Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Great Editors Were Mythbusters

A question whose answer has eluded PHILIP MATHEWS even after having spent three decades in journalism is: Are great editors born or evolved?

DURING MY TIME, I have been privileged to have worked with some really great wordsmiths whose force, abilities, commitment, analytical skills and insights gave them and their newspapers an influence hitherto unequalled. They played a significant role in shaping and directing the opinions of the man-in-the-street long before the advent of the social media which made instant experts of the same man-in-the-same-street.

None of the editors however were the product of journalism schools, for indeed there were none in those days; nor had they any special calling or proven writing skills. Some of them just strayed into the world of newspapering, coming as they did from the most unlikely of backgrounds.

Moving from Cecil Street to Pudu Road and later to Jalan Bangsar, the New Straits Times (then known as Straits Times) where I had worked, was literally home to reporters, sub-editors and senior editors who came to take refuge from their previous incarnations as engineers, teachers, teleprinter operators, failed politicians and reformed Communists—people whose past sometimes made better stories than the assignments they covered.

They added colour to the newsroom and used profanity as a tool to drive hapless rookies to greater performance. Sexual harassment in the workplace was then not yet an offence in the statute books but the women gave back as good as they nearly got.

Those were the days when words in print were more powerful than the digital word despite the lengthy and time-consuming process of the former—from typewriters to linotype (line of type) machines, flongs (papier mache), metal stereos and rotary printing machines that made impressions on rolling newsprint which were mechanically folded to give the reader the newspaper feel.

You took down notes in real notebooks before computers offered their digital versions; you recorded interviews with ballpoint pens before Sony and others offered their digital voice recorders; you typed your reports on trusty typewriters before Microsoft introduced their digital word processors. Then, with expletives undeleted, irate editors tore up your copy written on real paper, unlike today’s news executives who quietly drag yours to the trash bin digitally.

Then the real newspaper was delivered to the door of the readers (which they still do but in dwindling numbers) while the Internet opened the door for the emergence of full newspaper online in digital format to convince you that nothing has really changed.

It was a sad day in the newsroom when we witnessed the passing of the era of faithful typewriters giving way to the snooty and fastidious computerised system that came with one large drawback—it could not be upended or thrown on the floor in exasperation like a typewriter could—and sometimes was.

Journalists also quietly lamented the disappearance of the small but necessary non-editorial duties like changing typewriter ink ribbon, a task which provided a moment’s relief from the overbearing editor who kept one eye on the clock and the other on you, impatiently waiting for you to hand in the masterpiece you had promised him a minute ago but which never materialised.

To the newspaper reader, a journalist who gets a regular byline in his newspaper soon became a semi-legend. But to the reporter, it was only fleeting glory that was not reflected in his salary which was a paltry sum made twice a month.

That also ensured you lived a spartan existence, surviving on sandwiches and black coffee for lunch and free beer from your bosses after work at a favourite pub in Brickfields.

The work day started at 10am and ended when it ended, time unspecified. The long hours were compensated by the weekly two off-days which came in handy to catch up on lost sleep.

Waiting for your assignments was sometimes as dreaded as Treasure Island’s Long John Silver receiving the black spot or receiving a weak hand at cards. You could be put down for night duty (11pm to 7am) for six months at a stretch, putting a damper on the carefully laid plans of mice and men.

But we had our compensations, too. Some of us were up to harmless mischief especially during slack periods during night duty, appropriately called the graveyard shift. They pulled off pranks that make some Malaysian radio deejays today look tame in comparison.

Once, our chief resident prankster picked a random phone number and called the home. He told the houseowner that he could talk to pets, and could he please bring his dog to the phone. A few moments of silence followed, and there was much noise in the background, similar to the sound of toppling chairs and tables. After a while, the incredulous person came back to the phone and said: “The stupid dog won’t come to the phone.”

Luckily, in those days, there were no pedigreed animal rights activists lurking in newsrooms or eavesdropping at the manual switchboards which were brought to their ignominious end in the mid-1970s.

We laboured under no delusions then of such movements as press freedom and rights of speech. We knew where we stood and we accepted the fact that that was the way it was and that was the way it was going to stay.

We were the original Mythbusters. We accepted the realities and lived by them.
I remember once seeing a bumper sticker which said: Editors have the last word. Not so, we knew our limitations, despite what proponents of press freedom said. In a news organisation, press freedom was limited, not by external forces, but by internal constraints.

For instance, we were held to ransom by: 
  • The advertising department which dictated how much space was available for editorial content in a newspaper on a daily basis;
  • The production department which stipulated the ‘offstone’ times, meaning when the last story can be accepted for print; and
  • The circulation department which decided the hour when the newspaper was to hit the streets, thus further limiting the time to accept and process news stories.
I suppose it does not matter if one was destined at birth to be great or had so evolved. The important thing is to arrive. And to leave a lasting legacy.

