Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Mat Salleh Boleh!!!

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Hari ini, Hari Merdeka.
Sehelai bendera tidak ada di rumah kami
Sebab suami aku bersama kucing aku
Sudah dikolonisikan balik!

Walaupun aku asal dari negeri Britain,
Hari ini aku terpaksa membelogkan
Dalam Bahasa Melayu.
Aku sudah berjanji pada kawan belog aku
Yang bernama Eyeris.

Aku tidak pandai menulis
Dalam BM.

Aku boleh bercakap sikit-sikit
Tapi aku selalu
Membuat banyak kesalahan.

Bila ibu-papa kawan aku bertanya "Mana pergi?"
"Oh, saya pergi makan anjing" saya menjawab.

"Tolong sapu semua sarang labu-labu,"
Aku cakap kepada pembantu rumah.

Suami aku selalu nak becakap dalam Bahasa Ingerris.
Kalau aku berbual dengan pekerja kebun,
Suami berkata itulah
“Macam ayam cakap dengan itik.”

Tapi kami selalu bercakap dalam BM
Waktu bila kami berada
Di negeri England,
Dalam pub dan sebagainya,
Sebab orang British tak boleh faham.
(Tetapi pada suatu hari kami berjumpa
Pemandu teksi yang boleh faham:
Berkata dia "Terima kasih"
Bila saya baginya tambang!)

Hari ini, hari sangat istimewa
Untuk raykat Malaysia.
Sebab itu
Aku mahu mendedikasikan
Puisi pertama aku di BM
Kepada semua kawan-kawanku.

Inilah dia:
Dikeliling kebun,
Seperti Si Bruang,
Pijak satu! Pijak dua!
Geletek kau? Jangan!!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Cut and Paste Poetry

Oshun sent me this link to the Altered Books website a few days ago and I thought it looked such fun I'd have a go at it sometime soon. (Once I've got over the psychological trauma of actually cutting up a book!)

The instructions are these:
Cut the bindings off of books found at a used book store. Find poems in the pages by the process of obliteration. Put pages in the mail and send them all around the world. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And the results are as visually interesting as they are poetically:
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I tried a similar exercise some time ago from the excellent In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet's Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit. (If you want to write poetry, I think this is a must-buy!)
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Basically, you take a text and chop out of it any words or phrases that sound interesting. Then you reassemble the cut-out bits into a poem. Simple.

To prove it, here're my own experiments! (I feel like the Blue Peter team saying "Here's One I Made Earlier" - forget the reference if you're not British of a certain generation!)

The first came from a page in New Scientist, the second from an article on an Egyptologist in the Sunday Times Magazine.


Dull middle-aged scientist
Slippery concepts.
Slips unnoticed into
The mystery of consciousness.
(How deep the mystery is!)
Impenetrable language.
“This is what I am,” she cries “inside my head
A virtual world of spaces of the mind
An ever shifting pattern in the dark …
Brainspace is also mindspace!”


A commoner
recording her quest (so secret).

Every movement:
swirls of ancient dust -
tomb dust.

Every footfall
on time-worn scrap:
dynastic detritus.

In the two-pillared antechamber,
the mummy - a flame-haired royal beauty
Eloquent as a hieroglyph.

Grasping her enemy by the shortened forearm
She threw her into the darkened void beyond.
(Sex always was a problem for Egyptologists.)

Monday, August 29, 2005

The Parallel Universe Reading List

Goodness, ten hours straight in front of the computer screen putting together a book shopping list for the British Council Library. Even forgot to have lunch. I'm beginning to hallucinate books.

I can't think how we managed in the days before we had all possible information at our fingertips before the internet. I've been surfing the bookshops and book award sites and the list has grown pretty quickly and without too much pain. Plenty of the latest and best "litfic", but also crime and mystery novels and a generous helping of science-fiction and fantasy. And many more titles still to be added when I can get my brain in gear for the next onslaught.

Along the way I've found some links you might enjoy.

If you like mystery the website of the Barry Award has some excellent short fiction.

Science-fiction fans might be interested in this post about why British sci-fi is sweeping the board at the Hugo's this year.

(And on the subject of science-fiction, drop by Zafar's blog for his account of the "Writing Sc-Fi" session at the Singapore Writer's Festival. There's plenty to shudder about!)

I know that a lot of people find it difficult to find a way into fiction and long for some easy-reads that don't insult their intelligence. This list of highly-readable British fiction is an excellent starting point. I'm ordering many of these titles so you'll even know where to find them!

One of the ten things you didn't know about me - (See, I'm getting ready for the day I get interviewed for that column in the NST!)- I nearly became a librarian when I left school. I had the place at college, but decided at the last moment to became a teacher, as the course looked more interesting. I never regretted teaching, but perhaps in a parallel universe, somewhere ....

Been looking at too many sci-fi books!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Can-do Canfield in a Chicken Soup Can

My interview with Jack Canfield - the Chicken Soup for The Soul guy in the Star today.

(Before you go and read it, I must point out the big fat grammatical blooper in the very first sentence. This isn't what I wrote - somehow the modal verb got switched, and I come out looking as if I've forgotten how to speak my mother-tongue. I am in deeper pain than you can imagine ....)

Okay, now you can read it:
“People would always like things they don’t have. It’s human nature to want a better life” says best-selling author Jack Canfield, and Americas leading expert in Peak Performance.

It is as founder and co-creator (with Mark Victor Hansen) of the best selling Chicken Soup for Soul series (which sold more than 80 million copies sold worldwide) that Canfield is surely best known. These days there seems to be a chicken soup book catering to every sector of the market and new ones are constantly in preparation. Indeed, the public is invited to send in stories for the series and book ideas and submission guidelines are given on the website

We might even see Chicken Soup for the Malaysian Soul one day since Canfield says that he’d be happy to entertain the idea: “if there’s editor is prepared to step forward and take charge of the project.”

Canfield attributes the success of the series to the fact that “Every story inspires and opens the reader’s heart and that they walk away feeling hopeful. The books talk about love, self-esteem, overcoming obstacles. These are all they are universal principles.”

Canfield’s latest book, co-authored with Janet Switzer, The Success Principles: How To Get From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be, is based on 64 “timeless principles” which provide a roadmap for personal success in all areas of life.

He acknowledges that there have been some excellent motivational books on the market in the past, and reels off the name of several including books by Stephen R. Covey and Napoleon Hill. “But each one gave only part of the answer. It’s like providing combinations to a combination lock: if you only know some of the numbers, it is not going to open.”

Instead, Canfield aims with this book to give his readers all the answers they need in one place, combining the wisdom of the great self-help gurus with insights his from own learning over the years (in areas as diverse as quantum physics and neuroscience), to create what he sees as being “a success bible containing everything: a sort of one stop shopping for success!”. The result is surely the most comprehensive self-help manual yet: a book both to dip into for specific advice, and one that you might just want to read from cover to cover for a total life make-over.

Canfield has been coming to South-east Asia for the past twenty years and says he sees Malaysians as becoming increasingly aspirational. On October 4th, he will be in Kuala Lumpur again to run a seminar on The Success Principles in which he will cover the most important principles in his book in depth.

He will also be running the same programme for young people a day earlier. Canfield, who is also a committed educator and an ex-teacher, says young people need to apply exactly the same principles to their lives as adults, starting with the most important one, that you must take 100% responsibility for your life.

Many children fail, Canfield says, because schools fail to teach them to be successful and parents are too often poor role models. Success is both learnable and teachable and it is not difficult to find space in the school timetable to teach the principles – as small an investment as 25 minutes a day during the home-room period has been seen to yield remarkable results including fewer reports grade to the principals office, better grade scores and enhanced athletic achievement.

