Monday, November 25, 2013

Make-believe Friends

Singaporean writer MELANIE LEE is the author of Imaginary Friends: 26 Fables for the Kid in Us. She recently spoke to ERIC FORBES about her latest e-book and writing for the digital age

Tell me something about yourself.
My first imaginary friend was Captain Veggie, who was a broccoli stalk dressed in an aluminium foil suit. Because of this, I refused to eat vegetables because I would not betray him.

Is Imaginary Friends your first e-book? What else have you published besides this?
No, it’s my second. In early 2013, I self-published an e-book of short stories titled Small Spaces that’s available on Kobo, Amazon and iBooks. I wanted to get a better understanding of what e-publishing entailed. I’ve also co-authored a “physical” or “print” book with my spiritual mentor, called Quiet Journeys: Finding Stillness in Chaos, published by Armour Publishing in Singapore. I’m a freelance writer, so I also have stories published on websites, magazines and newspapers. I’ve also edited a few coffee-table books on heritage and architecture.

Can you tell me a little about what prompted you to write and conceptualise Imaginary Friends and how did you manage to get it published as an e-book?
There is this annual blogging event known as the “Blogging from A-Z April Challenge” and a friend who is one of the moderators for this challenge encouraged me to join. The structure (writing a short story daily with an alphabet as a prompt) and the community of fellow writers were conducive to helping me write these stories out in a month.

Stories by Melanie Lee
Illustrations by Sheryl Khor
How would you describe Imaginary Friends? It isn’t your typical children’s book per se but is somehow designed to look like a children’s book. Why? Is it targeted at children or adults?
I started out writing these stories for fun without intending them for publication—there was no target audience in mind. But I would say it would be a suitable read for adults who still have child-like sensibilities and a bit of snark. And I think hipster teenagers and young adults might find it cool in a lame way (hopefully).

Why is Imaginary Friends subtitled “26 Fables for the Kid in Us”?
The editor Oon Yeoh came up with the subtitle. I think it encapsulates what this collection of stories is about pretty well.

How did you decide on the characters in Imaginary Friends? Were they decided randomly or inspired by people you know?
A combination of both. There are some characters that are loosely based on people I know. But the stories really came out “free flow”—I always started each story with absolutely no idea how it was going to unfold and end.

Each story in your book ends with a moral lesson. Was that based on your own life experience or general observation?
Probably my own life experience. But I also feel these morals are subjective and are not meant to be taken too seriously. What I found is that some readers came up with their own “life lessons” from these stories and that’s great, because there’s that level of engagement with the text.

SHERYL KHOR (left) and MELANIE LEE (right)
Photograph by DARREN SOH

Tell us a bit about the illustrator Sheryl Khor.
Sheryl and I were classmates in primary school and junior college. I remember her art was always very good and she would win art competitions. We wrote letters to each other in our teens and I remember she would use really cute stationery with Japanese cartoon characters.

Do you think reading matters?
Reading is essential to humanity. It broadens one’s worldview, while also providing that much-needed reprieve from reality. But, of course, what you read is as important.

How do we go about getting more Malaysian and Singaporean children and adults to read?
I wish I could answer that. You just can’t beat movies, video games and YouTube videos. But I think one way to approach this is, firstly, to get people exposed to good storytelling and that may eventually lead back to books. For example, I recall my former students, these early twentysomethings, getting really excited about reading Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower only after watching the movie.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you then?
My two “author-mummies” would be Beverly Clearly and Judy Blume. With Clearly’s Ramona Quimby series, I felt it wasn’t so bad being the shy, awkward girl that I was. Blume’s coming-of-age books such as Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret were like secret friends for me, living in a world that was at once so different and similar to mine.

What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
I’m a big fan of Canadian dystopian literature. I love Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (the second book in a trilogy comprising Oryx and Crake and Maddaddam) and The Handmaid’s Tale. I also really enjoyed Douglas Coupland’s Generation A which is about an intriguing world without bees.

Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why did you enjoy reading it?
J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Someone gave it to me for my seventeenth birthday and I remember getting shivers (the good kind) because it articulated my adolescent angst perfectly. Finally, someone “got” me! And the amazing thing is that each time I reread this book, I get something new out of it and it’s just one of those stories that can follow you through life.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished reading Zadie Smith’s latest novel NW, which is about four childhood friends who grew up in council housing and how they try to rise above their tough beginnings. I am always so drawn to the authenticity of her characters. A novel I’ve been rereading just because I’m mesmerised by the sheer poetry of its emotional descriptions is Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth. I heard her speak at the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) in 2012 and immediately bought her books after she read an excerpt of her writings. I’m also reading a lot of children’s books to my two-year-old boy. Right now, his current favourite (i.e. he needs to be read at least six times a day) is What the Ladybird Heard, by Julia Donaldson. The main draw of this book is that the ladybird is sparkly and really fun to scratch.

We are now in the age of e-books. Are you a print or an e-book person? What are your thoughts on e-books and e-readers? Have e-readers won you over, or are you in the “ink-and-paper forever” camp? Or perhaps somewhere in between?
I’m somewhere in between. I started reading e-books about two years ago because of the sheer convenience of reading thick novels from an iPad while travelling. But I still love flipping through “physical” books and dog-earing pages—it’s just a more tactile experience overall. That being said, I’m very curious about this e-book trend. I pitched for Imaginary Friends to be published as an e-book because I felt that the tales had a very modern edge to them and might be suited for a new media platform.

Do you think e-books will replace print books one day?
No. But I do think that there will be more people reading e-books more frequently in time to come.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Telling Tales

There’s more to storytelling than the narrative, as ALYCIA LIM learns from professional storyteller KAMINI RAMACHANDRAN

IT’S HARD not to be engaged when conversing with storyteller Kamini Ramachandran. From the eye contact to hand gestures, you can tell storytelling is in her blood.

In a café amidst the hustle and bustle of Singapore city, she takes me on a journey of story-seeking, from encounters with the various Orang Asli tribes in Malaysia, to a village just outside a town called Shillong in East India, where she met with the Kashi tribe.

“Storytelling is an art,” Kamini says. “It is about the authenticity of a story. This is why it is important to hear folklore from its original place. When you’re in the land among the trees and terrain, you understand why the raven, for example, is so important.”

She explains how hearing the actual telling and connotations, along with nonverbal communication, adds to the authenticity of the story, which cannot be attained any other way. “The sound of rain in India would be described as suuuuurrrr, but in Israel, it’s tif taf tif taf.”

While Kamini has a comprehensive collection of folklore from Asia and has been exposed to European content, she says that if given the opportunity, she would like to meet a Native American storyteller some day. “That is one element that I haven’t been exposed to, to be in the landscape in America and understand their mythology.”

With hundreds of stories in her mental archive, selecting the stories to tell at events and festivals can be tricky. “When approached to tell stories at a festival or in conjunction with an event, I almost never give the organisers the exact titles of the stories I will be telling.” Instead, Kamini works around a theme and thinks of the relevant stories. “At the end of the day it is the story that chooses me. They jump up and say, ‘tell me’. They come to me.”

Currently training people in the art of storytelling, she says that stories have to be born internally. “I can only teach the skills of storytelling, not what stories to tell. My advice for storytellers is to fall back on culture because there are certain archetypal stories that are in the blood.”

It is, however, important to remember the details, which can only come naturally after numerous repetitions. “This is why the stories from our grandparents remain with us, because we have heard it so many times. Yet, like a good song, we never get bored listening to it.”

“Storytelling is an art.”

Kamini attributes her strong repertoire of stories to her grandfather, who gave her the necessary foundations much earlier in life. “As a child, my grandfather would tell me stories at home. The sessions were never formal, and we didn’t have a book for these stories.

“Sometimes, our teachers in school would also tell us stories and we would sit around to listen. I thought that was normal, just part of life.”

Living in a plantation with her closest neighbour being an hour away, Kamini passed her time by reading. “I believe that also contributed a lot to my vocabulary and knowledge.”

Little did she know that those childhood experiences would bring her to where she is today. “At some point, I realised that I could either choose to keep all the stories inside me, or share it.”

The literature graduate from a British university says she first started telling stories as a parent volunteer in her sons’ school. The rest, as the story goes, is history.

