Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Time Travelling

Arrived late at Animah's. ("Sorry I was time travelling.") The others already tucking into delicious Yong Tau Foo. (I'm sure that if Animah ever wanted to stop being a lawyer she could always set up a very profitable stall somewhere.)

It was a most enjoyable evening of friendship, booktalk and conversation. The Time Traveler's Wife was very much enjoyed by the group, even Kumar, the only guy in the group who said he is a real sucker for a romance! Well, well.

Our resident geneticist, Sham, who was leading the discussion anyway, rubbished the science but gave us a talk on genes anyway just to show she knows her chromosomes. We decided that Niffenegger should have used theories of physics rather than biology to convince us that time travel was possible (we have a vacancy for a resident quantum physicist!) ... but suspension of disbelief is the main thing anyway, this is fantasy.

Interesting point raised: if the gender roles in the book had been reversed i.e. the woman was the time traveller, would the book still have worked? Would a husband have waited so faithfully for his time-travelling wife?

Also, if your husband slipped back in time to make love to your 18 year old self with a perfect body, would your thirty-something self get jealous?

Also, how could Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston possibly play the leads in the film. (Kumar votes for Angelina Jolie ... but then he always suggests her for every film role.)

Our evening ended (as usual) with Jessica's tales of the haunted houses of Bangsar, complete with tales of bodies in suitcases, bodies in drains. She's such a good story teller, although of course embroiders for effect. I think she could make a killing (no pun intended) if she started Ghost Tours of Bangsar much like the ones we have in London. She certainly knows all the local haunts!


A List of Bibliowords from Bookseller World. Find the words which best describe you!

Bibliobibuli -- those who read too much
Bibliocharylodis -- a dangerous whirlpool of books likely to drown unwary readers
Bibliodast -- one who tears pages from books
Bibliodemon -- a book-fiend or demon
Bibliognoste -- one knowing in title pages, colophons, editions, dates and place printed, printers and all the minutiae of books
Bibliographe -- a describer of books and other literary arrangements
Bibliolater -- a worshipper of books
Biblioklept -- one who occasionally steals a book
Bibliokleptomaniac -- an inveterate book thief
Bibliolestes -- a book-robber or plunderer
Bibliolotgos -- a book pest or plague
Bibliomane -- an indiscriminate accumulator of books
Bibliomaniac -- a book lover gone mad
Bibliophage -- one who eats or devours books
Bibliophile -- a lover of books
Bibliophobe -- one who fears books
Bibliophtbor -- a book-destroyer, ravager or waster
Bibliotapbe -- one who buries books or hides them
Biblioriptos -- one who throws books around
Bibliosopher -- one who gains wisdom from books

The bibilopossibilities are biblioendless. Do feel free to coin a few of your own. How about bibliobore - one who drives the rest of the world mad talking about books.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Time Traveler's Wife

Just finished The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffeneger - just in time for our book club meeting tonight at Animah's house.

It was one of the rare occasions that we picked a book that no-on in the group had read before, but it came well recommended:(Richard and Judy's Book Club choice and on the New York Times bestseller list).

So how does it measure up? It's a strange mixture of romance and science-fiction and I found it an intriguing read. Henry De Tamble suffers from "Chrono Displacement" disorder. (Must ask our Book Club resident geneticist - and we do have one - to explain the science here!) The book dips back and forwards in time as Henry travels to the past or the future. He meets his future wife Clare for the first time in the Chicago library where he works. Clare swears that she has known Henry all her life but he does not know who she is. Then in his forties, Henry travels back in time to meet up with Clare as a six-year old. At other points in the book, Henry meets himself at different stages in his life (even teaches a younger self the survival skill of pickpocketing) and encounters his daughter, Alba in the future after his real self has died. The book alternates between Henry and Clare's narratives and charts their unusual love story and marriage. And of course, there's a good cry to be had when you reach the final pages. (Hands up who blubbed on P504!)

The book is an entertaining light read without taking up too many brain cells. The plotting is skillful (would have to be to accomodate all those shifts in time); there's enough background detail to convince; the main characters are sufficiently engaging even if the supporting cast are a bit wooden; the style is fluid yet undemanding. A job well done for a first time novelist.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

If You Forget Me

It's hard to write love poetry without sounding sappy or just plain demented. What is there about the most powerful of passions that seems to erode brain cells and cause an absolute torrent of glurgacious imagery, borrowed sentiment and purple prose? How can you ever know what is real feeling and what is just the clanging and clanking of empty words?

Forgive me, I'm fresh from lurking around someone's website in horrified fascination. And I badly need an antidote ... so want to share this poem by Neruda with you. If you go away, so be it, I will get on with my life and little by little I will forget you, the poet says.

How restrained he is! How pragmatic!

Can it ever be as easy as this? (Not in my experience! I turn into a bunny-boiling harpy when love comes crashing down around my ears!)

Ah but the ending. There is the strongest declaration of love and it moves me to tears each time I read it:

if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

I think :

Poetry is an icebox
In which words are kept fresh
Until needed by an anxious heart.

And my heart right now needed the salve of this poem.

Just as it wanted to pass on the message in words more eloquent than I could ever couch them.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Creative Writing Courses Investigated

Adriana Nordin Manan an intern with Malaysiakini called me up a few weeks ago to ask for an interview about the courses I'm teaching. We met for lunch and a chat, and I asked her to come and sit in on a session at Darling Muse. She did - and this is her report about the evening ...

Honing your skills in creative writing

Look around you nowadays - it seems like everybody wants to be a writer. You have all these creative writing classes being introduced. Who knows if they're any good my editor proclaimed to the jittery intern. I was in my first week in the office.

You should go find out more.

So off I went to have a look-see at the different creative writing classes found around town (two up and running and another in the pipeline, with yet another publicised but put on hold due to lack of response by the target audience).

In an art gallery somewhere around Bangsar, Class #1 was conducted by Sharon Bakar, one of the more experienced/well-known creative writing teachers in the area. On the walls were canvas paintings done in a clumsy and vivid manner, the outcome of a recent series of workshops for children. I could see myself buying one, if I had an extra RM1000. Heck, I didn't have enough money to pay for the full six-week course I was sitting in on that night, which was about a third of that.

There were seven women in the group, including the teacher. We began by listing different adjectives and nouns on two separate sheets of paper and later exchanging them among ourselves. Then we had to pen sentences using any adjective-noun combination.