A message that educators here could do well to take to heart!
I never used to be into self-help books of the kind that my friend Raman calls "just- add-water-books".

I think there's an in-built British resistance to the very idea that we might need advice. It seemed kinda sad to need someone else to tell us where we're going wrong with our lives. An admission of failure.

We associate all that bright, sparkly can-doness with Americans who distilled it from the pioneering-frontier-conquering spirit that made their nation great. It seems somehow ... alien to the British psyche. I think we'd rather embrace our imperfections lovingly and have a good laugh about them.

But I like Canfield's latest book (co-authored with Janet Switzer)The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You are to Where You Want to Be, very much and I'm enjoying improving myself principle by principle through my daily readings. (I've actually chosen the book as my bathroom reading for this month - in other words my "bog book".) I will soon be so perfect that you won't know me.

It was fun chatting to Canfield on the phone the other day. I let slip that I had sobbed my way through Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul (all those dying puppies and injured kittens and cuddly cuteness spilling from the pages ... though, come to think of it, no mention of hairballs on the sofa, masticated mice on the carpet and pools of pussy pee in the dish-draining rack as a form of odiferous protest when things aren't going their way ...).

Perhaps I should write my own self-help book one day and sell my own philosophies of life.

Think I'm going to call it:

Rat Soup for the Cynic's Soul

Saturday, August 27, 2005

A Suitable Heavyweight

The New York Times carried a story the other day about Paul Anderson's debut novel Hunger's Brides. They say it is "certain to be one of the biggest books of the fall". And in more ways than one.
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The book is 1,360 pages long and weighs 4 pounds 9 ounces. (Please can someone else convert that to kilos because I've failed every maths exam that life has ever thrown at me!) Anyway, about as much as a six-pack of beer or a chihuhua dog.

But what really made me smile was this comment on Khitabkhana's entry about the book:
It is an incredibly sad moment for the 25-year old history of Indian Literature. Our reigning champion, our soap-operatic gift to humanity, our Suitable Boy, has been beaten by bloody eleven pages. This evidently is a colonial conspiracy.
Vikram Seth urges his readers in his A Word of Thanks poem at the beginning of the book:
Buy me before good sense insists
You'll strain your purse and strain your wrists.

If I was ever told that I was going to be marooned on a desert island and could only take then books with me, for sure this would be one. Even if it weighed more than everything else in my luggage combined.

I read the book in a week when I had shingles and I was so totally engrossed that I couldn't bear to come back to the "real world".

Of course, the question that keeps the pages turning is who will Lata marry in the end? Will her head or her heart govern her choice? I'm a romantic and wanted the former, my colleagues all argued that it should be the latter because Lata is Asian, and therefore pragmatic, after all. Of course Seth (the rascal!), keeps us guessing right to the end.

And I was open-mouthed in awe at the way that Seth juggles a cast of characters larger than I'd ever have thought possible (there's someone new on almost every page!) embracing a huge sweep of society. I felt as if I had been in India for that week.

The book is way too short. Perhaps that sequel is called for!

Friday, August 26, 2005

Prententious Prat Pronounces Prodigiously

The publishing industry to way too open to unknown writers says Tim Clare in the Guardian.
"... the simple fact is that unknown authors are being taken on every day, and frankly, publishers and established authors suffer because of it. The British publishing industry is crying out for a high-profile hothead to disabuse thousands of needy, bumbling timewasters of the notion that nascent masterpieces stir within their loins. ... If anything, the British publishing industry is too open to new writers at the expense of skilled stalwarts."

An extreme view?

I wonder with what authority Clare writes? He's had his first sci-fi novel published: it was written as his dissertation on his UEA M.A. course (sorry I could find not a murmur about it on the internet), which must be why he feel entitled to stand stick his tongue out other newby wanna-be's who might just have something more interesting or more relevant to say!

Has he forgotten his own time as a "foolish rookie author"? (His words in an online forum. Has he forgotten his days of posting chapters of his novel for others to read and give feedback on - just like the rest of the amateur crowd of one-day- hopefuls?)

Stir up a bit of controversy by rubbishing everyone else's efforts, dear, and someone might just buy a copy of your book ... out of curiosity!

The rest of us will take our chances, just as you did.


Good comment from Conversational Reading.


Or perhaps he was indulging in that other great British pastime (besides queuing!) - taking the piss? I certainly hope so.

Mari Kita Berblogging

Yikes! What have I let myself in for?

Squint At The Print

I was quite amused by this in the Telegraph the other day:
The failing eyesight of American readers is being blamed for a steady decline in sales. Although 535 million mass-market paperbacks - which are the size of a traditional Penguin paperback - were sold last year across the Atlantic, the figure represents an 11 per cent drop compared with sales five years ago.

To stop the rot, Simon & Schuster and Penguin have decided to use larger type when publishing popular authors such as Nora Roberts, Clive Cussler and Robin Cook. The easier-to-read paperbacks are 3/4 of an inch taller than usual, but the same width. The type size has been increased, as has the space between the lines.

This means that the number of lines on a page is about 32 instead of 38. Needless to say, the price has gone up as well: to $9.99, a rise of two or three dollars. If the gambit pays off, publishers on this side of the pond are likely to follow suit.

I've been wondering for some time whether it was just my eyesight getting worse or whether the size of the print in paperbacks has been getting smaller. I actually suspect the latter as publishers try to save costs by squishing up the print. I find it a major annoyance to have to squint over my book and reading glasses are so terribly unglamourous and granny-ish. Not at all what the well-dressed bookworm around town should be wearing. (Not if she wants to show the world by example that "Look, hey, reading can be sexy.")

It was actually Matthew Kneale's English Passengers that had me scurrying to the opticians for an off-the-rack pair which I knew I was bound to lose before the book was finished. (I being that way inclined.) As it was, I decided that if publishers can't put out books with large enough print, I'm not buying 'em. And I'm trying to stick to that.

I try to track down the larger "trade" paperback versions of the books I want to read because they are kinder on the eyes: this usually means grabbing books as soon as they come into the shop.

My other big grumble is the speed at which paperbacks (and even some hardbacks these days - Faber&Faber hang your heads in shame!) go spotty and horrible on my bookshelves, often looking and smelling like an aged tome well before I get to read them. The Malaysian climate is particularly unkind to books, but yellowing margins and brown splodges shouldn't begin to appear just a few weeks after you've bought the damn things!

Another pet peeve (while I'm sounding off) is the disintegrating book where pages begin to peel away from the spine even as you are reading it for the first time. I remember our book club meeting where we were discussing Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. There were probably ten of us there, and everyone's loose pages were spilling on the floor. Shame on you Vintage!

Hardbacks are more enduring, but who wants to lug them around, and they take up so much space on the shelves. And these days they often cost around RM80-100!

Besides, whenever I lend out books, it's always the tattiest paperbacks that make it home, but the hardbacks which seem to get lost along the way ...

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Tash Longlisted Again!!!!!!

'Scuse the exclamation marks. Tash deserves them. Deserves more of them too.

He's on the longlist for a second major fiction prize for The Harmony Silk Factory: the Guardian First Book Award.

The which list also includes Sightseeing by Thai writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap is hailed as "the most diverse yet in ethnic origin and theme".

See the full list here.

Small Gems

In the Guardian another excellent article about the short story, this time by Aida Edemariam.

She writes:
The British attitude to the short story - that it is somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing, which is, of course, the novel; that you can perhaps start out writing a collection of stories, but you have somehow failed if you don't graduate to a minimum of 200 pages - has always baffled me.

Instead, she sees the short story as:
... a test of prose-writing in a way a novel often isn't, or isn't necessarily.

You can read the whole thing here.

And if you feel inspired to begin reading the best short fiction (and remember - you are what you read!), here's list of the best by short story writer Peter Ho Davies to get you started. Who else would you add to it?

