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Comforting myths – Notes from a purveyor

Who gets to tell stories? Let me answer this quickly: for the most part—and the exceptions are relatively recent—the writers who are allowed to talk are those who prop up the dominant culture, who reflect it with a gilded mirror. But wait: writers have been critical of the dominant culture for quite a while, you may say. Look at James Baldwin, look at Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale. Well, fine, but criticism of the culture is not necessarily a threat to it. When the story is truly threatening, the writer is marginalized, either deemed a “political” writer or put in a box to be safely celebrated as some sort of “minority” writer. In his day Baldwin was considered more a black writer than a writer, and so he still is. If he is inching his way into the canon, it is because the culture has shifted. Overt racism is a bad thing now, so a liberal American can read Another Country and think, sure, there were a few bad apples back then, but this is not about me or how I live. It is easier now to tell ourselves that Baldwin is not talking about us, that he is criticizing people we no longer are.

When I bring this up in conversation, people stop me in my tracks because, you know, Conrad, Heart of Darkness and all that. Didn’t he criticize empire?

He didn’t. A story about a bickering couple does not threaten the institution of marriage. Heart of Darkness might disapprove of colonialism, but it’s not an attack on empire itself. The book deals in strict dualities and reinforces the superiority of Western culture and ideas. Africa, its jungle, is what blackens Kurtz’s heart, and just in case you start to feel uncomfortable because you find yourself identifying with him, the supposed bad apple—the Lynndie En­gland of nineteenth-century Europe—Marlow, the novel’s cordon sanitaire, is there to make you feel better. If that’s not enough, it’s actually some other shadowy narrator telling you what he heard when listening to Marlow’s story, so you, imperial citizen, are at least two steps removed from the apple and its African rot. No need for you to feel yourself in jeopardy. Your world might not be perfect, but that other world, that world of the other, is just simply horrid.

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How I learned to claim space as a multilingual author

One of the very first questions I wrestled with as a writer was this: Why write in English, the colonizer’s language, when I have others at my disposal? I grew up acquainted with three languages; my grandparents immigrated from southern China to Malaya, which was a British imperial territory. So if I didn’t write in Malay, didn’t that make me unpatriotic? And if I didn’t write in Chinese, didn’t that make me a “race traitor?” Why English?

English is intricately woven into my family history. When my grandparents first came to occupied Malaya, they worked for the British. For some time they lived apart, my grandfather cooking meals for colonial officers while my grandmother worked as a nanny for British children in a different part of the country. I never heard either of them speak English, but in my imagination, the few English phrases they did know formed the language of intimate care: Please enjoy the food. Are you warm enough? Have another helping. Did you sleep well? Don’t cry. I’m here.

I suppose they learned as much English as allowed them to forge new lives. It was both a choice and not, just as it was and was not for me as I haltingly attempted to piece together a self through literature. I did not see myself in my Malay textbooks about boys who formed interracial friendships. Neither could I find myself in the Tang poems my parents encouraged me to memorize, which featured ancient men in long-sleeved robes drinking alcohol and being sorrowful (only later in life would I come to relate to that). It was in English books that I saw a sense of adventure and escape that I identified with, as embodied by British children daringly solving mysteries or circumventing adult cruelty.

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Short story: Parcelled, Ripe for the Picking by Kar Yern Chin

His dreams were still nascent. Titi told Mama that he wanted to be a zoologist. He elicited quiet fulfilment from watching chameleons catching stick insects with their tongues and gulping them whole and ostriches campily gorging star fruits. Mama said that he should stow his dreams for later and wait for the dough to leaven; for the yeast in his mind to breathe and bloom, for him to turn plump, ready to be baked. He chuckled.

And he watched, quietly (well not really), as she plucked the fruits of her dreams. His hands hovered over the preheating oven, despite his mother’s constant reproach. She kneaded cottony dough with her gnarled but tender hands and folded it into itself. The furrow blended seamlessly and disappeared, before she wrung the dough to fold it again. The scattered flour he tried to swipe surreptitiously with his finger. Powdered sugar, he thought as he sneaked a pinch into his mouth. It exploded in his mouth as he puckered his lips, never to permit flour onto his sensitive taste buds again.