Just write. Don't think at all. Just write whatever comes to mind. It doesn't have to make sense, we were told.

Daffodils paint the periphery.
The jackrabbit exposes its soul.
Cuttlefish color the corals.

We talked about self-censorship and the pesky little voice that tells you your writing is rubbish. We shared our stories. One that stayed with me was a personal recollection of living in a religiously overzealous university campus, herd mentality et al. Not forgetting of course the questions on your personal life which were, well, rude.

People used to always ask what race I belonged to. My stories changed every time and one of them was that my parents ran away from their respective homes to live somewhere far away, usually Siberia, where they met. And you know - they believed it!

Admittedly, it was tough to write without first formulating your thoughts. This is also why I suppose we were asked to write a lot on our own personal experiences, things that are easier to invoke. Nobody would chastise you for what you write about, growing up buck-toothed, for example.

As a slightly insecure person when it comes to writing, I felt very relieved and at ease with the supportive environment we had that evening, where everyone had a kind word to say about what you had scribbled down. So it wasn't so bad, this whole sharing your writing business. My initial nervousness overcome, I spent the next two hours writing, sharing and being delighted at what the others read out.

That night, I drove home resolute on writing a book or screenplay. Maybe, just maybe somebody might want to read what I have to say?.
Adriana also stops in at Ninety Five Percent Sdn Bhd:
... a brand-spanking new company in the Bangsar area, which advertised itself as a provider of specific writing skills training within a context of personal growth.
She concludes about the experience:
... the Dale Carnegie meets story writing course was a bit too hokey for me. Just like the global corporate training enterprise, the company had an approach that employed the ability to write as a means to market oneself better and I feared that this end could diminish the pleasure and fulfillment of writing in itself. ... I could see myself feeling shortchanged if I were coached by a person to write not to bring out the little voice within me, but to bring myself to fit the mold of ideal employee when I start job-hunting. I don't want my writing, something I consider very genuine and honest, to be bundled together with how I can appear more attractive as a job candidate ...
She goes on then interview various luminaries in the field about their thoughts on creative writing, including Raman (who has the usual axe to grind!), Ruhayat, Dhojee, and a couple of academics.

I was particularly interested in what Prof. Hazidi Abdul Hamid from The School of Media and Communications, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia had to say. He apparently is keen on seeing creative writing appear more frequently on students' academic schedule.

'I believe creative writing is a very valuable course to offer and to take even if you do not want to be a writer, what more a budding writer. In this increasingly maddening world these courses should be a must for all university students, but I know this is too much to ask. ... I believe that it should be taken as part of or in addition to normal academic work. Personally, I have found that being able to sit in front of the computer and knock out several pages of creative work helps me to think about my more academic work. If you concentrate too much on something you might lose it entirely but if you allow your mind to take its own course letting the left as well as right brain work, you will be far more productive and happier.
This pretty much echoes my own experience teaching undergraduate courses. And reaffirms my core belief - writing from the imagination, writing from the heart is just plain good for you ...

I am glad I've set up my courses. A few months ago I wasn't sure whether this idea would take off ... but things are going really well for me.

I thank from the bottom of my heart the dear friend who gave me the initial push; those who have had faith in me and supported me along the way (not everyone by any means - some sad surprises there); MPH for giving my course a home; and my course participants for being prepared to take risks and put their words out there.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Tea with Oscar

Animah SMSed me yesterday: "Just read yr star struck piece. I thot yr no 1 wd be oscar playing piano."

Quite so. I'm sorry if I was unfaithful.

Oscar is Oscar Hijuelos and the US Embassy sponsored his presence at the Litfest. The real reason that he came, I'll have you know, was that I prayed extremely hard when I saw the list of possible writers the embassy sent. (So sorry Chang-Rae Lee! Maybe next time, huh?)

I fell in love with Hijuelos when I read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love which won its author the Pulitzer Prize. It has also been made into an excellent film starring Antonio Banderas and (yum!) Armand Assante.

The book is the story of two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who arrive in New York City from Cuba in 1949, with dreams of becoming mambo stars. To read this book is to be totally transported to the dance-halls and night clubs of 1950's New York. It's also perhaps the sexiest book I've ever read. It positively sizzles with macho appetite. Now sex is hard to write about well (and small wonder there are always plenty of contenders for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award), but Hijuelos is for sure among the best.

So when my prayers were answered, I was thrilled to bits. Just before the Litfest, I was invited to a before breakfast (because of the across-the-world time difference) press conference with Oscar Hijuelos in New York, which was a thrill. He talked about his work and managed our questions (even the more inane ones) graciously. He came across, even at that distance, as a wonderfully warm and very modest man. His wife writer and editor Lori Carlson (described later by someone as "a real babe" - quite rightly) also put in an appearance and gave us a big wave across the world.

The Litfest came and Hijuelos' onstage interview with Karim Raslan. Oscar was fresh off the plane as as jetlagged as hell, but managed valiantly, and it was for sure one of the highlights of the festival.

Now the Litfest was a huge exhausting thing for me - and I could not enjoy the event because I felt the whole weight of it pressing down on my shoulders. I was so grateful then, when the US embassy arranged a tea party several days later for Oscar and Lori at Carcosa Seri Negara (one of Malaysia's loveliest old colonial buildings which used to be the home of the British resident).

It was all a little formal and polite, over starched white table clothes and china cups, finger sandwiches and scones, but Oscar was gracious and read to us from Mr. Ives Christmas (which must be the saddest book I've ever read ...) and from A Simple Habana Melody and answered our questions about the books and the film Mambo Kings, the Broadway musical version of the book which he's involved with at the moment, and about his New York post 9/11. Later he signed books (I had a big stack!) and just hung around chatting informally. (My Aussie friend Iolanda and I were debating US foreign policy with him quietly in a corner away from the ears of "the spy guys" as he called them!)

After the tea, Iolanda asked me if there was anywhere where we could sit and catch up on each other's news, so we headed downstairs to the lounge to see if we could get a drink. We learned that the bar was closed, but used a little friendly persuasion! (Nothing stands between a thirsty Mat Salleh and her g and t.) And who should walk by at that moment but Oscar himself. We ask him if he'd like to join us and to our surprise he accepted a vodka tonic and settled on the couch to chat with us.

