Thursday, March 31, 2005


"There is a new breed of writer who, passed over by big publishers, decide to go it alone and self-publish. Not as an exercise in vanity, but because they genuinely feel that the publishers have got it wrong. Driven by determination and a belief in their own judgement, they are now helped by the wealth of new technologies that make self-publishing easier - and cheaper - then ever before."

article from The Independent highlights some recent - and very encouraging - success stories in self-publishing in Britain.

An article in the same paper a few days ago highlighted the story of Patricia Ferguson, an award-winning novelist whose latest novel was turned down by the major imprints. In the end she took the book to a tiny "print on demand" publishing house. Now As It Happens has been longlisted for the Orange Prize.

Sometimes guys, you have to take things into your own hands if you want to get your words out there. It's increasingly true in Britain, and even more so in Malaysia.

And if you want to know more about how to go about self-publishing, MPH's Writer's Circle meeting for April is on this very topic:

Sat, 16 April 2005
Time: 11am - 12.30pm
Venue: The Booker Room, Level 2, MPH Megastore 1 Utama

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Kobayashi On Haiku

Haiku master Kyoji Kobayashi (sponsored by The Japan Foundation) ran a workshop at the Litfest last year. I think what he says about Haiku applies to all good writing:

You should write a haiku as if you were looking through a child’s eyes. It’s important to look for a new image – something that you will be taken aback by as you write.

You need to disregard all thoughts that have to do with prior conception. Write not about what you know, but about what you have just found out. And you need to be frugal with your words, grabbing only the essence. Leave out anything the reader can work out. At the same time, cram as much imagery as possible into the space.

Do not try to come up with a masterpiece because then what you write will be boring. Try instead to create something that the person next to you likes.

If the person on the right enjoys it,
so might the person on the left,
so might the person behind you …
and the person in front of you might just applaud.

This is how masterpieces are usually created.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Touched With Fire

Sometimes a book can go where our words can't and carry our message.

A friend is in pain. I'm not sure he know the cause, though its effects are all too real to him and those he loves.

He's fearlessly creative on cavas, and claims a total freedom for himself on the page, splashing words recklessly. Images emerge so fresh and surprising they make you gasp. And when he's well, he's warm and gregarious, full of talk and ideas and love for the world.

But at times he curls into himself, unable to face the world, swamped in depression. Everyone disappoints, no-one measures up. If disturbed, he hits out, throws words like rocks - knowing exactly what soft targets to hit, how to maximise the hurt.

I know it is not him talking, but the illness.

Does he know the thing that afflicts him has a name?

I don't think he does.

Does he know that there are others who suffer and have suffered in the same way? I don't think so. Yet
a roll-call of fellow sufferers
would sound like a Who's Who in the arts: Blake, Plath, Oliver Goldsmith, Coleridge, Byron, Mary Shelley, Keats, Samuel Johnson, Robert Lowell, Virginia Woolf, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Ivan Berlin, Jackson Pollock, van Gogh to name but a few. It has been estimated that 50% of poets suffer from it, 38% of musicians, 20% of painters, and large proportions of those in other creative fields.

But to romanticise the illness is very wrong. It may be a spur to enhanced creativity (oh, and how we envy that, the pedestrian lumpen rest of us eking a little courage from our petulent muse) but unless you suffer from the illness yourself you cannot understand the darkness of the flip-side (I try but know how badly I fall short). And the risk of suicide is great. 15% of all sufferers die by their own hand, and up to 20% in untreated cases. He thinks about it too.

Made a decision yesterday that I had to tell him. Sometimes knowing the name of the demon you face helps you to begin to banish it, or at least put it in its place. I've met it before in several others and know a little of how they deal with it, their personal struggles. And I've read. There is no cure, but medication might work for him. Or at least the knowledge that he does not need to be alone with this nameless thing. I wanted to move conversation gently to this point, but it never has worked that way. I'd rather tell him tactfully, face-to-face, but I cannot find spaces between his floods of words, or else he shuns communication.

So I've send him my copy of Kay Redfield Jamison's book An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness through the post. Jamison writes a most moving account of her own journey through manic depression, and she became Professor of Pyschiatry at John Hopkins school of Medicine and one of the world's most foremost authorities on manic-depressive illness. Jamison talks of her own coming to terms with the illness, and sees it as more of a blessing than a curse in her life:
I have often asked myself whether, given the choice, I would choose to have manic-depressive illness. If lithium were not available to me, or didn't work for me, the answer would be a simple no... and it would be an answer laced with terror. But lithium does work for me, and therefore I can afford to pose the question. Strangely enough, I think I would choose to have it. It's complicated... I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences, more intensely; loved more, and have been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs, for all the winters... Depressed, I have crawled on my hands and knees in order to get across a room and have done it for month after month. But normal or manic I have run faster, thought faster, and loved faster than most I know.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Domestic Women and Short Story Land

The New Writing Anthology 13 is edited by Toby Litt and Ali Smith: their forward appeared in yesterday's Guardian.

This reference to the state of the short story had me scratching my head. What do you reckon?
The most popular form by far was the short story. This is probably explained by there being, at the moment, so few outlets for shorter prose fiction. In the end though, as we read through the large stack of manuscripts, we began to believe that somewhere out there is a strange, pseudo-English country called Short-Story-Land where all day long, peculiarly short-story-like things happen. We began to dread starting a story only to find we were once again in Short-Story-Land.
But it was their comments on women's writing which stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy:
On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking - as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell.
Domestic? Dulled? Melancholy?