And if you have a little time and a few ringgit to spare, you might like to pop into a branch of Payless Books which always seems to have multiple copies of the Best American Short Stories from down the years. (I've collected most of the set.) These books contain some of the best short story writing from the country that feels most at home in this genre. But the books would be worth buying for their introductory essays about the state of the short story alone.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Goddess of the Literary Bordello

I blogged before about how the short story was fast becoming an endangered species in Britain.

Now there's news of a new £15,000 National Short Story Prize funded by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) and supported by BBC Radio 4 and Prospect magazine.

It's hoped that the prize will put the short story
"... back at the heart of the modern literary landscape."

Britain's literary landscape that is.

Elsewhere, the short story is alive and well.

Now isn't this just such a lovely bibliobibulous soundbite from Alex Linklater, deputy editor of Prospect?:
The novel is a capacious old whore: everyone has a go at her, but she rarely emits so much as a groan for their efforts ... The short story, on the other hand, is a nimble goddess: she selects her suitors fastidiously and sings like a dove when they succeed. The British literary bordello is heaving with flabby novels; it's time to give back some love to the story.
You can read Linklater's article here.
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And the article by Raymond Carver that Linklater refers to can also be found here. If you have any interest in writing short fiction this is compulsory reading - from arguably the greatest master of the genre.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Food for the Mind - By Vending Machine

If you're in Paris and suddenly need a quick fix of The Odyssey or Alice in Wonderland , or need a couscous recipe in the middle of the night, or are stuck for how to conjugate an irregular verb after hours, a dash to the nearest book vending machine can put the right book in your hands in seconds and at the very reasonable price of $2.45 per copy. The great thing about book vending machines is that they will appeal to people who do not normally buy books, and thus make reading much more accessible to the average Joe. Surprisingly, book vending machines have actually been around for a very long time. The first - in fact the first vending machine of any kind - was invented by English publisher and bookseller Richard Carlisle in the 1880's. Book vending machines were introduced in Germany in 1912, and by 1917 there were 2,000 of them. When Penguin Books first went on sale in 1935, they were apparently sold from towering wood and glass vending machines which were given the lovely name Penguincubators. Apparently these are very much in demand among collectors and I was sad that I did not manage to turn up a picture of one. The US apparently had Read-O-Mat and Vend-A-Book machines from the 1950's and original Bantam Books were sold this way. And now there seems to be a world-wide revival in selling books in this way. There are book vending machines in the Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro metro stations selling Brazilian classic literature, cookbooks and Paul Coelho's novels. The books are sold at the same low price (about $1.50) and are proving to be a success, selling 250 copies a month each. And this one was snapped in Santiago, Chile. Image hosted by Germany is apparently rediscovering the book vending machine. A German publishing company decided to use this strategy a year ago to give their new unknown authors a chance to get noticed. Unfortunately the machines sell not only books, but food too so you get your book chilled along with your sandwich. How cool can you get! Britain is also getting in on the act: book vending machines are being introduced onto platforms across the UK's rail network: a business venture by two well-connected entrepreneurs to dispense short stories from vending machines on station platforms. each story will be between 7,000 and 12,000 words long, cost £1 and, because they are designed to be read in forty minutes or so, they will be printed on one sheet of paper and will fold up like a map.
Authors selected so far include PG Wodehouse, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, and Katherine Mansfield. The board of editors is no less illustrious and includes Beryl Bainbridge, Martin Amis, Dame Muriel Spark and William Trevor. The latter two have even written short stories especially for this imprint.
(Wow! If anyone comes across one of these machine, please buy the whole lot for me!) Now don't you think that this is an idea that might catch on here in the Klang Valley? Can't you just see folks at LRT and Commuter stations popping a ringgit or two into a slot for a daily measure of entertainment? Mind you, e-books are probably set to become the next big thing. But apparently there's now vending machines even for those - and apparently the first country to jump on the bandwagon is Australia! Hmmmm ... aren't you glad you came to visit this repository of totally useless information today?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Write In English? Don't be so Disloyal!

Does the fact that writers choose to write in English show a basic disloyalty to the national language? And is this anyway a tired old debate with little relevance?

I'm sitting on the sidelines and letting others kick up dust, since I'm a Mat Salleh and a post-colonial hangover anyway. (And besides, how many more problems does the local writing scene need? I mean really, why add guilt to the heaps of practical problems writers face getting their words out there?)

All of this of course springs from responses on my entry the other day about Nisah Harun's article about recognition for local writers. I'm really glad that Rem ("The Naked Climatologist!" - how sexy is that?) and Clarissa Lee dropped by to add eloquent and thoughtful responses. Please do go and read.

I dug up a couple more interesting takes on the same issue - both from the archives of Kakiseni. The first is from a 2001 interview with local playwright Kee Thuan Chye:
Kakiseni: What problems do you have as a writer of fictive or creative work? Is there mental and intellectual space to thrive as a creative writer within the Malaysian 'space'?

Kee: I'd say the biggest problem would be you're not encouraged in this country if you write in English. Now, it's better. There's more acceptance. (But) I have sometimes felt I was not doing the right thing still continuing to write in English - in what was considered the colonialist language.

I began writing during the time when there was (a sense of) 'nationalistic fervour', and I felt that I was not patriotic enough. You felt guilty that you were not writing in the national language. As a child who grew up in English, with Malay being taught as a language, people of my generation didn't take it (Bahasa) seriously enough. (However) it would've been foolhardy to try to write in Malay. I would never have cut it if I had written in Malay.

National literature was considered to be Malay literature. Other literatures were considered sectional, or 'other' literature. As a person who writes in English, I felt very marginalised - not accepted, not recognised. And even till this day, writing in English is still not fully recognised. That should not be the case. The person writing it is still Malaysian. The concerns are still Malaysian concerns. The ethos could be very Malaysian too.

The second is an article by Zedeck Siew about his impressions of the KL Litfest last year where Identity was one of the main themes:
Zedeck concludes (good for him!) by saying:
To National Laureate Professor Muhammad Haji Salleh: I'm going to try for a part in your truly Malaysian Canon. And I'm going to write in English.

The trouble with the debate about which language to write in is that you can continue arguing yourself round in circles while nothing much changes. And what really is the dilemma? We need excellent writing in both English and Malay. And all writers, no matter what language they choose, should be cheering each other on.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Big Gay Read

The search is on for Britain's favourite gay novel reports the Guardian.

Here's a list of some of the best gay fiction:

The Long Firm Jake Arnott

Around the Houses Amanda Boulter

A Home at the End of the World Michael Cunningham

Crocodile Soup Julia Darling

Calendar Girl Stella Duffy

Hallucinating Foucault Patricia Duncker

Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides

Rough Music Patrick Gale

Carol Patricia Highsmith

The Line of Beauty Alan Hollingworth

Trumpet Jackie Kay

Tales of the City Armistead Maupin

At Swim, Two Boys Jamie O'Neill

The Monkey's Mask Dorothy Porter

Brokeback Mountain Annie Proulx

Desert of the Heart Jane Rule

Funny Boy Shyam Selvadurai

Story of the Night Colm Tobin

Tipping the Velvet Sarah Waters

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit Jeannette Winterson

Pretty good fiction by anyone's standards. One or two of these I've mentioned elsewhere as being particular favourites: At Swim, Two Boys, Brokeback Mountain and In The Line Of Beauty. Add to the list Middlesex and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. The rest are yet to be discovered, shall we say.

How many have you read and what did you like best?

Is There a Market for Malaysian Fiction in English?

One of the best things about blogging, I'm discovering, is the dialogue it creates.