And then he saw a white piano in the bay window of the lounge and couldn't resist lifting the lid and playing some really cool jazz ... Just for us of course. (Laughing at myself here, of course.)

So that's the story I dine out on now ...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Kidnapping Peter Carey

Do you remember the Steven King book (or the film of it) Misery? Well, I have this fantasy that when I finally do get to meet Peter Carey, I will be forced to kidnap him and keep him locked up in a little room (though I wouldn't go as far as smashing up his feet with a sledge-hammer) until he writes a sequel to The True History of the Kelly Gang and brings Ned Kelly back to life.

It was my favourite book of 2001 and the one I tipped for the Booker even before I knew it had made the longlist! (Can I pick 'em or what?) I loved the voice of the character and so totally believed in him that I often forgot that Peter Carey was the one actually pulling the strings.

So a story about Peter Carey which is worth retelling, dated as it is:

One day Kee Thuan Chye walked into Silverfish with a friend. They spent some time looking through the shelves which contain the books by local writers. Chye then introduced his companion to Raman:

"Raman, I'd like you to meet ... Peter Carey."

"You mean THE Peter Carey?" stammered Raman, not quite able to believe it. ("Of all the bookshops in all the towns you had to walk into mine.")

"Well ..." said the writer modestly "A Peter Carey."

Raman was so truly gobsmacked that he even forgot to ask Carey (only the second writer to have won the Booker twice) to autograph the copies of his books on the shelves.

Tamil who was working behind the counter that day didn't hear this exchange, didn't quite latch on to what was happening, and struck up a conversation with the writer as he wrapped up his purchases:

"So where are you from?"

"Australia," said Carey.

"Here on holiday?" said Tamil.

"Well not exactly. I'm doing some research here." (He was researching background for My Life as a Fake.)

"So what do you do?"

"I'm a writer."

"That's nice. ... Have you had anything published?"

Did he wish the ground had swallowed him up or what, when Raman explained who the visitor was to him later?

I'm glad I wasn't there. I probably wouldn't have gone to the extent of kidnapping Mr. Carey, but I probably would have ended up on the floor licking his shoes.

I'm a total groupie for those whose words and music furnish my brain. But I never know what to say to them. I always sound so inane ...

I once had tea with Rostropovitch (another name dropped - kaboom!) and all I could do was grin at him! He must have thought that I was a mental defective. Well ...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Matric Blues

Hadn't taught literature for many years, but it was part of the deal when I came to teach at the teacher training college.

It was halfway through the Matriculation course and I was taking over from a lecturer they had loved. But when I mentioned poetry they said they didn't like it. Apart from Daffodils. That they had loved. And they proudly opened their files to show me the pictures of brilliant yellow flowers they had stuck in to illustrate Wordsworth's words.


Which kind of misses the point, doesn't it? Daffodils are so delicate, so transient, so precious when they finally appear after the harshness of winter. Alamandas bloom all the time and are common that we take them for granted. Never mind!

This group just would not talk in class. No raised hands volunteered answers. Questions were met with painful silences and embarrassed shrugs. I suspected that the students had previously been told what they should think about the texts so that they could dutifully learn their notes for the exams. What made it worse was that the best students in the group who invariably scored A's in their assignments did not want to share their insights with the rest. I had never come across this kind of competitiveness in the classroom before! Getting contributions to a discussion was like pulling out finger nails.

So I threw away the desks.

The dynamics change when you make everyone sit in a circle without a barrier before them. Everything you do becomes more democratic and the lecturer just one of the group, no longer centre of knowledge.

We were now reading Lord of the Flies. You may remember the scenes early on in the book where the boys decide who should speak by passing round a conch shell: no-one could speak without the shell in their hands.

So I brought in a conch shell, albeit a very much smaller version, picked up on the sands of Tioman.

I kind of reversed the rule - whoever had the conch had to speak or pass it on to someone else. At first the shell got passed around quickly as if it was a hot coal. Then as the students began to feel safe, they became a bit bolder and began to volunteer opinions and ask the others questions. Then I stopped bringing the shell altogether. We didn't need it because the class had begun to realise the joy of debating the text for themselves.

But I still had their opposition to poetry to tackle.

So I threw away the walls.

We took our chairs out under the casuarinas beside the football pitch.

Poetry is subversive, I said. It's no use to anyone if it's not. And since we are going to be talking about subversive things, it's better that no-one overhears us. That won them over from the start, gave them a freedom to speak out.

And there under the trees we read the poet they liked least - e.e. cummings. I'd brought along poems they'd enjoy, even though they weren't on the syllabus, beginning with:
a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man
which, oh my word, they could relate to. And then we worked out way through several more of my favourites including no-one loses all the time and the sexy may i feel said he.

The class was pretty much won over and happy to talk about their reactions to the poems they were reading. Better still, they were prepared to give the more difficult poems they'd encountered a second chance.

And that's what teaching lit is all about - winning 'em over and keeping 'em hooked. And to do that you must make sure that you build bridges by whatever means from the text to your kids.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Stories about Syed

I first met Syed in January 1985. I was due to take up a teaching post at the prestigious boy’s school described since colonial times as “the Eton of the East”. I had arrived in the small town of Kuala Kangsar on an overnight bus from the capital. I was supposed to be staying at the Rest House. (Every small town in Malaysia had its government Rest House – they were places for officials to stay when they travelled to more out of the way places.) But at three a.m. on a Sunday morning in a strange town, I decided that the most sensible course of action was to rattle on the grills of a nearby small Chinese hotel, until the owner, sleeping on a palette bed in the hallway, grudgingly let me in and gave me a room.

A few hours later saw me trudging in the heat to the ‘Rest House’ situated some way from the centre of the town along the road to the Sultan’s palace, a heavy bag slung over my shoulder. An ancient, very battered car suddenly stopped for me. A man leaned out of the window and asked if I wanted a lift. His heavily pregnant wife was beside him, so I got into the car. His name was Syed, he explained, and this was his wife, Asmah. They were going to the Rest House for lunch.

We had a most enjoyable lunch. The food was simple but tasty (I later became good friends with the Rest House manager Kamal, and his beautiful wife, Mona, who did the cooking). The view from the Rest House dining room was spectacular: it looked out over the Perak River, and we watched the small ferry ply between the town and the village of Sayong on the opposite bank, laden with people and bicycles.

