Friday, September 30, 2005

Painted Piggies, Wingging Words

Do go read Leon's poem about his reading at 67, Jalan Tempinis 1. He captures the whole experience so well.

And so does Nizam on his fotoblog! There's one of Leon strutting his stuff. Go see.

Being Bennett

Alan Bennett is a writer I love for his humanity, sense of voice and sheer audacity. Perhaps if my fairy godmother waved her wand at me and asked me which writer I'd most like to be, I'd choose to be Bennett for those very qualities. (Yes, even over Annie Proulx!)

I didn't manage to catch all five of hisTalking Heads monologues serialised by the BBC, but they were extremely funny and well observed. I love his long short stories The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Laying on of Hands, as well as his account of an elderly lady who parked her van in front of his house and proceeded to live there for several years.

Now Bennett has a new book out, Untold Stories, about his mother's mental illness. Reading this extract from the Telegraph struck a chord, became my mother too began to imagine that there were spies everywhere (tapping the phone, intercepting the mail, everything a plot against her or her family - even my husband losing a legal case across the world in Malaysia was her fault according to her warped logic).

Bennett's mother suffered from depression, a condition which Bennett says is largely ignored by the medical profession:
Depression, which is much the most common mental illness, doesn't even qualify as such and mustn't be so labelled, perhaps because it's routine and relatively unshowy; but maybe, too, because it's so widespread not calling depression mental illness helps to sidestep the stigma.
It makes me deeply angry that any kind of mental illness carries a stigma because it makes it so hard for suffers to seek the treatment they need. This is a corner I would love to fight myself, and I'm glad that Bennett is writing about it.


More on Bennett's new book from the Guardian.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Ah me. At times when I start feeling sorry for myself I pick up one of Julia Cameron's books for a good kick up the arse.

Her attitude can be summarised as "Quit moaning - the problems in your life are your own because you let them be". (My paraphrase.) And painful as it is to take on board, she's right. Tough love, because tough love is needed. For writers. For all creatives. Hell, for just about anyone who wants to live happily ever after.

One thing she's tough about, is getting rid of the folks she calls crazymakers. She writes in The Artist's Way:

A ... thing that creatives do to avoid being creative is to involve themselves with crazymakers. Crazymakers are those personalities that create storm centres. They are often charismatic, frequently charming, highly inventive, and powerfully persuasive. And, for the creative person in their vicinity, they are enormously destructive. ... Crazymakers are the kind of people who can take over your whole life. To fixer-uppers they are irresistible ...
And she identifies a few behaviours that crazymakers exhibit (though I reckon that no single crazy maker encompasses all these behaviours - could anyone be that bad?)
  • Crazymakers break deals and destroy schedules
  • Crazymakers expect special treatment.
  • Crazymakers discount your reality.
  • Crazymakers spend your time and money.
  • Crazymakers triangulate those they deal with.
  • Crazymakers are expert blamers.
  • Crazymakers create dramas - but seldom where they belong.
  • Crazymakers hate schedules - except their own.
  • Crazymakers hate order.
  • Crazymakers deny that they are crazymakers.
  • I'd add to the list that crazymakers seldom know the word 'thank you', and never ever the word 'sorry'. Anything you do for them is never more than they expected anyway, and nothing that goes wrong can possibly be their fault. They are what you might call, emotionally dyslexic.

    I worked with the worst crazy maker I've ever known, not so long ago and barely survived the experience with my sanity intact. I live with a part-time crazy maker who he can still have me in tears of exasperation, even though I should be wiser by now. I had a crazy maker mum who destroyed my confidence. Others, I've let into my life by choice, because although I knew from the start that they were crazy, I cared enough to want to help. (Yep, am a "fixer-upper" for sure.) They exact a heavy emotional toll they exact, and deplete your creative energy.

    Well, Cameron says we are only involved with them because we are self-destructive and are trying to block our own creativity. We self-sabotage rather well.

    The Booker That Shoulda

    Which was the Booker that got away? I'd have to say A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2005

    Pulling In Pullman

    Fans of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy will no doubt be thrilled to learn that Pullman will be a special guest of BBC World on 17th November. Pullman will be talking about the first novel in the series Northern Lights (called The Golden Compass in the US).

    Your participation in the show is invited. If you'd like the BBC to record you asking your question, send an e-mail to, remembering to include your telephone number.

    Am I a fan? I read the trilogy with mixed feelings. Loved the parallel universe idea, Lyra's familiar yet strange Oxford, the animal companions who reflect the state of your soul (now what did he call them? - anyway I want one!), and wept buckets at the end of the final book. But talking polar bears, sorry, disbelief refused to be suspended quite that far.

    Jesus Lived in India!

    Kumar (our only Book Club guy) sent me a review of a book which is bound to spark some daVinciCode-esque controversy. (How's that for a word coining?)

    German author Holger Kersten asserts that we've been getting it all wrong about the life and crucifixion of Christ for a couple of millenia - actually, as the title of the book states: Jesus Lived in India. I leave you to unravel the debate and to make up your own minds about the scholarliness and veracity (or otherwise) of Kersten's claims, but will slip in this link to a dissenting voice.

    Intriguing theory though and a book I'd sure like to read.

    Tuesday, September 27, 2005

    Changing the Inner World

    Conversational Reading invites debate on the list of Top 40 Most Important Works in the World, 1927 - present posted on the World Literature Today website.

    So much on this list I haven't read (to my shame and ever increasing bookguilt), but I'd place Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, Grass' The Tin Drum, Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Solzhenitsyn One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich on a list of books that changed my inner world forever.

    A Burning Issue

    Tossed the question into the air somewhat flippantly the other day, can novelists change the world?

    Robert Mcfarlane writing in the Guardian's Science and Nature pages thinks so:
    The authoritative bibliography of American and British nuclear literature runs to over 3,000 items: it includes Ian McEwan's oratorio "Or Shall We Die", JG Ballard's The Terminal Beach, Martin Amis's Einstein's Monsters, Raymond Briggs's When The Wind Blows, as well as work by Edward Abbey, Ray Bradbury, Upton Sinclair, Neville Shute. This literature did not only annotate the politics of the nuclear debate, it helped to shape it. As well as feeding off that epoch of history, it fed into it.
    Can writers now steer world opinion about climate change, surely the biggest challenge currently facing us?
    It does not yet, with a few exceptions, exist as art. Where are the novels, the plays, the poems, the songs, the libretti, of this massive contemporary anxiety? ... The question is pressing. For an imaginative repertoire is urgently needed by which the causes and consequences of climate change can be debated, sensed, and communicated.
    Fortunately, it looks as if there are several novelists prepared to come to the rescue:
    ... a fortnight ago, I was part of an unorthodox conference, hosted by the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, at which 30 scientists and 30 artists - including McEwan, Philip Pullman, Caryl Churchill and Gretel Ehrlich - were brought together to discuss how art and science might collaborate in fighting climate change.
    He adds on a slightly grimmer note: may become hard for writers not to take climate change as their subject.

    Monday, September 26, 2005

    Soap Oprah

    Fiction needs all the big mouth friends it can get, so pleased I am indeed that Oprah Winfrey is going to feature works by contemporary writers again. Now, I'm no fan of her often melodramatic and always glurgy talk show, but she's put some pretty strong titles in the limelight in the past, including works by Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb and Anita Shreve. And her endorsement means that these works are also thrust before the Malaysian reading public. We all like to be told what's good to read - no shame in that.

    My own particular debt of gratitude to Oprah is that without her book club, I probably never would have heard of one of my favourite books - Bernhard Schlink's The Reader.

    Oprah stopped featuring contemporary titles after a spat with Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections, a novel I very much enjoyed) in 2002.

    She then decided that dead authors were a safer bet, since they couldn't talk back. But the classic titles she chose did not generate the same enthusiasm, and readers lobbied for contemporary fiction to be put back on the menu. She's now featuring A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

    Do check out Oprah's website for some interesting discussion of some very good reads.