A true artist, Kamini puts on her own makeup before every show. “I do my own hair and makeup wherever I go because it’s a form of meditation for me, a way for me to calm down and relax.”

With enough make-up to fill two suitcases, she relates her use of makeup to that in Chinese opera and Katakali, a classical Indian dance drama known for the attractive makeup of the characters. “I feel if you are going to be professional, you have to present yourself as a professional artist. There is never too much makeup.”

Her creative streak goes back to her childhood days too, where she used to design her own clothes, and get a seamstress to make it for her. “I also drew and painted a lot, so I guess there was always that creative streak in me.”

When it comes to parenthood, Kamini is fortunate to be able to set up an office at home. This was a decision made to ensure she spends enough time with her two sons Kabir, 13, and Karan, 12. “We cook together on weekends where my boys would help out in the kitchen. The only catch of course is that we have to cook something they like!” Food like burgers and pastas are a favourite among her children, and at any time of the day, her fridge would be stocked with chocolate—therapy for the soul, so to speak.

She also believes in the importance of having a set routine at home. “From the time my boys were six months old, I would read a book to them every day after bath time, going through each word with my finger,” she stated. “They learned how to read through word recognition, even before they knew the alphabets.”

This, she says, also deterred her children from screaming tantrums and unwanted drama. “Parents need to spend time with their children,” Kamini emphasizes. “When I tell stories at kids’ events, sometimes the children would come up to me and ask if they can follow me home. All they want is attention.”

Having built a successful career for herself, Kamini says she will never force her sons into something if they are unwilling. However, if they do follow in her footsteps, they would be storytellers of a different type. “I think the format now is film. Making good films that tell stories. Furthermore, film is a more viable profession.”

With a rich collection of folklore and mythology acquired from her travels and research, Kamini says when Moon Shadow Stories, a company she co-founded to promote the oral narrative tradition, celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2014, she will finally pen down an anthology, or a compendium of sorts. “I am fully aware that I cannot leave this world before putting my notes and thoughts into something,” she confesses, citing a lack of time as her main drawback.

As the artistic director for the Singapore International Storytelling Festival and four-term president and founding member of the Storytelling Association (Singapore), of which she is currently the vice-president, juggling between managerial tasks and art is a daily challenge. With so much on her plate, she says, “It’s tough, but I make sure I keep doing what I do best, which is to tell stories because that is the heart of everything I do.”

One thing we can be sure of is that Kamini will never stop doing what she does. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I will keep telling stories until the day I die.”

Reproduced from the April-June 2014 issue of Quill magazine

Friday, November 01, 2013

November 2013 Highlights

1. Shantytown (trans. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) (New Directions, 2013) / César Aira
2. The Pure Gold Baby (Canongate Books, 2013) / Margaret Drabble
3. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (Hutchinson, 2013) / Sebastian Faulks
4. Havisham (Picador USA, 2013) / Ronald Frame
5. Back to Back (trans. from the German by Anthea Bell) (Harvill Secker, 2013) / Julia Franck
6. Hild (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Nicola Griffith
7. All Change (Mantle, 2013) / Elizabeth Jane Howard
8. Someone Else’s Love Story (Harper/William Morrow, 2013) / Joshilyn Jackson
9. Road Ends (Knopf Canada, 2013) / Mary Lawson
10. The Two Hotel Francforts (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / David Leavitt

11. Ace, King, Knave (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Maria McCann
12. Someone (Bloomsbury Circus, 2013) / Alice McDermott
13. The Pieces We Keep (Kensington, 2013) / Kristina McMorris
14. Want Not (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / Jonathan Miles
15. A Meal in Winter (trans. from the French by Sam Taylor) (Portobello Books, 2013) / Hubert Mingarelli
16. A True Novel (trans. from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter) (Other Press, 2013) / Minae Mizumura
17. Rustication (W.W. Norton, 2013) / Charles Palliser
18. Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion, 2013) / Ian Rankin
19. Bellman & Black (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013) / Diane Setterfield
20. Stella Bain (Little, Brown, 2013) / Anita Shreve