Syed was fascinating. I thought he was of Arab descent at first, given his name and the overlarge nose which dominates his face. But I learned later that his father was Indian and his mother Thai. He speaks with a cut glass English accent. He was the first person I’d ever met in Malaysia who had actually read Burgess' The Malayan Trilogy, the first part of which (Time for a Tiger) was actually set in this town. (Burgess called it Kuala Hantu: Estuary of Ghosts.) Syed had known Burgess (real name John Wilson) very well indeed: Burgess was his lecturer when he was training to be a teacher, the first intellectual he’d met and someone who had shaped the course of his life. The two had become drinking companions. Syed knew the characters who became immortalized in the fiction of the trilogy: knew the stories behind the story. And when A Clockwork Orange, Burgess’ cult novel came out, he sent several autographed first-edition copies to Syed (though unfortunately, they got stolen later on.)

I couldn’t believe my luck, meeting folks this friendly and this interesting within hours of landing up in a new town. Syed said that he would come and collect me at dinnertime and we would go and explore the town.

Dinnertime came and went and he and Asmah did not appear. I felt sad that my first friends had so apparently abandoned me.

But life moved on. I met up with my new colleagues, the other British teachers who had been at the school for a year already and was soon caught up in looking for a place to stay and getting settled in the school.

I saw Syed a few weeks later. Again the battered car skidded to a halt beside me. He apologized for standing me up the night I’d arrived: Asmah had gone into labour that very night and delivered their thirteenth baby.

I visited Asmah several times, riding across town on my Flying Pigeon bicycle. Asmah was a dental nurse at the government clinic and lived in quarters behind it: a tiny, single storey building. Like the old lady who lived in a shoe, there were children everywhere, scarcely a year between them in age. Asmah, not surprisingly, always seemed exhausted. Syed was always away in Kuala Lumpur. He worked for the examinations board.

And more or less that was it: someone who might have been a friend who slipped from my life.

Years later, I discovered to my great surprise that Syed was someone that Abu and I had in common. He had been a teacher at my husband’s school – taught him art. Unconventional, humorous, he had been a great favourite of the boys, more of a friend than a teacher. There’s a photo in my husband’s album of himself and Syed standing on the roof of the school, their arms around each other’s shoulders. There are so many stories about him – really he is the stuff of legends, and I’m not sure which of them are fact and which are fiction.

Syed loves to tell the story about how, as a young teacher, he had gone into a staff meeting where other, more senior members of the local teaching staff had upbraided him for not having a tie on. He immediately went upstairs to the headmaster’s office and cut off a piece of the rug in his office, and wore it round his neck as a tie. Fortunately, the headmaster, a very easygoing chap (and a friend of Syed’s to this day), saw the funny side of it.

I learned that Asmah was his second wife. Someone said that he had a first wife – a marriage that his parents arranged for him in Taiping, another small town about a half hour drive from Kuala Kangsar.

When he first started teaching, his first school was in a very small place, halfway between Kuala Kangsar and Taiping. Legend has it that every afternoon after school, he would walk down to the bus stop and wait for the bus. If the bus to Taiping arrived first, he would take it. If the bus came from the other direction, he would go home to Asmah. I don’t know how many children he had from this first marriage, but someone old me that he had another dozen or so.

The Old Man says that after working with the examinations syndicate, he got a good job with Bank Negara who commissioned art from him. (He paints wild abstracts full of swirling colours and textures.) He lived in the back of a van in the bank’s carpark: everything he earned had to be sent back to support his two families.

Then there was the day we met him in the Bangsar night market, buying vegetables with a very beautiful young woman who he introduced as “my wife”. We never met her again.

We met him again a couple of years ago with Nino, at the Rugby Sevens in Kelana Jaya. Now in his late 60's he looked well, younger than many of the boys he’s taught who are stumbling into overweight middle age. White hair tied back in a ponytail, fashionable silk shirt – always impeccably dressed.

Am I in love with him? Infuriating irresponsible rascal though he is, it would be impossible not to be. And everyone else who knows him feels the same way. There are so many gaps in the story of his life I’d like to fill.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

A New Home for Words

The monthly readings have moved from Darling Muse to a new venue. I initially felt sad because I'd got so fond of Yusof and Dax's place, but Bernice has found a gem in Seksan's place 67, Jalan Tempinis 1.

Seksan, a landscape architect, has gutted the original house, leaving a clean open space below his offices. There's paintings, wire sculptures scattered around and suspended from the ceiling so that they cast a dance of shadows on the walls. What little furniture there is is made from natural materials - a rough-hewn wooden bench, bamboo stools, a charpoy bed (bringing back memories of those Sikh guards who used to guard stores and banks). The stairs up to the office are made from old railway sleepers. And the landscaping is certainly unusual ... screens made of tall cages of coloured cacti, richly patterned porcelain balls lying in the lalang grass at the side of the house, and a koi pond.

Seksan's two lovely doggies played an active part (sometimes too active!) in the afternoon's proceedings.

First up to read was Datuk SHANmugalingam. Shan dedicated this reading to the memory of Krishen Jit who had encouraged him to adapt a couple of his stories for the theatre. I think this will work well - Shan has a wonderful ear for dialogue, a lively sense of humour and his work is populated by and assortment larger than life characters. Shan read from a number of his short pieces including Victoria and her Kimono.

Next was Jit Murad, actor, comedian, playwright and all round wit. He enjoyed the irony of an assembly of pigs in the huge painting behind staring over his shoulder as he read. His story is set in a steak house (in the Jakes's, Victoria Station mould) and tells of three very different lives meeting here. A very entertaining piece.

Then a break for wine (La Bodega sponsored as usual) and chat, before writer/filmaker Feroz Merican took the floor for just a moment to say "I wrote this when i was very patriotic", leaving Bernice to read from his work-in-progress No-one Has Claimed Responsibility. Hope he does get round to finishing it soon ...

Hishamuddin Rais ("everyone's favourite ISA detainee" as someone dubbed him) read last. "I'm not an artist and I don't pretend to be," he said. He read a chunk of his play Bilik Sulit about interrogation by Special Branch police officers. The play is supposed to open on 3rd June, I believe, but the performance has just been cancelled as DBKL will not grant it a license. It was in Malay but I found it pretty easy to follow ... it was fast-paced, angry and satirical.

I think I enjoyed this fifth set of readings more than any others so far. There was a terrific atmosphere of warmth and support and good humour. Thanks again to Bernice for making things move.