Reproduced from the Annual 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Mother’s Voice

God couldn’t do everything himself, so he created mothers

KYUNG-SOOK SHIN has become both the first woman and the first South Korean to win the Man Asian Literary Prize—Asia’s most prestigious literary award—with her international bestselling novel, Please Look After Mother (titled Please Look After Mom in the US). She beat the likes of Haruki Murakami (1Q84), Amitav Ghosh (River of Smoke), Tahmima Anam (The Good Muslim) and Banana Yoshimoto (The Lake) for the US$30,000 award. Previous winners of the prize are Jiang Rong for Wolf Totem, Miguel Syjuco for Ilustrado, Su Tong for The Boat to Redemption and Bi Feiyu for Three Sisters.

Born in 1963 in South Korea’s Jeolla Province, Shin established herself as an author in 1985 with the publication of her novella Winter’s Fable, after graduating from the Seoul Institute of the Arts as a creative writing major. She won the Munye Joongang Literary Newcomer’s Prize for the book.

Her short-story collection, Where the Harmonium Once Stood, was widely recognised for its exploration of humanity. Published in 1993, the collection was said to be a watershed in Korean literature, which had, for many years, been dominated by politically charged works. All in all, Shin has written over twelve books, which include novels, short-story collections and non-fiction.

In Please Look After Mother, the 49-year-old novelist, one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed authors, has written a deeply moving story of a family’s search for their 69-year-old wife and mother after she goes missing one afternoon amidst the crowds of a bustling subway station in Seoul. Please Look After Mother is not Shin’s first novel though it is the first of hers to be translated to English. In South Korea it has sold over two million copies since its publication in 2008. This is a rare achievement because only two novels have sold more than two million copies since the 1990s in South Korea. In the frantic search to find her and as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to unravel themselves, the elderly lady’s husband and children discover much to their regret that they didn’t really know her at all.

The story is not autobiographical. Shin, who is currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York, never lost her mother. There are, however, influences from her family. Like the lead character, So-nyo, Shin’s own mother spent her whole life in the rural part of South Korea, and still lives in the same house where Shin was raised. The family was poor and could not afford to send Shin to school, so when she was a teenager she moved to Seoul, where she put herself through night school while working at an electronics factory during the day.

Shin is the product of her mother’s influence. Her mother felt happy when she saw her reading a book. “I started out reading to bring more happiness to my mother, who always looked so tired. Even before I was ten, it was my dream to become a writer,” she says.

The novelist was a young girl when she moved to Seoul from the countryside. She lied about her age to get a job at a company. South Korea, back in the 1970s, was an industrial society and not yet a democracy, and there were disputes between the workers and the company, and there were demonstrations almost every day. Hearing cries of protest from outside her factory, she would lay down her notebook on the conveyor belt and write. Writing was what got her through those trying years. Five years later, she formally made her début as a published writer. She wanted to write a work that expressed human beauty and its almost magical strength even when confronted with the most tragic of circumstances. She also wanted to write about respect and compassion for life.

Recently longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize as well, Shin’s novel (in a seamless translation from the Korean by Chi-young Kim), in prose hauntingly spare and affecting, and told through the piercing voices of So-nyo’s daughter, eldest son, husband and herself, is both an authentic portrait of contemporary life in South Korea and a universal story of familial love, motherhood, regret and family guilt.

The idea of the missing mother, while it is literal in the novel, also is figurative of the fact that the author feels a lot of modern culture has forgotten our mothers—they are figuratively missing in our lives. Shin, who has been married for over a decade but has no children of her own, believes that we take our mothers for granted because, for the most part, they are always there for us. “Sometimes, the human condition is such that we have to lose things before we can begin to appreciate them.”

It is also perhaps because of the integral role mothers play in our lives that we tend to forget they are also human, with their own hopes, dreams and emotions. “We think they are born to be mothers,” Shin says. “But they were once girls and women as we are now. I want to show it through this book.”

And it appears she has successfully done so. People seem to be more appreciative of their mothers after reading the novel, Shin says. She has been flooded with emails from readers from all over the world who have felt a connection—or lack thereof—with the narrative, seen themselves in the characters of So-nyo’s children. She remembers a reader who told her that her mother had passed away, and then she had read the novel. While she was alive the relationship was not good at all, and the reader was wondering why they did not take the time to reconcile when they had the chance.

Please Look After Mother also struck a chord with American and European readers. It went into a second printing after a 100,000-copy first print run in the United States. It was a bestseller in Italy, and the first print run in France was 20,000. “Maybe Europeans were touched by the theme of losing a mother, a source of warmth and support, and they liked the Korean setting,” Shin surmises.

I like ... Tahmima Anam

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Telling Tall Truths

Gabriel García Márquez
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, TOM SYKES sees the genius in the chaotic (ir)realism of Gabriel García Márquez’s Third World literature of protest

WHAT DO WE MEAN by the term “Third World Literature”? It is potentially a huge category featuring thousands, if not millions of books from all over the globe. We risk complicating things even more by asking a further question: How exactly does Third World Literature function as social protest?