A couple of days ago I wrote about Nisah's article about recognition for local writers, and got a couple of interesting responses from Eric Forbes, one of my favourite litbloggers. Eric put the whole discussion together on his blog and you can read it here.

This debate, I believe, is vitally important. And I will continue to kick it around.


More than 50 people turned up for the talk on the NaNoWriMo at MPH 1-Utama yesterday morning. It is perhaps a little early to be thinking about the competition (which takes place every November) but this was the only Writer's Circle slot I could get ...

I was so grateful to my friends and fellow Nano-ers for turning up and being prepared to taking part. Chet planned the session with me and spoke about how the Nanowrimo had evolved from being a mere twinkle in Chris Baty's eyes to the biggest (and surely friendliest) writing competition in the world. See Ming talked about the Nano's rather shorter history in Malaysia (the first year - 2002 - the event was given a lot of support by the New Straits Times and 8 of the 14 participants finished!) Then several of us (Chet, See Ming, Sim, Leah, Mercy, Will, Saras) talked with evangelical enthusiasm about our experiences of taking part. Our audience looked a little ... bazoogled. (As well they might! We've turned their nice comfortable lives upside down.) It's really not hard at all to write a crap novel in a month, we told them, and if we can do it, so can you!

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(Thanks for the photo Nizam! For those of you interested in the sartorial details, I'm wearing Nanowrimo t-shirt and my lucky earrings with the peacock feathers.)

Perhaps the biggest boost the competition got was when See Ming told us that she had met Sim through the Nanowrimo - she'd fallen in love with his words and the rest, as they say, is history!

Met champion blogger Yvonne Foong for the first time and gave this brave young lady a hug. I think I know what she will be doing in November!

Renee of MPH told me afterwards that we can hold Nanowrimo meet-ups in store and that the bookshop will publicise the event. That is a huge step forward - we need organisations to cheer the participants on and raise awareness.

Lunch was of course at Delicious and we got to hear all about SeeMing and Sim's honeymoon in Iceland complete with shaggy ponies and midnight sun.

In the evening I slipped into Silverfish to say hi to Raman and shake hands with the Belgian poet. Met the new Irish ambassador and his wife too. But there was hardly anyone there for his reading, so I felt a bit guilty as I slipped away for a dose of poetry of a very different kind - Australia vs. South Africa on a big screen at Ronnie Q's with Abu and the rugger buggers. It takes too much commitment to be a full-time arty-farty-literati!

Saturday, August 20, 2005

No More Mrs. Nice Guy

Oh goodness, I do go into stroppy English teacher mode when I answer my e-mail.

I squashed an urban legend about a Budweiser frog screensaver and told the sender to send it back down the line. Added my usual lecture about how hoaxes waste time and cause needless anxiety. (And probably lost a friend!)

I forwarded to a spammer (a local guy who has obviously bought a list from someone) all the spam I have carefully collected over the past few months. I have sent his spam on to all the spammers on my list.

And I replied to a semi-literate e-mailer ("interested to be ur fren") that I do not speak SMS.

Life's too short to be nice.

Friday, August 19, 2005

One Earring Short of a Novel

A challenge for litgroupies only.

Lots of bits of famous writers and a competition to identify them at The Guardian website. I've recognised one or two but ... I'm giving nothing away!

Those of you who aspire to be great writers one day remember - this could be your fate, your balding pate, bulbous nose or straggling eyebrows isolated for the amusement of the reading public. Is the struggle to get into print ultimately worth it if this is your reward?

Well okay ... see if you can identify the writer this bit belongs to.

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Don't forget to come along to the meeting about the Nanowrimo at MPH 1 Utama tomorrow 11-12.30.

42,000 scribblers (that's the number who signed up last year worldwide) can't be wrong!

We hope to have a few Nanosurvivors there ... and thanks to See Ming for chivvying more friends along.

I hope we end up with ... more people willing to give it a go this year ... some schools and colleges willing to encourage their students ... some support from organisations (even if it is to just recognise and publicise the efforts of participants) ... a couple of good Municiple Liaisons (rather odd title for those who coordinate the event locally) ... some fun meet-ups ...

See you then.

Recognising Local Writers

Nisah Haron very kindly sent me a copy of this month's Dewan Sastera in which she has an article called Dilemma Penulis Fiksyen Inggeris Tempatan (The Dilemma of Local Writers of Fiction in English.)
It's a scholarly article which outlines some of the dilemmas faced by local fiction writers. And okay yes, I'm struggling to faham paragraph by paragraph am getting the gist of it. Be patient if I get things wrong!

Nisah interviewed a number of people by e-mail including yours truly (and honestly I was flattered to be asked):
Sharon Bakar, seorang editor bebas dan juga warganegara British yang telah meetap di Malaysia lebih daripada 20 tahun, menyebut tentang jumplah pembaca fisksyen Inggeris tempatan masih lagi secara relatifnya kecil. Ini ditambah pula dengan masalah menerbitkan karya fiksyen Ingerris di Malaysia. Kekurangan sokongan terhadap penulis dalam bentuk kursus penulisan, kemudahan, bengkel dan acara turut menyumbang kepada kurangnya jumlah penulis fiksyen Inggeris tempatan.

Might as well ask for the things you need! Support for writers, facilities, courses, workshops.

Dina Zaman says that there are few local publishers willing to publish fiction in English, so we need to add that to the wishlist.

Nisah goes on to talk about the local writers who have made a name for themselves overseas: Tash Aw and Rani Manicka in the U.K. and Shirley Lim and K.S. Maniam in the U.S..

The crux of the article is recognition. Writes Nisah:
Apakah senario ini seolah-olah mencadangkan kepada penulis tempatan supaya berhijrah untuk membolehkan karya mereka lebih mudah diterbitkan dan seterusnya mudah di pasarkan. Bukan sedikit pengiktirafan yang diperoleh penulis-penulis ini peringkat antarabangsa. Namun, mereka tidak mendapat pengiktirafan yang setaraf di peringkat kebangsaan.

Am I right in thinking that the last couple of lines says that winning international recognition doesn't mean that you will win recognition at home?

Our Mr.Raman says:
... penulis yang ingin diiktifa di peringkat antarabangsa harus menulis tentang pengalaman di Malaysia. Pengalaman unik inilah dicari-cari oleh masyarakat pembaca antarabangsa.

In other words if you want to sell big in the West, you need to write about Malaysia because that's what readers there want. Can we argue with that?

Nishah also points out the nice irony of the English novel competition sponsored by Utusan Publications only being announced in a Malay language newspaper (Mingguan Malaysia). But hey, you read about it here too, right?

Anyway, Nisah's article is well worth reading for anyone interested in the local lit scene. It certainly raises the sorts of questions that need to be discussed.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Writing Buddies

We met last night at Delicious, Bangsar Village. A group of newbie writers who had "graduated" from my Getting Started - Finding the Flow Course. Most didn't know each other as they'd done the course in different venues at different times. But there was an easy camaraderie between them and new friendships were formed. We ate and chatted. And then it was down to business.

We did a couple of timed exercises from Roberta Allen's The Playful Way to Serious Writing - an excellent springboard for creativity. We alternately scribbled and then read out our work round the table. Some excellent characters and situations appeared and deserve their place in finished pieces.

It was great how at ease everyone in the group felt with each other - there was no shyness or hestitation or inner critic voice forcing apologies.

I plan to make these meetups a regular thing. I can't just get people writing and then abandon them! I have plans for more "modules" to build onto this first one now that I've seen how it works. Just need to take some time out to work on the materials.

Hope too that these new writers begin to find writing-buddies and organise their own sessions.

Thanks, Ben, for the lovely chocolates! Good luck with the Chocalicious venture! (Opening soon in Bangsar Village.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Of Thickie Pariahs and Books By The Yard

Victorian Beckham has never done it in her life.

