BooksActually’s Babette’s Feast: An interview with Kenny Leck and Renee Ting
by Felicia-Low Jimenez, Interviews Editor, Kitaab
BooksActually, Singapore’s best-known and arguably best-loved independent bookstore, celebrated its 10th anniversary just last year. In this day and age of exorbitant rentals, and with faux-smart devices diverting shortening attention spans from reading, it is a remarkable feat. It is also a testament to the dedication and drive of the team that runs the store — Kenny Leck, Renee Ting, and their bookstore elves.
Not satisfied with just running a bookstore that boasts an impressively curated selection of titles with an emphasis on Singaporean works, Kenny also runs a publishing arm called Math Paper Press (MPP). MPP is an imprint focused on promoting local voices and ideas, and oftentimes pushes boundaries, taking risks that other Singaporean publishers might shy away from.
You might think that with the bookstore (both physical and online) and MPP, Kenny, Renee, and team would have their hands full. But despite all that they have to deal with, the team also hosts a gathering once a month that they call Babette’s Feast. The aptly named feast is a casual gathering of folk who are involved in the local literary scene.
During the dinner I attended, Kenny, who is well-known for #nevernotworking, spent a large portion of the dinner with his eyes glued to his non-smart phone, replying to work-related messages. He’s quite possibly one of the few people left in Singapore who doesn’t have a data plan. He would intermittently throw out random comments, usually related to something someone said about publishing or politics. I also learned that of all the bookstore staff, Renee attracts the weirdest customers.
- How did the idea of Babette’s Feast come about (both the imprint as well as the dinner)? I’m assuming the movie was an inspiration?
Kenny: Sadly, the movie was furthest from our minds, or should I say we had always wanted the Babette’s Feast sessions to be food-driven, and in the hunt for a name, I thought of Babette’s Feast as I had vaguely watched the movie before when I was very much younger. And I am going to use the word “vaguely” because I remember not finishing the movie. Of course, the whole idea was to gather folks from within the Sing-Lit community, whether you are a writer, publisher, NAC crew, editor, marketing team at a publisher, or as long as you are somehow involved in the Sing-Lit circles, we will invite you to have a good dinner, and hopefully, good conversations with us.
The imprint came about when we were talking to some of the writers and they told us that they had “B-sides” or very short works lying around in-between their longer or completed works. We then came up with the idea of releasing them as chapbooks — basically low-cost publications without the frills, but that still pack a literary punch.
On point, our all-time bestselling MPP title is What Gives Us Our Names by Alvin Pang. To date, we have sold 5,600 copies since October 2011 when it was published. We are on track to do a 5th print-run of 2,000 copies.
- Why do you think it’s important for BooksActually to host a regular event like this?
Kenny: I think it’s not just important for us (BooksActually), but rather it is essential to the Sing-Lit ecosystem. More often than not, folk within this ecosystem don’t interact enough because of the few opportunities outside the usual book launches or readings. And even when that happens, you are looking at a brief conversation. But if someone is invited to a casual sit-down dinner of a small group of not more than 12 people, the conversations are usually more sustained, and hopefully, more meaningful as well.
- Do you feel that the Sing-Lit community can be rather exclusive or closed off at times?
Kenny: Yes, it can be really closed off if you don’t come from the same education circles, professional circles, etc. Like the young writers will mix within themselves, and the older writers will stick to their own circle. It is worse when the writer is generally an introvert, and actually retreats even more into their cocoon at social sessions like the Feast. But we try to negate that by pairing one of ourselves, the BooksActually team, with the individual, and hopefully, get the conversation going with him/her and another writer. Also, something to note, and note very well too — the Sing-Lit community is overtly and overly male-dominated, consciously or unwittingly.
- How do you select the mix of attendees?
Kenny: We call out a name and then shake the Magic 8-Ball. Kidding! We just go through our contacts on our Facebook accounts, and see who has the most “Oliver Twist” face. Kidding again! Okay, actually we have no good answer other than we try to make sure that there no sworn literary enemies on the same table.
I feel I need a follow-up question about who these sworn literary enemies are haha!
Renee: Actually, we have had sworn enemies haha… But no food was thrown across the table so we’re good.
- Do you have any favourite attendees who you’ll always invite because they’ll be sure to provide sparkling conversation (or cause an argument because sometimes arguments are fun)?
Kenny: Not sure I can call him a favourite hahaha, he is going to kill me when he reads this. That person is Alvin Pang. He is the person that we will always invite. Alvin is the social glue — especially when he’s in top form — among the Sing-Lit community.
- If you could invite any five people (dead or alive, real or imaginary) who would they be?
Kenny: All imaginary. They will be Leon from The Professional, Sophie Amundsen from Sophie’s World, Gregor Samsa in Bug Form, Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), and Arthur Yap (Editor’s Note: Who is not imaginary).
Renee: In light of my recent Russian readings — Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, and Leo Tolstoy. Just for the fun of it, and also I’m sure they will have plenty to talk about since they were all from the same century. But I’ll probably need a translator.
- This is probably the most important question. Who decides on the food (where to go or what to cook)?
Renee: Mostly Angelin and myself. We try to pick things that are easy to make, yet filling. We almost never make pork, and sometimes we cheat by looking at food videos online.
- What have been some of the more interesting topics of discussion at dinner?
Kenny: Hmmm, Renee, Angelin, Qingyi, Rachel, do you remember any? I am usually too zonked out to register anything hurhurhur.
Renee: One time we talked about money and funding in Singapore and how to get it. Or the time we talked about homeschooling. The topics of conversation usually vary, depending on who is at the dinner, or what the current events are at the moment.
(Editor’s Note: Angelin, Qingyi, and Rachel are his bookstore elves. However, even though Kenny’s asking them for a reply, only Renee is copied in the email :D)
- Have any book ideas/plans/schemes resulted from one of these dinners?
Kenny: Keep sharing our BooksActually or Math Paper Press FB posts and you will know that I will know, and I will know that you will know that you will be invited :p
Renee: I think Kenny misinterpreted your question, hahaha. Uhh, we’ve heard people at the table go “send me this, I’ll take a look at it” but we’ve never really followed up to see whether or not it actually came into fruition.
- What do you think the ideal role of a) the publisher and b) the bookseller in Singapore today?
Publisher — please do more, more, more marketing.
Bookseller — please, please, please know your books. Don’t blindly sell what the publisher/distributor wants you to sell. In a nutshell, create your own #1 bestseller of all time.
I can’t say for publishing; I feel like I’m not qualified to do so.
As for bookselling, I shall quote one of the greatest booksellers of all, Mr. George Whitman: “The business of books is the business of life.” We need to remember that.