To answer, it may first be worth thinking about “Third World Consciousness,” that is, how men and women in poorer, less-developed regions think and feel about the world and their position within it. These “wretched of the earth,” as Frantz Fanon termed them, are more likely to draw upon myth, fable, superstition, religious belief and metaphysics to make sense of their conditions than citizens of the First World who, as the Senegalese poet Leopold Senghor puts it, “study reality from the coolly detached vantage of clinical scientific observation.”

There are various reasons for this difference: religious faith in the Third World tends to play a larger role in public life and the construction of personal identity than in the secular First World (with the obvious exception of aspects of US society). Another perhaps stronger reason is development; technological progress and economic prosperity has made scientific rationalism the official ideology of the First World whereas other cultures take a more nuanced, holistic view of reality. As Salman Rushdie writes in Midnight’s Children, “Reality has metaphorical content; that only makes it more real.”

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez commuted Third World consciousness into a literary revolution called “magical realism,” defined by the writer himself as a form that “destroys the lines of demarcation that separate what seems real from what seems fantastic.” García Márquez uses figurative and “irrealist” techniques to retell the turbulent history of Latin America. He also employs absurdist humour to protest all kinds of oppression from bourgeois morality to Roman Catholic orthodoxy to US neocolonialism.

Real history underpins the most fantastical elements of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Macondo, the novel’s setting, is a fictionalisation of García Márquez’s hometown of Aracataca, Colombia. The 32 civil wars between the Liberals and the Conservatives are inspired by 19th-century Colombian politics. The gringo banana company’s slaughter of protesting workers bears close relation to the Colombian government’s 1928 massacre of striking United Fruit employees. Such references to the historical record are processed by the Third World consciousness of García Márquez into richer allegories and metaphors for the Third World experience as a whole. For example, the banana company subplot is an extrapolation of an actual event in Colombian history into a more general comment on real-life Latin American struggles such as the Cuban and Mexican revolutions. Similarly, the corrupt tyrant José Arcadio who takes “forcible possession of the best plots of land around” and misappropriates funds to buy “Viennese furniture” reminds us of actual generalissimo dictators in both Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World.

While there is plenty of hyperbole in the novel, sometimes what appears to be hyperbole is nothing of the sort; the history of Latin America has been so bizarre that sequences such as the long and arduous journey to found Macondo are more or less accurate.

Some critics cannot suspend their disbelief in magical realist embellishment. García Márquez’s response is that such people’s “rationalism prevents them from seeing that reality isn’t limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs.” In the literary scene of the First World, a dominant paradigm of “realism” obtains, defined by Suzanne Baker as a genre “which draws on a set of narrative conventions designed to create the illusion that the story on the page is ‘real’ or ‘true’ and corresponds in some direct way to the ordinary world of day-to-day life.” However, while realism may purport to “tell the truth,” its flaws are summed up by Terry Eagleton thus: “If realism is taken to mean ‘represents the world as it actually is,’ then there is plenty of room for wrangling over what counts in this respect.”

García Márquez’s magical realism was intended to protest literary forms that had lost their political efficacy. He was well aware of how Soviet socialist realism had been discredited in Stalin’s time, how all those supposedly “authentic” representations of a seemingly utopian society were in fact official lies concealing the deaths of twenty million dissidents. García Márquez distrusted literary realism’s ability to affect political change:
I have a great many reservations about what came in Latin America to be called “committed literature” or the novel of social protest. This is mainly because I think its limited view of the world and life does not help achieve anything in political terms. Far from accelerating any process of raising consciousness, it actually slows it down.
By contrast, One Hundred Years of Solitude relates the Latin American experience in an apparently more fantastical but in fact more truthful manner, challenging the establishment’s propagandist version of history. As García Márquez says near the climax of the story: “the past is a lie” (403). Many years after the workers’ revolt against the American banana company, the authorities cover up the incident, insisting that “the banana company never existed ... everything had been set forth in judicial documents and primary school textbooks” (390). García Márquez’s fictionalising of such events is an act of progressive revisionism, unearthing the buried, as it were, and revealing the truth of oppression.

García Márquez’s use of hyperbole is an innovative double strategy: on the one hand, his use of fantastical exaggeration is intended to estrange his readers in a Brechtian sense, shocking them out of their complacency and into an ideological re-think. But at the same time, García Márquez amplifies reality, driving home a point by developing it to an almost absurd extent. This often has a satirically debunking effect, highlighting the hypocrisy and stupidity riding a whole herd of sacred cows. For example, the patriarchal machismo of the Buendía family is subverted by Ursula’s almost burlesque performance in the courtroom:
But don’t forget that as long as God gives us life we will still be mothers and no matter how revolutionary you may be, we have the right to pull down your pants and give you a whipping at the first sign of disrespect.
Such an irreal scene demonstrates that the women of the Buendía family are more in touch with reality, undyingly supporting the men as they pursue their harebrained schemes. The stoicism of women in the face of male inertia is summed up by Pilar Ternera’s thoughts: “She had become tired of waiting for the man who would stay, of the men who left, of the countless men who missed the road to her house ...”