    Sunday, September 25, 2005

    Occasional Nudist Pumps Deltoids on The Road to Elvis

    So as usual lah, I report on Readings at 67 Jalan Tempinis 1.

    Kam Raslan was first up and read two pieces: the first about Tunku Abdul Rahman, and the second another extract from his work-in-progress (linked short stories I think rather than a novel). Very nicely written and witty. A line that made everyone laugh "He's so cultured, it's as if he's a Singaporean." I loved the image of the "army of goats" on the road, and a tear hissing as it hit the tip of a cigarette. Also his line about the Malays being better than the Chinese because whereas the Chinese take three generations to lose money (the saying goes something like the first generation makes the money, the second hoards it and the third manages to blow it all), the Malays manage it in two - and sometimes even one.

    Kam has almost finished his book and is now seeking a publisher. Can't wait to read it in its entirety.

    Dina Zaman said she was nervous, but read very well. First a little taste of her "long short story" Road to Elvis, set in Terengganu in 1984. A very entertaining story set against a period of religious and political change in the region. Her second piece was a short story called How To Stay Married about a couple whose sex life was going down the tubes, espcially as the husband was addicted to prostitutes. Nicely told, and I could see the audience totally caught up in the tale.

    The dreadlocked Ramat ("Writer, actor and occasional nudist," said Bernice by way of introduction) read some of his poetry. At first he was a little chaotic, rummaging through his notebook looking for his poems. He read, a little too quietly and turned sideways to the audience, with a cigarette burning between his fingers. But then suddenly, he sprang to life with a poem called Keranamu Malaysia about sloganeering. Very effective and brilliantly performed with changes in pace and rhythm and pitch. (How very far away from a polite deklamasi puisi!)

    After the break Maggie Tan read. Maggie was one of Bernice's creative writing students at CENFAD and I remember her telling me some time back that this girl has talent. She read a fable-like story and then Bernice read her macabre story Theatre des Marionettes that was recently published in Silverfish New Writing 5. She writes very well for one so young (she's 18), and later on with maturity on her side could be a name to watch.

    Our dear friend Leon read several very short pieces (the guy is a minaturist!) including his poem Is It Okay for Me to Rhyme? and his short shorts Look Who Stepped in When the Train Stopped at the Station and While He Lay Downstairs and She Upstairs. Yes, as he feared, his voice was a bit lost in the space. (At least he didn't have the call to prayers from the mosque to contend with as Kam did!)

    Pang, Kakiseni editor and photographer ("We are what we pose") read a piece about taking photographs in a gay club. This being Pang there was much exchange of body fluids in the piece. But there were interesting reflections on identity and how it shifts in the darkness of the club. And a nice turn of phrase has our Pang: one fat guy had "enough body mass to keep a cannibal village alive for months", whilst another "spent more time pumping deltoids than cerebral coretex". I laughed at the line about a blind masseur carressing his testicles as if reading braille!

    A good afternoon, yes. At the end of the session as we stand around chatting and finishing the last La Bodega sponsored wine, it feels as if something very positive has been achieved. As indeed it has.

    If you are interested in local writing or write yourself, do come along to the next one. (I'll post details here or you can contact Bernice ( to ask to be on the mailing list. There is no cliquiness or snobbery about the readings (believe me, I'd be the first to run if there were!) and there is no better way to find encouragment for your craft.

    See you there!


    Read Leon's version of the afternoon, and then move on to read of Little Miss D's ordeal.

    Saturday, September 24, 2005

    In Praise of Truly Awful Writing

    Really, you have to do an awful lot of bad writing before you can turn out good. A valid argument for writing your quota of rubbish for the NaNoWriMo.

    Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is interviewed in the Guardian:
    "I wrote such bad stuff for such a long time." He owns up to five unpublished novels and says his first, called "The Blue Guitar Murders", might be "the worst unpublished novel ever. But looking back I'm really glad I wrote so badly for such a long time. It is very difficult to be successful as a young novelist because of the pressure to then reproduce it when you often don't know why you'd written a good book in the first place. I've spent half my life under the bonnet trying to find out why things don't work. When Curious Incident worked I knew why because I'd been fiddling with those spark plugs for so long."

    Now, I know for a fact that he does not have the worst unpublished novel ever ... because it's surely the one sitting in my drawer!

    Curiously incidentally, I asked an Asperger's friend of mine what he thought of Haddon's first book and says he was impressed with it and thought Haddon had got things right.

    Conversation With a Tai Ko

    Foreigners can often get away with saying things that citizens can't or won't say. BBC's Jonathan Kent reports on the triads in Malaysia. Scariest part of the interview with a prospective tai ko:
    Ah Hing makes no bones about his world and his life. "I admit that I am a bad guy, and that I'm a gangster," he said.

    "So who runs your world?" I asked - to which he gave a simple reply : "The government".

    Friday, September 23, 2005

    What Flavour is Your Novel?

    I can't eat cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches without thinking of D.H. Lawrence.

    See, cheese and pickle sandwiches were my staple diet the summer I worked in Barnaby's toyshop, and hungrily read Women in Love, The Virgin and the Gypsy and The Rainbow in quick succesion during my all too short lunch breaks.

    Edgar Allan Poe is the scent of overripe bananas. His Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Birmingham Library copy) was squashed at the bottom of my rucksack with the remains of my picnic lunch as I trudged 22 miles across the Malvern Hills on a sponsored walk. (Coincidentally on the same day as those guys landed on the moon.) Neither book nor banana survived the trip.

    Ipoh Chicken Rice with extra beansprouts is the flavour of my induction into science writing. I devoured Steven Jay Gould's essays in that shop in Section 5 in between teaching practice observations. (Hmmm ... why do men have nipples? Glad I know the answer.)

    A Suitable Boy smells of the calamine lotion I had to dab on when I had shingles.

    Many of my more recent reads taste of fishball mee soup from Centrepoint.

    Pucuk ubi masak lemak* is going to be the flavour of John Banville's The Sea. I'm doing an awful lot of my reading these days in the canteen of Damansara Specialist Hospital, going for physiotherapy for an achilles tendon that refuses to heal. (Step class goddess no longer.) And the Malay food in the canteen is surpringly good, including this dish which is a favourite.

    This information may save some PhD student a lot of time as he embarks on DNA research into the various little stains on the library of the famous Sharon Bakar.

    *Tapioca leaves cooked in coconut milk.

    Thursday, September 22, 2005

    Stick To Your Novel Writing, Mr. Rushdie

    Beware of simplistic answers to the world's ills, Giles Fraser warns Salman Rushdie in the Guardian. He believes that Rushdie the novelist has increasingly been overtaken by his public crusading. He should stick to his original vocation because the novelist is in a unique position to enable us to appreciate different viewpoints.
    ... these dangerous times require the moral imagination of the novel as much as ever. And this in two specific respects: first, in the capacity of the novel to be more humble than the pamphleteer with regard to ideology; and second, in its capacity to listen to and be affected by moral worlds very different from one's own."
    Nicely argued.

    Just one problem: do the people who need heart and opinion transplants actually read novels?

    More Readings

    Bernice e-mailed news of the next session of Readings:

    after a one month hiatus, we are pleased again to
    bring you another reading at 67tempinis satu

    this month we feature the following writers:

    dina zaman
    leon wing
    maggie tan
    kam raslan

    and more!

    venue: 67 tempinis satu, lucky garden, bangsar.

    time: 3.30pm
    date: 24 sept 2005

    readings is made possible with the generous sponsorship of the gallery at 67tempinis satu and la bodega.

    please come join us for an afternoon of wine and
    words. pass the word around and...

    see you there!

    bernice chauly

    hp: 012 323 0929
    Leon's first reading! Come and cheer him on! Methinks it should be a fun afternoon ...

    Wednesday, September 21, 2005

    Well, Love ... Actually

    Methinks I've writ about the difficulties of putting love on the page before. Never mind.

