction that truly panders to my romantic soul, allowing me to inhabit different characters and immerse myself in their own contexts. Fiction allows me to become truly omnipresent.

Name some of your favourite literary fiction and why you like them.
I was reared on a healthy dose of classics. Growing up in a house full of books (with a novelist mother and a publisher father), I read everything I could lay my hands on, sometimes without true comprehension. To their credit, my parents never discouraged me from reading anything. So Lady Chatterley’s Lover was an early read alongside [Émile Zola’s] Nana and Anna Karenina! Novels of romantic adventure appealed to me in my early years—the likes of The Count of Monte Cristo—and have tinged my palette. I read the vernacular (Bangla) voraciously as well. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, the 19th-century Bangla novelist, is still my all-time favourite. Dickens’s descriptive brilliance, Dostoevsky’s inner landscapes and Hugo’s dramatic moments kept me awake many, many nights. But I have favourites among contemporary authors as well. Here are a few: Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (it makes the most jaded of souls fall in love); J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (it reminds me of the devil that we all possess within ourselves); Amin Malouf’s Samarkand (for a spectacular civilisational sweep that connects the East and the West); Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (for infusing prose with poetry); and Marguerite Duras’s Lovers (for sheer playfulness).

Do you think that not liking literary novels is simply a matter of preference or does it imply a lack of discernment?
It’s a mark of superficiality. For many it could be lack of exposure as well. We are increasingly witnessing a dumbing down of sensibilities, stretching from early school years well into adult life. The world of reality TV, ‘laugh-a-minute’ and bathtub reads (e.g., chick-lit) is shaping our taste buds. Without sounding like an obscurantist, I view the late 20th and early 21st centuries to be inimical to the creative arts. It is becoming fashionable now to publicly confess that one doesn’t read books, just as it was once shameful to do so among decent folks around the world.

Who do you think literary novels are written for? Do you think most authors of such books have a particular demographic in mind?
Literary novels are written for those who aspire to a sensitive immersion in the pool of deep humanity. I don’t think most serious practitioners of literary fiction write with any audience in mind except their own selves. That’s what I do. In fact, the creative ethic runs exactly counter to the marketing ethic. The latter starts with the other—the ‘consumer’—trying to determine what they’d prefer to read, then work backwards to suggest to the author what he or she should write about. The creative person always starts with the inner voice and hopes that readers would appreciate what so appeals to him or her.

How important do you think it is for readers to read literary fiction? Why do you feel this way?
We are as a species sinking into the quicksand of superficiality and an all-embracing consumption ethos. Literature (and the Arts in general) is our only lifeline. If for nothing else, it’s vital for developing a well-honed intuition about oneself and one’s precious relationships. How would you navigate the rough seas of love, jealousy, hatred and tragedy without the compass of so many tales told by so many authors? It stands to enhance our sensations making for a more thrilling experience. I was once stranded in Paris without much money in my university days. Strolling around the city on an empty stomach, I’d be reminded constantly of Hemingway and A Moveable Feast. It helped to turn my mind from my stomach to my heart!

Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of June 20, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2010

October 6-10, 2010

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, IT’S THAT TIME OF THE YEAR AGAIN. Time to buy your air tickets and book your hotel accommodation. Time for nasi campur, babi guling and bebik bengil, and the soothing sounds of gamelan in the distant hills. And yes, time to bring your books to Ubud, Bali, to get them signed and listen to authors talk about books and the writing process. For those of us who love books and all things bookish in this part of the world, this is the place to be come October 2010.

The theme of the 2010 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika: Harmony in Diversity,’ the Indonesian national motto originating from the Sutasoma, advocates respect between all people, across religious, ethnic and social diversity. From October 6-10, the brightest global writers will come together to debate the issues that divide and unite us, in a celebration of stories and voices. You’ll hear about life and literature in Australia, Bosnia, Burma (Myanmar), Canada, China, Croatia, Djibouti, East Timor, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Kashmir, Lebanon, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the UK, the US and Vietnam, as well as having a unique opportunity to meet writers from over ten provinces of Indonesia.

Expand into the world of writers and writing. You won’t only find the finest voices writing in fiction and poetry today. You’ll see filmmakers, photographers, artists and performers. You’ll hear social commentators, frontline journalists, cultural activists and political observers. The best contemporary thinkers from around the world come together to give their take on the complex, rich and interconnected world in which we dwell.