When Aureliano Buendía’s orders are “carried out even before they were given, even before he thought of them,” García Márquez is at once parodying military attitudes and metaphorising Aureliano’s psychological descent; “he had begun to lose direction.” A more generalised protest against the stupidity of war can be read into Aureliano’s absurd campaign against Colonel Gerineldo Márquez in which the conflict’s “future direction” can be predicted due to “telegraphic conversations twice a week” between the two men. Later in the book, the government reforms the political system so that the president can remain in power for a hundred years; a clear mocking of Latin American democracy.

Elsewhere, García Márquez ridicules organised religion and the importance of miracles to its dogma by having Father Nicanor levitate into the sky for an hilariously bathetic reason: “The boy ... brought him a cup of hot and steaming chocolate, which he drank without pausing to breathe ... Thereupon Father Nicanor rose six inches above the level of the ground.” This, according to Nicanor, is supposed to be “undeniable proof of the infinite power of God’.

The double strategy used in the novel touches the reader more intimately than, say, a straightforward history book ever could. The deadpan authorial voice of One Hundred Years of Solitude is the perfect counterpoint to the content of its “tall tales,” making them that much more effective.

One Hundred Years of Solitude must also be lauded as a formal experiment. It is a quite remarkable achievement that a Third World writer was able, in 1967, to prefigure many of the methods and devices of First World postmodernist literature before it had really been established as a movement. The numerous instances of self-reflexivity in the novel, when the veracity of the story is radically called into question, serve García Márquez’s magical realist agenda of blurring the boundary between fact and fiction. When Aureliano Segundo is surprised by a book of fairy stories “that had no cover and the title did not appear anywhere” he asks Ursula if it is “‘true and she answered him that it was.” This can be seen as both a comment on the strategies used in One Hundred Years of Solitude and a manifesto for magical realism itself. The “double” nature of the novel, its dialectic between real/imaginary, dark/light, tragic/comic and so on, is hinted at by a description of Alfonso’s literary tastes: “His fervour for the written word was an interweaving of solemn respect and gossipy irreverence. Not even his own manuscripts were safe from this dualism.”

Intertextuality operates in the novel as both a homage to and as a protest against the First World. While García Márquez the man was indeed a critic of First World cultural hegemony, he was also an admirer of such First World writers as William Faulkner, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Thus, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Darwin’s theories are applied irreverently and ironically to the evolution of the cockroach. José Arcadio’s terror of his mother’s authority can be read as a parody of Freud. There are also nods to First World authors of the time such as William Golding and the feral children in his Lord of the Flies. But perhaps the most overt references are to the Bible and classical mythology. Like the Garden of Eden, Macondo is founded at a time “when many things lacked names.” Later, on it is savaged by natural catastrophes not unlike the punishments Yahweh metes out to mankind in the Old Testament. The rains that eventually wash Macondo into oblivion recall myths of “the great flood” evident in premodern cultures around the globe.

If García Márquez was doing postmodernism before it really existed, then there are other facets of his novel that could be called modernist, except that he “Latin Americanises” this term into “modernismo.” One of the overarching modernist sentiments of One Hundred Years of Solitude is “history repeats itself,” a phrase coined by Karl Marx. García Márquez puts it like this: “It’s as if time had turned around and we were back at the beginning.” Successive generations of the Buendía family are trapped in a tragic cycle of problems—murder, incest, decadence, betrayal—that they cannot escape partly due to their own errors and personality flaws and partly due to the chaotic, unforgiving temperament of history and nature. The final outcome for all the main characters is therefore a terrible solitude, a prophecy that is uncovered by Aureliano Babilonia at the end of the book: “Races that are condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

The incestuous relationships that bear pigtailed children can be ascribed to both Macondo’s geographical isolation and the incorrigible sexual appetites of the immoral Buendía men. Ursula comes to lament the “downfall of their line” thanks to these men’s irresponsible preoccupation with “war, fighting cocks, bad women [and] wild undertakings.” Thus, to emphasise the inexorability of this fate, the chronological structure of the novel is more circular than linear, with repetitions of characters’ names, inherited traits (such as the physical strength of the José Arcadio line) and leitmotifs (such as the golden fishes).

What further adds to this atmosphere of hopelessness is the implication that all philosophies and thought systems, be they religion or revolutionary politics or science, are incapable of bringing the world under control. In fact, García Márquez’s fictional universe is governed by the randomness of chance, if it is governed by anything at all. Arguably the most significant events in the novel are total accidents, from the very founding of Macondo in the middle of a swamp to the mysterious death of José Arcadio. The arcane lore of Melquiades’ gypsies and Pilar Ternera’s tarot cards seem to explain the idiosyncracies of the world better than Father Nicanor’s bogus religious doctrines or José Arcadio Buendía’s scientific boondoggles (themselves a pastiche of First World Enlightenment values of progress and civilisation). Indeed, José Arcadio Buendía ultimately loses his faith in science and reason to find himself “completely disoriented” by the “fearful solitude” of the world.

