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Japanese troops land in Korea, 16th century

“ In 1915, one of the fathers of modern Korean literature, Yi Kwang-su, laid out his modern manifesto. ‘We are a new people, without ancestors, without parents, that came from Heaven in the present.’ (Kim Hunggyu, 194.) This belief was amplified in 1930 by Ch’oe Caeso, who argued, ‘In terms of contemporary culture, our attitudes are dominated by those of Western culture, and not by those from the Choson period and before,'” wrote Charles Montgomery , who taught English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University, Seoul.

Choson, also known as Choseon or Joseon,  was the dynasty that ruled Korea for the longest period — five hundred years — before the Japanese invasion in 1910. Though Japan had tried to invade Korea earlier in 1592 and 1597-98, their impact at that time was minimal.  

Was that Mountain Really ThereHowever, in the twentieth century, the Japanese invasion lasted longer —  for four decades — till Japan was defeated in 1945 at the end of the Second World War by the dropping of an atom bomb. Subsequently Korea was split along the 38th parallell, one part being allied to the American and the other to Soviet Union. The pain of this partition was projected  beautifully by Park Wan Suh in her classic novel, Was The Mountain Really There? .

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Chinese workers in the snow constructing the first American transcontinental railways

In the 1860s, roughly 20,000 Chinese from the Guangdong province were shipped to America to labour at building the transcontinental railways. They came for the lure of gold. However, few of them moved outside their camp or learnt English. They faced a lot of hardships, breaking rocks and living for a pittance. What drove them there? What did they face? 

Author Gordon H. Chang  has uncovered the plight of these workers in his latest book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. Chang is Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford University. He has written a number of books on Asian-American history and US–East Asian interactions. 

Washington Independent Review of Books says Chang “ has dedicated himself to speaking for a group that cannot speak for itself, even in absentia. He’s dubbed them the ‘ghosts’ of his title because, while the work they did was about as tangible as it gets, their individual identities have evaporated.

 

Ted Chiang is an American born Chinese writer , a technical writer in a software company, who has never written a novel, meandered through short stories and novellas and yet won multiple awards for his works. His telling centres around science fiction. 

Chiang’s parents migrated from China to Taiwan with their families during the Communist revolution and then to America.

His 1998 novella, Story of my Life, was made into a Hollywood film, Arrival,  in 2002 . Both the review and the movie were given a “10 out of 10” in the Kirkus Review. It’s major themes being language and determinism, the story is spun out by a linguist called Dr Loius Banks who has an unborn child in her womb and faces aliens. The novella has won numerous awards and accolades.

(On Bimal Roy’s 110thBirth Anniversary, Ratnottama Sengupta traces his enduring affair with books.)

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Bimal Roy (12 th July,1909 – 8th January,1966)

 

“Bimal Da and I – particularly I, being a writer – always looked to literature for story, the raw material of cinema.  People can and do write original scripts for the silver screen, but we did not prefer that because it tends to be hurried writing. We preferred to source our films from books because a writer has already worked on an idea, on the character, on the logic of their action, and its final resolution…”

–Nabendu Ghosh(1917-2007) in And They Made Classics…

He was already a recognised name in Bengali literature when Nabendu Ghosh met Bimal Roy, his film guru. Bimal Roy was a voracious reader. The reasons for this were many.

To begin with Bimal Roy, since school days, had been friends with Sudheesh Ghatak, brother of Manish Ghatak who is better known to Bengali readers as Jubanaswa, a radical writer of  the Kallol era introducing modernism, who drew litterateurs like Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (1898-1971) to his house. The entire family had the gift of story-telling — and not only the eldest brother but also his daughter Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) and his youngest brother Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976). Even Sudheesh Ghatak has won accolades for this art.

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Poster of Tagore’s Natir Puja from NT

Eventually, Bimal Roy’s penchant for photography took him to New Theatres (NT) which had, since its inception, transcreated the major novels and stories of writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra and Sarat Chandra. In fact NT produced not only Tagore’s own Natir Puja (The Dancer’s Prayer, 1932) but also the comedy, Chirakumar Sabha (Bachelor’s Conference, 1932) and Arghya (Offerings, 1937), besides Kapal Kundala (Bankim Chandra, 1933), Dena Paona (Give and Take, 1931), Palli Samaj (Rural Society, 1932), Grihadaaha (House on Fire, 1936), Devdas (1936), Bardidi (Elder Sister, 1939), Kashinath (1943), Biraj Bou (Biraj the Wife, 1946), and Ramer Sumati (The Redemption of Ram, 1947) — all from Sarat Chandra stories.

“When, years later I myself became a writer and was asked, ‘Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a Francophone writer?’I would always answer that I took the nationality of my reader, which means that when a Japanese reader reads my books, I immediately became a Japanese writer,” said Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferriere in his novel I Am a Japanese Writer (2008), which was originally written in French and then translated to English.

These words were used by Teju Cole, the first Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard, to illustrate how translations bond readers and authors. Translated works transcend the barriers of language and ethos as long as they touch the human heart. By touching deep emotions they create bonds and links to mankind. He talks of how lives are lost over refugee crisis and borders and says “literature can save a life”.

Brought up between US and Nigeria, Cole developed broad world views. Cole’s forte are novels and essays, including the much acclaimed Open City (2011) which was named ‘Best Book’ in more than twenty end-of-the year lists, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Economist , Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Kirkus Reviews. It was also named a New York Times Notable Book —  one of the ten top novels of the year by both Time and National Public Radio (USA).

 

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19th century Mongolian sutra manuscript…Wikimedia commons

China has for the first time compiled Mongolian literature, including incantations, from the province of Inner Mongolia, spanning the last eight hundred years.

Eight hundred year ago, the Mongolians had invaded large parts of the world and Kublai Khan,  grandson of the conquerer Genghis Khan  had established the Yuan dynasty which not only popularised the paper currency yuan (that is what Chinese currency is still called though renminbi does replace it within China often), but also hosted  Marco Polo, the first European who left written accounts  of China.

The Mongolians founded the Yuan dynasty and ruled for nearly a century. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem Xanadu immortalised the Yuan dynasty reign in verse in the nineteenth century.

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Sravani Singampalli is a published writer and poet from India. Her works have appeared and are forthcoming in Scarlet Leaf Review, Leaves of Ink, Gone Lawn Journal, Criterion journal, Setu bilingual journal, Beneath the Rainbow and elsewhere. She is presently pursuing doctor of pharmacy at Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Kakinada, in Andhra Pradesh, India.

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Literature perhaps does not seem profitable to most. But what recent findings have shown is that reading good literature helps build attitudes that can lead to a better chance at success. Would you or would you not want to take on the challenge of a good book?

Carl Sagan, a legend in our times with his Pulitzer Prize winning Cosmos ( book and TV series), an iconic, successful figure who demystified science for mankind, relived the wonder of books and reading: “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you…Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” 

By Tan Kaiyi

Spooky bus stop

“You change to 165 from here. It’ll take you down the road and then to Holland Village. You can’t miss it,” he said.

“Ok, thank you. It’s so late at night now and my phone battery is flat. Thanks for your help,” she said.

“No problem.”

“And it’s awfully dark.”

“The lights down the road are spoilt. It’s usually better lit.”

“And we’re under a highway.”

“Yeah. It’s not the most accessible bus stop in Singapore.”

She laughed.