This years’s headliners include Ma Jian (Beijing Coma, Stick Out Your Tongue, Red Dust: A Path Through China), Man Booker Prize-winner Anne Enright (The Gathering), Tash Aw (The Harmony Silk Factory), William Dalrymple (Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, The Last Mughal), Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning Albert Wendt (The Adventures of Vela), Nam Le (The Boat), Booker Prize-winner Thomas Kenneally (Schindler’s Ark), Karen Connelly (The Lizard Cage), Frank Moorhouse (Dark Palace), Rabih Alameddine (The Hakawati), Shani Mootoo (Valmiki’s Daughter, Cereus Blooms at Night), Cate Kennedy (The World Beneath), Tabish Khair (Filming and The Bus Stopped), Joan London (Gilgamesh, The Good Parents), Shamini Flint, Rachel Kushner (Telex from Cuba), Ali Eteraz (Children of Dust), Basharat Peer (Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir), Etgar Keret (The Girl on the Fridge), Abdourahman Waberi (The Land Without Shadows) and Philip Jeyaretnam (Raffles Place Ragtime).

Joining this impressive roster of headliners are Kate Adie, Dewi Lestari, Sitor Sitimorang, Jennifer Byrne, Sophie Cunningham, Shane Maloney, Zakes Mda, Lisa Teasley, Suad Amiry, Shane Maloney, Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), Perihan Magden (The Messenger Boy Murders), Ioannis Gatsiounis (Velvet & Cinder Blocks), Antony Loewenstein, Zhang Su Li (A Backpack and A Bit of Luck) and Brian Gomez (Devil’s Place), among others.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Forward Poetry Prizes 2010 Shortlists

Best Collection
1. Human Chain (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Seamus Heaney
2. Small Hours (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Lachlan Mackinnon
3. Through the Square Window (Carcanet Press, 2009) / Sinéad Morrissey
4. The Wrecking Light (Picador, 2010) / Robin Robertson
5. Rough Music (Carcanet Press, 2010) / Fiona Sampson
6. Of Mutability (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Jo Shapcott

Best First Collection
1. Running the Dusk (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) / Christian Campbell
2. Berg (Seren, 2009) / Hilary Menos
3. How to Pour Madness into a Teacup (Cinnamon Press, 2009) / Abegail Morley
4. Learning Gravity (tall-lighthouse, 2010) / Helen Oswald
5. A Curious Shipwreck (Shearsman Books, 2010) / Steve Spence
6. New Light for the Old Dark (Jonathan Cape, 2010) / Sam Willetts

The Forward prizes, founded in 1992, are intended to raise the profile of contemporary poetry. The best collection award for 2009 was won by Scottish poet Don Paterson, for Rain, and this year’s winners will be announced on October 6, in London.

Monday, July 19, 2010


THE 2010 MAN BOOKER PRIZE FOR FICTION will be upon us very soon. Here’s a list of some of the literary highlights of the year:

1. Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Peter Carey
2. All That Follows (Picador, 2010) / Jim Crace
3. Into Suez (Parthian Books, 2010) / Stevie Davies
4. Room (Picador/Pan Macmillan, 2010) / Emma Donoghue
5. The Old Romantic (Fig Tree/Penguin Books, 2010) / Louise Dean
6. Whatever You Love (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Louise Doughty
7. The Betrayal (Fig Tree/Penguin) / Helen Dunmore
8. The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, 2010) / Aminatta Forna
9. Isa & May (Chatto & Windus, 2010) / Margaret Forster
10. In a Strange Room (Atlantic Books/Grove Atlantic, 2010) / Damon Galgut

11. Florence and Giles (Blue Door, 2010) / John Harding
12. The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, 2010) / Howard Jacobson
13. The Long Song (Headline Review/Headline, 2010) / Andrea Levy
14. The Bishop’s Man (Jonathan Cape, 2010) / Linden MacIntyre
15. The Wilding (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Maria McCann
16. Even the Dogs (Bloomsbury, 2010) / Jon McGregor
17. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze / Maaza Mengiste
18. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton, 2010) / David Mitchell
19. February (Chatto & Windus/Random House, 2010) / Lisa Moore
20. A Life Apart (Constable & Robinson, 2010) / Neel Murkherjee