Print on Demand

Chaired the MPH Writer's Circle Meeting this time as Oon Yeoh couldn't make it. Topic de jour was print on demand and the main speaker was Gary Gan, a young entrepreneur who saw a great potential in bringing the technology to Malaysia. Zainora Asmawi, a publisher who uses POD to print academic textbooks, and author Ooi Poh Yew also contributed their experiences.

Print on demand is a very useful alternative for the self-published since it allows you to print exactly the quantity of books that you need when you need them.

Revisions to the book can be made quickly and easily - important if you are writing in a field where information changes quickly.

You can even chose where to print your copies - meaning that if you want to market books in New York, say, you can print your copies there so without incurring shipping costs. There are also no warehousing costs for unsold copies involved.

Fiction writers who have used print on demand technology successfully include Amy Fisher and Malaysian writer John Ling.

If you're interested in learning more about print on demand here's a website with some very useful information and links.

And locally, you can contact Gary for more information. His e-mail is gnsolutions@gmail.com and his phone number is +603 80754225.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Obituary for Egolf

I'd never heard of the young writer Tristan Egolf till I read his obituary online today. He certainly seemed to have everything to live for. A writing career that had taken off: he had two highly acclaimed novels under his belt (his writing had been compared to Faulkner and Hemingway) and a third completed. A fiance and a baby daughter.

But Egolf shot himself, aged 33.

The story behind the publication of his first novel Lord of the Barnyard (described by Publishers Weekly as "a wild ride of a book") is almost the stuff of novels in itself. According to a report in the LA Times:
After 76 publishers had rejected the novel, Egolf was playing guitar for money on a bridge in Paris when a young woman noticed his cold, sockless feet and invited him for coffee. Her father happened to be a prize-winning author, Patrick Modiano, who took Egolf's book to his French publishing house, which agreed to publish it.
"You hate to think so, but suicide helps to sell books," Walker Percy once said, and I'm sure it's going to happen in this case too.

Would we ever have heard of John Kennedy Toole's The Confederacy of Dunces if the poor man hadn't gassed himself?

But what a sheer bloody waste! Who knows what even greater works these writers might have produced further down the line.

I found this essay on the subject very interesting. Earnest contends that "... we are but sadistic voyeurs who transform a writer's pain into a reader's pleasure." Perhaps true.

Some lost souls who did not handle life's difficulties well enough.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Writers' Centre

On my last day in Melbourne a couple of years ago, I was wandering around the shops when I saw this sign in a doorway.

So I went up the stairs to check it out and found a space for meetings and readings, a library, and stacks of information about courses, workshops, publications laid out on tables.

And I thought, of course, that's just what we need in KL.

Of course, dreams can afford to be big, even if real life scales them down.

So in my mind's eye I see ...

An old bungalow house set in a beautiful garden somewhere centrally located. Rent free - donated by some benevolent organisation which understands that writers have needs.

The inside is simply decorated - wooden floors and white walls. (Hey this is my dream so I'll decorate it as I like!) The walls are bright with art by young and upcoming artists. (Art leaks into writing, writing leaks into art.)

There is a space for talks and readings downstairs.

Off this, there's a well-stocked library with books on the writing craft, fiction and reference books.

Upstairs there are rooms where classes can be held. Writing classes, literature classes. For everyone who wants them ... In the evenings, writing groups or special interest groups meet here.

There is a courtyard with a cafe (with excellent coffee!) where writers can sit all day over a single cuppa and scribble in their notebooks or tap away at their without worrying that anyone will chase them away. (I hear the sound of running water ... a fountain perhaps ... and certainly a pergola of red passion flowers!) It's a place to find peace and space but also a great place to meet writer friends.

This is the place to come to get help with your manuscript or for information on courses or writing groups or getting published.

There's a small shop which sells the centre's own publications and other books as well as merchandise aimed at readers and writers.

Funny. Spoke to a mover-and-shaker writer/publisher friend the other day over banana leaf dinner - and he had almost exactly the same dream ...

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Giving Writers a Chance

Minishorts raised some important issues in her comments to my entry about Silverfish writers and I thought I'd like to answer them. She wrote:

i'm not sure how silverfish does the screening process, but somehow when i read the anthologies, i feel many others could have been given a chance.

as for every 20-story anthology, where are the other 100 stories that got rejected (and there would have been more than just a hundred submissions, i believe). there have been multiple opportunities not to waste these works (whether or not they're works of art). sometimes, all it takes is a small recognition from a significant publishing house to fuel a spirited writer/author.

as for writing a novel, let me put it this way... i've come this far (which is not very far at all) to notice that there's a great deal of 'knowing the right people' to get that dream off the ground. Seriously.

I'm just being honest about this.

I can tell you about the "screening process" because I was editor of one of the collections, Collateral Damage.

Now let me say at the outset that editing is a very personal thing. Every editor has his/her own set of prejudices about the kind of fiction they like and this will be reflected in the selection made. It's for this reason that any publisher of anthologies will make sure that each collection is edited by a different person - as Raman has done.

I received all manuscripts submitted - there was no prior screening, and did not know the identities of the writers involved. (I was able to guess one or two from the style and subject matter, but was careful not to let this influence me.) I read all of them. There were, if I remember correctly just 97 manuscripts, not at all a large number. (I think many got put off by the title of the collection, which had been chosen before I came on board, and which I decided to interpret as widely as possible to give everyone a fair chance.) A large number of the manuscripts came from non-Malaysians and Malaysians living overseas. How many local writers actually grasped this opportunity? And a large proportion came from writers who had already been published in the series. How many new writers made the effort?

Now quality is important: you can't put out an anthology and expect people to pay just for the kindness of it. Each story has to earn its place. I describe my criteria for selection in my forward to the book.

Some of the stories (fortunately, a minority) were so badly written that it was an effort to read beyond the first couple of paragraphs. Attrocious grammar and spelling, cliched language, the point of view jumping all over the place ... how much of a chance do such writers deserve?

Some stories were excellent (a larger minority) and earned their place in the book immediately.

The rest of the stories I reread, reread again. There were tough decisions to make. In the end I went with what I felt were the most interesting pieces to make up numbers. (I'm the first to admit that there is a certain patchiness to the collection. The reviewer in the NST compared the collection to Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans - an analogy I quite liked!)