Beads of sweat lingered on Mama’s skin as she kneaded and kneaded in the kitchen, with its windows open to the sun-baked outside. Cracked streets and faded sign paints littered about as Aunty Norma, her head covered in a batik tudung of teal and navy blue, doled out nasi lemak, wrapped in newspaper, to passers-by on their way to the bus stop hidden in the far corner of the road. The oven emanated even more heat waves, preparing for the dough’s entrance. Soon, the dough, coated with glistening egg yolk, would bloom. It would turn crisp and fluffy, like a pillow waiting to be pinched and pulled. The boy salivated as he thought about the savoury patches of salt and butter that would soon linger on his tongue. The yolk sheen reminded him of lumps of peanut cookies with their brown egg coats on top, baked by Mama during Chinese New Year; the pasty lumps that crumbled in the boy’s mouth, unlocking sweet, savoury and a child’s gaiety. The boy could not wait for Mama to fire up the ovens for the next batch of CNY cookies again. Few more weeks and he would have school off, with nothing but he and the food.

Mama looked at the little plump 7-year old and smiled as she wiped off her sweat with the apron. Her smile faded as she considered her son’s dreams. She turned to start the laundry.

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Book Review: Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb

Short and Sweet Stories Tinged with Melancholy

Reviewed by Namira Hossain

Truth or Dare

Title: Truth or Dare
Author: Nadia Kabir Barb
Publisher: Bengal Light Books
Pages: 120 

There are some books you read that you could probably start reading with your mid-afternoon tea and finish by the time it is sunset and only the last dregs are left in the cup. Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb is a bit like that. Barb is a British-Bangladeshi writer who lives in London. The cover is stark, a black and white negative of a construction site, giving you an insight into the nature of the book. But at a mere 120 pages, it does not feel like a daunting prospect. Her stories represent her multifaceted personality very well, showcasing little quirks of being part and parcel of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom.

Each of the twelve stories packs a punch. In the first one, “Can You See Me?” a suicidal pseudo celebrity meets a roadside bum and they commiserate over the losses in their lives before a cliff-hanger ending. The next story dives into a domestic scene where a housewife is cutting onions in the kitchen while guarding a tragic secret from her abusive in-laws. Despite the dramatic nature of the stories, Barb spins realistic and believable characters, whose lives and losses evoke emotion in her readers. Short stories do not have the liberty to build great characters through their development; instead, it is the minute plot details, ’moments’ that make a character in a short story somebody that the reader cares about.

I think the book really picks up towards the middle, starting with the title story “Truth or Dare”, about two young boys who decide to play truth or dare. Starting from its very relatable experience of being in a boring classroom with an unenthusiastic math teacher, the story takes the reader through different highs as it follows its protagonist Raju’s day of playing with his friend Tareq, who hides the darkness within.

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Play Review: Hayavadana

A face/off set in the world of mythology and folklore

By Zafar Anjum

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Conceptualised by: Monisha Charan and Dr Siri Rama
Executive producer & Director: Monisha Charan
Artistic director and choreographer: Dr Siri Rama

 

Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana is considered one of the landmark works in the annals of Indian theatre. The play brings about the interplay of questions of love, identity and sexuality through a panoply of characters set in a world of mythology and folklore.

Recently, Izaara Productions brought this famous play alive on stage in Singapore under the skilful direction of Monisha Charan.

Hayavadana

The play’s director Monisha Charan (right) with the High Commissioner of India in Singapore, Mr. Jawed Ashraf (Centre) and Mr. Abhay Charan (left).

The play began with a brief narration on the play’s antecedents: one of the influences behind the play was Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads, which in turn was borrowed from a Kathasaritasagara story. In keeping with the spirit of the play, Monisha Charan paid a rich tribute to the myths and legends of the Hindu religion.

The plot revolves around two parallel stories, both involving questions of love and identity (the heart and the head). In the main track, a well-built kshatriya, Kapila (Avtar Bhullar), finds that his best friend Devadatta (Justin Lee) has madly fallen in love with Padmini (Dr. Siri Rama). Although Kapila harbours an attraction for Padmini, his love and loyalty stands above all; he arranges the match for Devadatta and Padmini and they get married.