Not on your life, say A.L. Kennedy Yvonne Roberts and Jane Rodgers in today's pages.

All nicely argued stuff and food for thought. (And if your want even more controversy, click here.)

Crazy Dumbsaints Unite!

I lift my writing mantra from Jack Keroac's "Belief & Techniques for Modern Prose - List of Essentials". Take from it what you will ...
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, listening
3. Try never to get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from the bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable vision of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust, be an old teapot of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel centre of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement of yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont [sic] think of words when yous top but to see picture better
23. Keep track of everyday the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

As ever, Jack

Thursday, March 24, 2005

No Leaking Red Pen in Pocket But Still the World Finds Us Out

Just something that's kept me wondering for very many years ...

Shortly after I first started teaching in the late seventies, I began to spend time working in a church-run youth club in a particularly rough part of Birmingham.

After an evening spent chatting to the kids, playing table-tennis, painting a mural, I walked back towards the bus station in the Bull Ring to get my bus home.

I can remember exactly what I was wearing that night: blue sweat shirt, purple cotton trousers, red cavas shoes, a synthetic fur coat I'd bought from a second hand shop (it had a label inside to say that it was "Demob Issue" and I suppose it dated from 1946 or so), and a long pair of crystal earrings. My hair was dyed burgundy and spiked up, punk style.

I felt a little bit peckish, and there was this guy selling hot-dogs from a roadside stall. The smell of frying onions made me stop to buy one. I held out the money to him. He in turn looked me up and down and said:-

"You're a teacher, aren't you?"

When I asked him, fairly gobsmacked, how it was he knew, he just laughed and but wouldn't answer.

And I wondered and still wonder and still haven't answered ... is my teacherliness tattooed on my forehead for the whole world to read?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Independent Bookshops

The best bookshops don't have to be the biggest. Here's a lovely article from The Guardian about an independent bookshop in Much Wenlock (Where?? Precisely!) in Britain and why it's such a hit with customers.

Small bookshops are so good at giving customers the personal touch that the larger stores often lack. How nice when you walk into a bookshops and someone knows who you are and can recommend books you'll like. How great when a bookshop acts not just as a place to hawk merchandise, but as a social centre where like-minded people can gather and talk books in a cosy setting.

Abu Immortalised

Abu drove all the way down to Seremban this morning for a booklaunch.

Anyone who knows him will be doubly surprised. First of all, this is a man who has great disdain for mornings. Simply doesn't do 'em. Seldom rises before 1 p.m. and even then that's pretty early for him. (His breakfast is at 2p.m. and lunch about 5.)

Secondly, although he used to be an avid reader, he hardly picks up a book now from one year's end to the other. He thinks I'm quite mad playing arty-farty-literatti and mocks me quite shamelessly about going to launches and other events.

This book though was pretty special to him. The Last Expatriate:Reminiscences of an Educationalist in Malaysia (Utusan Publications) is written by his headmaster from his Malay College days, Neil Ryan. Abu actually holds the record for being caned more than any other boy in the entire history of the school, and was the bane of Ryan's life. Here's what he writes about Abu:
There were plenty of examples of boys using their initiative but one particularly stands out. One morning it was discovered that a 15 year old had gone missing. After a search throught the whole college area, one of the prefects remembered the boy's liking for advnture and went to search further afield. Later that evening, just before the police were notified, the missing person was found camping out in Ulu Kenas and was returned to base. However, this was only a foretaste, some time later he was gone again, this time from his home. Instead of returning to school he journeyed to Singapore where he joined the British army as a boy soldier. He was tracked down by his family and returned to College proudly displaying a tattoo acquired in the army. The person concerned finished his education, spent time in vietnam as a freelance journalist, studied overseas and became a successful lawyer.
He actually ran away for several days the first time, before he was found in the jungle. He used to sneak back into the school kitchen at night to steal food supplies. His father had to make the journey up from Temerloh to see the headmaster. Secondly, he returned to Singapore several times to get more tattoes put on his arms. That's why you never see him without long sleeves these days.

One of the strangest things for a boy who gave his headmaster endless trouble - the two are now firm friends. We meet up with Neil and Josephine whenever they are back in Malaysia and visit them in Melbourne where they now live.

This wasn't the first time that Abu has been immortalised between the pages of a book. He makes a brief appearance in Rehman Rashid's A Malaysian Journey. Rehman refers to him as Joe Baker, the bastard, (Joe Baker is his nickname - Abu says it has some connection with the word for "ringworm" in Malay) and talks about how he was a total bully as rugby captain making him run several laps of the sports field for showing up late for rugby practice.

He even gets an indirect mention in a work by Anthony Burgess! John Burgess Wilson (the writer's real name) was housemaster at King's Pavillion, the large building near the residency where the prep school boys were housed. In Big Wilson and Little God, the first volume of his autobiography (my copy of which sadly went walkabout), he writes about the little boys (as young as 7), crying for their mothers at night. He also describes the little boys pissing off the balcony and then rushing inside when a teacher appeared and pretending to be at their prayers so they couldn't be reprimanded. (Abu denies vehemently that this ever happened.)

Whatever the truth about these things, there's no denying that Abu's become something of a legend in the school's history.

This weekend the school marks its 100th anniversary.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Telling Tales

Malaysians have a lot of stories to tell but not many people are telling them ...
Yasmin Ahmad in today's Star.

That's as true when you talk about writing fiction as it is when you talk about films. And it's sad because those stories deserve to be heard.