García Márquez also uses magical realist methods to examine the struggle of mankind against nature. The cruelty and harshness of the Latin American landscape is notorious; the early Spanish conquistadors had to traverse huge rivers such as the Amazon, near-impenetrable jungles, arid deserts and treacherous mountain trails. It is a milieu that, as García Márquez puts it himself midway through the novel, is “destined to resist the most arduous of circumstances.” Natural disasters have always been common, with the continent regularly stricken by heatwaves, hurricanes, floods and droughts. One can see the magical realist contrast between those latter two examples.

Thus when García Márquez writes about the four years of rains that follow the massacre of the banana company workers and wipes out the Buendía family’s livestock, he is exaggerating only slightly because such harsh climes are a fact of Latin American—and Third World—life. As García Márquez’s Mexican contemporary Carlos Fuentes writes, the region is “a land incapable of tranquillity, enamoured of convulsion.” Similar to the Greek myth of Prometheus, José Arcadio Segundo tries and fails to harness the power of nature by turning the sun’s rays into a weapon of war.

García Márquez immersed himself in a Third World consciousness to write a formally inventive novel that can also be inserted into the rich canon of protest literature. But exactly how does its protest work? How effective is it? One could argue that the book’s ultimately miserablist conclusion is also conservative; in a world that is cruel and inexplicable, where human agency is doomed to fail, how can there be the kind of political progress that, for example, García Márquez espied in the Cuban Revolution?

Then again, perhaps this is the wrong question to ask. García Márquez was trying to represent Latin America and its political situation as it is and has been, rather than how it should or could be. The value of One Hundred Years of Solitude as a piece of protest literature then is in what it criticises rather than what it proposes. According to this criterion, we can surely say that the novel’s funny, tragic, ingenious and richly metaphorical critique of myriad issues is a resounding success.

Reproduced from the Annual 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


Like millions around the world, SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH falls under the spell of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard

WHAT DO HARRY POTTER and Michael Jackson have in common? Each is a cultural phenomenon in his own right and they both have an amazing ability to entrance and unite people of all ages, across all nations and from every kind of background imaginable.

However, Michael Jackson comes in a close second to Harry Potter because, for a fictitious character, the boy wizard’s ability to touch the lives of millions is absolutely incredible. Harry Potter changed the world and we Muggles (non-wizards) will never be the same again.

He didn’t do it himself, of course. J.K. Rowling dreamed up the bespectacled boy wizard with the rather dull name during a train ride between Manchester and London.

Way back in 1997, when the first of the seven-book series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in the US), hit the bookshelves, Rowling was completely unknown. A divorcee on welfare with a daughter to take care of, she rose with breathtaking speed from the depths of obscurity to become one of the world’s richest people and was bestowed the esteemed Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Are the Harry Potter books really worthy of such acclaim? There is no single answer to this question. Everyone—both the literary and the not-so-literary types—seem to be eternally divided on the issue. Some believe the Harry Potter books are the result of the kind of literary genius that comes around once in a century or two, while others scoff and dismiss the stories as vastly overrated. A few religious factions have even condemned the “evil” and “wrong” witchcraft and wizardry in the storyline.

When I heard about the first book, I wasn’t exactly inspired to run out and get myself a copy, despite the hype and the hoopla. For one thing, I was totally put off by the name; “Harry Potter” made me think of a balding, middle-aged man with a beer gut!

When I finally got hold of a copy (I borrowed it from a friend) and began reading, I felt that Rowling had ripped off Enid Blyton. Hogwarts was essentially Blyton’s Malory Towers or St. Clare’s series with magic thrown in just so Rowling could create a world with no rules.

All writers know that a fantasy world is difficult to create from scratch because it requires an especially unfettered imagination. Such a world, however, has no boundaries and is not confined to the physical limitations of the real world. In other words, the writer can pretty much do whatever he or she wants.

I believed Rowling took Enid Blyton’s successful “children in boarding school” theme and smoothed away all the encumbering edges, which I felt made the writing fairly easy.

That was what I thought in the beginning.

Within a few chapters, it became apparent that Rowling’s work was anything but easy. In fact, I began to see her as not just a talented author who could keep readers engrossed through hundreds of pages but a courageous one who dared to go where others feared to tread. The story, although aimed at children, had very adult themes (which explain why everyone and their mothers have read the series). Death, especially the loss of a parent or child, was virtually unheard of in children’s fiction but Rowling changed that when she bravely tackled the subject with refreshing honesty.

By killing some of the most beloved characters, like Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Professor Severus Snape, she added a great deal of dimension and depth to her story.