The director has made sure that the two actors present a contrast in their physicality and demeanour: Kapila is a Kshatriya with a muscular and manly appearance; Devadatta is a learned Brahmin and poet with a weak physique. The playwright cleverly poses the question to the audience: what if their physicalities are switched? What if the weak Brahmin poet becomes muscular and the sinewy warrior takes the body of the weak poet? Are they happy in their new avatars? What happens to Padmini’s love in that case?

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Subtly, the play comments on the rigidity of the caste system which imposes a hierarchy on people. Along with the main track, the sub-plot features the Hayavadana (the horse-man), played with gusto by De Zhong Chia, who is unhappy because he feels incomplete with the face of a horse and the body of a man; yet, he is the object of affection of a beautiful lady, played by Renita Kapoor. I wish this track had more layers to it, as we find in the main track.

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Before Han Kang: Three Korean Modernists you should know

Before K-pop or K-beauty, there was Korean literature. Before the vivid, strange writing in translation of contemporary South Korean writers (including Han Kang, Hwang Jungeun, and Bae Suah) and writers of the Korean-American diaspora (such as Min Jin Lee, Patty Park, and Alexander Chee), there was literature being produced in the the city of Keijō—or Gyeongseong—where Seoul now stands. Under the rule of Imperial Japan, Keijo/Gyeongseong developed into a capital. Urbanization and colonization shaped modern Korean writers until the end of the Second World War, when Japan retreated. Seoul’s painful history has been razed and the city does not readily divulge its previous incarnation.

With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Japan launched a policy of territorial expansion that claimed Taiwan and Korea, among other countries. This policy indelibly marked the Korean peninsula, which was under Japanese rule from 1910–45. During this period, a generation of writers established successful careers. As in Taiwan, these Koreans were educated, spoke and wrote in Japanese, and had little or no memory of precolonial life. Later generations caught in the tumult of twentieth-century politics would judge them mercilessly. Many of the young men attended university in Tokyo, an epicenter of the arts, and returned to Keijo/Gyeongseong to contribute to the budding literary scene. They wrote under increasingly fraught political circumstances, which came to a head in 1940 when the Imperial State cracked down, banning the use of Korean entirely and even rounding up and torturing the creators of a Korean-language dictionary.

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Book Excerpt: From ‘Missing’ by Sumana Roy

Missing

I.

‘I think I’ve found the missing girl at last.’

Because we forget that even words have childhoods, Nayan cannot be sure that he has heard it right. Then the phone line goes blank—it might have choked on his silence, or it might have been Kabir’s tempestuous indifference to the listener. Whatever it is, it is no longer new, his son’s disappearance for days, sometimes weeks, his unpredictable resurfacing before his restless migration into silence again.

But he had, at least, called. Kabir’s mother hadn’t even done that.

The silence had begun to seem like an accident.

›There was someone at the door. A snatch of a bhatiali in a trained voice, a trail of toe steps, knocking that turned the door into a temporary percussion instrument. It could only be one man.

‘Bimal-da?’

‘Who else?’ came the reply. ‘Who else comes like a cheque past its expiry date?’

Heavy slippers, their underside pimply with screechy wet sand, fell gently on to the floor.

‘You won’t change your habits, Dada. Look at the darkness in this room. Why do you live your life as if it was a permanent funeral?’

Nayan smiled. He enjoyed allowing this old man his rehearsal of taunts.

And then it struck Bimal-da. He had forgotten it again. The sudden rush of guilt turned his mind into a bird at midday, looking for darkness. ‘Sorry,’ he said, relying on the foreignness of the word to give his apology some weight.

Nayan smiled. Or Bimal-da imagined that he did. His eyes moved to the sad piece of bread on the white plate in front of Nayan. Why the rich preferred funereal white crockery was something he would never understand.

‘Your food. It’s getting cold,’ he said. That is one thing that the blind shared with the deaf—both cannot sense their food growing cold. Bimal-da touched his old glasses, the thing that connected his eyes to his ears, and he said his prayers of gratitude: he was poor, always hungry, but he was, at least, not blind. What use was all the wealth to Nayan if he could not see it? For wasn’t that what riches meant—an exhibition to the eye?

