Saturday, March 15, 2014

Traveller’s Tales

“As a child, I used to walk, run and cycle with my
friends across the landscape that is so unique to this part
of Malaysia. ... The rugged terrain and its clumps of
tall lallang grass look a little like the beaches of
New Hampshire—except for the red earth.”

ZHANG SU LI regales SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH with tales from her travels and her sweet life on the wind. Coordinated & edited by ERIC FORBES

A “JET PLANE” made out of lallang grass was just one of the many “toys” Zhang Su Li remembers from her years growing up in the tiny town of Gopeng, Perak. “As a child, I used to walk, run and cycle with my friends across the landscape that is so unique to this part of Malaysia,” recalls the freelance copywriter and author of the travel book, A Backpack and a Bit of Luck. Zhang and her friends used to spend their evenings playing around the old mining pools that had turned into murky lakes. By the time they got home, they were a mess: their feet were red, and the fine red earth mixed with sweat looked like chilli paste lodged between their toes. “The rugged terrain with its deep red earth and clumps of tall lallang grass is something I’ll always have in my memory, more out of necessity than for nostalgic reasons because there’s less of it every time I go back to Gopeng!”

As a lifelong animal lover, part of Zhang’s childhood was spent dreaming about becoming a world-class veterinarian but that vision came to an abrupt end during her teens. “My life came to a dramatic turning point at the age of seventeen when I stood face to face with an earthworm on the workbench of my biology lab at the Burgess Hill School for Girls in Sussex, England,” she recalls. “I am terrified of earthworms! After running out of the biology exam in hysterics, I realised that my childhood dream of becoming a veterinary surgeon had just been crushed by a helpless five-inch invertebrate!”

Since then, Zhang has found herself at various crossroads in life.

Her childhood ambition unceremoniously squashed, Zhang turned to her next love—the written word. Her career as an advertising copywriter began in Ogilvy & Mather and continued at Saatchi & Saatchi, Lowe & Partners, BBDO, Naga DDB, Leo Burnett, Grey Interactive, Arc Worldwide, Arachnid and Chimera Brand Design Consultancy. Dissatisfied with the amount of writing a full-time copywriter does, she left the industry to pursue travel and writing.

She now freelances as a copywriter and is often inspired by the beauty and complexity of the visuals she works with. “I work at a brand design consultancy that has some of the best graphic designers in the country. It’s not important to me what projects I work on. It is the designs that inspire me and make me look forward to going to work,” she admits. “I mean, great design simply cannot be explained. It has magic. You look at it, and you just have no words for it and that’s when I feel that I need to further craft my copy to work perfectly with the design.”

As a freelance writer, Zhang says she has no typical routine. Although free from the confines of a nine-to-five schedule in an office cubicle, she has stuck to a fairly strict schedule over the last few months, thanks to a little bundle of fur that brings to mind her early veterinary ambitions. “I’m fostering a stray puppy with a broken leg. I get up at the same time every morning to clean his wound, give him a towel bath, and let him out to pee and poo. My night-time routine is a repeat of the morning session with Russell the puppy, except he doesn’t poo at night. I time his meals perfectly so he does it only once a day, and on the dot at 9.30am.”

Other than nursing furry friends back to health, a large chunk of Zhang’s free time is spent talking, mostly to people she doesn’t know. “I enjoy a lot of things. I love variety but the thing I love most when I’m absolutely free is to talk to strangers—post office staff, government department officers, aunties and uncles at the kedai runcit (provision shop), the veterinary clinic, anywhere, really,” she says. “One of my favourite places is this pharmacy where the auntie who works there is a real darling! She answers all my questions, not only patiently but also joyfully. She, like many other strangers, has become a friend.”

There’s no denying that Zhang marches to the beat of her own drum and is full of surprises. When asked to describe herself, she captures her entire personality with just one word: contradiction. “I plan obsessively and think strategically at work and when I need to get practical things done, but when I’m travelling, even if it’s a short drive to a nearby location, I leave my decisions to the wind.”