21. Ghost Light (Harvill Secker, 2010) / Joseph O’Connor
22. The Hand That First Held Mine (Headline Review, 2010) / Maggie O’Farrell
23. The Death of Lomond Friel (Chatto & Windus, 2010) / Sue Peebles
24. And the Land Lay Still (Hamish Hamilton, 2010) / James Robertson
25. Inheritance (Harvill Secker, 2010) / Nicholas Shakespeare
26. The Return of Captain John Emmett (Virago, 2010) / Elizabeth Speller
27. Sex & Stravinsky (Bloomsbury, 2010) / Barbara Trapido
28. Trespass (Chatto & Windus/Random House, 2010) / Rose Tremain
29. The Stars in the Bright Sky (Jonathan Cape/Random House, 2010) / Alan Warner
30. The Bed I Made (Bloomsbury, 2010) / Lucie Whitehouse

Chaired by Andrew Motion, the line-up of judges in 2010 include Rosie Blau, Deborah Bull, Tom Sutcliffe and Frances Wilson.

The longlist will be announced on July 27, 2010, with the shortlist announcement on September 7, 2010, and the announcement of the winner will be made on October 12, 2010.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Scout’s voice rings true

I AM READING Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Not rereading, but reading it for the first time. I don’t know how I’ve managed to arrive at my 43rd year without having read the book, especially when so many around me love it so much.

I love Scout, the narrator, especially. She’s six years old at the start of the book, and there is nothing more insulting to her than to be told she behaves like a girl. “Scout, sometimes you act so much like a girl, it’s mortifying,” is the sort of thing her brother, Jem, says whenever Scout shows any inclination of not taking part in his plans.

Jem is four years older than Scout and, as big brothers go, is actually a pretty good sort ... most of the time.

By the way, I have not watched the film version either, but I’ve been told that it’s a very faithful dramatisation of the book. Harper Lee liked it and became close friends with Gregory Peck who plays Atticus Finch, the kids’ dad (Peck’s grandson was named Harper).

The children call their father Atticus, which would be unusual even in the 21st century let alone in the American deep south of the 1930s, where and when conventions, manners and appearances were everything. This is one of the first indications that he is not like most fathers.

Atticus, who is a widower, is that most rare breed of parent who actually listens to his children—not that he doesn’t ever lecture them. However, at least he practises what he preaches.

Scout mentions that she can’t remember her mother, but observes how Jem sometimes goes off by himself and recognises this as a sign that her brother misses their mother and leaves him alone on these occasions. Like most children, Jem and Scout are often acutely sensitive to and considerate of others’ feelings. They are also frequently tactless, selfish and indifferent.

I knew before I read Mockingbird that it was about a black man accused of raping a white woman. I assumed that the story would start with an account of the crime or description of the case, continue with the unfolding of the trial, and end with the jury’s verdict. However, there is no mention of Tom Robinson’s arrest and Atticus’ decision to represent him until chapter nine. Up until then, Lee slowly and meticulously paints us a picture of the Finches and their neighbours. Every detail, every little story, every description of an event or person, and every passage of dialogue goes to deepen your understanding of the characters and their lives in Maycomb County, and prepares you for what is to come.

The Tom Robinson trial serves to highlight the book’s themes, in particular that of personal and social prejudice, and everything else in the book underlines the truths that Scout realises by the end of the story.

Mockingbird is full of moral lessons, at times baldly preached, at others illustrated through the actions and the experiences of the characters. However, as the story is seen through the eyes of a little girl, the preaching is to be expected, the didacticism simply an accurate portrayal of what most adults put most children through every day.

Although not published or marketed as a children’s book, I think young readers would find Scout’s voice and attitude accessible and attractive—who could possibly resist a girl who dislikes dresses and whose first instinct is to settle disputes with her fists?

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone over the age of 12. Under-12s may like to read it with their parents who should be able to explain the more puzzling aspects of the world Lee portrays.

The story, with its rich detail and colourful characters, is interesting in itself and as an illustration of a bygone age, but the issues it raises are as relevant today as they were during America’s civil rights movement, when the book was first published 50 years ago. It is this abiding relevance that makes To Kill a Mockingbird the classic it is.

Daphne Lee has never believed in the tooth fairy and thinks Tinkerbell one of the most annoying characters in literature. She likes her fairyfolk tall—and handy with a bow and arrow, but thinks Tolkien’s elves could benefit from sessions of psychotherapy.