Of the stories I selected, I felt that some of them needed to be edited or worked on further and contacted the writers with suggestions that I felt would improve their work. It was entirely my own decision to do this. I did not have the time or opportunity to actually sit down with any of the writers (and many were overseas anyway) so we corresponded by e-mail. Most of the changes I suggested were made. But where writers didn't want to make changes, I respected their decision. All this was very time consuming, but worthwhile. (And Robert Raymer who edited the next collection was perhaps even more supportive to his writers.) My point - isn't this giving writers a chance? Would editors in the UK or US, where the pool of good writing to choose from is much larger, have taken the trouble?

Now let's think about the stories that didn't make it into the collection.

Minishorts writes "there have been multiple opportunities not to waste these works" and I think she's got a point here.

Some promising stuff got rejected. I did indeed feel sad about it. (And have been on the receiving end of such rejection myself so know how it feels.) Editors aren't unkind vicious creatures who rub their hands together in glee when consigning other people's work to limbo!

Many of the stories frankly needed more work. There were good ideas, interesting characters perhaps but a great deal more effort in polishing and shaping was required in many cases. And of course writers need to learn more about the craft of writing.

The best way to learn is simply by reading enough quality writing. If you want to learn how to write short fiction, immerse yourself in the best short story writers and learn from the masters.

I also think that new writers need more support in terms of facilities to workshop their stories. Courses, workshops, resources, facilities, writing groups, readings. We do need to fuel our new writers, as you say Minishorts, but it does not have to be the responsibility of a publishing house.

I applaud those people who are doing something to help local writers. Names that spring to mind are Bernice, RuhayatX, Pang, Beth Yahp and MPH Writer's Circle. And Raman's Silverfish which has played an enormously important role in encouraging local writing in English. These are all small-scale initiatives sure, but don't you feel a groundswell of something happening here?

There are no magic wands to be waved but a great deal of collective responsibility on the part of those who care about the state of local writing.

So over to you now, Minishorts. What would you like to see happening? And more importantly - how do you think it could be got off the ground?

Monday, May 16, 2005

From the Zenith of a Ziggerat

Thoughts of not getting my collection of stories finished bring back to mind this wonderful nightmare I had some time back ... Wrote this in my paper journal back then.

Woke up in a panic, heart pounding. I felt totally bereft, as if someone close to me had died or been lost from me forever.

In my dream, I was carrying the manuscript of my anthology of short stories to be published and was on my way to Raman's shop. It was tucked under my arm in a FedEx envelope. I decided to take a short cut, and even though there was a sign saying “Danger – Keep Away”, I was arrogant enough to ignore it. I found myself on the side of a very tall building which had a decorative edging of stepped bricks (I think it was Menara Millenium though at the same time it reminded me of a Mayan ziggurat) down which I had to ascend. I could see Bangsar spread out below me and Silverfish in the distance.

There was nothing at all to hold onto. The envelope slipped from under my arm, and there were the sheets of my manuscript, fluttering away from me and getting jammed between the ledges below. (I couldn’t see any words at all on the pages.) If I tried to reach out to pick them up, I’d lose my balance and fall. And as they fell I saw that each page was ... blank.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

A Lazy Colony of Silverfish??

Article on Raman of Silverfish in the NST today. (Article behind subscription.)

Raman talks not only about his bookshop and how it's facing the challenge of larger competitors, but also about his publishing venture which has put out 14 books so far, six of them anthologies.

This from the article:
He believes there is a strong demand for books in English by local authors.

“It is an irony. We complain that Malaysian readers prefer buying foreign writers. This is rubbish. But we have to stop insulting them by offering low-quality books.”

He also feels that it is important for local authors to get their work published locally. While there is a lot of glamour in getting published abroad, it is also a make-it-or-break task.

“Britain publishes roughly 10,000 books a month. When you publish there, you are one in 10,000. Also, there is a lot of pandering to their taste and a kind of selling out. The big publishing houses want the exotic East, they are purely commercially driven,” he explains.

Raman, however, has one grouse. He is disappointed with the local writers who have contributed to his six anthologies. Discounting previously-published authors, the new writers have yet to come up with a book of their own.

“There are a lot of people calling themselves writers in this country but they have yet to become authors. We have about 50 writers (in the collections) and not one has become an author. I am very disappointed,” he says.

“They used to complain there was no platform for writers and I have given them a platform. I think they are just lazy.”
Laziness?? Is what Raman says entirely true? I know of one excellent Silverfish writer who had his manuscript rejected ... probably because it would have attracted too much controversy. (The writer is gay.) It's every publisher's right of course to decide on the type of books they want to publish. But the writer did submit his work and ergo was not "lazy".

The word "lazy" is unkind in the sense that many of the writers have gone on to achieve significant recognition elsewhere e.g. Datuk SHANmugalingam whose work has appeared in various collections of stories and poetry including the much more prestigious The Merlion and The Hibiscus (Penguin), James Lee who of course has become an award-winning filmmaker and my friend RuhayatX (whose incisive and witty articles appear in the NST and on the Malaysiakini website) has set up his own publishing company to encourage young Malay writers. Lazy, huh?

Still, I think Raman has a point and I certainly stand guilty as charged. (This is good kick-up-the-butt stuff for me - and I hope for the other Silverfish writers.) I've short stories to complete and the first draft of a novel that needs reworking. Okay, will make a redoubled effort to get down to it.

Hey guys - let's show him!

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Fifty Not Out

Fifty is the perfect age to write a novel, a study of the best-selling authors of the past 50 years has shown. Apparently the average age of writers who topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List from 1955-2004 was 50.5 years.

At least there's some comfort for the scribblers among us who are all too rapidly approaching the big five-0.

And of course, we have more life to write about anyway!

Tea Revisited

Raman has posted some very nice pictures of last week's Tea with Tagore event on the Silverfish website. Do go look.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Prequels, Sequels and More-quels

There's a time honoured tradition of borrowing characters from someone else's fiction. Even Shakespeare did it! Just take a look at this list.

An article in The Age tells how Sherlock Holmes and Mr. March, the father in Louisa M. Alcott's Little Women are among the latest characters to be given a new lease of life by contemporary writers. Peter Carey is featured in the article (this being an Australian newspaper after all!). He, of course, based his eponymous ('scuse me, but I love that word!) Jack Maggs on Magwitch from Dickens' Great Expectations, and My Life as a Fake is in parts a retelling of the Frankenstein legend.