    In the course of surfing hither and thither to find material for an article, I came across a beautifully written piece by Canadian writer/performer Cass King on writing about sex and love. Sex, she says, is easy enough to write about satirically because it's a fairly ridiculous act, innit? (And she gives a delightful example vaginas making noises like whopee cushions! Well, hers might ...)

    Writing about love, on the other hand, is like shooting at pineapples in the dark. It is dangerous, messy, terrifying. Writing about love is wrestling with weird ghosts, ectoplasmic riots of the spirit, intoxication of the senses. Love is the Bermuda Triangle of the intellect, the place where reason lists to starboard and navigational instruments become unreliable. I'm not one to believe in love as a falling; love never seems so passive. Infatuation can be uncontrollable, but to me, true lovers are pumpers of handcarts on old-fashioned railways. Love requires effort; sweating, swaying, holding on for dear life, that is being in love.
    As a cautionary note she adds:
    But writing about love is thankless; it's like writing about old dogs at the pound: nobody really gives a damn about love unless it belongs to them.
    The great writer is the one who can make the reader feel that that love belongs to them too. Who manages it? Neruda, Rumi, Shakespeare, de Bernieres ...


    I spent a very happy hour getting lost in Cass' website. Check out her poetry and (if you're 18+ and not a prude!) her pieces for Organ Grinder which yes, is a sex column.

    Tuesday, September 20, 2005

    Hello, Would You Like a Free Book?

    Ian McEwan hands out free books in Central London and in the process discovers that the novel would die a death if it weren't for female readers. Interesting!

    Local Writers' Manifesto?

    Trawling through the Sun online the other day for the feature on Kee Thuan Chye, I realised that there were some other excellent interviews with local writers archived. Beth Yahp talks about the writer's life, how her first novel The Crocodile Fury came to be published overseas but found a long time to make it to these shores ... and about the local literary scene.

    I agree wholeheartedly with what she says about where the Malaysian creative writing scene is headed:
    I think just from readings that I’ve gone to and the classes that I’ve run that there’s some interesting work being done here. Real interesting work.

    And I think there’s also an energy here, an enthusiasm. And it would be good to see that kind of energy and enthusiasm and the kind of work that is already being done, kind of, harnessed and see it result in something… I’m not sure what that thing is, actually.

    I mean, we can’t help talking about markets and publishing, but I’ve just been encouraging everybody to self-publish. Coz, like last night, we were talking about outlets for people writing fiction — there are not that many in Malaysia for writing in English. And yet, the students have a lot of energy and are keen to write and keen for their work to be heard or read. And, so for me, you know, it’s like, ‘Okay, if you’re keen on getting read, just do something about it.’ I mean, that’s how movements get created, when people have the energy to actually start things and keep it going.

    And now, with the means of production [that we have], producing is actually much easier because you can practically do it all with your little iBook. Distribution is still a problem, but there are various means of getting around that.

    I think there’s a lot of potential. I think people are probably not so sure about how to go about things. And again, my comments are based on [a] very narrow experience; I haven’t actually looked at the literary scene as a whole.

    But, I have a sense that the idea of writing and being a writer, and kind of leading a writing life, is so new here to most people. Most people here are at a stage where it’s a dream, you have a dream of being a writer but you really don’t know what the steps are that need to be taken to get there. And so, what we probably need is a sharing of information. And also a kind of sharing of possibilities.

    And what I’m really comparing this to is when I was a student and learning the craft of writing but also kind of learning how the writing scene and the publishing scene and the small magazines scene worked. And so, we were doing things like producing work ourselves and writing stuff, and then sending it off to small magazines. And there were a lot of small magazines around. And that’s the thing that I’m asking myself. Where are the small magazines here which are run by students? You know, because they are really the training ground for new writers and also they are the means by which new writers get their work seen. Where are all the readings with open mike sections where the new writers can go up and listen to established writers and read and be heard on the same platform? Because we used to do that. Famous writers or people who were more experienced would be reading on the official list and there would always be an open mike section where students could go up. And then you have the experience of reading your stuff in public and then you get to talk to the more established writers and a connection gets made. And then you go and listen to authors speaking, um, you do writing workshops, you send your stuff out. So, there’s quite a lot of turnover with all this stuff happening…

    It’s not just like kind of dreaming about it, sitting in your room by yourself, in isolation. That’s very hard! I mean, I think that’s very, very hard, to begin writing, in isolation. So, that’s the kind of stuff I would love to see happening here.
    I'd love that too. We gotta get off our bums and make some of these things happen!

    Monday, September 19, 2005

    A Masters in Bookography

    Someone called Eng dropped by my blog and asked a question I'm not really too sure how to answer. There may well be readers out there who know a lot more than me, so I throw the floor open to you.
    I was wondering if you could impart sound advice with regards to getting a Masters in English. I'm really interested in all things books, am an avid reader but have no desire to be a novelist in the future or even a serious writer.

    Will obtaining a Masters in English be of any benefit in paving the way to working with books (not actually writing them, if there is what are the options? ), aside from the fact that I am interested in doing it cos well, im interested...?

    Would you recommend any particular learning institution (locally or otherwise ) that offer it part time?

    Sorry if it seems like a whole list of very *duh* questions but I figured you would be in the know for things like this and I would appreciate it greatly if you could enlighten me some :)
    My answer is that I know that she should contact the British Council and other foreign missions for information. Some of the MFA Creative Writing courses I've looked at in Australia and the US include components in editing and publishing. (I'm thinking of doing a PhD - probably in Australia - focusing on these areas.)

    I guess that most people who go through academic courses in creative writing don't end up as published writers anyway. Even the famous UEA Creative Writing M.A. sees a tiny minority of its graduates scooping lucrative contracts - my guess is that the rest end up in the publishing industry somewhere. Many very successful editors are "failed" writers.

    I guess that another sensible approach would be to contact publishing houses and bookstores (locally and overseas) and ask them what kinds of jobs they have going and what kind of qualifications you need to have.

    In the end, there was not a single Malaysian applicant forThe British Council's The Young Publisher of the Year Award which was a great pity. You might consider applying next year but you would need to get some industry experience first.

    Malaysia needs publishers, editors, agents, enlightened booksellers every bit as much as it needs writers. I wish you all the best, Eng!

    Sunday, September 18, 2005

    The Silverfish Bug

    Our friendly bookshop owner, Mr. Raman, was interviewed in yesterday's Star by Martin Vengadesan.

    Raman has two books out this month. First of all, there's the next volume in the Silverfish New Writing series. No.5, edited by professor Ronald D. Klein of Japan’s Hiroshima Jogakuin University, is launched next Saturday.

    Raman seems to be a little unwhelmed by the quality of some of the stories Klein has chosen :
    “Well, you can’t expect all of them to be of equal quality, but I would say that almost all of them have their moments. I am particularly impressed with The Geology of Malaysia by Christopher Yin, and A Wedding and a Funeral by Matthew Thomas. I really love The Geology of Malaysia. Of course, there are one or two that make me think, ‘Hmm, how did that get in there?’ But I’m adamant about leaving the decision to the editor.”
    Three things of interest for me about this collection:

    1) Raman has sponsorship for this volume from HSBC. Well done!

    2) Apparently, Singaporean and Australian authors feature prominently in this volume. Again! Where the bloody hell are our local writers and why aren't they keeping pace? So quit moaning if you're a writer who says no-one give you a chance because how many of you accepted this challenge?

    3) One of the stories I rejected (not telling which or why) for my anthology Collateral Damage made it into this volume. It may well have been completely revised, or it may just be that different editors see things differently. Both possibilities should be seen as encouragement for those of you who have had work rejected along the way.

    The second new release is of course Raman's own collection The Wedgwood Ladies Football Club and Other Stories which I told you about the other day. Raman has this to say about his first book:
    “I must say that this has been a terrifying experience ... I don’t even consider it a book, just a collection of stories. It was a fun project, done during my free time, and I never had any intention to publish it. I just showed it to a few friends, who said I should take it further.”
    Raman did not show the book to me before it was published. (I'm probably the "inner critic" of his worst nightmares!) But I'm glad he found friends to give him useful feedback.