Zhang’s paradoxical methods obviously work well. She has successfully balanced her freelance copywriting and love of travel for some time now and shows no signs of slowing down. “I prefer not having an itinerary and not knowing where I’m heading because that’s when we move out of our comfort zones and into a place where our long-held perceptions of beauty, ugliness, wealth, poverty, success and failure completely fall apart,” she says. She believes that this type of travel challenges her values and perceptions. “When we are stuck in a strange place, and in circumstances that are unfamiliar, that’s when we begin to truly understand and appreciate a different culture’s values and way of life.” According to her, whatever fears, dislikes or prejudices that we may have will dissolve with this understanding. And the less we fear, dislike and reject, the bigger our own inner world becomes.

As for her book of travel narratives, Zhang says it was very much a happy coincidence that led to its publication in 2007. Having always been a person who kept notes about her travels, unintentional preparation happened to meet opportunity. “A good friend invited me to a dinner where I met a senior editor at Marshall Cavendish. She asked for a few sample chapters, and I sent them to her the very next day,” she explains. (First published by Marshall Cavendish in 2007, a revised edition of A Backpack and a Bit of Luck, incorporating three new pieces, was reissued by MPH Group Publishing in June 2013.)

When asked whether she has a tip or two for an unforgettable travel experience, she surprises with her answer. “Do not bring a camera,” she advises. “While you are recording a fantastic moment to be experienced in the future, you are missing that fantastic moment right now.” She continues, “If a great experience is what you want, travel solo. That way, you will experience what the world wants you to experience rather than what you and your companion decide jointly what you both want to see—and what the world wants you to see is unimaginably better!”

Zhang has managed to accomplish what many others dream of but few attain—she has travelled the world, written a book and is successfully self-employed. But does she still remember how to make a “jet plane” out of lalang grass?

The world traveller doesn’t miss a beat. “We would tear a little bit of the blade on both sides of the stem, and place the two strips between our index and middle fingers. Then we would yank the strips off forcefully so the stem shot into the air like an arrow.”

It is good to know that no matter how far we have travelled, there are those among us who will always remember where we came from.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

March 2014 Highlights

1. Three Brothers (Nan A. Talese, 2014) / Peter Ackroyd
2. The Prince’s Boy (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) / Paul Bailey 
3. The Facts of Life and Death (Bantam Press, 2014) / Belinda Bauer
4. Roosevelt’s Beast (Henry Holt, 2014) / Louis Bayard
5. A Fairy Tale (trans. from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund) (Other Press, 2014) / Jonas T. Bengtsson
6. The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel (Henry Holt, 2014) /Benjamin Black
7. Three Short Novels: The Son, The Lights of Earth & The Conference of Victims (Counterpoint, 2014) / Gina Berriault
8. The Man Who Walked Away (Bloomsbury USA, 2014) / Maud Casey
9. Gemini (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Carol Cassella
10. No Book But the World (Clerkenwell Press, 2014) / Leah Hager Cohen

11. Every Day Is for the Thief (Faber & Faber/Random House, 2014) / Teju Cole
12. Frog Music (Picador, 2014) / Emma Donoghue
13. Willow Trees Don’t Weep (Heron Books, 2014) / Fadia Faqir
14. The Lost Sisterhood (Ballantine Books, 2014) / Anne Fortier
15. Arctic Summer (Atlantic Books, 2014) / Damon Galgut
16. The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay (Short Books, 2014) / Andrea Gillies
17. Little Egypt (Salt Publishing, 2014) / Lesley Glaister
18. Mount Terminus (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / David Grand
19. Falling Out of Time (trans. from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen) (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / David Grossman
20. Echo Boy (Bodley Head, 2014) / Matt Haigh