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of July 18, 2010

Saturday, July 17, 2010

5 Minutes with J.M. COETZEE


J.M. COETZEE was the first author to win the Booker Prize twice (for Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace), and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. His other novels include Diary of a Bad Year, Slow Man, Elizabeth Costello, Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, The Lives of Animals, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, The Master of Petersburg, Age of Iron, Foe, Waiting for the Barbarians, In the Heart of the Country and Dusklands. He is also the author of four collections of essays: Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005, Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship and Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. His most recent novel, Summertime (Harvill Secker/Penguin Group USA, 2009), was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Have you travelled to many other Asian cities or countries?
I have travelled in Japan, and also in the Middle East.

What do you think of literary festivals? Do you think they are necessary in order to promote reading and writing, and also to generate publicity for books?
Literary festivals do much to raise the public profile of writers. They are certainly a godsend to the publicity arm of publishers.

You are a Visiting Professor of Humanities for the Creative Writing Programme (PhD in Creative Writing) at the University of Adelaide. Have you mentored any students in their writing, and if so, what did it involve (i.e., what was the process) and how was the experience? Would you encourage more would-be writers to seek mentors?
For inexperienced writers, and even for some experienced writers, sympathetic critical commentary on their work can be very helpful. In the old days one might have hoped that a publishers’ editor, or a literary agent, might have offered such commentary, but in the modern industry that no longer holds.

What is your writing process like? Do you have a routine, a specific area to work at or can you work anywhere, in a new place or even when you’re travelling?
I can work anywhere.

You have been living in Australia for about seven years now after having relocated from South Africa in 2002. Does place matter or have any kind of influence on you as an author when it comes to choosing a setting or subject matter for your novels?

What are you reading at the moment?
Onno Oerlemans’s Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature (University of Toronto Press, 2002).

J.M. Coetzee
(Harvill Secker/Penguin Group USA, 2009)

John Coetzee is dead—but only in his latest novel, another fictional memoir in the third person following Boyhood and Youth. Janet Tay reviews Summertime.

In Summertime, J.M. Coetzee has a young English biographer working on a book about the late writer, John Coetzee, focusing on the years between 1972 and 1977 when Coetzee, in his thirties, was living in a run-down cottage in the suburbs of Cape Town with his widowed father.

To facilitate his research, the biographer conducts interviews with five women who seemed important to Coetzee based on his references to them in the notebooks, which were regarded by the biographer as “clues” to follow up on: a married woman with whom Coetzee had an affair, his favourite cousin Margot, a Brazilian dancer whose daughter had English lessons with him, and former colleagues at the University of Cape Town.

Coetzee is notorious for his reputation as a recluse and his dislike of interviews. An extremely private and quiet man—reflected even in his choice of writing his memoirs in fictional form and in the third person—it is perhaps a blessing for his readers that he would reveal any part of himself in his books at all, much less a third memoir.

The John Coetzee portrayed in his memoirs are, for the most part, self-deprecating. Naturally this may seem odd—a prolific writer and English professor who has won the Nobel and the Booker twice, but who appears to think very little of himself (“The day of the great writer is gone forever, he would say”)—but nevertheless illustrates the honesty with which Coetzee writes and thinks.

In the interviews, the women are not impressed by young John, whom they deem awkward, socially inept, and passionless in the bedroom, and to an extent, in his writing. To Sophie, a former colleague of John’s at the University of Cape Town, John was not a “truly exceptional human being,” and although he was talented, “he was just a man, a man of his time ... maybe even gifted, but frankly, not a giant.”

Readers who enjoyed Coetzee’s less experimental styles in his earlier novels such as Disgrace and The Life and Times of Michael K as opposed to the three-sectioned pages of Diary of a Bad Year will once again find themselves confronting a rather fragmentary account of John Coetzee’s life; the book is a compilation of his notebooks (in diary form) and a series of interviews that sometimes make reference to Coetzee’s other novels.

The book’s main appeal is no doubt the further revelations by Coetzee of his younger self for readers who are perpetually curious about the enigmatic author. As the biographer in Summertime chooses to read between the lines in John’s notebooks to discover what or who mattered most to him, one needs only to read Coetzee’s novels to find the man who spreads himself only on the pages of his books.

Reproduced from the October-December 2009 issue of Quill magazine

Tuesday, July 13, 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 celebrities, Malaysian or otherwise, about their favourite books and how they find the time to read despite their busy lives.