Congrats to Yasmin on winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 27th Cretell Women Director's Festival.

Borrowing Borrow

Nr Pulborough


My Dear Jack,

You will no doubt be disppointed to find that this beautiful parcel of books is not a handsome present but more of a repaid loan - borrowed Borrow, for which I am extremely grateful. When you eventually read my estimate of the Gypsy gent I hope that you won't regret that you helped me to make it.

I am looking forward greedily to revisiting the glimpses of Lovell's Farm - it will be too late, I'm afraid, to pick up windfall apples or plant tomato-plants by the wrong method, but that will leave all the more time for chatter.


Love to both you you

from both of us

and many thanks again for Borrow.

I found this letter between the pages of a second-hand book I bought from a dingy bookshop in Charing Cross, George Borrow's The Bible in Spain. I'd been trying to track down a copy for some time, but the book was long out of print. It's a fascinating tale about Borrow's journey through Spain at time when travel was perilous, and even more so because of Borrow's clandestine mission which struck right at the heart of the hegemony of the Catholic church. He had copies of the bible in Spanish to give away. Before that the only people who could read the bible were the priests: the bible was in Latin, a language ordinary folks didn't speak. To put direct access to the words of God into the hands of lay people was to give them a power that the church would never again be able to take back.

I wanted the book though, because it was another piece of a jigsaw I'd been trying to complete. I was fascinated to learn about the Romani people (gypsies). Borrow, the original "Romani rye" (gentleman) certainly had access to secret inside information about the Romanichal (British gypsies)- some have speculated that he might have been romani himself. While Borrow was travelling across the Iberian peninsula, he tracked down local gypsies and researched their language (he was an incredible linguist and spoke something like 28 languages fluently) and chronicled their hardships.

So, a letter between the pages dating from 1899. Dear Jack is John Lochhead RBA - he his name is signed the flyleaf. I did some searching on the internet this and found that he was a very well known artist in Victorian times, though his paintings of rural scenes are too chocolate-boxy for my taste. I wonder if Martin's article was ever published.

It's nice to know who owned the book before you did. To feel the pleasure of reading passed on.

New books are lovely, but antiquarian books with the patina of previous ownership are special indeed. And if ever I am rich enough I will hoard them.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Saturday Perambulations

MPH Writer's Circle met yesterday morning at the 1 Utama store. Oon Yeoh was facilitating and the talk was about book distribution and marketing. Donald Kee a senior marketing executive spoke and then, an executive from international publisher John Wiley and Sons. No real surprises in what they said and in fact an underlining of the message from previous sessions - you need to get out there and promote your book if you want sales. Some good advice to would-be writers was given, although neither were really able to field questions on marketing fiction convincingly. Local author Chong Sheau Ching chipped in with an account of how she struggled to distribute and market her book Stories for My Mother, which eventually went on to be a best-seller, and Azizi Ali spoke again with his usual charming blend of arrogance and self-deprecating humour. ("I'm a lousy writer but I'm too successful to quit.")

Most interesting nugget of information to emerge from today is that there is a market for locally written kids books. I know a number of people who want to write for children but aren't sure where to begin, and it would be great to find ways of bringing them together for a dialogue. I also see a course or workshops emerging from this - though I am as much in need of training as anyone else. (Am for sure handicapped too by not having kids!)

There's a nice feeling of "we're all in this together" about the Writer's Circle now that we are getting to know each other, and there's a great deal of useful networking after the sessions.

A quick lunch at Delicious - lamb shank pie and frostie iced lemon tea (double yum!) - and the off to Darling Muse Gallery for an afternoon of readings. Had to support my friend Rohayat X who is bravely launching publications in Malay. His first book Wilayah Kutu is an anthology of men's writing "from the fringes".

I knew that the whole thing would be in Malay and I wouldn't be able to follow too well, but what the heck, friends should support each other.

(My Malay is actually quite serviceable in most everyday situations, but it's hard to listen for long, and I'm thrown by any kind of dialect apart from Perak!)

Saifullizan Tahir "a landscape architect by day" read first. He seemed a little afraid of his audience and read very quickly without looking at us. A friend read (v. well!) for Nizam Zakaria. I understood a little more of this story picking up the words Madam Kwan's - KLCC - Gloria Jean's - gay tak gay. (At which point my friend Caving Liz leant across me and said "Isn't there a word for 'gay' in Malay?"). The audience loved Nizam's piece and there were roars of laughter. Jerome read poetry as beautifully in Malay as he does in English. I had no problem following Rohayat X's story - at least until the brain got tired - but once again it went down extremely well with the audience. Fahmi Fadil "actor and activist" went next, and right at the end of the afternoon Doji (?) strolled in and read his piece.

A lesson underlined by today's events both at MPH and Darling Muse: everything worth doing has to start somewhere and with someone. You may not be the best at what you do - you may even feel a bit of a fraud at first for setting yourself up as an expert - but you may be the only one trying to start things up in a particular area. In the end you have to have faith in yourself and just leap. I am sure that Rohayat's publishing venture will be a success and I like what he wrote in an e-mail "The day Neohikayat is put out of business by competition from publishing houses set up by bands of young Malay writers with actual talent, is the day when I'll know I have done my job. There is no shame in having your life ended by the hands of your own child (or monster, if you prefer the Frankenstein imagery), if that is a signal that you have to make way for a world that has outgrown your usefulness for it."