Neither had Noel Gallagher ... until just recently.

Read a book, that is.

I think there are plenty of people out there who don't read books and who are none the worse for it
says Hester Lacy in today's Guardian:
... it's fine for anyone to confess that they really can't stick shopping; one can even seem quite smug about it. Not so if you aren't keen on books. Reading must be about the only pastime that is pretty much universally seen as "good" and virtuous - so to say openly that you don't like books puts you beyond the pale. For someone to say they don't care for reading labels them as some kind of thickie pariah, fair game for any insult. To decide any such thing on the basis of one single trait seems both sweeping and snobbish.
Meanwhile, concerned to show the world that he certainly isn't (despite popular opinion) a thickie pariah, George tells us what he's taking along as holiday reading . Convinced?

I remember Thor Kah Hong of Skoob Books telling me years ago about how he had customers come into his shop and order books by the yard to complement their home decor and fool vistors.


Apparently Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein leader) isn't much of a reader either. According to Rober McCrum in The Observer he confided to the New York Times not only that he had never finished Ulysses but didn't know anyone who had. McCrum asks for suggestions for a reading list to rescue Posh from the depths of her own ignorance.

Belgian Poet at Silverfish

Raman just e-mailed me with the news that there is a reading this Saturday 20th August by flemish poet Germain Droogenbroodt who is currently working on a project to translate and publish contemporary Malay poetry. The event is jointly organised by The Belgian Embassy in Malaysia and Silverfish Books.

The reading is from 6.00-8.00pm at 67-1 Jalan Telawi 3, Bangasar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 228 448 37. Admission is free. All welcome.

You can read more about the poet here.

Every Letter a Bullet, Every Word a Bomb

Have been thinking a lot about book banning lately. Wrote a column which will appear in the new men's magazine Chrome in October about censorship of books here in Malaysia. As so often happens when you start to dig up information about a topic, you end up with so much more material than you can ever use when you have a word limit. You might have found a substantial part of the elephant and have opinions on all of it, but you can only write about the left ear!

Is there ever a case for banning books? I'm very much against books being banned, even when they progagate ideas that I personally don't agree with. (The omnipresent and ugly Henry Ford book, for example.)

In Britain books are seldom banned. The last case I can remember was Peter Wright's book Spycatcher which was seen as a challenge to Britain's secrecy laws.

A new challenge to Britain's general policy of openess though, comes from the Islamic bookshops. In an article in The Times dated Sat 23rd July, not long after the attacks which took the lives of 52 commuters, Thair Shaik and Dominic Kennedy reported that they found books promoting suicide bombing, terrorism and anti-semitism openly on sale. Australia has been struggling with the same issue.

Suhayl Saadi, the author of Psychoraag wrote:
In power struggles, every letter is a bullet, every word a bomb. So what might the London bombers have read? When I walk into most “Islamic bookshops”, I am struck by apocalypse. Texts of fire and brimstone abound; books of which John Knox would have been proud. Most such shops are run by miserabilist Islamist organisations.

So what should be done about it in this country which prides itself on freedom of expression?

Says Boyd Tonkin writing in the Independent:
Whole decades can pass between one mention of bookshops by a British prime minister and the next. How sad, then, that Tony Blair should refer to the sale of literature only when he aims to censor it. Bookshops joined websites, mosques and "centres" as sources of infection in last Friday's scattergun statement about measures to root out extremism. One suspects that behind the forgivable anger, and less forgivable confusion, in the government response to Islamist terrorism lies New Labour's lingering distrust of free expression and its trouble-making advocates.

And he goes on:
Soundbite-happy politicians may need tuition in Mr Blair's "culture of tolerance" as much as disaffected Muslim youth. And that tolerance, as even premiers ought to know, can only claim any virtue or valency when it resists heavy pressure. ... The Islamist variant of fascism peddled by those targeted "websites" and "bookshops" will be defeated in the open, if at all.
His conclusion which I must say I agree with:
In the battle of ideas, censorship can only ever win a phoney war.

Over to you!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Not in my Name

Was working hard yesterday reading McEwan's longlisted Saturday at the hairdessers. (Good reading spot apart from the fact that you have to keep blowing away the bits of hair that fall on the pages.) Anyway, the book is set on a single day - Saturday 15th February 2003, the day of the first huge demonstration against the Iraq with more than a million marching in London alone.

I was here, not there, or I would have marched.

A few weeks later, the war started and a second demonstration was held in London on another Saturday: 22nd March, a little smaller (just half a million marchers) and more subdued than the first. This time I was part of the crowd and this is the piece I wrote that day:

My placard is a piece of cardboard rescued from the bin in my sister's house. I haven't written anything profound on it, just ANGRY, BETRAYED. Which is how I feel. Only ANGRY doesn't do justice to this gnawing pain in my guts. INCENSED, would perhaps have been better.

A nice young man helps me to stick my homemade banner with brown parcel tape to a Socialist Worker banner saying STOP THE WAR. Though of course it can't be stopped now it's started, can it? Still it's important to stand up and be counted, to send the message around the world that there is opposition. (And what a joy it is to hear a BBC newscaster say later a propos of the march: "This is still a country deeply divided." The biggest wartime demonstration in this country ever.)

I buy a whistle and a pocket full of badges to give away to the kids: NOT IN MY NAME. Left wing newspapers and flyers are thrust into my hand.

This is my first demonstration. Ever. Middle-aged protest virgin. I'm self-conscious as I take my place behind the other marchers, expecting to feel out of place. But there's a real cross section of people in this march. Many marchers are elderly, some are kids with their parents. There's a real feeling of camaraderie, but the mood is sombre rather than defiant.

Helicopters from the television stations hover overhead. Reporters push among the crowd looking for photo opportunities.

The chanting picks up, and I gingerly join in as I manage to catch the words.

What do we want? Peace. When do we want it? Now. Peace now peace now peace now peacenowpeacenowpeacenow.

We start off late from Gower Street, move slowly down Shaftesbury Avenue, police lining the route. At Picadilly, another river of protesters joins us, moving from the South of the city.

Bush Blair USA. How many kids have you killed today?

It's a glorious spring day. I feel so blessed to be walking through this magnificent city in the sunshine. I'm proud to be among others who care enough about the state of the world to come from all over the country and march. And we're free to do so without the fear of being arrested for dissent against the government. (Believe me, you value this when you live in a country like Malaysia.)

Who let the dogs out? Bush Bush and Blair.

I start up a conversation with a woman named Roz who tells me that she is a veteran of all the marches. She's around my age, and so diminutive that I have to bend sideways to hear her over the noise of the whistles, sirens and chanting, not so easy with my unwieldy banner which has the wind billowing behind it. But I learn that Roz been protesting at Westminster all week, sitting in the road to stop the traffic. She fills me in on all the other protests and demonstrations around the country, and tells me about the thousands arrested in San Fransisco, including the a man who fell or was pushed from the Golden Gate bridge.

1-2-3-4 we don't want your bloody war.

Roz seems to think I'm doing quite well as a protester. Maybe I'll take it up more seriously.

5-6-7-8 stop the killing stop the hate.

We flood into Hyde Park. Thank goodness there are toilets and food stalls set up. I have an improvised picnic of fish cake and soggy chips on the grass and then join the crowd again to listen to speeches. One Welsh Labour MP who voted against Blair gives an eloquent speech about the dangers of American Imperialism. There's a moments silence and the Moslems in the crowd are asked to say the Al-Fateha prayer. Some of the speeches are shallow sloganeering though, and I was unhappy about the Palestinian issue being linked to this protest about war with Iraq so I decide not to stay till the end.