Rowling is also a master at creating a fantastical yet believable world and this is no small feat. Readers just can’t seem to get enough of Hogwarts, the “living” portraits and photos, Quidditch, Lord Voldemort, ghosts, giants ... The Potterverse is also filled with multidimensional characters who are easy to fall in love with.

Where would Harry be without the bumbling, lovable Ron Weasley and the fiercely intelligent Hermione Granger? Although life at Hogwarts would have been a lot easier, it would also have been a whole lot duller without Draco Malfoy and his dimwitted sidekicks Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle. Then there’s the loyal softhearted, half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. These are just a handful of literally hundreds of major and minor characters conjured by Rowling.

Above them all, of course, is Harry Potter himself. We can all relate to him in some way.

He had to face his worst fears, the one destined to battle a terrible foe. He had to bear the crushing responsibility of being everybody’s saviour, while finding his true self, all under incredibly difficult circumstances. Though he’d journeyed with his friends, his path was essentially a lonely one.

Harry Potter is a literary legend, an icon and a role model. Rowling’s brilliantly written story of the boy wizard has created a generation of readers, provided comfort and inspiration and touched the lives of millions around the world.

Now that’s what I call magic.

The enduring enchantment of the Harry Potter series
• Sold more than 400 million copies.
• Translated to more than 60 languages.
• Set records for the fastest-selling books in the history of publishing.
• Led to the rise of the Young Adult genre in literature.
• Added the word “Muggle” to our vocabulary. In 2003, the word was included in the online Oxford English Dictionary.
• Inspired the creation of the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit organisation. The group’s achievements include creating a library for children in the Bronx, New York, and raising money for earthquake victims in Haiti.
• College students play “Muggle Quidditch” as a sport. Boston, Harvard and Yale universities are part of the International Quidditch Association.
• The Harry Potter movies are now ahead of Star Wars as the most successful movie franchise of all time.

Reproduced from the April-June 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

May 2012 Highlights

1. The Undertow (published as The Picture Book in the UK) (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Jo Baker
2. In the Kingdom of Men (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Kim Barnes
3. The Yellow Emperor’s Cure (Overlook Press, 2012) / Kunal Basu
4. HHhH (trans. from the French by Sam Taylor) (Harvill Secker, 2012) / Laurent Binet
5. The Knot (HarperCollins, 2012) / Jane Borodale
6. The Chemistry of Tears (Knopf, 2012) / Peter Carey
7. The Invitation (W.W. Norton, 2012) / Anne Cherian
8. Origins of Love (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Kishwar Desai
9. A Greyhound of a Girl (Amulet, 2012) / Roddy Doyle
10. An Inventory of Heaven (Corsair, 2012) / Jane Feaver
11. The Meaning of Grace (Vintage Australia, 2012) / Deborah Forster

11. Skios (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Michael Frayn
12. The Newlyweds (Knopf, 2012) / Nell Freudenberger
13. The Red House (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Mark Haddon
14. Peaches for Monsieur le Curé (published as Peaches for Father Francis in the US) (Doubleday, 2012) / Joanne Harris
15. In One Person (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / John Irving
16. The Boy Who Could See Demons (Piatkus, 2012) / Carolyn Jess-Cooke
17. The Uninvited Guests (Harper, 2012) / Sadie Jones
18. The Stonecutter (trans. from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray) (Pegasus, 2012) / Camilla Lackberg
19. The Colour of Money (Fig Tree, 2012) / Nell Leyshon
20. Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate/Henry Holt, 2012) / Hilary Mantel

21. The Last of the Vostyachs (trans. from the Italian by Judith Landry) (Dedalus, 2012) / Diego Marani
22. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (published as Trapeze in the US) (Little, Brown, 2012) / Simon Mawer
23. Autumn Laing (Allen & Unwin, 2012) / Alex Miller
24. Pure (Europa Editions, 2012) / Andrew Miller
25. Between Clay and Dust (Aleph Book Company, 2012) / Musharraf Ali Farooqi
26. Last Days (Macmillan, 2012) / Adam Nevill
27. The Server (Harvill Secker, 2012) / Tim Parks
28. The Forrests (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012) / Emily Perkins
29. Opposed Positions (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Gwendoline Riley
30. Ignorance (Bloomsbury, 2012) / Michèle Roberts

31. Ménage (Other Press, 2012) / Alix Kates Shulman
32. The Lola Quartet (Unbridled Books, 2012) / Emily St. John Mandel
33. The Lower River (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) / Paul Theroux
34. Flight (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Adam Thorpe
35. The Deadman’s Pedal (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Alan Warner
36. Skeleton Women (Kensington Publishing, 2012) / Mingmei Yip