There was also a reading by performance artist Ray Langenbach. I did not understand it at all even though it was in English - something about Plato and The Cave and people being chained to the wall. Also did not understand why Ray had to wear a bright pink sundress for the piece. Maybe the glasses of La Bodega sponsored wine did not help comprehension.

An American guy called Ioannis Gatsiounis whom I'd met at the Litfest when he wanted to do a reading for us (I set up an open-mike thingy in the bar). He warned us in advance "There's quite a bit of subtlety in this story ..." . He's a very nice guy though, and I had a long chat with him afterwards and will invite him along when our critiquing group meets.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

When Do You Read?

Love to get up very early and read in my favourite chair on the verandah while the sun comes up - drink copious amounts of tea and eat breakfast slowly page by page with smudges of yoghurt or jam between the lines.

Promiscuous reader. Love to read in cafes ... especially after the gym when I feel I've deserved it.

Favourite reading spots - Elly's Table at Centerpoint (excellent coffee); Coffee Bean at BSC (though I hate drinking from those silly glasses); Starbucks at Bangsar Village; Chinos on the Park; Delicious (most comfortable with all those lovely cushions!) and Basque Lane in 1 Utama. Need sunlight and the open air, good coffee, decent food.

All of these are also favourite writing haunts too - depends on how the mood takes me. I seem to read a lot when i'm not writing and write a lot when I'm not reading. I'm fickle. Go through phases.

Always read when I eat. (As a forensic examination of any of my books would show.)

Always read in the loo. Usually magazines or poetry or books with very short chapters. Need to fix up library shelves in there.

Have given up reading in the bath. (It is possible to get special bathbooks with waterproof pages though ...)

Have books in different rooms of the house and can't seem to pass them by without at least a little read. Coffee table books usually on some local theme in the lounge. Cookbooks in the kitchen. Inspirational stuff about self-actualisation, poetry, psychology by my bed. Naughty books stuffed into the back of a cupboard where the in-laws won't find them and get shocked that I have such an X-rated imagination. Writing books in my office (the back bedroom) dipped into as I prepare course materials. Books floor to ceiling in the room where we watch TV.

And always a book in my bag. Handbags chosen for bookholding capacity.

Read at odd moments. Check-out queues. On public transport. At immigration.

Can't understand how most people can tolerate the boredom of life without a dialogue with a book! Compare the voracious readers on the London Tube with the staring-into-spacers of the LRT, for example.

Don't read at night. Can't. Fastest acting soporific drug.

Waxing Poetic Near Midnight. Sorry.

Almost midnight.
My husband still watering the garden.
So I write and wait for him, hoping for conversation
- a commodity he seems to have dispensed with.
Working too hard.
Too sick with headaches, sinus pains, flu.
Too preoccupied with rugby matches.
With garden.

A fix of friendship tonight from Saras and Leah.
Writing together and eating in Bangsar.
Two stories offering themselves to my notebooks.
If not for the pain in my hand I could go on and on.

We eat
Japanese edamame with our beer.
Then Indian tandoori, dahl and breads
in Lucky Garden,
watching dancing scenes from improbable Hindi movies.
(A couple in white saris dance on the edge of Grand Canyon.)

The evening air in Bangsar is thick with crows.
I photocopy flyers for my course
in the newspaper shop
I ask after the "uncles"
those venerable dhotied men who always kept my magazines
in the back room.
"Gone back to India?"

There was too a phonecall reading of a poem
from another friend.
Words strewn like flower petals
and I'm in the carpark trying to catch them all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Books Among The Baked Beans

I'd just taken a vow of abstinence. No trips to the top floor of BSC to browse through the new books in Times. This was strictly a necessity shop, for veg, and fish and milk and the brand of catfood darling Muffin (she who has my husband wrapped around her tail-tip) prefers.

But Cold Storage have been sneaky. Very sneaky. Right there at the checkout, where you can't help but make eye-contact with them, they have racks of paperbacks. Not just any old paperbacks, but damn good ones and at knock-down prices - just RM9.99. (Mercy tells me that Tesco is being similarly underhand.)

My hands were shaking as I rummaged through ...

I'd have loved to have adopted everything but managed to restrain myself and buy just three: William Trevor's debut novel The Old Boys; Roddy Doyle's The Snapper; and Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawar.

I already have a copy of The Snapper, but bought it because I felt so sorry for it orphaned there on the shelf. I truly loved the whole of Roddy Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy (The Van was my favourite part I have to confess - still laugh at the memory of the dirty nappy falling into the fish and chip batter!) - so full of human warmth and humour. I decided that I would bookcross this copy and I'm leaving it at Delicious cafe in 1 Utama tomorrow night around 6p.m. for fate to decide the next leg of its journey.

Idiot idea.

Never mind.

One can afford to be earth-shatteringly magnanimous when only RM9.99 is at stake.

Simon Mawar's Mendel's Dwarf is a book I read ages ago and always wanted a copy of. (I hate not to own a copy of a book I've really enjoyed). Loved the blend of science (and I am fascinated by evolutionary biology and genetics) and fiction, and really felt for the main character, Benedict, who is afflicted by the very illnesss he is studying - achondroplasia or dwarfism.

I found this book for the first time in a little book rental place in Taman Tun and I wished I had kept it because the shop closed down so quickly (as is so often the way with these places). I am truly surprised that this novel did not win any major prizes in Britain (although the Los Angeles Times shortlisted it for their Book Prize).