As I leave, I see a field of hands made by children from all over the country. Tiny banners made by drawing around their hands and cutting them out, then decorating them with peace messages. The sight of all those tiny hands and the heartfelt words on them has the tears pricking my eyes.

I trudge up to Bond street to take the tube home. My feet hurt like hell by now, but my heart is lightened.

Monday, August 15, 2005

International Young Publisher of the Year - Update

Several people got in touch with me re. the IYPY award when I first put up the information about it .

The full details of the award and a timetable for the various stages of the contest can be found here, and information about how to apply here.

Wonder if we will find anyone suitable? Truth is, we need folks who fit these criteria if the publishing industry is to take off locally. If not this year then maybe further down the road ...

Maybe awareness that such an annual award exists is a useful first step.

Unhazed, Unfazed.

Woke up to a heart-stoppingly horrible scenario this morning. The Visitor e-mailed me to say that my blog had disappeared and an SMS from DZ to say the same thing. I checked. When I tried myself all I could get was an expanse of whiteness. No words. No nothing. Smogged out.

Fortunately the archives were still there where I'd left them and no posts were missing.

I wrote to the guys at Blogspot and here I am, back again.

But *phew* you realise just how vulnerable you are. I'm lazy at backing up my entries but will make it a priority now.

I love my blog and am not going away any time soon!

The smog outside has gone too. This is the third day of clear skies and there was a huge thunderstorm yesterday to clear the air still further. I've hardly dared believe it.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Booker Bookies

When is a literary prize like a horserace?

Of course, now that the Booker longlist has been announced, the bookmakers are out in force. According to The Guardian:
William Hill's choice as 3/1 favourite was McEwan, who won the award in 1998 with Amsterdam but was unlucky with his more recent bestseller Atonement. It made Barnes a 7/1 chance, below Coetzee and Ishiguro.

But Ladbroke's rated Barnes' story Arthur & George as 4/1 favourite, followed by McEwan at 5/1, Rushdie at 7/1 and the veteran writer Dan Jacobson at 8/1.

Ladbrokes has Tash at 20/1, the same odds as seven of the others on the long list including (to my great surprise!) Ishiguro.

I'm not really one for a flutter, although a horse I backed "both ways" for the Grand National once won and I bought my mum a pot plant with my vast winnings. I'm the woman who walked out of Genting casino having made a RM12 riggit profit on my initial investment of RM10 and haven't been back since. But this year I really think that I might put a little something on the literary gee-gees. (Have already made a wager in margueritas with my book club friends which may end up costing me dearly.)

I wouldn't normally get so excited about the Booker, but this year we have a vested interest, innit?

Of course, it must be a nailbiting time for the first-timers (" ... who add human drama to literary suspense on the list" as Nigel Reynolds wrote in the Telegraph.)

No bigger human drama perhaps than that of Harry Thompson, who was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer just weeks before his book was published in June, according to The Times.

I've enjoyed looking at the postings on the Guardian blog - especially readers' comments on other books that they feel should have been included on the longlist. There seems to be a certain amount of pissed-offness about the same old names (McEwan, Ishiguro, Coetzee, Rushdie) cropping up again and again (are the judges playing safe, or are these guys playing true to form?). The fresh voices on the list seem to be very much welcomed.

An interesting point raised is that a writer taken on by one of the larger publishing houses is actually disadvantaged, since only three books can be submitted by each publisher, regardless of the number of books they put out in a year. Someone else asked whether it is fair to have books on the list which haven't yet been published (i.e. the novels by Rushdie, Meek and Smith). Personally, I don't think so - there's always next year, isn't there?

I very much enjoyed reading Eric Forbes' comments on the contenders. Go take a look.

By the way, I sneaked over to MPH 1 Utama this morning to buy Ali Smith's The Accidental. I didn't think it would be too dangerous a mission because I had already noted its precise location on the shelves so that I could run in quickly, grab it without having any excuse to pick up other books, and pay with the book voucher accrued from all my overbookspending these past few months.

Sadly, I also spotted Margaret Atwood's latest collection of essays and reviews Curious Pursits. How could I just leave it there, especially as she writes so honestly about her own writing process?

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Writings from the Diaspora

Where will the best Indian writers come from in future? Read Zafar's take on William Darymple's assertion that the next batch of successful Indian writers in English will emerge from the Diaspora.

My own feeling is that much of the sharpest writing comes from writers who straddle two very different cultures giving them a certain amount of distance and perspective - the ability to see both as insider and outsider at the same time.

Says Zafar:
The fact is the market for Indian (and even African) writing in English is not in India but in America and Europe. It is natural that Indian writers, who have degrees and addresses in London or New York, will succeed as they have better access to literary agents or publishers. Also, the lack of a literary culture in India, especially in centres like Delhi as noted by William, will not be a problem for Indian writers in the West.

True for writers here too, I think.

Chickens and eggs. Chickens and eggs.

How do we grow a literary culture locally?

Answers on a postcard please.

What Are You Reading? Any Good?

Me, I seem to be reading lots of ittle-bittle snatches of things and not reaching the end of anything.

That damn bee book was the exception and that I had to read for the book club meet.

Our next read is Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald, which is waiting patiently on my to-be-read-shelf. (With dozens of others.)

I've still got the Edward Carey Observatory Mansions to finish.

Have read most of Alice Munro's excellent short collection Dance of the Happy Shades (one of my warehouse sale purchases!).

Started The Little Friend by Donna Tartt at the hairdressers (should have read it yonks ago) and already I know I'm going to love it.

Am a third of the way through Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist, which I'm sipping slowly because I have to keep reading back over the passages I've enjoyed most ... word drunk, delighted and entertained am I. I picked up the book because I keep reading about Kunzru (bookslamming,, mixing cocktails ... you know, all the things that authors usually do) and it seemed daft not to have read anything by him. Besides .... Nope. I won't tell you. It'll have to be a surprise.

Am also snacking on various books by Scottish writers to find extracts that will work well when read aloud and keep a restless MPH-Saturday-afternoon-walk past audience happy. Trying to find an extract from Irving Walsh's Trainspotting that won't shock all those mums with kids ... may just give up on that one!

Then there's the books for review. Shall put aside Hari for a while to read Saturday. Then there's the couple of novels-in-progress I've promised to read for other people ...

Picked up a pre-loved copy of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry from Silverfish the other day and am enjoying dipping in in odd moments.

You might think me totally nuts (probably do already) but I love to read poetry aloud ... in the bathroom where the acoustics are good. (Try it and see!)Poetry is three dimensional, but on the printed page only two.

I seem to go through phases with my reading ... times when I can whizz through books, and times like now when I find it hard to concentrate and would so much rather write instead. I suppose that's a blessing of sorts.

Now what are YOU reading? Any good?

Friday, August 12, 2005

Got a Story Looking for a Home?

Leah just sent me news of the Zoetrope: All-Story short-fiction competition which accepts entries from outside the US. Why not give it a go?

Sharpley Road

The council house was spanking new.

My mum was thrilled with the indoor toilet
And plumbed-in bath.
Wanted too a tradesman’s entrance
Round the side.

“Don’t you know my husband’s a professional,” she said
In her special voice that made her sound
Like the queen at Christmas.
To the man who came to sell brushes door-to-door.

My dad swotted for engineering exams
At the kitchen table.

Late summer nights
Light shone still through my bedroom curtains.
I heard kids yelling in the street outside
And envied them.
My parents didn’t like me to play with
The “proles” because
I was not common like them.

A bogey-man lived at number eight.
You had to run fast past his door.
But no-one had ever seen him.

Digging to Australia with a plastic trowel -
Dirt in my finger nails and knots in my hair.
Collected insects in jars.
Earthworms baked in the sun to a crisp
When I forgot them.