    I've dipped into the book. Of course I had to read the essay he wrote about his troubled friendship with Bernie Tan who wrote Firefly, published by Silverfish in 2000.
    “I just felt I had to say these things. I didn’t go to her funeral, and this is a sort of obituary. Most obituaries lie, painting a rosy picture of a person even if he or she was awful. That’s not how I intended this to be. I knew her, she was very different, and I had to say something. I have absolutely no regrets about publishing it.”
    I found it a very honest piece and I'm glad he included it. Just as I'm glad I know the rest of the story. Firefly was an interesting read, but poorly edited and full of grammar errors. Now I think I know why - Raman had more or less washed his hands of Bernie after a huge-blowup with her. But then, should you put anything out on your own imprint which is less than perfect?

    I have only read one of the stories in the book so far, so jury is still out for the moment.

    Oh ... by the way, a little poke in the eye for all those who decry the Silverfish New Writing series as a pathetic bit of vanity publishing: one writer launched by the series is now following in Tash Aw's footsteps (and Ishiguro's and Toby Litt's and Ian MEwan's and ...) and attending the M.A. in Creative Writing at University of East Anglia.

    What was that that Raman said about Silverfish writers being lazy?

    By the way, Mr. Raman said "Hurrrrmmmmmmmpppphhhhhh" to this particular piece of gossip "It doesn't mean she'll get published."

    You show him, girl! I sincerely wish you all the best ...


    Entries are being accepted for Silverfish New Writing 6. Details here.

    The Novel Is Dead ... Long Live the Novel

    Is fiction really still up to telling the truth about our turbulent times?

    VS Naipaul declared the novel dead in a New York Times interview last month. (You can also listen to an extract here.)

    Now, novelist Jay McInerney, (himself a witness to the tragedy of 9/11) makes a convincing case for the continued relevance of fiction in the Guardian .

    Leon Wing's very articulate take on the article can be read here. Leon also provides further proof, (if further proof is necessary!) that the form is alive an kicking by invoking Patrick McGrath’s novel, Port Mungo. (One I'll have to read now - thanks Leon.)

    I also fail to see signs of the novel's untimely demise. Quite the opposite. (I've slipped between the covers of John Banville's The Sea now and am totally seduced: this is fiction writing alive and kicking!)

    Still, one needs folks like Naipaul to take an extreme position now and again so that others can have the pleasure of knocking him down.

    McInvery made me smile with this thought:
    The only reason we listen to Naipaul is because he wrote A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River. If the novel doesn't matter any more then his opinion wouldn't seem to count for more than my doorman's opinion.

    Saturday, September 17, 2005

    Plagarised Reviews - She's At It Again!

    I've no wish to victimise anyone, least of all a fellow reviewer knowing that the job is pressured and scarcely lucrative. But a couple of days after I highlighted the case of the reviewer who had lifted a substantial part of an article from other sources, and wrote to the editor of the Malay Mail there's another review by the same writer - and yes, much of this one is plagiarised too.

    The article is on p19 of Buzz and is entitled Flamenco Triumph. It is, of course, about the Paco Pena concert (brilliant performance - I was there Tuesday night!) at Dewan Filharmonik.

    I'll just give you a couple of examples (although I found many more and can point to at least four different sources - you can check out Paco Pena's own website for some of them). The following (impressive!) sentence was lifted wholesale from a review in the Yale Daily News:

    The intensity of the music moved in waves of crescendos and decrescendos as the different melodic motifs seamlessly merged from one to the next.

    She lifted the following from a review in The Boston Herald virtually word for word:

    His overall presence, from his expressive upper torso to his flirtatious demeanor, was riveting. ... In contrast, Espino was all intensity, from the deep arch in her back to the look of almost pained focus on her face.

    Now shouldn't there be a sub-editor to catch this kind of abuse, and shouldn't there be help and support for newbie reviewers so they know where the boundaries are?

    Kee Principles

    From the Sun today, an interview with Kee Thuan Chye - journalist, actor, playwright ... my editor at the Star when I write for the Mind Our English page, and of course friend, (when he's not chasing me for the article I should have written weeks ago!).

    I'm so happy to read that Thuan Chye is writing a new play to be called The Fall of Singapura , based on an extract from the Sejarah Melayu. Of course, anyone who know the Birch play will realise that this won't be a straightforward historical narrative, and he says he is doing "A lot of cheeky things ... but very much reflecting and questioning what is going on today." The issues the play raises are what he sees as the Malaysian celebration of mediocrity, and "our confusion about ourselves and the contradictions in our wanting to be progressive and yet adhering to our conservatism".

    But I guess the bad news in the interview is that the novel "in-progress" (that I long to read having seen the extract that appeared in New Writing 10) doesn't seem to be progressing.
    I'll probably write it in my next lifetime [laughs].

    Asked whether he thinks there is enough support for English creative writers and English-language theatre in Malaysia, he says:
    Of course not-lah. We don't have the infrastructure for it. And for a long time, you know, English creative writing had to really work in isolation. There was no recognition for it, and it wasn't easy to get published, for obvious reasons. Because there wasn't a large enough market. There still isn't a large market for Malaysian English writing.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, some of us felt really guilty continuing to write in the colonial language. It was an uneasy time for us. Even now, we could not dream of getting writing residencies in institutions of learning or writing grants.

    And of course, you know, because [pause] there is — I don’t know if it still exists — there used to be this doctrine that national literature was to be literature written in Malay, and literature written in other languages were known as 'sectional' or 'communal' literature.

    I mean, that's also another demeaning thing-lah. If you write in your own mother tongue, you’re only considered to be 'sectional', you know [laughs cynically]. It's the same with the National Culture Policy which still remains to this day. It says that national culture must be based on Malay culture and Nusantara culture! Can you imagine it? Nusantara. That means they're including Indonesia. They're looking so far afield. And only incorporating 'suitable elements' from immigrant cultures.

    What are these 'suitable elements'? I mean, it's really terrible, you know. If people say, 'Okay-lah, I take what is suitable from you.' How does that make you feel? And who are they to decide what is suitable and what is not? What do they mean by 'suitabl'’? You mean, there are things in my culture that are not suitable? These are things that I cannot reconcile with. I don't know if they will change in my lifetime or not.
    Does he think there's enough appreciation for English literature in Malaysia?
    I don't think a lot of people are very much into literature and again, because of the way our society is going, towards consumerism, towards science and technology. As I said earlier, the regard for intellectual development is not quite there. They have reintroduced English literature into the classroom at the lower forms. It's been going on for Malay literature. But for English, it's only just been reintroduced. A lot of teachers don't even know how to teach it. The students are quite lost! So, it will take a lot of time-lah for us to have any kind of interest or grounding in literature to appreciate it more deeply.
    Of course, Thuan Chye has strong views about how he sees things moving in Malaysia and I found myself nodding in agreement with this:
    By and large, Malaysians are still intellectually shallow. The push towards consumerism has made it worse. Shopping and having fun are what interest Malaysians more than the need to acquire culture. Even as I say that the media needs to address issues, I also realise that many people don’t really want to discuss them or are not interested at all. ... They're afraid or they don’t care. Or they’ve been conditioned to accept things as they are. Our education system has been extremely effective in indoctrinating our children from the moment they enter school.

    As for racial relations, on the surface, it now looks to have improved. On the surface, it looks as if we are a happy family. But at a deeper level, if you were to, for example, ask university students of a particular race, let's say a Malay student, to name you a non-Malay friend of theirs, or vice-versa, you'd be surprised that they would be quite hard put to give you a name.