And then the post was very kind to me today. I had two parcels - one containing my copy of Toby Litt's Ghost Story - a secondhand uncorrected proof copy from Waterstones in mint condition (and cheaper even with postage than the hardback) and a package of lovely literary magazines from Susan Abraham for which I am so very grateful, and which I know will refresh and inspire ...

I do lend my books to friends and if you drop by to read my blog then you definitely qualify ... Just that terms and conditions apply (i.e. give 'em back when you've read 'em!)

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Shakespeare the African

I hadn't known that Shakespeare was African, until my students taught me.

My Form Five girls were studying literature for their West African School Certificate. We'd plowed through Acebe's Things Fall Apart, grappled with aspects of negritude in a selection of West African poetry, and analysed Ama Ata Aidoo's play about an interculture marriage Dilemma of a Ghost.

But reading Julius Caesar with the class was something I dreaded. I railed against the setters of the syllabus in the staffroom. Weren't my kids finding it hard enough already to cope with even modern English, and what could a British playwright born centuries earlier possibly have to say to them?

I soon found out.

Julius Caesar is an African play.

Nigerians know all about coups and their aftermath. Superstition and black magic, soothsayers, omens and prophetic dreams is part of the currency of everyday life in West Africa. Great oratory is loved and valued.

Mark Anthony stirred the class into action in the last lesson of the day, with the girls taking turns to read his part. The atmosphere in the classroom was electric - I'd never seen my students so enthusisatic about a text before.

The bell for lunch rang. The class seemed not to have heard it. I let them read on for a while. The rest of the school streamed out of classrooms towards the canteen.

"Let's continue, Ma," said one of the girls seeing that I looked worried about holding them back.

We went on for a few more minutes until my conscience got the better of me: "Right," I said "you'd better go for your lunch."

"Ohhhhhh, so it's lunchtime is it, Ma?" said someone and the class laughed but made no move to close their books. It was a mutiny!

It was only when we finished the scene some twenty minutes later that they finally packed away their things and left the classroom. They'd missed their lunch, but no-one seemed to mind.

The story of Julius Caesar seemed to pass into legend around the school compound, being told and retold even by girls who weren't in my class. Someone composed a song for Brutus which had the words "Farewell, Brutus, farewell," sung to the tune of Two Lovely Black Eyes. (Now where on earth had they got that from?) I heard it being sung around the school compound for weeks afterwards.

Borders to Open Malaysia Bookstores

An article in Forbes magazine about the opening of Borders next month in KL in Berjaya Times Square. Apparently this will be the first of 10 outlets planned for Malaysia. Great news for book junkies. Just wonder where their market share is going to come from as readership is hardly increasing at the same pace as shelf-space. Maybe this is the biggest challenge for all the bookshops - get the public hooked on books. Just giving folks a pleasant space to chill out and browse through books is for sure a step in the right direction. And Borders is bound to have good coffee.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Litt-erary Appreciation (Or How Many Puns Can I Get Out of This Guy's Name?)

It wasn't that I hadn't heard of Toby Litt - there he was, smartly groomed and besuited, looking out from pages of a Sunday Times magazine I'd hoarded in my drawer with its article ("The Write Young Things") on the writers Granta magazine had chosen as it's best of 2003. Other chosens included Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, A L Kennedy, David Mitchell and Pete Ho Davis.

I just hadn't read a single thing he'd written till this wake-up call: the video-conference with the writer organised by the British Council as the latest event in its 'Meet the UK Author' series which I was to chair. I then had to do a mad dash round local bookshops to find at least some of his work so that I could have my own mini-Littfest. I managed five books in two weeks which ain't bad going. He's written seven altogether - and as Joanne Thorpe of British Council cleverly noticed, the titles follow in alphabetical order. Litt aims to have all 26 letters of the alphabet covered during his writing career. (He jokes that a word often associated with his prolific output is "churned".) Leon Wing who came along for the session had read all - just as he had read everything Beryl Bainbridge had written at the previous session. It was so good to have him along.

I began with his second collection of short fiction, Exhibitionism, an interesting collection, though some of the stories I felt were stronger than others. The more surreal pieces (Dreamgirls, The Waters) reminded me of Murukami, but the story I liked best was the one about the psychologically cojoined lesbian lovers in Mimi (Both of Her) and Me (Hardly There at All). Then there's the quaintly titled On the Etiquette of Eye-Contact During Oral Sex which I suppose is the story everyone will turn to first. It's amusing, but as in his story about the porn industry written in the form of a shooting script, - sometimes the idea behind the story turns out to be wittier than the story itself.

The first novel I picked up Finding Myself, a sort of Virginia Wolf meets chick lit (thanks to Litt's remarkable ventriloquism) meets Big Brother, proved to be amusing, but pretty soon the joke wore thin and I must confess that I packed it in well before the end, more than anything because the narrative voice got right up my nose.

Litt's first novel Beatniks described as a British road movie proved a quick and enjoyable read. The book was intended as a tribute to Keroac and came out on the 40th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. The book was pacey, well-plotted and I liked the three main characters very much. Litt also writes sex well and if you don't know what yabyum is, do read the book and find out! Litt has written a screenplay for the film and perhaps one day it will come to production.

Please don't read Deadkidsongs, Litt's third novel about four little boys who form a gang, unless you have a very strong stomach. It certainly makes you want to ask what kind of warped imagination comes up with a story as violent as this? (No-one actually asked it, and Litt looked so poised and so damn ... normal on screen.) I actually read much of it in the back of taxis and nearly caused an accident a couple of times when I screamed out loud.