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Dispatches from the Land of Erasure


Over the past year, a group of Arab American writers—Hayan Charara, Marwa Helal, Randa Jarrar, Fady Joudah, Farid Matuk, Deema K. Shehabi, and I—began a group text, sharing stories about our own lives and the predicament of being Arab in America. This group text often touched on matters regarding the state of literary arts, though it was equally a space full of photos of our kids and lives. We had the sense of wanting to archive these conversations for future Arab American writers and somewhere along the line, the idea of a group essay emerged. I proposed that it would catalog the erasures we’d witnessed or experienced, but that it also would celebrate the liberatory work happening in our community, the poems and stories and art that hold us together and raise us up. In that group text we were after an asylum, a safe space, where we could explore and share inchoate thoughts, half-dreams, and the rough edges of our feelings.

These dispatches emerge from the inspiration of that space, though they lack the rough and informal improvisatory quality of a community talking with itself. Three other recent essays are also points of departure for these “Dispatches”—all of which were informed by the group text. Fady Joudah’s “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful,” Randa Jarrar’s “Ask Auntie Randa” pieces, and my “Same as It Ever Was: Orientalism Forty Years Later” confront the poison of white supremacy and Orientalism in American politics, literature, and culture, while offering antidotes: reclaiming beauty, liberation, and community.

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Why We Hate (& Love) The Tiger Mom

Even if you haven’t read the book (or read about the book), this female character should be familiar: She’s the Tiger Mom.
For many Asian Americans, the Tiger Mom is a loaded term. It’s a stereotype that’s been around for decades, but in 2011, Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor and Tiger Mom-in-chief, sparked a serious national discussion when she published the controversial book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.
It helped that the book came out at a geopolitical moment when there were fears that China would catch up to the U.S. as a superpower — arguably in part because of the perception that Chinese people were working harder than their American counterparts. The reaction was swift and panicked: op-eds, hot takes, fevered discussion on Chua’s parenting style. Tiger Mom was on TV. She went viral. The book was a blockbuster. It even inspired academic research into whether tiger parenting is “better.”
Chua is well aware of the anger her book caused when it came out, and letters from readers continue to pour in. “Seven years later, everything is so different for me. The response has gotten much more subtle and much more diverse,” says Chua over the phone earlier this week. “For me, I was so shocked. I thought it was so obvious that I was making fun. It’s so hard for me to see how anybody could see it otherwise.”
She has a point: While Chua’s book has no squeamishness about harsh parenting and cultural stereotypes, the book is funny. There are two chapters on how to Tiger parent dogs. She describes her dealings with her daughter Lulu as “faceoffs” and “nuclear warfare.” The book is full of foreshadowing about how she, in turn, was about to be seriously schooled by her American daughters.


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Remembering book publisher Peter Mayer

On Friday, May 11, charismatic and influential book publisher Peter Mayer died at 82 years old. Known for the energy and passion he brought to book publishing, Mayer achieved international recognition for his work, in particular during his time as CEO of Penguin Books and as the founder and publisher of Overlook Press.

In a statement announcing Mayer’s death, Overlook Press wrote: “Over his legendary, six-decade career in book publishing—which included nineteen years spent as the CEO of Penguin Books—Peter had a profound influence on several generations of authors and publishers, a legacy that is sure to endure.”

Among numerous professional awards and honors, Mayer was named as a Chevalier and Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. And in 2008, the London Book Fair honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mayer, born in London in 1936 and raised in America, began working in publishing in 1961 and worked his way up the ranks to become Publisher and President of Pocket Books in 1976.

In 1978, he was appointed CEO of Penguin Books in the UK, which was languishing at the time. During his tenure there, which lasted until 1996, Mayer is credited with turning Penguin into a profitable business and expanding its international presence.

However, his transition to Penguin and the UK was not without challenges. In an interview with the Frankfurt Book Fair, Mayer described how some in the UK reacted to having an American take over at Penguin: “At the beginning, I did indeed encounter barriers in London; above all the British media was against my appointment because Penguin was such a British company. […] Fortunately, there were others who saw the necessity of a change at Penguin, and when I revived the company in the eighties, it was perhaps proof that an American isn’t just a hinderance.”

During his time at Penguin, Mayer opened offices in China and India, and he oversaw the publication of Salman Rushdie’s famous novel, The Satanic Verses. The book was first published in 1988, and in 1989, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his famous fatwa ordering the killing of Rushdie.

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