Awoke with night terrors -
Big yellow eyes in the ceiling of my room
And the scream frozen in my throat.

There was hell to pay
If I got fingerprints on the furniture,
Mum’s paid-for-on-the-never-never
Georgian repro stuff.

Opened doors for my sister who didn’t
Want to crawl like other babies but
Shuffled on her bum.

My father read me Alice in Wonderland
And The Water Babies
(With Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid.)
Told me his stories of Malaya
Repairing bridges, rebuilding roads
R&R in Penang.

Playing Oranges and Lemons
In the road
(Chip chop the last man’s -).
And a ring game
One golden afternoon:
Simple Sally sitting on the sand.
My baby sis in the centre
Wearing a blue sunhat.

Speeding up and down the road on my scooter
Making neenaw police car noises.
Headquarters in a cardboard box.

Dad taught me to the trick of reading
One weekend.
I added the big words he used
To my store.

Hated frilly dresses
The feel of nylon party frocks
My favourite dress was brown and had fringing on the bodice
Like a Red Indian squaw.

We thought our washing had been stolen from the line
One morning.
Walked down to the phone booth with Dad
(Press Button A Button B)
To call the police.
Later found a neighbour
Had taken our clothes in at dawn
Because it looked like rain.

Watch With Mother
(Rag Tag and Bobtail, The Woodentops)
Was never
Watched with my mother
Who had a house to clean.

Riding on the upper deck of the bus to town
Turning over the Victorian pennies,
The Georges and Edwards in my father’s change.
Wondering at the strangeness of the past.

Told mum about next door’s dog
Enjoying bones I’d taken round.
“Licking her chops,” I said
Repeating my neighbour’s words.
Felt the full weight of her flailing fists
As she drove home her point:
“We speak proper English in this house.”

Dad walked me to school,
And at the gate wiped breakfast
From my mouth,
Cleaned sleep-encrusted eyes
With spit on his handkerchief.

One day when I refused to eat
Mum pushed my face down
Into my dinner
And mashed potato filled my nose.

Learned how to freeze time
One day
By as a simple effort of will.
Eyes shut
“I will always remember this moment.”

And have.

© Sharon Bakar 2005

My Ideal Job

Oh, to just be able to read all day and get paid for it! Think I just found my ideal job. "Reader-in-Residence". Is it any wonder that I envy Susan Tranter who holds this post for The British Council?

Her work (and yes, I guess she has to do something other than read, sadly!) includes writing reviews (check out her books of the month - there are some excellent recommendations here if you are stumped for what to read next!), taking part in in regular online discussions, compiling quizzes, and dispensing advice on reading, readers’ groups and the book world in general.

The Encompass website also features an author interview each month which gives readers a chance to get close to writers, by putting their own questions to them. From the website:
This month it's the turn of best-selling travel writer and novelist William Dalrymple. His travel books In Xanada, City of Djinns, From the Holy Mountain and The Age of Kali have been acclaimed by readers and critics alike. His most recent book, White Mughals ('a brilliant and compulsively readable book' according to Salman Rushdie), is soon to be turned into a stage play by the National Theatre.

If you want to play interviewer, send in questions for William by Friday 19th August. You can ask about his books, his writing career, perhaps his enduring fascination with India - or anything else! You can read interviews with previously featured writers including A.L. Kennedy, Alain de Botton, Hari Kunzru, Ali Smith and Toby Litt on the website. Good stuff.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Smoggier Still ...

The "haze" a.k.a. the smog from hell is worse still today. According to The Department of the Environment, the API here in Petaling Jaya is 349.

I was joking about API's over 500 yesterday ... but it has hit 529 in Klang and 531 in Kuala Selangor.

It was the first item on the BBC news broadcast just now. There was Jonathan Kent telling the world that a state of emergency has been declared.


I turned to the local TV stations. Programming as usual. No news flashes or alerts. Shouldn't they be keeping the country constantly updated? Or shouldn't there be at least a ticker thingy running across the bottom of the screen?

This news from Forbes.

The place to turn is you want breaking news is Project Petaling Street where Malaysian bloggers ping their latest entry.

Here are a few of the latest haze pings just to give those of you who live far away a taste of what living under a pall of smoke is like. (If you live in the Klang Valley you'll probably want to entertain yourselves elsewhere, I don't blame you.)

Fashion Asia invites you to see the view for yourself; PapiMami talks of panic buying in the supermarkets; Paul Tan posts a satellite picture of the plume of smoke from Sumatra heading our way; Suanie provides lyrics for some great patriotic haze songs if you've got any breath left to sing; and Perpetual Rush wants a leopardskin surgical mast (we must be gaya even as we choke to death, see?)

But the most brilliant idea comes from Haze Haters who is inviting everyone to send in their photos of the "haze" for an online photo petition. He's had some entries already.

The Malay Mail today offered some tips on how to stay healthy including
* Women should consider covering the head with a scarf.

One wonders why only women and not both sexes, unless the writer had another agenda.

But how about this as a way to beat the haze?

Photo of Erik Fearn from Jeff Ooi.


Some very funny haze jokes from Midnight Lily . Gotta laugh or you'd cry, innit?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Wah!!!! Tash Got Longlisted!!!!!!!!

Goodness, this is my fourth post today. (Do I think I'm blogathonning or something?) But this news just could not wait.

Of course, today is a saints' day for bibliophiles. The Man Booker longlist was announced just a few minutes ago.

And our Tash is on it!

Here's the full list. The Guardian had this to say about the selection. And here's Boyd Tonkin's take on it in The Independent.

Okay ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. Who is going to make it to the shortlist? (I've already placed mine, but not telling. Is there a bookie around?)

Just picked up a copy of Saturday to review today and intend to buy the Ali Smith next trip to MPH. That'll do for starters.

One Apocalyptic Afternoon

They call it "haze". Euphemistically.

The air thick with smoke from fires burning in that legendary "neighbouring country" we're all too polite to name.

So thick that the traffic lights are on at midday along the expressway, and I can hardly see the buildings on the other side. The sun an orange ball, sick and unreal.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comhe streets and open-air cafes are deserted. Shop doors firmly closed. Folks scuttle indoors as quickly as they can. The cautious ones wearing face masks.

I'm sneezing, my eyes sting.

Indoors, with windows shut, the smell of burning still.

Someone on the e-group says that the air pollution index (for too long classified information although now apparently we're permitted to know) reached 410 in Klang at noon. Way past hazardous. 500 is emergency. Or does it mean you're dead?

My husband tells me to leave the country. He wants Malaysia to declare war. ("I'm serious." He is. I'm glad he never entered politics.)

Someone on the e-group suggests a petition.

Someone else suggests this has become Mordor. There should be Orcs running around.

Someone else declares that the end of the world is at hand now that the winged-chariot space shuttle has landed.

This apocolyptic afternoon.

Only rain can help, but when will rain come? No real rain expected till October.

Can't they seed a cloud?

Just drink more water, stay indoors, eat cucumbers. The usual drill. You've been here before. Almost every year. Don't get dramatic about it. You'll live.

Or have we just grown so used to this that we treat it just as another season of the year? We who have no seasons but monsoon and heat and musim buah might perhaps relish the variety? Or perhaps we'd like our fish from Klang ready-smoked?

Celebrating Scotland

British Council is organising a Celebrate Scotland month from 15 August to 16 September 2005 with plenty of exciting stuff happening.

Theatre Babel will be performing Macbeth at the KL Performing Arts Centre and you will also be able to catch the Macbeth in the Shadows Wayang Kulit performances.

I'm involved with the library displays and readings from selected Scottish authors’ works at MPH Bookstore, 1-Utama Shopping Centre on Sept 3rd. It should be fun!

There's more ... much more ... screening of a Scottish film, storytelling, sonnet writing for schoolkids, bagpipes ...