I felt the book must owe something to Lord of the Flies, but it was a link that Litt really didn't want to make. How I'd have loved to have argued this point with him further! (If only there were a virtual bar to adjourn too ... that, and not being able to get your copies autographed are the drawbacks of this technology!)

Ghost Story is Litt's most recent work, a deeply personal book which asks what happens after the worst thing has happened? The worst thing in this case is miscarriage, and the first part of the book tells in harrowing detail how Litt and his partner Leigh lost three babies. (Their story has a happy ending though as they finally have had the much longed for baby.) The main part of the book is a fictional account of a couple coming to terms with the loss of their second child. It is beautifully written, and there were whole passages I went back to reread for the sheer beauty of the language. Litt uses psychic distance in a unique way to draw the reader gradually further and further into the minds of the main characters, absorbing their grief and inability to get past it. The ending is ... perfect.

Leon asked such insightful questions - particularly about Ghost Story which blew him away, that Litt paid him the biggest compliment I think any writer can pay: "I've found my ideal reader ... and he lives in Malaysia."

Litt-craft: The Art of Writing Recklessly

It's always those insights into craft, into how a writer works that excites me the most, so please bear with me being a little self-indulgent here. Toby Litt nicely confirmed one of my own prejudices - the enourmous value of writing at speed, producing quantity and letting quality take care of itself.

I'd noticed from the articles and interviews that I'd read on the Internet that Litt frequently confessed to putting himself under time pressure, by for example setting himself the task of writing 100 poems a year while at university; writing "an unpublished novel length thing" in two months at the rate of a thousand words a day while he was staying in Glasgow; aiming to write a short story a week while he was on the UEA Creative Writing MA course (and much of his writing was actually done on the train); and then at the end of his contract teaching TEFL in Prague he found that he had some time before he had to fly home and says "I decided I would write a novel in two weeks and I would write about those two weeks."

"I'd just try to write a lot. ... I thought it would help me to become a better writer generally."

And he found that "When I wrote faster I wrote more interestingly ... this is one of the dirty secrets of modern fiction writing", adding also that it is necessary to write "fast and heedlessly". (He believes that strongly that it is necessary "to make a complete arse of yourself" in the hope that something fresh and original will emerge from the page.

Keroac, one of his great heroes, used always to go with the first draft feeling that it was the truest, Litt said (and I etch this particular quotation on my writer's heart!): "Writing is performed in the same way that improvised music is performed". Of course, he adds, writing year after year, you develop the reflexes and skills that make this improvisation possible.

He says that he tries to give as much energy as possible to the first draft, because you can't put that in later. He revises immediately, but subsequent revisions are just to make small adjustments.

Litt writes onto paper - doesn't use the computer at all. He says that he finds a pen more satisfying, whereas typing is more mechanical. He gets his work typed up as "proofs" which he corrects with a pen. He doesn't like making corrections onto the computer where it's so easy to delete words.

He knows immediately, he says, whether something he has written is going to be material for a short story or a novel. If he has a clear idea of where a piece is headed and he can see the end of it then it is a short story. If he finds there are ideas that are having little battles with each other then it is material for a novel.

Litt is fascinated by how new developments in technology change us and the way we communicate. "There's an ease of communication which almost attacks storytelling," he says. For all that, Litt has enthusiatically embraced several web-based writing projects.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

A Pretty Good Week.

Cast is off now, but I have to wear a sort of glove like thing that acts as a brace for my hand. The bone has healed, but the soft tissue not yet. My hand feels weak and tingly and my wrist still hurts like hell if I bend it at all. But there's an improvement from day to day, and I've started to write longhand with it again which is a terrific relief because I just couldn't think properly with my right hand out of action!

Tuesday got invited to a do for International Women's Day by the US Embassy. Only twenty or so Malaysian women invited - the others dynamic ladies doing stuff like rescuing battered wives, heading corporations, leading political parties, giving legal representation to ingenous people. Beside them,I felt a bit of a fraud. What do you do? people asked. Deep breath. Well, I'm actually an arty-farty-literatti these days I said, and I guess I got invited because I twisted the arm of the embassy last year to fly us out a writer (Oscar Hijuelos! *sigh*) for our literary festival. It was very nice to see Jamilah again - she was so helpful in organising the whole venture. In fact I think that the main thing I got out of organising the literary festival (or KLitfest as dear old Dina Zaman insists on calling it!) was the links I made with different organisatiosn and foreign missions.

The Deputy Chief of Mission who was hosting the event gave a speech about liberty and democracy (as you might expect) and the wonderful contribution made by women and how Malaysian women in particular are a force to be reckoned with. He told us that Condoleza Rice was going to celebrate the day by meeting women from Afganistan and Iraq.

There was a buffet spread but it was so hard to coordinate plate and teacup and plaster cast and keep up a flow of polite conversation with people. I really worked the room though, chatted to as many women as possible. Tried to interest them in promoting my creative writing course to their organisation. (Every opportunity is a marketing opportunity!)

Ohhhh ... and there was the most divine chocolate cake I've ever tasted - crisp crust, light mousse filling - wasn't successful in getting the recipe though. (State secret, apparently.)

Afterwards I walked to KLCC to take the LRT home, but once I was in Suria I decided to go to TGV to catch Sepet. I'm usually so lazy about catching films at the cinema and genrally don't end up seeing them until they finally make it to ASTRO. But Sepet was a must-see and I'm just sorry I didn't go for the premier with the My-Word-Up guys.