    I think racial polarisation has still not been lessened. We are a far cry from the good old days when Malays would sit down with non-Malays to break bread together regardless where. Nowadays, if you invite your Malay friends to your home to have a meal with you, I'm not quite sure that they will accept. There’s a wariness.
    Overall, a very nice article, and the old photos add a more personal touch. But I wonder why the interviewer thinks it a good idea to transcribe every little pause and "lah". Crisper editing would have made this a better piece, surely?

    Friday, September 16, 2005

    That Pesky Inner Critic

    My article in Quill. (Do go pick up a free copy when you're in MPH next - there's a lot of fun stuff in this edition, including local writers with a make-over and pictures of Tash with his mum and dad!)
    Wrestling with the Inner Critic

    “Who do you think you are, wanting to write? You’re simply in love with the idea of being a writer, you talentless hack! Quite frankly, your writing is pedestrian and dull. Your characters are too wooden to be believable and your stories don’t make sense. Your characters don’t exactly jump off the page either, do they? You can’t spell to save your life and your grammar’s all over the place. Why don’t you just give up now?”

    Does any of this sound familiar?

    It will if you’re a writer! The Inner Critic is a dogged companion, passing judgment in a nagging voice every time you sit down to write. This flow of negative self-criticism can freeze up a new writer and prevent him or her from getting started in the first place, and it can cause that most dangerous of conditions known as “writers’ block” in even the most established of writers. Douglas Adam’s author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy suffered very badly from it from it, as did Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield and Joseph Conrad.

    The Critic speaks with the voice of all the authority figures in your life (your mother, father, teacher, boss, perhaps, along with the class bully who once held your work up for ridicule) and if you are serious about wanting to write, you need to find ways of neutralizing the criticism.

    Quite early on in my courses, I have my participants draw a cartoon of their inner critic on a page in their notebooks complete with speech balloons. The cartoon Critics are often quite hideous and spit out an amazing amount of cruelty onto the page, but along the way, they also make themselves so ridiculous that they can scarecely be taken seriously.

    I then have my participants draw a second cartoon picture. This time they draw themselves and put in speech bubbles refuting all the arguments and neutralizing all the niggly meanesses their Inner Critic has hurled at them. In particular, they stress their strengths and remind themselves of what they can do really well. They certainly have great fun telling their inner critic where to get off!

    The interesting thing is that after doing the exercise, everyone in the group recognises those moments when their Inner Critic is present, and we show him or her the door. “Go out to the Book CafĂ©,” we say “You can gossip about how useless we are with all the other Inner Critics over a cup of tea.”

    Pat Schneider in her book on Writing Alone and With Others describes an exercise she uses with her writing groups she uses to get gain control over the Inner Critic. Imagine yourself on a prairie or in the dessert, she says. In the distance you see a bus approaching. On the bus is everyone who has ever expressed an opinion about your writing. The bus stops and the door opens. One by one the people get off, the loudmouths first of all. Write down what each of them says to you. Then write your reply to it. And says Schneider, do not ignore the quieter folks who are the last to get off the bus. They might may have a completely different take on your writing skills.

    There are many ways to outwit the Critic. Alexandra Johnson in her book on creative journaling Leaving a Trace, suggests the following tricks which she has gleaned from other writers: turn your notebook upside down and write; write with your non-dominant hand or with your eyes closed ); doodle before you write, use different coloured paper. Try going for a walk before you write or catch the brain off guard by writing at a different time of day, for example when you are very tired. No matter how crazy these ideas sound, they might just work for you and are worth trying.

    But the best trick though, as Virginia Woolf discovered, is just to write as quickly as you possibly can so that the Critic does not have time to catch up with you. Just don’t let your pen leave the page. (If you use a computer, you might like to try turning the brightness of the screen right down so that you cannot see what you are typing until afterwards.)

    Writers must also give themselves permission to write badly – at least until they are ready to subject their drafts to serious editing at the end of the writing process. Perfectionism when you put pen to paper can stop you writing perhaps more quickly than anything else. Judy Reeves in A Writer’s Book of Days describes it as “a terrible curse”. It is, she says, “ … an ugly thing, all stiff and rigid with pursed lips and beady little eyes. … It comes from a stingy, mean-spirited place and serves no purpose except to make us feel terrible about ourselves and anything we create.”

    Those of us who are also hungry readers will also find that the voices of our favourite writers sometimes show up to haunt us. I used to have a problem with Annie Proulx looking over my shoulder every time I sat down to write. Finally I had to say to her “I know I will never be anywhere near as good as you, but I have my own stories to tell and in my own way.” She seemed to respect that.

    Having written here at some length about how to cope with the Inner Critic, I should now point out that he or she will be the best ally you have when it comes to revising, editing and proofreading your wild early drafts, for without a sense of critical self-awareness you will only send third-rate work out into the world.

    But just make sure that you maintain the upper hand in the relationship and that your critic treats your work with the respect that it deserves!

    Thursday, September 15, 2005

    Cut and Paste Review - The Murder of Macbeth

    Goodness me - what is the quality of our local reviewers?

    I'm referring to the Malay Mail's review of Macbeth by Theatre Babel which was featured in the Buzz section of the paper today. (Sadly, this article doesn't seem to be up on the website, so you will need to go buy a copy or just trust me on this.)

    I was pondering the miracle of Sharmila Vella managing to see three witches clad in red on stage in the local production of Theatre Babel's Macbeth when I saw only one, dressed in white. Clearly, she hadn't been in the audience for this production at all. Then I decided to Google some phrases from her article and low and behold, much was lifted from elsewhere:

    Sharmila writes:
    Striking visuals like a thicket of swords were suspended on wires over the stage. The swords were sometimes lowered to become a treacherous forest or sometimes simply looming threateningly.
    By some strange coincidence Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times wrote in his review of an earlier UK production:
    A thicket of swords is suspended on wires over the stage: sometimes they are lowered to become a treacherous forest, sometimes they simply loom threateningly, like the dark fate awaiting almost all concerned.
    Much more is lifted virtually word for word from this review on the Edinburgh Festival website including
    ... a thick mist billowing out from the stage into the auditorium, accompanied by a haunting soundtrack that sucked the audience quickly into the strange and heady world of the Thane of Cawdor.
    the almost motionless witches clad entirely in crimson red ...
    I probably could go further but my heart is in my coffee cup.

    This is not reviewing - it's shameless plagarism.

    And plagarism, frankly, is theft.

    Football Season is Over

    "No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun -- for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax -- This won't hurt."
    That was Hunter S. Thompson's suicide note to his wife, Anita, written in black felt-tip five days before he shot himself. The note was published in Rolling Stone, according to CNN.
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    The author was in pain from hip-replacement surgery, and depressed about the failing state of his health. The last straw was indicated by the title of the note: "Football season is over". He was an avid football fan and it would be months before another game.

    Thompson was known as the godfather of gonzo journalism, which blurred the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, reporter and subject. His most famous work is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which has been called the "best book on the dope decade".

    On August 20th, in accordance with his wishes, Thompson's ashes were blasted from a 153ft cannon of his own design (in the shape of a double-thumbed fist) into the night sky of Woody Creek, Colorado, while fireworks popped and Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man played. Johnny Depp apparently finaced the funeral.

    Now that's closing the book in style.
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    Zadie Has Opinions

    And I liked this one particularly:
    "Writing a novel is quite stupid work," she said. "In a novel you're never wrong. Novelists aren't intellectuals, they're just intuitive, if they're lucky."
    Yeah sure! For more Zadieisms check out this article from the Guardian.
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    Zadie is glam these days sans glasses, sans frizz.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2005

    The Incredible Shrinking Book

    Was reminded of one of my dad's favourite jokes:
    I learned speed reading and managed to complete War and Peace in half an hour. ... It was about Russia.

    It seems that readers are less patient with long books these days and now shorter versions of some classic tomes look set to hit the bookshops. The first book to receive this treatment is Tolstoy's War and Peace in a new translation by Anthony Briggs. Later, a shorter and less theoretical A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawkins is due for release: a sort of dumbed down versions for dummies like me. I've attempted this book three times and always seem to disappear down a black hole halfway through.