One of my favourite books of all time is a sequel of sorts and far excels the original in my opinion. The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is an amazingly sensual and powerful novel which borrows characters from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester the romantic hero of Bronte's novel is very much the villain of the piece, driving his wife beautiful Creole wife, Antoinette, to madness.

Which fictional character would YOU like to see in a sequel or prequel? I'd love to fill in Captain Corelli's missing years ...

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Banning Books

According to the DAP website the Internal Security Ministry has banned 11 titles dealing with religious topics as being “detrimental to public order”. (Whatever that means!) The DAP of course wants to know why. As should we all.

These were books that were previously available here and one of them Great Religions of the World has been in circulation for more than 30 years and is published by National Geographic. (How subversive can you get?)

Another, A History of God by Karen Armstrong is a study of monotheism over 4,000 years and has been widely used by students of religious studies here. (Armstrong in fact has been honoured by the Islamic Center of Southern California as a bridge builder who promotes understanding among the three faiths.)

The other titles were Mercy Oceans’ Lovestream by Sheikh Nazim Al-Qubrusi, The Cross and the Crescent by Phil Parshall (I bought a copy of it more years ago than I care to remember, at a bookstall in Subang airport!), Messiah War in the Middle East and Road to Armageddon by Grant R. Jeffrey, The Sterling Dictionary of Religion by Amrita Sharma, The Word of Islam by John Alden Williams, Mysterious Facts: Strange World by Richard O’Neill, Mysterious Facts: Gods and Demons by Amanda O’Neill, Women and Islam by Fatima Mernissi, and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet by Karen Armstrong.

A society that bans books is surely a society in trouble.

Convergent ideas always will present a challenge to conventional thinking. But isn't that challenge best met by equipping ourselves intellectually? Isn't this what a knowledge-based society is about - inculcating the ability to think issues through clearly and logically, and to debate rationally? Or is this all just so much lip-service?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Questions About Humanity

Just finished Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel Never Let Me Go. I very much enjoyed Ishiguro's earlier novels, especially The Remains of the Day which I'd consider a classic of British fiction. (Ishiguro is British despite his name - his parents moved there from Japan when he was just five years old.) Then came When We Were Orphans which left me cold, and The Unconsoled which still sits unopened on my to-be-read-shelf.

Never Let Me Go is, superb. (I hot-tip it now for the Booker short-list - at least.)

The story is narrated by Kath who is a "carer" looking after those who are making "donations" before they finally "complete". We learn only gradually that Kath and her kind are clones, bred for their spare parts to provide medical cures for "normal" folks. But chilling as this scenario is, Ishiguro's novel is less science-fiction nightmare than an exploration of what makes us human.

Kath and her friends Ruth and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an idyllic boarding school deep in the countryside. (And the interestingly, the story appears to take place in the 1980's, and in a very recognisable England.) Much of the book charts the ups and downs of their relationships: the petty squabbles, the rivalries and generous doses of adolescent angst bringing home just how very human they are. But how far are the trio prepared to face the reality of their condition, as the evidence gradually falls into place?

Ishiguro of course has always made a speciality of self-deceiving and emotionally constipated narrators, and Kath is no exception - but this serves to make the true pathos of the story hit home even harder. And yes, I confess I cried at the end, which was a bit embarrassing because I was at the hairdressers at the time!

There's plenty of food for thought here. Developments in medical science and technology make it imperative that we don't shy away from debate about where we're going and whether we really want to go there. Writers like Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood (in "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Oryx and Crake") give us "what-ifs" to try on for size in a genre now come to be known as "speculative fiction".

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Literature Abuse

Are you a literature abuser? Try this fun quiz from the American Literature Abuse Society (ALAS).

Self-Test for Literature Abuse: How many of these apply to you?

1. I have read fiction when I was depressed or to cheer myself up.
2. I have gone on reading binges of an entire book or more in a day.
3. I read rapidly, often "gulping" chapters.
4. I sometimes read early in the morning or before work.
5. I have hidden books in different places to sneak a chapter without being seen.
6. Sometimes I avoid friends or family obligations in order to read novels.
7. Sometimes I re-write film or television dialog as the characters speak.
8. I often read alone.
9. I have pretended to watch television while secretly reading.
10. I keep books or magazines in the bathroom for a "quick nip."
11. I have denied or "laughed off" criticism of my reading habit.
12. Heavy reading has caused conflicts with my family or spouse.
13. I am unable to enjoy myself with others unless there is a book nearby.
14. I seldom leave my house without a book or magazine.
15. When travelling, I pack a large bag full of books.
16. At a party, I will often slip off unnoticed to read.
17. Reading has made me seek haunts and companions which I would otherwise avoid.
18. I have neglected personal hygiene or household chores until I finished a novel.
19. I become nervous, disoriented, or fearful when I must spend more than 15 minutes without reading matter.
20. I have spent money meant for necessities on books instead.
21. I have sold books to support my reading "habit."
22. I have daydreamed about becoming a rich & famous writer, or "word-pusher."
23. I have attempted to check out more library books than is permitted.
24. Most of my friends are heavy fiction readers.
25. I have sometimes passed out or woken groggy or "hung-over" after a night of heavy reading.
26. I have suffered 'blackouts' or memory loss from a bout of reading.
27. I have wept, become angry or irrational because of something I read.
28. I have sometimes wished I did not read so much.
29. Sometimes I think my fiction reading is out of control.

If you answered 'yes' to five or more of these questions, you may be a literature abuser. Affirmative responses to ten or more indicates a serious reading problem --seek help now! Fifteen or more "yes" responses indicates a severe or chronic "readaholic" personality. Intervention is seldom effective at this stage.

I scored 17. How did you do?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Creative Writing as Therapy

Apparently you have to go and pick up copies of MPH's free Quill magazine yourself these days, but the little magazine has grown a little thicker, has more articles and is printed on much nicer paper this time round.

This issue has my article on the benefits of creative writing (p29). Among other things I touch on is the use of creative writing as therapy.

One very interesting fact is that in one study by the Academy of Management in the UK, unemployed professionals who were given the opportunity to write about their thoughts and feelings surrounding job loss, were found to be reemployed much more quickly than those who did not!