21. The Hunting School (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Sarah Hall
22. You Should Have Known (Grand Central Publishing/Faber & Faber, 2014) / Jean Hanff Korelitz
23. What Was Promised (Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) / Tobias Hill
24. Everland (Fig Tree, 2014) / Rebecca Hunt
25. The Blazing World (Sceptre, 2014) / Siri Hustvedt
26. Cambridge (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Susanna Kaysen
27. Throwing Sparks (trans. from the Arabic by Maia Tabet & Michael K. Scott) (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2014) / Abdo Khal
28. In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (New York Review Books, 2014) / Ruchama King Feuerman
29. Boyhood Island (trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) (Harvill Secker, 2014) / Karl Ove Knausgaard
30. A Circle of Wives (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014) / Alice LaPlante

31. Road Ends (Chatto & Windus, 2014) / Mary Lawson
32. The Black Snow (Quercus, 2014) / Paul Lynch
33. All That is Solid Melts into Air (Viking, 2014) / Darragh McKeon
34. All Our Names (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Dinaw Mengestu
35. The Orchard of Lost Souls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Nadifa Mohamed
36. After the Bombing (Sceptre, 2014) / Clare Morrall
37. Dept. of Speculation (Granta Books, 2014) / Jenny Offill
38. All I Have in This World (Algonquin Books, 2014) / Michael Parker
39. The Accident (Crown, 2014) / Chris Pavone
40. A Curse on Dostoevsky (trans. from the French by Polly McLean) (Other Press, 2014) / Atiq Rahimi

41. Red Joan (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Jennie Rooney
42. Tree Palace (Text Publishing, 2014) / Craig Sherborne
43. The Lives of Stella Bain (Little, Brown, 2014) / Anita Shreve
44. Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great (Bantam/Doubleday Canada, 2014) / Eva Stachniak
45. The Cairo Affair (Minotaur Books, 2014) / Olen Steinhauer
46. The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (Random House Canada, 2014) / Padma Viswanathan
47. The Moon Sisters (Crown, 2014) / Therese Walsh
48. A Lovely Way to Burn (John Murray, 2014) / Louise Welsh
49. Ghostwritten (Harper, 2014) / Isabel Wolff
50. Vanishing (Picador, 2014) / Gerard Woodward

First Novels
1. Kilmoon: A County Clare Mystery (Muskrat Press, 2014) / Lisa Alber
2. The Ruby Slippers (Corsair, 2014) / Keir Alexander
3. The Letter Bearer (Granta Books, 2014) / Robert Allison
4. My Biggest Lie (Canongate Books, 2014) / Luke Brown
5. Shotgun Lovesongs (Thomas Dunne Books/Picador, 2014) / Nickolas Butler
6. Black Moon (Hogarth, 2014) / Kenneth Calhoun
7. Kicking the Sky (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014) / Anthony De Sa
8. The Enchanted (Harper/Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014) / Rene Denfeld
9. Viper Wine (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Hermione Eyre
10. The Amber Fury (Corvus, 2014) / Natalie Haynes

11. The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / Jason Hewitt
12. Fire in the Unnameable Country (Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2014) / Ghalib Islam
13. Hyde (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) / Daniel Levine
14. Cementville (Counterpoint, 2014) / Paulette Livers
15. The Weight of Blood (Spiegel & Grau, 2014) / Laura McHugh
16. Good Kings, Bad Kings (Oneworld Publications, 2014) / Susan Nussbaum
17. The Visitors (Viking, 2014) / Patrick O’Keeffe
18. Marshlands (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Matthew Olshan
19. The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014) / Nina Siegal
20. The Ghost Apple (Bloomsbury USA, 2014) / Aaron Thier

21. The Land of Steady Habits (Little, Brown, 2014) / Ted Thompson
22. Saint Monkey (W.W. Norton, 2014) / Jacinda Townsend
23. The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle (Two Road, 2014) / Kirsty Wark

1. Young Skins (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Colin Barrett
2. Waiting for the Bullet (Doire Press, 2014) / Madeleine D’Arcy
3. Inappropriate Behavior (Milkweed Editions, 2014) / Murray Farish
4. Things Look Different in the Light (trans. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa) (Pushkin Press, 2014) / Medardo Fraile
5. All the Rage (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / A.L. Kennedy
6. Redeployment (Penguin Press/Canongate Books, 2014) / Phil Klay
7. The Rental Heart and Other Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2014) / Kirsty Logan
8. Bombay Stories (trans. from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad) (Vintage Books, 2014) / Saadat Hasan Manto
9. Leaving the Sea (Granta Books, 2014) / Ben Marcus
10. Bark (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Lorrie Moore