    I was surprised though to read that Susanna Clarke's fairly recent award-winner Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is to receive this treatment as well. I must confess though that I am among the readers who have been put off the book by its size. That's not to be pathetic: a big book claims too many hours of your life! We are living in the age of ficiton overload with more titles being published than ever before while our attention spans get ever shorter.
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    On the other hand I have mixed feelings about the other titles on the list for the shortening treatment: I've been meaning to get round to reading Moby Dick and Clarissa for years, but always something newer and more happening gets in the way. (My cheeks are burning with shame.) Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon has been sitting on my "to-be-read-shelf" since last year (More bookguilt!) when I felt it was a gap in my own education that needed filling.

    But I have read Underworld by Don DeLillo and think it quite brilliant. I gave it five stars on Amazon and wrote gushingly:
    'Underworld' requires time and effort on the part of the reader, but is immensely satisfying. The story of ordinary lives lived in the shadow of the cold war, fits together like a chinese puzzle : it is left to the reader to discover all the interconnections of plot and character. I found myself rereading whole sections to enjoy the beauty of the language. Worth reading a second time!

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    Not that I think I will ever have time and patience to read it a second time. And I'd love to know whether anyone in Malaysia has managed to even get past the very difficult first chapter?

    Wonder if Vikram Seth or Paul Anderson will find themselves getting chopped in the fullness of time! A painful thought, no doubt.

    Tickled by Sperm Stealers

    Last night our book club met to discuss Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald. It's not often that our book of the month is such an enjoyable romp, an effortless breeze, as this fable tale for grown ups about a scam to steal sperm from the greatest minds of the early C20th.
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    It lead us to chat about sperm banks and genetics and how cows are artificially inseminated (thanks Gene Girl for the scientific imput and for raising the tone of the discussion) and whether Oswald's scenario was every woman's fantasy as well as every man's (thanks Jessica and Kumar for lowering it again).

    "Well, wouldn't you do Einstein if you had the chance?" was put to the vote and proved that women will try to optimize the biological advantages for their offspring.

    I told them about a very good book I'd read on the subject: Sperm Wars by Robin Baker.

    Among the fun stuff Baker says: 10 per cent of children are not fathered by their "fathers", less than 1 per cent off a man's sperm is capable of fertilizing anything - the rest is there to fight off other men's sperm, "smart" vaginal mucus encourages some sperm but blocks others, and a woman is far more likely to conceive through a casual fling than through sex with her regular partner.
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    See? And you thought we bookish types were boring!

    Our book club is now at optimum size - we have around 10-12 keen people turn up usually and we're all comfortable with each other.

    Fiona Wan joined us a few months ago to see how such a group works and has now set up her own group which has its first meeting tomorrow night. She's looking for members, so if you live in the KL area and have always wanted to talk books and make new friends along the way, contact her at or through her Yahoo group.

    Monday, September 12, 2005

    The Film of the Book

    It's always scary to find that a book you love has been turned into a film. Scary because when you read a book, you make your own head film of it, and the (reel-life!) film of the book can come between you and your personal set of images. The images of the cinema are much more pervasive ... and will be identical for everyone who sees the film.
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    Polanski's Tess (1979) upset me. Not because it was a bad film, but I loved Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbavilles with a passion and his heroine looked nothing like mine, and his landscape (he shot in France) did not evoke the lush greenery and golden light and pre-raphaelite hues of my head-film.

    I have not been able to watch the film version of Captain Corelli's Mandolin because I have such an emotional attachment to the book and Nicholas Cage just is NOT Corelli.
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    I was also not able to watch the film made of another favourite book, Graham Swift's Waterland , principally because, and this I fail to understand at all, the setting was shifted from the East Anglian fens to the US! A simular trans-Atlantic transposition meant that I had no interest at all in watching the film of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. Are film makers afraid that American audiences won't be able to relate to films set in Britain?

    In fairness, though, there are sometimes films which chime exactly with your own vision of the book. Of Love and Shadows , the film of Isabel Allende's novel, was such a one, for me.
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    And Annie Proulx's The Shipping News was another.

    And there is that real rarity - the film of a book you love which manages to be better than the novel. The only example I can think of is The English Patient. How could Ondaatje not have made more of his intensly romantic main plot? (Though Mingella should have brought Hana and Kip into the film rather more.)
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    All of this is by way of preamble. The Visitor dropped by yesterday to leave a comment telling me that Ang Lee's film of Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain won the top prize at the Venice film festival.
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    I've written before about how I love the book, so my heart's in my mouth - can the film measure up? I've watched the trailer and I like what I see ... very much. So I'm hopeful.

    Now please do tell me about your experiences with the film of your favourite books ...

    Sunday, September 11, 2005

    A Babelous Macbeth

    Went to see Theatre Babel's Macbeth last night with Abu.

    Now Abu is not a great one for "culture" in any shape or form unless it takes place on a rugby pitch. The last play I was able to lure him to was Alone It Stands which tells of the All Blacks defeat by Munster.

    But he has a fondness for Macbeth which he studied for 'O' Level and got A2 for, as he constantly reminds me. (He actually repeated his fifth form so that he could stay on at school as Malay College rugby captain, so he studied The Merchant of Venice as well.)

    We arrived at KLPac just in time for the performance: a combination his tardiness (why do men have to take so long to get ready to go out?) and the traffic snarl on Tun Razak, which makes you want to scream at the folks who had the clever idea of siting a new theatre in the most conjested part of the city.

    We had complementary seats courtesy British Coucil (perk of the job!), and Pentas 1 was packed out.

    The play was visually gorgeous - a lesson in how much effect can be achieved with great simplicity: suspended swords and churning mist, copious quantities of it. And the film had a soundtrack (composed by Anthea Haddow) which created an ambience of unease with ghostly, distorted sound. You can taste the atmosphere here - (click on Current).

    I don't often give much thought to the lighting designer of a play but Kai Fischer created convincingly - eerie marshland, claustrophobic castle and Birnam Wood.

    This was an extremely pacy version of Macbeth which had the whole drama played out in an hour and a half. Much was cut, much was reshaped. The three witches with their hubbly-bubbliness had disappeared (much to Abu's chagrin because this was the only bit of the play he could quote at me in the car), in their place a demonically possesed child who physically stayed with Macbeth through much of the play. There were echoes of The Exorcist and The Ring for sure.

    Despite strong performances (I particularly liked Lewis Howden's Macbeth and Peter d'Souza's magnanimous Duncan), I felt emotionally removed from the production - was this because of physical distance from the stage? (I think I would have preferred to see the play in a more intimate theatre-in-the-round setting ... Pentas 2 would have suited the staging much more, though of course it's much smaller).

    And though I liked the paciness, it meant that much of the dialogue was delivered very quickly. Couple that with Scots accents and I found that I missed perhaps half of the words. (This seemed to be a common complaint, talking to other folks afterward.) What a relief it was when the famous soliliquies were delivered and I knew them word for word. (How many times have I taught this?)

    Abu said he liked the performance, especially the sword fight at the end. Though he thought that Macbeth should have won because he was much the better fighter. Now that would have been a totally original version!
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    Saturday, September 10, 2005

    Necessary Fictions

    The list of necessary fiction for British Council almost complete. Spent an hour or two checking the database to spot the gaps in the current collection and found them aplenty. Hope to have them plugged soon. Then by next week the buying can begin in earnest.

    Went over to Kinokuniya with a couple of the 30% off vouchers in my hand (the rest I'd collected donated to British Council). The good news is that even without the voucher, there's a 20% off deal on the whole Booker longlist. The bad news is that only a few titles are still in stock - but the others can be ordered.

    I snapped up the last copy of Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. It would have been RM119.98 full price (quick currency conversion, 30 bowls of fishball noodle soup) but ... well you can do the maths.

    Don't know how I could have resisted this book though - just physically such a beauty with an old-fashioned cloth cover.
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    Also bought John Banville's The Sea.