And there's an online competition where you stand to win a trip to Scotland and other prizes. It's all on the website. Go take a peek! .

Malaysia in a Nutshell?

Malaysia is an extremely complex country ... and to simplify the social and political landscape for outsiders is no easy task.

You've probably seen this article by Jonathan Kent, our local BBC correspondent already, since it got passed on on e-groups and by e-mail.

It struck a chord with me. Malaysia has a rich heritage and the loss of traditional arts and culture I find heartbreaking.

And I thought these lines telling:

"All we can do these days is tut tut at one another," a Malay friend tells me.

Across the country one sees the evidence of a culture of disapproval.

Would love to know your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Buzz on the Bee Book

Last night wonderful food and booktalk at Jessica's. Gene Girl's choice under scrutiny this month: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. (Though Gene Girl herself was missing in action.)

The synopsis from Monk Kidd's website:
In this New York Times bestseller, a young girl's search for the truth about her mother leads her to three beekeeping sisters who take her into their mesmerizing world of bees and honey and of a mysterious Black Madonna. A novel about mothers and daughters and the women in our lives who become our true mothers. A story about the divine power of women and the transforming power of love.

As sweet and sticky as the book it describes!

The group was pretty much divided between the yes-I-enjoyed-its and the no-I-couldn't-stand-its. Our only guy, Kumar, hated it - described it as "oestrogen-soaked" and said it "bored the crap" out of him. (Kumar is fast becoming master of the soundbite.)

I found it a nice, relaxing read to begin with, though thought the humour a little forced. I like the characters, particularly 'The Calendar Sisters' who take Lily in. But the book sags horribly towards the end and I found myself skimming the last third just to get to the end quickly. (As someone said last night "I wanted the Klu Klux Klan and some lynching.") I also found the feminine solidarity theme utterly cloying.

This is Hallmark Channel stuff. (Can just see Oprah and Whoopie Goldberg playing leading parts.) It drips honey and niceness and feel-goodness, but never gives us a convincing account of the inner life of its protagonist.

I think the book might appeal rather more to teenagers, although a much better read would be Carson Mc Cullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Monday, August 08, 2005

New Life for the Novel

Jason Cowley, a former Booker Prize judge, reckons that this is the best year yet for British fiction since the prize began in this piece from today's Observer.

The Booker longlist is announced on Wednesday! Have got lots of catch-up reading to do.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Untold Story

My telephone interview with Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in The Star today, alongside a review of their new books Mao: The Unknown Story by Phar Kim Beng.

Jung Chang’s new book (co-written with historian husband, Jon Halliday) grew from her own unanswered questions about the man who had so profoundly influenced her own life. “I didn’t know what he did exactly or how he came to power and I wanted to find out,” she says in a telephone interview. The couple found out a great deal more than they bargained for and Mao: The Unknown Story is the result of more than ten years of painstaking research.
“I didn’t know that there was this much new material,” says Chang “One piece of research just lead to another.” Chang carried out the research in China while Halliday, did the non-Chinese research. They delved into foreign archives and interviewed more than 100 people who had known Mao personally including members of his family, former colleagues and staff, heads of state and leading political figures. It was a process that was exhausting and both suffered from serious health problems along the way.

Their research turned up many surprises along the way. “The biggest shock,” says Chang “was about the great famine. We calculated that thirty-eight million people died. We thought initially that the economy was mismanaged, and that’s what I said in Wild Swans.” They were amazed to learn instead that “Mao had calculated the number of deaths as part of the plan to buy nuclear arms. Few in the world know that Mao’s single-minded pursuit of the weapons. He was ruthless and would not let the death of millions stand in his way.”

Halliday estimates that around 95% of the “really important stuff” they uncovered was from Russia, and he visited the country four times while they were researching the book “One file alone was a quarter of a million pages. There were tens of thousands of pages detailing for example, Mao’s first big purge and how his colleagues tried to leave him behind on the Long March. There were cables between Stalin and Mao towards the end of the civil war. And I got wonderful interviews with people who’d dealt with Mao during the 1950’s including Khrushchev’s interpreter ”

The most difficult archive to access was that of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Halliday says he was surprised at how much closer the relationship was with Russia than had been pretended, “By 1929 Stalin had identified Mao as the guy who was going to win and decided to back him. We were able to document that up to the hilt.”

I tell Halliday that the book has provoked some strong reactions in some of the online forums I’ve been reading. Some have accused Jung and Halliday of having “an obvious bias”. Someone else described the book as “unremittingly negative.’

Halliday seems quite upset by such accusations. “I dislike people saying we acted with ulterior motives. We did not set out with any agenda, just to write a well done comprehensive biography. We did a lot of hard work to get the details right and fair. We set out to answer questions, for example, what were Mao’s political decisions throughout his life? We did uncover a lot of new material and we found that his policy decisions were entirely consistent. We looked hard at everything he said in public and to his inner circle and in her research in China, Jung captured the real Mao.”

“In fact,” he goes on “We would welcome an open debate on the facts. But no-one so far has come up with any evidence to refute what we’ve said.”

Both agree that the success of Chang’s Wild Swans, opened doors for them which would otherwise have remained closed. “People in China were very keen to talk to Jung because she had written Wild Swans. It was thought that the book made people sympathetic to the Chinese. World statesmen were interested and agreed to see us including former presidents and I don’t think any of that would have happened without Wild Swans,” says Halliday.

I tell Chang that for all it’s meticulous research and careful scholarship, this is a surprisingly readable book.

“We tried very hard not to make the book dry,” says Chang adding that it was important to her to add a strong human interest angle. Particularly revealing, she says, is the way that Mao treated his wives with great callousness and indifference. It’s hard not to feel pity for Kai-Hui, Mao’s second wife, who was executed by nationalists in 1930. Chang was able to use a cache of letters that Kai-Hui had hidden behind a roof-beam before she was imprisoned. “She was abandoned with three children and he didn’t lift a hand to save her. He was completely indifferent. He didn’t care about her, the people or the party.”

With their new book poised to blow the myth of Mao apart, do they think that Chinese society is ready to take on a changed view of Mao?

Halliday thinks it unlikely though that the biography be available in China where Mao is still acknowledged as being “30% wrong but 70% right” in official parlance. “But I think China would be a healthier and stronger place if the truth were open to scrutiny. The Chinese have a right to know what happened to their country and I believe that Chinese society is ready to take this on because facing the truth can’t be as hard as living under him.”

“Mao was simply the most anti-Chinese person there’s ever been,” Halliday adds. The book makes a convincing case for that.

I was greatly impressed by the meticulous research that went into the book. Chang and Halliday had access to archives in Mainland China, Russia, Taiwan, Albania, USA, Great Britain, India and Germany. They interviewed over 100 people who knew Mao personally, as well as an impressive list of world leaders (including presidents Bush Snr. and Ford), and major political figues. This is scholarly work ... not the work of a couple who set out merely to grind an axe as some have implied. And it is extremely readable with plenty of human interest on the pages.

If the book is a catalyst for debate reassessment of China's history, then it will have done its job very well indeed.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

British Books for Malaysian Schools

This article from today's New Straits Times describes a project initiated by The Centre for British Teachers (an organisation I used to work for, by the way): pupils in schools in rural areas will be receiving books contributed by schools in Britain to encourage the learning of english.

I applaud anyone who puts books in the hands of kids and encourages them to read.

But is it necessary for an overseas agency to do what the government here should really be doing by itself? Is this country so impoverished that it cannot afford to equip its schools adequately to cater for growing minds? Surely books for schools should be among a country's first priorities?

Wouldn't it be nice if the CfBT project could shame the Ministry into releasing adequate funds for every school to have a decent library?