Thursday, September 22, 2011

Connecting Through Words

WENA POON discovers the international reach of Malaysian and Singaporean women novelists at the 2011 Hong Kong International Literary Festival

THE STRUGGLES of Malaysian and Singaporean authors to “break into” the global literary market has always been a favourite topic of discussion in this part of the world. We have long admired Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng for their international success. But what about our women writers?

As a woman writer, I am heartened to discover the international accomplishments of two Singaporean women novelists, Meira Chand and Suchen Christine Lim, whom I caught up with at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on March 8-18, 2011.

The three of us consider ourselves Singaporean, although we may not look or sound like we’re from the same country. Meira Chand was born in London in 1942 of Indian and Swiss parents, has lived in Japan and now lives in Singapore. Suchen Christine Lim was born in 1948 in Penang to a Hakka-Cantonese family, and spent most of her adult life in Singapore. I was born in Singapore in 1974 to a family of Teochew Chinese, and left after junior college for the US. We all speak with different accents, but with Singapore being such a small country, we knew each other and instantly connected at the festival.

While chatting with Chand and Lim, I realised that the three of us have actually broken new ground in the international fiction market, shattering the stereotype that still persists in Singapore that Singaporean literature has not really taken off.

Lim’s The Lies That Build a Marriage (2007), published by Monsoon Books in Singapore, is an extraordinary literary document, probably the first of its kind in Asia. The fictional stories were commissioned by Christian pastors who wished to heal families torn apart by the discovery of a homosexual child. Lim was invited to tour around Malaysia and Singapore to read these stories from the pulpit in the place of sermons, and the audience response was deeply moving.

I was surprised and proud to discover that Lim’s novels are taught in universities in the UK and US, as well as in Malaysia, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Our intrepid writer has also been honoured from Burma to the US, from Korea to Australia, as a writing fellow in various residencies. Very few people actually know that Lim is so well-represented globally.

Chand’s latest novel, A Different Sky (2010), published by an imprint of Random House in London, was voted Cardholder’s Book Circle Choice by UK bookstore chain Waterstone’s. It is set in pre-Independence Singapore and stars a multi-ethnic cast of Indians, Chinese and Eurasians struggling to find their place in a world of political conflict and racial prejudice.

This year, Chand’s short story, “The Pilgrimage,” was among 20 stories longlisted in a UK competition called The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Award, the world’s biggest and most prestigious short-story prize. She was nominated alongside names like Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2009.

Very few people in Singapore even knew about this and it wasn’t reported in the Singapore media. Ironically, in the US and UK, Chand was making waves, on and off Facebook!

The year 2010 has been an extraordinary year for me. I wrote a novel about Spanish bullfighting, starring an American college girl who wants to become a matador. It came out of a project suggested by a Singaporean Chinese theatre director. Published by Salt Publishing in London, Alex y Robert was adapted by the BBC into a ten-episode miniseries on Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. It is currently being promoted by bookstore chain WHSmith for all its bookstores across the UK.

In the same year, I beat 300 mostly British and American writers to win the UK’s Willesden Herald Short Story Prize, a small but much coveted international award which has been famously described by past judge Zadie Smith as a prize which is “only about good writing”.

Again, all this wasn’t reported in the Singapore media. Imagine my embarrassment whenever I go back to Singapore and hear people lament, “Maybe one day our Singaporean writers would achieve international recognition.”

So we have not yet won the Man Booker Prize. Yet it’s important that the Singapore and Malaysian literary community know about what the three of us have done so far, so that we continue to believe in our local writing scene. No more should we bemoan that “our English isn’t good enough” or “our books don’t sell” or “our writers are not good”. We’re already there. We have broken into the international scene, and we will continue to sally forth. I want you all to come along for the ride!

Singapore and Malaysia, being small countries, can be viewed as a single literary writing force. We already publish each other’s authors. There is strength in numbers.

Detractors often question why we should care about breaking into the international market.

We should never slavishly seek foreign approval of our books. Yet the international reach of the Singapore-Malaysian voice is critical for outsiders to understand who we really are, culturally, artistically, and intellectually.

Every time I am discouraged, I think of Jimmy Choo. If a Chinese Hakka shoemaker from Penang can create something that drives London and New York fashionistas insane, we can do it. Yes, we can!

And what do we write about? Anything we desire. It is 2011. We no longer have to write about geishas and bound feet and family dynasties and political oppression. The doors are wide open now and Asian literature will go wherever Asian writers and publishers want to take it.

“You know you are living in a global and interconnected world,” begins a Spanish book reviewer in his Spanish-language blog, “when a Singaporean writer living in New York is writing about Spanish bullfighting.”

For decades we had to read Western novels in our classrooms. It’s about time they read something we wrote, to see the world from our point of view. After all, we are already writing in English. “Only connect,” said E.M. Forster in Howards End. Who do you think he was talking to? Yes, you!

Everything we write can be understood by million of readers in the US, UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, as well as Malaysia and Singapore. So, write on. What are you waiting for? People are waiting to hear our stories.

WENA POON is a Singapore-born novelist and short-story writer who lives in the United States. She holds degrees in English Literature and Law from Harvard and is a practising attorney. She is the author of Lions in Winter, The Proper Care of Foxes and Alex y Robert.

Reproduced from MPH’s 105th Anniversary issue of Quill magazine


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