1. Home (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)/ Toni Morrison

First Novels
1. Drowned (trans. from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy) (Other Press, 2012) / Therese Bohman
2. Heart-Shaped Bruise (Headline, 2012) / Tanya Byrne
3. The Language of Men (Hudson Whitman, 2012) / Anthony D’Aries
4. A Small Fortune (Riverhead Books, 2012) / Rosie Dastgir
5. The Panopticon (William Heinemann, 2012) / Jenni Gagan
6. Shelter (Free Press, 2012) / Frances Greenslade
7. All Woman and Springtime (Algonquin Books, 2012) / Brandon W. Jones
8. The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (published as Chinaman in the UK) (Graywolf Press, 2012) / Shehan Karunatilaka
9. Ru (trans. from the French by Sheila Fischman) (Clerkenwell Press, 2012) / Kim Thúy
10. Faces in the Crowd (Granta Books, 2012) / Valeria Luiselli

11. This Is How It Ends (Sphere, 2012) / Kathleen MacMahon
12. The Other Half Of Me (Headline Review, 2012) / Morgan McCarthy
13. Running Dogs (Scribe, 2012) / Ruby J. Murray
14. An Uncommon Education (Harper, 2012) / Elizabeth Percer
15. Snake Ropes (Sceptre, 2012) / Jess Richards
16. The Innocents (Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Francesca Segal
17. The Painted Bridge (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Wendy Wallace

1. The China Factory (Stinging Fly Press, 2012) / Mary Costello
2. Reality, Reality (Picador, 2012) / Jackie Kay
3. Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain (W.W. Norton, 2012) / Lucia Perillo
4. A Bunch of Fives: Selected Stories (Vintage, 2012) / Helen Simpson

1. The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) / Harry Clifton
2. Everything Begins Elsewhere (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) / Tishani Doshi
3. Pity the Beautiful (Graywolf Press, 2012) / Dana Gioia
4. Pelt (Bloodaxe, 2012) / Sarah Jackson
5. Dear Life (Anvil Press Poetry, 2012) / Dennis O’Driscoll
6. Engine Empire (W.W. Norton, 2012) / Cathy Park Hong
7. Selected Poems (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Don Paterson
8. The Ground (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) / Rowan Ricardo Phillips
9. Constellations (Carcanet Press, 2012) / Ian Pindar

1. The Event of Literature (Yale University Press, 2012) / Terry Eagleton
2. Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag (Allen Lane, 2012) / Orlando Figes
3. The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012) / Pico Iyer
4. The Woman Reader (Yale University Press, 2012) / Belinda Jack
5. Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography (University of California Press, 2012) / Lisa Jarnot
6. The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England (HarperPress, 2012) / Dan Jones
7. Death (Yale University Press, 2012) / Shelly Kagan
8. The Art of Robert Frost (Yale University Press, 2012) / Tim Kendall
9. A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful (Riverhead Books, 2012) / Gideon Lewis-Kraus
10. On Poetry (Oberon Masters, 2012) / Glyn Maxwell

11. How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow (Viking, 2012) / Harry Mount
12. Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir (Scribner, 2012) / Reynolds Price
13. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House, 2012) / Anna Quindlen
14. Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature (Harvard University Press, 2012) / Charles Rosen
15. The Face of God (Continuum, 2012) / Roger Scruton
16. Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Jean Sprackland
17. Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012) / Rebecca Stott
18. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorial Lady (Bloomsbury, 2012) / Kate Summerscale
19. On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War (Profile Books, 2012) / Bernard Wasserstein

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Cool Running

Malaysian novelist JEREMY CHIN tells ALAN WONG that believing in what you do despite the odds is the most important ingredient towards becoming a great writer

2010. THE ANNEXE, CENTRAL MARKET, KUALA LUMPUR. A curious sight, one of many: who was this bald, dopey-looking, self-effacing Chinese fellow, selling copies of his début novel, Fuel? I bought a copy with some degree of trepidation.

Several days later, a friend borrowed the book and finished it before I could turn to page one. The language in Fuel held her spellbound; its ending made her weep.

Born to run
Fuel’s protagonist, Timothy Malcolm Smith, is the creative whiz at the London ad agency Cream. He’s friendly, charitable, deeply spiritual, philosophical, good with the ladies, and keeps virtually no vices. He doesn’t pray to Christ, he chats with Him, calling him “Jezza” or “Jez.”

There’s this British coffee franchise, Common Grounds, which is older than penicillin, tea bags, even sliced bread. Like bread, however, the brand has gone stale. With his capable and charming assistant Cambria, Timmy swoops in with a plan. The campaign is paradigm-shifting. The video ad goes viral. Common Grounds is rescued. One can almost visualise the headlines: “CREAM SAVES COFFEE.”

More ad campaigns follow, including a poem for a charity organisation’s ad that blows everyone away. Rival agencies soon come a-courting, including New York creative powerhouse Oddinary. But, for the time being, he stays put.

And there’s this other dream of his: training in secret since his childhood, Timmy wants to run and win the New York Marathon, taking the entire race by surprise as a dark horse of a champion. No small feat, considering that it means defeating the Ethiopian long-distance running champion, Haile Gebrselassie.