Creative writing honours the individual and boosts self-esteem, and writing workshops around the world have given a voice to battered women, the bereaved, the elderly, the sick (particularly cancer sufferers), and disadvantaged groups.

Would love to run "writing for therapy" classes and wonder if anyone out there knows of a group who would benefit? I have done some reading about the running of such groups and have been in touch with a woman who has run groups for cancer sufferers in the States. The most inspiring text I've read on the subject is a chapter called Using Writing to Empower the Silenced in
Writing Alone and With Others
by Pat Schneider who runs course for low-income women. Many of her former course participants have in turn gone on to teach the same courses to other women, and some have had their work published. And just claiming for themselves the space and freedom to write gave these women the strength and encouragement to find other ways of turning their lives around. Inspiring stuff!

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Breaking Out of the Cocoon

Imagine the unimaginable if you will.

You are completely paralysed. You cannot speak and the only part of your body you can move by yourself is one of your eyelids. Yet your mind is as sharp as ever and as you lie on your hospital bed, you are all too aware of the world around you and your condition.

This is what happened to Jean-Dominique Bauby, who tells his story in The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly.

Yes, you read that right. Bauby dictated his story letter by letter, blinking as the letter he wants is read out from a chart by his bed.

How hard must that have been - mentally composing each passage, and having to hold it in his head, a flood of words that can only drip one letter at a time.

Bauby was the editor in chief of Elle magazine, and suffered a massive stroke at the age of 42 which left him trapped inside his body with "locked-in syndrome". He died two years later.

His writing is often moving, sometimes surprisingly humourous, but never self-pitying as he describes the hospital routines and his visitors, revisits his past and sheds the cocoon of his useless body to allow his mind free flight.

"You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still- sleeping face. You can build castles in spain, steal the Golden fleece, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambition."

And yes ... if this poor soul with one working eyelid can write a book this good, what excuse do the rest of us have?

(Book was one of my cheapy purchases at Times warehouse sale and is promised to Saras who first told me about it.)

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Tea and Tagore

Well, Happy 144th Birthday, Rabindranath!

Raman - praise be he who makes book things happen - held a celebration today for Tagore's birthday at Silverfish.

Tagore is of course, India's greatest modern writer, and won the Noble prize for literature in 1913 with Gitanjali. He was incredibly versatile - not only poet but also short story writer, novelist, dramatist, essayist, painter, composer of songs and political activist too.

Singers from the Bengali Association performed a couple of Tagore songs; an elderly lady who had come up with her daughter from Seremban had actually met the poet when she was ten years old and read a poem in English and Bengali; Professor Quayum gave a talk about Tagore's life and work; and then there were further readings from Prof. Lim Chee Seng, poets Wong Pui Nam (in Mandarin) and Raja Ahmad Aminullah (in Malay). Tagore precious to all of them. (But where was Yasmin Ahmad who makes a point about the universal appeal of Tagore in Sepet? She was also going to read.)

It was a pleasant evening apart from the fact I sat on the floor and got a numb bum! Many friends there including Diana Cooper, Saras, Datuk Shan, Ioannis and met Sharanya Manivannan for the first time since she got back from India. Plentiful Pakoras and sweet jelebis to eat.

And for me a good introduction to Tagore. Knew his work mostly through the works of the various Indian writers (notably Vikram Seth). Now making a start on reading him and bought a book of thoughts and verses taken from a selection of his books:

Shall no doubt be peppering my pages here with his words of wisdom!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Biblioculling and Bibliocide!

Went to the Times warehouse sale yesterday out in the boondocks of PJ Section 13.

Phek Chin at Silverfish always says that she feels so sad for books that look as if they need adoption, and I know what she means. I never feel sorry for the books lined up on shelves in the bookshops where the ambiance invites reverence for books. But here were thousands of volumes that one must assume have fallen from grace. No longer the "latest thing" perhaps. Not selling, certainly. These books are up for grabs at ridiculously cheap prices. Spread out on tables, heaped in tall piles on the floor.

Some were books I'd already bought at much higher prices. There were trade paperback copies of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Hollinghurst's In the Line of Beauty for just RM15. There was a pile of copies of Peter Ho Davis' The Ugliest House in the World which contains two of the best short stories ever set in Malaysia (Ho's mother is Malaysian and his father Welsh).

Most of the paperbacks were just RM8. Of course, I was happy to provide a home for some of these waifs and strays and left with a bag full (including a collection of short stories by Alice Munro and The Swimming-pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst). There's always room for more on the groaning shelves of a bookaholic!

Talking about bookshops getting rid of old stock, here's a story from The Times about a bookseller who has resorted to burning unwanted books because shelf space is money! Bibliocide indeed.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Kindness in Oshogbo

(continued ...)

Nike's kindness didn't end with taking charge of us at the Sacred Grove. She took us back to her home for dinner.

Nike shared a large house with several co-wives. In the courtyard of the house there were several artists at work in different media and we watched them at work as we ate a delicious meal of amala (my favourite fufu) okra soup and pepper soup.

Nike introduced her husband, who went by the unlikely name of Twins Seven-Seven. He was not a good-looking man, but had a strong sexual aura about him. I didn’t find out who he was until I started leafing through the albums of press-cuttings on the table.

Twins Seven Seven was so named because he was the only surviving child of seven sets of twins. Twins have special spiritual significance in Yoruba culture. A seventh child (even in Western culture) and is thought to have occult powers. Twins was also believed to be an abiku, a child who is so torn between the spirit world and this one, that after it is born, it immediately dies to reenter the womb at the next conception. And of course he represented the spiritual fulfimement of all the thirteen other dead children his mother had given birth too. How could this man fail to be someone special?

Twins' spiritual fulfillment came from his art. He was one of Nigeria’s foremest artists, and leader of the famous Oshogbo group.

Nike had been working with her mother, dying batik cloth in the traditional Nigerian way (using starch and indigo) when Twins discovered her. With his encouragement she went on to become a world-famous artist with exhibitions in cities across the world, including London and Los Angeles.

(Nike's embroidered picture of Oshun)

When I started writing this entry, I looked Nike up on the internet and found that she was as active as ever. She has set up a centre to help local women artists. She's still exhibiting overseas, and her children have followed in her footsteps.

I truly thank her from the bottom of my heart for taking care of a couple of lost tourists and teaching them something of the cultural life of the Yoruba. My visit to Oshogbo remains a very treasured memory.

(Nike in traditional attire)