I found it a tender, gentle film, with some very funny moments. The casting was excellent, especially the young leads. At last a Malaysian film that addressed the issue of race and cross-cultural friendships, and made the point that each culture has so much to give to other cultures. (There was a little heavy handed didacticism at moments, but I find it easy enough to forgive that.) Loved the way that the dialogue moved between languages - English, Malay, Cantonese, Hokkien - reflecting the way that Malaysians really do negotiate communication.

The only thing I really didn't like about the film was the ending which I felt was a cop-out and the only part of the film that came across as drama-minggu-ini-ish.

Really enjoyed hearing the reactions to it from the audience (almost entirely Malay)around me - who were clearly very much enjoying themselves.

After the film several people came up to ask me what I thought about it because they found it odd to see a Mat Salleh (European) watching a Malay film. One girl asked if I wearing the cast on my arm in sympathy with the character of Keong!

I have a second debt of gratititude to Yasmin Ahmad - every time I take the LRT someone gives up their seat for me immediately, without my neeeding to put on my pathetic look. Still I do hope that this generosity of spirit is prompted by the cast on my arm rather than my looking like a senior-citizen.

Wednesday I was back in town again to chair the video conference with author Toby Litt at The British Council - a great chance to pick up some insider information about writing. This of course deserves an entry of its own.

Thursday had lunch with Oon Yeoh, vegetarian dim sun and noodles at Nature Cafe in PJ while we talked about possible happenings for MPH Writer's Circle. (How do I get drawn into these things?) We also had a chat about publishing, though Oon Yeoh is not into publishing fiction.

Thursday was the second session for my course. It went really well and the group has gelled. Everyone was more relaxed, sceptisicm replaced by a willingness to play and share stories. And it's fascinating to see where the imagination leads when you let it.

I realised when I got home that night that something strange had happened to me: for the first time in months happiness has come and bitten me on the bum.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The Word of Mouth Phenomena

We all do it. Recommend the latest "must-read" to our friends. Pick up a copy in the bookshop of the novel our friends have recommended to us.

A survey published in Britain to coincide with World Book Day confirms that nothing sells better than the recommendation of a friend or relative. One in four of those polled said the last book they read was on the basis of what a colleague or family member had told them, with almost a third of under-35s citing it as the most important factor. And only 6 percent said they bought a book because they saw it advertised.

Sunday, March 06, 2005


My friend Jaeson Iskandar declared that he is a "goldilocks sort of a reader", meaning that (like Goldilocks in the house of the three bears tasting the porridge, trying the chairs and the beds until she finds the one that's "just right") - he is an extremely fussy reader, taking nibbly little bites at a whole lot of fiction but unwilling to stick for long with any novel that he doesn't really connect with. (Jaes is blessed with single-minded determination in any case.)

I loved the expression - and wish that I were more of a Goldilocks myself - usually I feel honour bound to finish a book once I've begun it. Especially if I've spent good (or even bad!) money on it. It seems like an admission of defeat. Belonging to a book club makes it hard of course, you are so often faced with a book you can't enjoy, but you struggle through it because you know that you're going to be discussing it - and besides everyone stuck it out to read the book that you recommended the previous month but they weren't enamoured by.

Such a book for me was Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River" - an above average thriller with decent characters, some good plotting and vividly realised scenes ... but ... there was something iside me screaming life is just too short to stick with a book that doesn't do a whole lot for you. (I shall probably enjoy the film version though when it's out.)

I set the book free. Liberated it. Turned it into the wild to fend for itself. In other words bookcrossed it and left it for some unknown other who might adopt it and love it more than I do. In other words stuffed it behind a sofa cushion at Darling Muse on Chap Goh Mei at Dax and Yusof's Chinese New Year party. Hope it gets found, and then of course passed on, as is the whole idea with this bookcrossing thing.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Favourite Characters

To celebrate World Book Day, the Independent asked 100 "literary luminaries" (love the term!) who their favourite characters in literature are. You can read their answers here.

Who would you choose?

I'd have to toss a coin to decide between Mr. Petulengro in George Borrow's Lavengro and The Romany Rye (very much overlooked Victorian classics - Borrow was the writer of the original "road" novel), and the eponymous Captain Corelli, created of course by Louis de Bernieres. Lost my heart to the both of them - they charmed, they made me laugh. What more do you want in a man?

Fell in love with a couple of Paul Bailey's characters when I gobbled down as many of his books as possible pre-Litfest last year. Gabriel in Gabriel's Lament and Steven the young rentboy in Sugar Cane (it's sequel).

"Don't you think Gabriel's a bit of a wimp?" Paul asked me when we were talking about his book during one of our (several) bar propping sessions "Most readers do."

I was a bit miffed that the author didn't feel like defending his protagonist. Okay, so Gabriel is a cross-dresser and can't get turned on unless he's wearing a woman's frock. But he's a survivor, coping heroically with his monster of a father and his mother's mysterious disappearance. I love his gentle, almost feminine strength and dogged determination. And the guy can cook up a storm ...

Paul then started telling me about the real-life guy he based the character of Gabriel on. And do you know - I felt terribly divided in my loyalties. The writer part of me was fascinated to see the idea for the character had come from and flattered that his creator would reveal inside information. The reader part of me was absolutely appalled - I didn't want my belief in the character to be undermined ... even by the author!

And had the oddest feeling that Gabriel existed somewhere quite independent of this author who claimed ownership ...