    Went to Bangsar to meet up with friends and had an hour to kill so spent it in Silverfish trying to prise gossip out of Raman and Phek Chin.

    Actually the best bit of gossip was the little volume on the racks just as I walked into the shop. The Wedgwood Ladies Football Club and Other Stories with a picture of honeydew melon and the name TRR Raman on the front.

    Yep. I'm afraid it's true. The man himself has published his own collection, no doubt frustrated by the dearth of good stuff coming in from other quarters.

    Will the book stand up to scrutiny? Watch this space.

    I bought that and also picked up the copy of An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison I'd gifted to a friend who needed it more.

    Bewailing the price of maintaining my incurable book addiction, Raman said "Looks like today you've been mainlining 'em."

    Friday, September 09, 2005

    And Now For The Shortlist

    The Man Booker shortlist has just been announced:
    JOHN BANVILLE, JULIAN BARNES, SEBASTIAN BARRY, KAZUO ISHIGURO, ALI SMITH and ZADIE SMITH are the six authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2005, the UK's best known literary award. The shortlist was announced by the chair of judges, John Sutherland, at a press conference at the Man Group offices in London today (Thursday 8 September).

    Poor Tash - though he did so well to get this far with his first novel.

    And McEwan is also out! He was the bookies favourite, remember? And Rushdie! And Coetzee. Am quite stunned.

    The odds are now:

    5/4 - Julian Barnes, Arthur and George
    4/1 - Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
    5/1 - Zadie Smith, On Beauty
    8/1 - Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way
    10/1 - John Banville, The Sea
    12/1 - Ali Smith, The Accidental
    Source: William Hill

    Read more on the BBC website.

    Looks like there's a very good chance of claiming my margueritas ...

    And perhaps tomorrow I will got bookshopping in Kinokuniya with the 30% off vouchers I've collected.


    What others make of the list - The Guardian and the Independent. Also worth reading are reader's comments on the Guardian blog. Our Eric has posted a comment there which he must have got in very soon after the list was announced!

    Thursday, September 08, 2005

    Rowling Revealed

    JK Rowling last night unveiled a portrait of herself by Stuart Pearson Wright, winner of the 2001 BP portrait award, at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It's supposed to show her in the early days, writing in a cafe, living on boiled eggs.
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    Ah, the romantic image of a writer ...

    Someday, someone will paint me eating gummy bear cakes as I write on the verandah at Delicious.

    Okay Then, I've Been Memed

    Well, I've been memed good and proper and in a moment will take up the challenge.

    I first came across the term "meme" in Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene
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    which is one of those books which turns the world upside down, and you oughta read if you haven't already. Anyway, here's a defintion by a memeticist. (Goodness, never knew such folks existed!)

    I guess this pass-on-pass-on thing could just about qualify as a meme.

    Anyway ...

    20 years ago - 1985

    I was living in Kuala Kangsar, Perak and teaching English at Malay College Kuala Kangsar. My students were really bright, enthusiastic and I loved the job. (I have to say this because some of them have recently discovered this blog and drop by to see how their old cikgu is doing!)

    I've already told you about a couple of the more colourful characters who came into my life at this point in time" Syed and Macik Kantin, and there are quite a few more tales to tell of those KK days.

    I rented the upper story of a "semi-d" along Jalan College from a Chinese family and lived with a cat I'd acquired from the school canteen called Belang, because she was stripey. My mode of transport was my trusty bike - a made-in-China Flying Pigeon which took me on cycle rides through the picturesque royal town. I felt a great affinity for Anthony Burgess who had also lived here and who was completely forgotten by the townsfolk apart from Syed. (I actually chose KK because I loved The Malayan Trilogy so much - how mad is that?)
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    I made local friends and had British colleagues in the school, but overall was pretty lonely. (I kept putting myself into exile for some reason when I should have been in mad party mode.) I spent my time reading voraciously and packets of books arrived regularly by post from Britain. Spent my weekends in Penang, travelling up there by train.

    10 years ago - 1995

    I was teaching in Maktab Peguruan Ilmu Khas (Specialist Teachers College)in Bandar Tun Razak on a B.Ed Twinning programme and representing Exeter University. I lectured in Language Awareness and Methodology that year, I think.

    I had a great set of colleagues and we were a real gang. Never stopped laughing but worked superbly as a team. I miss our extended breakfasts when we would sneak out to enjoy all the gourmet delights of Cheras foodstalls and makan shops.

    This was also the year I passed my driving test, I think. My instructor, Mr. Andy had taught tank drivers in the army, so my antics didn't scare him too much, and he gave me the confidence to pass my test. (Another story!)

    This might have been the year of the fertility treatment. Scans and examinations, pokings, proddings and pills and more sadness than I can bear to think about. As always I drowned my sorrows with books. A great book that stops you thinking about your life is Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. It uses up a lot of brain cells and makes you feel pretty tiny in the unversal scheme of things.
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    5 years ago 2000

    Enjoyed 1st January 2000 when you could roll your eyes at anything anyone said and reply "My god, that is just so last millenium" with precisely the right tone of derision. The other lovely thing on that day was that there was no bad news on the TV whatsoever - and for just a little while you could believe that the world was going to be a better place. As if!

    A hard year for me. My mum recently passed away and was a "mid-life orphan" - which took some effort to get my head round, despite or perhaps because of, a difficult relationship down the years. Still teaching at MPIK.

    We were now living in the house we'd built ourselves (garden wonderful, house too big and overwhelming for just two of us.)

    I turned 45 and decided the only response to growing older was to do so with attitude. Joined a gym. Bought high heels and red lipstick.

    I had begun to write.

    3 years ago 2002

    At work stressed out and unbelievably busy. Always seemed to have piles of exam and assignment marking to bring home at weekends. Supervising teaching practice and out in schools most of the day for weeks on end, until I feel I know every inch of the city and every school canteen. Had the great satisfaction of watching my students improve from one lesson to the next, knowing that my feedback was making a difference. Found myself doing a lot of counselling to push problem students through. My contract ended mid-July.

    Writing hungrily, filling notebook after notebook. My story Just Like Steven Spielberg published in The Edge. Also writing my 'agony aunty for the English language column' in the The Star.

    Read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron - a book which changed my life because it made me reassess what I really wanted in life. I'm still trying to answer those questions and some of them are not easy.

    A year ago

    My contract had come to an end and I was looking around for what to do next. Job offers fell through. I needed to work for my own sanity! Mr. Raman came to my rescue with the KL Litfest - four months of mad preparation and then the event itself which went past in a big blur and left me exhausted ... but longing for more. I hit a period of very deep depression compounded by a number of factors and a toxic person or two. Thank goodness for the friends who were there when I needed them, a phone call away. By the end of the year had my plan for ways to move forward ...

    This Year

    Has been brilliant! Once I started moving in the right direction, had the courage to take the first step, the opportunities didn't stop flooding in. I got my company up and running and have my "portfolio career" teaching, writing and consultancy. I do the things that interest me and I'm lucky enough to get paid for them. If I'd known how good it felt to work freelance, I'd have taken the step long ago.

    Next year

    Will be even better! I have plans for more courses and more events I want to organise. But scared I'll jinx them if I say too much. I must be much more organised though. (Next New Year's resolution.)

    Ten years time

    Plan to grow into a dotty old lady. Eccentricity is the only way to go! Hope to have a couple of books published and a PhD. Hope to be happy and surrounded by folks I love and lots of cats and books.

    Okay lah - now I pass the meme on to all of you who haven't done it yet!

    Tuesday, September 06, 2005

    Arts in a Park

    Yeahlah. Months after everyone else, I finally get around to discovering the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre or KLPac. (I think it sounds like a company that manufactures cardboard boxes, don't you?)