Did I mention that he’s rich? His self-designed Balinese-style four-bedroom pad, Ankhura, crowns a 18-floor luxury apartment building on the edge of London’s Canary Wharf. It has a garden and fish-filled rock pools, and a sound system that plays ambient sounds of nature: forests, seaside, rivers and so on. His “elephantine mahogany bed,” larger than king-size, has sheets of 1,500-threadcount Egyptian cotton ...

... Whoa. Can such a Mary Sue—whose ads everyone wants to copy, whose artistry can bend the fabric of reality so that Brits would start switching from tea to coffee possibly exist? Character, charisma, career, creative chops, cojones, and cash. Timothy Malcolm Smith has it all. Except love, but that’s going to change.

All that was the first 60-odd pages of Fuel, a dark horse of a Malaysian-authored novel. Even before we enter the posh Balinese home of Timmy Smith, it passed the 50-page test with soaring colours.

What follows is perhaps among the most beautiful love stories ever told. Timmy would share his marathon dreams with Cambria, whom he eventually grows close to. They would train together, go to New York and exchange pleasantries with Gebrselassie. And they would, as the novel promises, do the unexpected. What drives Timmy—the “fuel” for his creativity and his dreams—is passion, hence the title.

Despite the reality-warping powers of Timmy Smith’s creativity and charm, the initial contact, courtship and the clincher is well-scripted and believable, albeit a little rainbow-hued. And the true scope of the Common Grounds ad campaign’s power is left to the reader’s imagination. If the atmosphere of a creative agency feels too true-to-life, it’s because Jeremy Chin himself worked in a similar industry in London for a number of years.

But it’s not just the cover’s simple but impactful design. Every phrase, every paragraph has purpose, is strung together well and polished to a showroom sheen. Timmy’s big empty mahogany bed practically screams, “Lonely heart, space available, enquire within.” No need to guess what the 1,500-threadcount Egyptian cotton sheets imply.

The only minor bumps in Timmy’s racetrack to glory are his intermittent narratives in the first person and the prologue featuring lionesses hunting a gazelle. It makes no sense at first, until one realises that Gebrselassie’s native Ethiopia is home to a number of national parks.

Even before the conclusion of Fuel, you’re already cheering for Timmy and Cambria. You’ll want to believe that someone like Timmy can exist, that Timmy and Cambria’s love story can be real, that Timmy can win, that he can move mountains. That you can move mountains, and the fairy-tale Timmy-Cambria romance can be yours.

Yichalal, as they say in Ethiopia’s Amharic language, a word that summed up Gebrselassie’s gold medal in the 10,000 metres at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, despite being injured. “It is possible.”

Tough track
Chin had high hopes for the book: he wants it to become an international bestseller. “When you take on a dream this big, it is crucial that you know why you are pursuing it. And those reasons have to be good reasons, reasons you will hold close to your heart till the day you die,” he told the audience at a special talk and book-reading session for the hearing impaired in 2011. “Fuel’s success would buy me a golden ticket to continue doing that which I have come to love, which is to write, to share with the world the best that I am capable of. Believing in what you do. That is the most important ingredient towards becoming a great writer.”

He’d quit his job at an ad agency and spent a year writing it, but ran into a number of problems. For one, selling English fiction can be difficult in Malaysia. Also, bookstores worldwide are competing with other forms of entertainment; why read the whole Lord of the Rings when you can watch or even play it? Kind of funny, when you learn that Fuel was originally a movie idea. He approached several publishers with the synopsis and three chapters from the manuscript, but was turned down.

Did readers find it hard to relate to the book, which was set in London and New York? For Chin, it was natural; he’d worked for ten years in the US and two in the UK. Setting the novel in London was important, and the character was supposed to run in the New York City Marathon. “To give Fuel a Malaysian setting would have been alien,” he stated.

Given the kind of work that went into it, the self-published route was, perhaps, astute. Every word, every phrase was chosen for effect. Each section of the book: characters, milestones, plot, premise and so on, was meticulously mapped out, storyboarded. Chin approached the writing and marketing of Fuel like an ad campaign.

Sadly, his perfectionist streak and dedication to the book didn’t quite pay off. Not all his supporters bought the book. Glowing reviews of Fuel did little to spur sales.

“My journey as a writer, as enjoyable as it was, has become extremely difficult now that I’ve gotten to the stage of promoting Fuel,” said Chin to his audience as he wrapped up the book-reading session. “I’ve walked alone for a year and a half, and it is my sincere hope that each of you here would join me for the next leg of my journey.”

One year later, Chin is still on that journey. He has also released a line of merchandise based on the book’s theme (www.fuelrunning.com). It appears he’s in it for the long run, and still telling naysayers, “Yichalal.”

It’s hard not to cheer that spirit on.

Reproduced from the Annual 2012 issue of Quill magazine