Friday, March 04, 2005

The Course Of Course

My first session of my creative writing course got underway last night at MPH 1 Utama. Struggled over there with three bags of stuff (books, handouts, my homemade notebooks for the participants) - broken wrist and all. Mercy who was supposed to be giving me a lift but got up caught at work - and husband is so busy I can't even speak to him.

The bookshop has a nice big room for meetings and so on - plenty of space. Got a couple of young guys to rearrange the furniture for me so we all could sit in a cosy huddle. Wish the room had a bit more atmosphere though - maybe I should take my CD player next time and light some incense sticks for a bit of ambience. (To invoke the muse ... getting all touchy-feely here.)

Everyone came late - traffic jams and the size of the mall not helping matters. First writing exercise for the group was writing their receipts because I still can't hand write!

It's a very nice group and I feel that things are going to go well.I have a managing director of a fashion chain, a restaurant proprietor, a lawyer, a design student, two young women who work in the marketing department of the bookshop, and a couple of freelance writers/copywriters.

We break the ice with an exercise on why we want to write. I read them a lovely extract from Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead which lists all the reasons writers have given for writing:

To record the world as it is. To set down the past before it is all forgotten. To excavate the past because it has been forgotten. To satisfy my desire for revenge. Because I knew I had to keep writing or else I would die. Because to write is to take risks, and it is only by taking risks that we know we are alive. To produce order out of chaos. … To please myself. To express myself. To express my ideas beautifully. To create a perfect work of art. …To hold a mirror up to nature. To hold a mirror up to the reader. To paint a portrait of society and its ill. To express the unexpressed life of the masses. … To thumb my nose at Death. To make money so my children could have shoes. To make money so that I could sneer at those who formerly sneered at me. To show the bastards. Because to create is human. Because to create is Godlike. Because I hate the idea of having a job. … To justify my own view of myself and my life, because I couldn’t pretend tobe a ‘writer’ unless I actually did some writing. To make myself appear more interesting than I actually was. To attract the love of a beautiful woman. To attract the love of any women at all. To attract the love of a beautiful man. To rectify the imperfections of my miserable childhood. To thwart my parents. To spin a fantastic tale. To amuse and please the reader. To amuse and please myself. To pass the time even though it would have passed anyway. Graphomania. Compulsive logorrhea. Because I was driven to it by some force outside my control. Because I got pregnant by the muse and needed to give birth to a book. … Because I had books instead of children. … To search for understanding of the reader and myself. To cope with my depression. For my children. …To give back something of what has been given to me.

(Which reasons do you most identify with? I'd put myself down for several - but not telling which!)

And then we practiced flow writing. Writing quickly, going with first thoughts, not worrying about making mistakes with grammar spelling punctuation, not stopping to read back ...

The biggest hurdle of course is scepticism. There is a fear of making mistakes of getting it wrong - particularly as folks are insecure about their English and correctness has always been drummed into them. How can they be allowed such freedom on the page? I tell them correctness is important - of course it is - but when we're generating ideas and finding what we need to write, we can send the critic guy who lives in our head out to have a coffee. Some of them feel a little guilty about waving him off ... at least at first.

We practise flow writing with a stream-of-consciousness exercise, then jump off into space from phrases and individual words. I type alongside them on a small wordprocessor I've borrowed from Chet (it's a technological miracle - it does nothing but store words, so no distractions of the online kind!).

I leave them with plenty of prompts and exercises to see them through till next week.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

From Clouds to Koftas and Kulfi

Our book club Fiction&Friends met last night at Jessica's to discuss Cloud Atlas. Just the right number of people turned up (12), conversation flowed, everyone has opinions to air, the book went down very well, though we were divided on which of the novellas we liked best and most had found the Sloosha's Crossing episode the toughest to get through.

We had a visitor: Fiona already runs a book club but wanted to see how ours operates and if she could pick up any hints that would make hers go better. This group generally meets in city-centre cafes. Each meeting is themed and members read a non-fiction book around that theme (usually current affairs). It's great when a dialogue is created between groups. I hope Fiona returns for our next meeting and some of us plan to go along to hers.

Jessica cooked up a storm as usual - a wonderful buffet of North Indian food. Kumar (our one and only guy) was joking that I was making so many appreciative noises filling my plate that I sounded just like Sally in When Harry Met ... . Can I help it? Everything from fish koftas to kulfi was worth reading a book for. (As if the book itself wasn't reward enough.)

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

First Fictions

A lovely article from the Guardian in which six authors talk about the launch of their debut novel and the long hard road to getting there.

Among the featured writers is Charles Chadwick, about to be published for the first time at the age of 72 (which makes me feel like a spring chicken and full of spring hopefulness). He talks about how he kept on writing even when it did not look as if he would ever see his work in print. For him, the love of writing was an end in itself :
So why go on writing with little or no hope of publication? Svevo once said: 'Write what one must. What one needn't do is publish.' Is it that one has to learn to do it for its own sake? There's nothing odd, and certainly now in the least heroically tenacious, about that. There are millions of people out there who weave tapestry, make furniture and pots, write poetry, paint watercolours because that is what they enjoy doing and want to get better at. The creative imagination seems to have a life and persistence of its own. Another imperative is to take trouble to do things properly. When you see someone having a shot at painting a few houses and trees and clouds or whatever, you don't feel like tapping them on the shoulder and saying: 'Why bother with all that detail; you'll only shove it away in your garage or give it to Uncle Frank and Aunt Ethel who won't know the difference?'
Amen to that!