21. Helium (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / Jaspreet Singh
22. The Embassy of Cambodia (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) / Zadie Smith
23. Tatiana (Simon & Schuster, 2013) / Martin Cruz Smith
24. At Break of Day (published as The First of July by Pegasus Books in the U.S.) (Virago, 2013) / Elizabeth Speller
25. Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / Robert Stone
26. The Valley of Amazement (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013) / Amy Tan
27. The New Countess (Head of Zeus, 2013) / Fay Weldon

First Novels
1. Where The Moon Isn’t (St Martin’s Press, 2013) / Nathan Filer
2. Sea of Hooks (McPherson & Company, 2013) / Lindsay Hill
3. Red Sky in Morning (Little, Brown, 2013) / Paul Lynch
4. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes (trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) (Harvill Secker, 2013) / Per Petterson
5. The Last Kings of Sark (Virago, 2013) / Rosa Rankin-Gee
6. The Boy from Aleppo Who Painted the War: A Novel of Syria (Eyewear Publishing, 2013) / Sumia Sukkar

1. A Permanent Member of the Family (Ecco/The Clerkenwell Press/Profile Books, 2013) / Russell Banks
2. The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Laura van den Berg
3. The House on Parkgate Street & Other Dublin Stories (New Island Books, 2013) / Christine Dwyer Hickey
4. Fire Year (Sarabande Books, 2013) / Jason K. Friedman
5. Collected Stories (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Bernard MacLaverty
6. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes (trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) (Harvill Secker) / Per Petterson
7. Horse of a Different Color (Small Beer Press, 2013) / Howard Waldrop

1. At the Time of Partition (Bloodaxe, 2013) / Moniza Alvi
2. The Invention of Fireworks (Templar Poetry, 2013) / Beatrice Garland
3. Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (ed. Kenneth Haynes) (Oxford University Press, 2013) / Geoffrey Hill
4. Correspondences: A Poem and Portraits (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / Anne Michaels
5. Collected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2014) / Ron Padgett
6. Ancient Sunlight (Enitharmon Press, 2013) / Stephen Watts

1. Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach (trans. from the German by Jane O. Newman) (Princeton University Press, 2013) / Erich Auerbach
2. Report from the Interior (Faber & Faber/Henry Holt, 2013) / Paul Auster
3. On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / Tim Cope
4. Jonathan Swift: His Life & His World (Yale University Press, 2013) / Leo Damrosch
5. Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power, 1799-1815 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / Philip Dwyer
6. The Book of Legendary Lands (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2013) / Umberto Eco
7. How to Read a Novelist: Conversations with Writers (Corsair, 2013) / John Freeman
8. Michelangelo: His Epic Life (Fig Tree, 2013) / Martin Gayford
9. 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning (trans. from the Croatian by Michael Gable) (New York Review Books, 2013) / Slavko Goldstein
10. Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture (Riverhead, 2013) / Dana Goodyear

11. The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year (Atlantic Books, 2013) / Nick Groom
12. The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Lucinda Hawksley
13. A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in London, Ireland and New York (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2013) / Anjelica Huston
14. The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes (Verso Books, 2013) / Patrick Keiller
15. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Hermione Lee
16. Image and Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2013) / C.S. Lewis
17. My Mistake: A Memoir (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / Daniel Menaker
18. Cristina and Her Double: Selected Essays (Portobello Books, 2013) / Herta Müller
19. A Prayer Journal (ed. W.A. Sessions) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Flannery O’Connor
20. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harper, 2013) / Ann Patchett

21. One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) / Adam Phillips
22. The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts (W.W. Norton, 2013) / Graham Robb
23. Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story (John Murray, 2013) / Michael Rosen
24. The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013) / Roger Rosenblatt
25. Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing (Verso Books, 2013) / Lynne Segal
26. Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France (Harvill Secker, 2013) / Nicholas Shakespeare
27. My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Spiegel & Graus, 2013) / Ari Shavit
28. Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing (Verso Books, 2013) / Lynne Segal
29. American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) / Iain Sinclair
30. American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Deborah Solomon

31. Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life (Viking, 2014) / Nina Stibbe
32. A Little History of Literature (Yale University Press, 2013) / John Sutherland
33. Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Alison Weir
34. To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World’s Greatest Railway (Atlantic Books, 2013) / Christian Wolmar