11. The Heaven of Animals (Simon & Schuster, 2014) / David James Poissant

1. The Land of Gold (Enitharmon Press, 2014) / Sebastian Barker
2. Bicentennial (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / Dan Chiasson
3. Elder (Bloodaxe Books, 2014) / David Constantine
4. Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014) / Carrie Etter
5. A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Lavinia Greenlaw
6. Earth Hour (University of Queensland Press, 2014) / David Malouf
7. Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) / J.D. McClatchy
8. The Moon Before Morning (Copper Canyon Press, 2014) / W.S. Merwin
9. Blue Sonoma (Brick Books, 2014) / Jane Munro
10. Churches (Four Way, 2014) / Kevin Prufer

11. Grun-tu-molani (Bloodaxe Books, 2014) / Vidyan Ravinthiran
12. Reel to Reel (University of Chicago Press, 2014) / Alan Shapiro
13. I Knew the Bride (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Hugo Williams
14. Caribou (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) / Charles Wright
15. Abide (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) / Jake Adam York

1. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Atlantic Books, 2014) / Scott Anderson
2. The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait (W.W. Norton, 2014) / Blake Bailey
3. The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning (Viking Adult, 2014) / Julene Bair
4. The Double Life of Paul de Man (Liveright, 2014) / Evelyn Barish
5. Moral Imagination: Essays (Princeton University Press, 2014) / David Bromwich
6. Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / John Campbell
7. The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (Faber & Faber, 2014) / John Carey
8. God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England (Bodley Head, 2014) / Jessie Childs
9. Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi (Canongate Books, 2014) / Rana Dasgupta
10. On Hinduism (Oxford University Press, 2014) / Wendy Doniger

11. The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (New York Review Books, 2014) / Patrick Leigh Fermor
12. The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt (Scribner, 2014) / David Giffels
13. The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (Thames & Hudson, 2014) / James Hall
14. The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid (I.B. Tauris, 2014) / Philip Hardie
15. Walking the Woods and the Water (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2014) / Nick Hunt
16. Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre (Princeton University Press, 2014) / Jonathan Israel
17. A History of Silence: A Family Memoir (John Murray, 2014) / Lloyd Jones
18. Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis (Verso, 2014) / Benjamin Kunkel
19. Dreams of the Good Life: The life of Flora Thompson and the Creation of Lark Rise to Candleford (Allen Lane, 2014) / Richard Mabey
20. Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory (Jonathan Cape, 2014) / Patrick McGuinness

21. The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot (published in the U.S. as My Life in Middlemarch) (Granta, 2014) / Rebecca Mead
22. The Galápagos: A Natural History (Profile Books, 2014) / Henry Nicholls
23. Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (W.W. Norton, 2014) / David Nirenberg
24. The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (Yale University Press, 2014) / Andrew Pettegree
25. Capital in the Twenty-First Century (trans. from the French by Arthur Goldhammer) (The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2014) / Thomas Piketty
26. Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia (Grove Press, 2014) / Sigrid Rausing
27. From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town (The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2014) / Ingrid D. Rowland
28. The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000BC-1492AD (Ecco, 2014) / Simon Schama
29. Julian Hawthorne: The Life of a Prodigal Son (University of Illinois Press, 2014) / Gary Scharnhorst
30. Turkish Awakening: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey (Faber & Faber, 2014) / Alev Scott

31. The Soul of the World (Princeton University Press, 2014) / Roger Scruton
32. Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) / Floyd Skloot
33. The Golden Fleece: Essays (ed. Penelope Jardine) (Carcanet Press, 2014) / Muriel Spark
34. Cathedral of the Wild: An African Journey Home (Random House, 2014) / Boyd Variety
35. Congo: The Epic History of a People (Ecco, 2014) / David Van Reybrouck