    I went to a reception tonight for the cast and crew of Macbeth. I'd decided to get there before the traffic jams, which meant a couple of hours early, and took a taxi because I'd never been there before and friends had warned me that it's quite a way off Jalan Ipoh, out in the boondocks. The only time I've ever been to Sentul was when I supervised teaching practice at Methodist Boys' school there. My taxi driver was a really nice old guy, originally from Sumatra, so had a Malay conversation lesson for the price of a taxi fare too.

    My goodness, the place is beau-ti-ful. You leave the city behind and enter a vast parkland on land which originally belonged to the railways. The Arts Centre, set amidst acres of greenery is a stunning construction of glass and metal built using the sinews of an old railway building. It houses a main theatre, an experimental theatre of amazingly flexible design, rehersal studios, offices, a bar and cafe, and much else besides. The landscape features are unmistakably the work of Seksen!

    Since I was so early I went round for a tour of the building with the cast and crew of Theatre Babel, poking our noses in to all the public and secret spaces.

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    The full story of how the theatre came into being is told in this article on the Kakiseni website.

    It was a pleasant evening. Give me a glass of good wine, an endless flow of food and conversation and I don't think I could be much happier.

    I'll be back to KLPac (must get used to saying it and put the cardboard box image out of my head) on Saturday for the Scottish play. Cannot say the name for fear of bad luck.

    Monday, September 05, 2005

    Dream Ink at The Singapore Writer's Festival

    A combination of circumstances conspiring against me (deadlines, the reading) and the kind of inertia that makes me angry with myself (particularly as I'm reading myself perfect in the loo every morning. Canfield in the can, haha!) meant that I did not manage to get down to the Singapore Writers Festival.

    Fortunately, thanks to Zafar I was able to attend the sessions vicariously at least. Bruce Sterling, the well-known American science fiction writer, gave his take on Writing Sci Fi and painted a bleak picture of the world of the future.
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    Another session focused on crime writing, more specifically Women and Crime. Among questions raised:
    Why is there so much of crime writing in the West? And why is there so little of crime writing in the East?

    I find Nuri Vittachi's comment about writing in this part of the world in general very interesting:
    Vittachi said that it was not just about the crime writers published internationally from the East but in general about writers in English from the East. He said that the simple reason was that there was no machinery to promote writers from this region: no literary agents, no publishers, no editors. But there was hope, he said. Two literary agents are now setting up office in Asia: one in China and another in Hong Kong.

    Great to know!

    There was a panel discussion Sexuality and Desire in Asian Writing consisting of writers Gerrie Lim (Invisible Trade), Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby; Marrying Buddha), and Isa Kamari (Kiswah). I'd have loved to have seen Wei Hui especially, having enjoyed her Shanghai Baby.

    Then there was Tarun Tejpal, "India's ace journalist, editor, publisher" talking about his novel: The Alchemy of Desire.
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    and Colleen Doran
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    talking about graphic novels which are becoming increasingly popular in Singapore, and probably in Malaysia too. (Booksnobs like me haven't taken them seriously - after reading Zafar's entry I think I should begin to!)

    Anyway, do go read the whole thing on Zafar's blog - this is very good stuff and the next best thing to being there yourself. I applaud the festival organisers for catering to a very wide variety of literary tastes. I think our own Litfest got a bit too snobby-elistist with almost no concession made to genre fiction. A narrow view indeed of what literature is.)

    (By the way, did you know that one of Mills and Boon's top romance novelists lives in Cheras and is a HE writing under a female pseudonym?! Buy me a long-island iced tea for the rest of the story.)

    Meanwhile, check out the Singapore Writers' Festival Blog for more stories and photos of other sessions. I'm jealous!!

    DZ sent me this link to the excellent Kitaab website with plenty of Asian literary news.

    Sunday, September 04, 2005

    His Saturday - My Sunday

    My review of Saturday by Ian McEwan in Starmag today.
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    IT’S Saturday, Feb 15, 2003.The Iraq invasion is imminent, and the largest demonstration in British history has more than a million people converging on central London.

    It is also Henry Perowne’s day off, and the neurosurgeon has a full schedule of activities planned: a game of squash with a colleague; a trip to the fishmonger; a visit to his mother in a nursing home (the most poignant scene in the book); then on to his son’s blues gig, before finally coming home to cook for a reunion dinner. As he goes about his routine, the reader is privy to his thoughts, memories and musings in scenes that are beautifully observed.

    Anyone who knows McEwan’s writing will appreciate that he makes a specialty of shattering everyday normality, and violent incident eventually smashes into the novel. A minor car accident leads to an unpleasant confrontation with the thuggish Baxter (whom Henry quickly realises has the symptoms of the degenerative disease Huntington’s Chorea). Baxter resurfaces later in the novel to hold Henry’s family captive.

    McEwan’s greatest achievement in the novel is the atmosphere of fear he creates from the first few pages, when Henry spots a plane on fire from his bedroom window in the small hours of the morning and imagines a terrorist attack. This is after all the new age of anxiety, post 9/11. Henry also fears “the city’s poor, the drug-addicted, the downright bad”; despite an elaborate home security system, he realises nothing keeps you safe. Later events bear him out.

    The difficulty of making a moral choice is a reoccurring theme here. Henry’s conversation with his daughter Daisy about the morality of the war must have been repeated in kitchens up and down the country, and in much the same words. Henry realises the war is “all about outcomes and no one knows what they’ll be”, so there is little point in making a stand. He knows about Saddam’s excesses from one of his patients, an Iraqi professor who has been systematically tortured. (Incidentally, McEwan actually gives Tony Blair a walk-on part in one of the cleverest moments of the novel.)

    McEwan as social commentator is spot on, but McEwan as storyteller is a different matter. There are times in the novel when the reader’s credulity is stretched almost to breaking point.

    Henry’s long cogitations in moments of crisis, coupled with generous doses of medical jargon, is unintentionally laughable. As Baxter lunges at him after the car accident, the thought running through Henry’s mind is: “This is bound to imply the diminished presence of two enzymes in the striatum and lateral palladium – glutamic acid decarboxylase and choline acetyltransferase.”

    Who needs to parody McEwan when he is more than capable of doing it himself? (Be warned: this is not a novel that wears its research lightly, and you will feel as if you’ve taken a crash course in brain surgery by the end!)

    The scene in which the family is held hostage seems awkwardly ill-fitting with dialogue that could have been lifted from a TV drama. And is it really credible that a poem (a recitation of Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold) could bring about a total change of heart in the knife-wielding Baxter? Literature lovers would be delighted to think so.

    The real pleasure of Saturday, though, is in the quality of writing and level of intellectual engagement the novel offers. This is fiction with its finger on the pulse of the times, and not surprisingly, it is currently odds on favourite to win this year’s Booker prize.

    S'difficult, y'know, trying to cram everything you think and feel about a book into the 500-600 words of a review. I had pages and pages of notes and quotations and would love, just love to sit down over coffee with someone and chat at length about this book, because I loved its complexity and intelligence.

    Will Saturday appeal to Malaysian readers? Only those who into serious literary fiction and appreciate style more than plot. Anyone looking for an easy read with a racy storyline won't get through this.

    There's also a review of another of the Booker longlisted books The Accidental by Ali Smith by Lee Tsi Ling on the same page as mine. Funny, I never read reviews until after I've read a book because I want to know what I think first before anyone esle does! But afterwards, I always dig the reviews out to see how far we agree or don't. I don't even read the blurb on the back of books! A journey through a book is always a very personal thing and I don't want to be influenced.

    Kinokuniya is offering 30% off all the books on the Booker longlist with the voucher next to my review. I must go out and buy some extra copies of the paper because I want several of the books for myself, and pretty well all of them for the British Council.

    Daphne Lee's article on Penguin Books is also worth a read. (And hey, you can get 20% off the tiny Pocket Penguins if you flash the article at the folks at Times!) She quotes Mike Bryan, international sales and marketing director for Penguin United Kingdom as saying:
    “Penguin India, of course, publishes many great Indian authors, and our office in China is signing up the new wave of Chinese authors. It would be great to get more Singaporean and Malaysian authors in print.