EMMANUEL STROOBANT is a Belgian chef. He just turned 42, and is married to a Malaysian who helped him set up five restaurants (including the famous Sainte Pierre and Brussels Sprouts) in Singapore. He has been living in Southeast Asia for 13 years (two years in Kuala Lumpur and 11 years in Singapore). “I am a father, I do consultancy work for restaurants, I do yoga, and I love bikes and music. I did two seasons of a TV show called Chef in Black on the Asian Food Channel (AFC) and wrote a couple of books,” he says. “I still have no idea what I want to do later, but it will probably involve education. I am a vegetarian and I have two cats! I stopped smoking in February and I should be opening two more restaurants in 2010,” he continues. Stroobant is the author of three books: Cuisine Unplugged: Reinterpreting European Cuisine with an Asian Touch (Times Editions, 2003), Vine Dining: White (Marshall Cavendish, 2005) and Vine Dining: Red (Marshall Cavendish, 2007).

Interview by ERIC FORBES
Photographs courtesy of EMMANUEL STROOBANT

How do you find the time to read with your hectic schedule—managing your restaurants, TV shows, family, etc.?
There is always time: it is just a matter of choice. I take time to play with my kid by going home earlier at night, I find time to do yoga because it is important to seek balance within and I find time to read on my day off, in planes and at airports, anytime I am queuing, waiting, sitting on the toilet bowl ... I always carry at least one book with me wherever I go.

Do you think reading matters?
It is essential, it is for me the best way to unwind and yet learn. It is essential because it is like a continuous self-study, it is essential because it will never be replaced by television or the internet ... and paper smells really good.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I am from Belgium! In Belgium we produce beautiful comics. Nothing to do with their American counterparts or the Japanese Manga; I am talking about hand-drawn books with real stories ... that was my reading as a teenager. Of course, at school we had to read a lot of (French) classics and I still remember the name of some heroes from the novels of Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo.

Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
Albert Camus’s L’étranger (The Stranger). Also most of Boris Vian’s work, and being Belgian, Georges Simenon.

Who are some of your favourite contemporary writers? Why do you enjoy reading their books?
I need to separate the French from the English. On the French side I like Philippe Djian. On the English side I have enjoyed books by Mitch Albom, Michael Pollan and a lot of other people actually! Djian and Albom are similar in style. Their writing flows, allowing the reader’s imagination free rein. They are heavy in their content but very light in their writing, almost akin to a perfect dish—full of flavour, yet not too heavy to digest! As for Pollan, I love his style. He is a journalist, he goes straight to the point, never forgetting a touch of humour (generally dark) and his research is amazing.

What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
I occasionally read fiction, but most of the time I am looking at a specific subject and will target that specific area with much enthusiasm. It can be anything from my professional side (molecular cuisine, autobiographies of famous chefs or simple recipes) to a wider spectrum such as history, Indian culture, anatomy, religious sciences, etc.

Do you have a favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
That would be Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I love Coelho and this is his masterpiece. I like to pass it around, lend it to people even though I know I will never get it back. I probably bought this book 15 times! I will always reread books I loved. I put them aside and hope to find time one day to read them all again.

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?)
I do prefer nonfiction to fiction. Someone said “the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to make sense” and that may answer why I prefer nonfiction. Having said that, credit must be given to a lot of fiction writers for their creativity and research. A great novel would take me less than 24 hours to read, a merely good one will be on the pile on the table next to my bed with the rest of those to be continued one day ...

What are you reading at the moment?
Believe it or not, I am always reading three or four books together, depending of my mood. Right now it is Geshe Michael Roach and Christie McNally’s How Yoga Works. I would recommend it to anyone who has the slightest interest in the philosophy of yoga. Don’t be put off by the title! Also, Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, the simplest book about what a human being should be swallowing. And also the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu scripture.

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 day?
If I could predict the future I would be making a living from it! My humble opinion is NO WAY! It will be difficult for me to fathom the depths of enjoyment one gets from reading off a computer with the way I enjoy sitting in a library surrounded by centuries of knowledge or in a room smelling of leather and paper. E-books are only convenient but the physical paper is so much more ... it is like having a virtual [online] girlfriend on some porn website or the real McCoy in your bed!

What are some of your favourite Malaysian or Singaporean delicacies?
My favourite Malaysian dish used to be beef noodles from a small shop called King’s Beef Noodle in Seremban. I would drive all the way from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban just to savour it! But as I mentioned earlier, due to health reasons, I became a vegetarian last year and am now in love with two dishes. One is tofu braised with spinach and mushroom. Every weekend I end up at an Indian eatery in Dempsey in Singapore. The place is called Samy’s and I have biryani rice with palak paneer, a sort of spinach puree with cottage cheese.

Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of June 12, 2010

Saturday, July 10, 2010

2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize SHORTLIST