Category Archives: Asian writing

Ibrahim Nasrallah challenges followers of Arab literature to reconnect with their emotions

Nasrallah’s latest work Al Hob Shareer (Love is the Enemy) focuses solely on matters of the heart.

“No one talks about love anymore,” says Ibrahim Nasrallah with a sigh. “It is as if we eradicated those feelings out of all our writing because we deem it no longer important. It is a fallacy, of course, because love is everything.”

The Palestinian poet and novelist is commenting on the state of modern Arabic literature, which he describes as more concerned with the timely than the timeless.

“In a way, the Arab writer and the Arab reader have become the same,” he says.

“A lot of what is being written focuses on current issues, whether social or political. There is a feeling that if there is any deviation from that path and reading about other topics then they are not taking their time seriously. A sense of guilt creeps and this is totally wrong.”

Nasrallah has challenged that view with his latest work, Al Hob Shareer (Love is the Enemy) that focuses solely on matters of the heart.

With more than 80 poems and one libretto, the 63-year explores all facets of love from the emotional, primal, how it revitalises and how it can control.

Speaking before his session tonight at the Sharjah International Book Fair on the creative process plus a book signing on Saturday, Nasrallah says the book was born out of a challenge to himself.

“It began when I first started observing the dearth of current literature surrounding love. There is not a modern poetry collection, as far as I can see, that dealt with this matter exclusively,” he says.

“The last person to have done that was the great and classic writer Nizzar Qabani, and since that there has been no major body of work. So, I wanted to test myself and see if I can do it and then test the reader once it was published.”

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We Are All Refugees: A Conversation With Mohsin Hamid

Earlier this year, Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, appeared, an ode to a future in which migration is as ordinary as going to school or falling in love. The book, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, revolves around the movements of Nadia and Saeed, a young couple from an unnamed country, escaping war. Hamid does not shy away from the realities of conflict, but he also does not dwell on its tragedies.

As they make their way in strange surroundings, untethered from the very things that first created their identities—family, place, nation—Nadia and Saeed experience transformations both subtle and radical. Who are we, Hamid asks repeatedly throughout the book, and what kind of world are we willing to create?

I spoke with Hamid before his appearance at Berlin’s International Literature Festival in early September 2017, where he addressed a packed auditorium. The event occurred shortly before Germany’s national elections, where fear around migration drove the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to win 12.6 percent of the vote, gaining a projected 94 seats in parliament. People in the capital, at least, were eager to hear Hamid’s non-apocalyptic vision of the future.

But it’s not easy to be an optimist about the future of migration. People trying to move through northern Africa to Europe are ensnared in detention centers in Libya. During Myanmar’s latest ethnic-cleansing campaign, its army planted land mines along the Bangladeshi border. Donald Trump’s new travel ban, announced in late September, would permanently bar citizens of eight countries from entering the United States. Thousands of people are trapped at the edges of countries and at the limits of our compassion.

Defiantly, Hamid posits that the human capacity to survive is stronger than most of us know. At its core, Exit West is about the universality of human experience, and the many migrations we undergo in a lifetime.

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The Legacy and Works of Lu Xun — The Father of Modern Chinese Literature

Lu Xun (鲁迅) was the pen name of Zhou Shuren (周树人), one of China’s most famous fiction authors, poets, and essayists. He is considered by many to be the father of modern Chinese literature because he was the first serious author to write using modern colloquial language.

Lu Xun died on October 19, 1936, but his works have remained prominent over the years in Chinese culture.

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL INFLUENCE

Widely recognized as one of China’s best and most influential authors, Lu Xun remains strikingly relevant to modern China.

His socially-critical work is still widely read and discussed in China and references to his stories, characters, and essays abound in everyday speech as well as academia.

Many Chinese people can quote from several of his stories verbatim, as they are still taught as part of China’s national curriculum. His work also continues to influence modern Chinese authors and writers around the world. Nobel-prize-winning author Kenzaburō Ōe reportedly called him “the greatest writer Asia produced in the twentieth century.”

IMPACT ON THE COMMUNIST PARTY

Lu Xun’s work has been embraced and to a certain extent co-opted by China’s Communist Party. Mao Zedong held him in very high esteem, although Mao also worked hard to prevent people from taking Lu Xun’s sharp-tongued critical approach when it came to writing about the Party.

Lu Xun himself died well before the communist revolution and it’s difficult to say what he would have thought of it.

EARLY LIFE

Born on September 25, 1881, in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, Lu Xun was born into a wealthy and well-educated family. However, his grandfather was caught and nearly executed for bribery when Lu Xun was still a child, which sent his family tumbling down the social ladder. This fall from grace and the way once-friendly neighbors treated his family after they had lost their status had a profound effect on the young Lu Xun.

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Book Review: Snowfed Waters by Jane Wilson-Howarth

By Nilesh Mondal

Snowfed Waters
Title: Snowfed Waters
Author: Jane Wilson-Howarth
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 296
Price: ₹ 360
Buy:

The story of finding one’s true passion and sense of purpose through confrontations with hardships has become a trope per se. One can even say it has been overdone, although new variations crop up every year, driving home profound life lessons. However, despite their often clichéd premise or plot, some stories still manage to deliver a heart-touching performance in terms of fully sketched characters and a sense of anxiety through a gripping story which serves us with a steady sense of exhilaration when we finally see the protagonist come out of all trials, injured but wiser. That in a nutshell is why Snowfed Waters works well despite its shortcomings.

Sonia, the protagonist of this fictional travelogue, is a woman who has lost a significant part of what she assumed to be her regular life in light of recent events. Estranged from her husband, wrecked with debilitating anxiety and unsure of what to do with her life, she embarks on an expedition to Nepal under the pretext of helping with teaching duties in local schools. With this trip she hopes to regain emotional stability in her turbulent life and heal herself. Although off to a rocky start, she soon adjusts well to the situations and surroundings, and as she slowly learns to fight off the ghosts of her past, she also becomes a part of the local people and their community. There are moments of endearing sincerity throughout the story, which, along with moments of suspense and sadness, create a fine balance of emotions which the reader feels almost as clearly as the protagonist herself. The end, although sweet and hopeful, shows Sonia clearly as someone who has had a change of heart, and we can’t help but be happy for her.

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Chinese sci-fi novelist first Asian to win prestigious book award

Chinese sci-fi title The Three-Body Problem was first serialized in Science Fiction World magazine in 2006 and then published as a book in 2008. It was eventually translated into English and it became a literary phenomenon, winning the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.

Even former US President Barack Obama is a fan. He told The New York Times while still in office: “The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty – not something to worry about.”

Its author, Liu Cixin, 53, is as surprised as anyone by its success. He says in Mandarin over the telephone from Beijing: “Sci-fi novels usually have a shorter shelf-life because they tend to be overtaken by scientific developments.

It’s been more than a decade since it was first published and for it to continue to have such an impact is something my publishers and I never expected.”

In The Three-Body Problem (Tor Books, 2007), readers first encounter the Trisolaran world, an unstable stellar system with three suns. The sequel, The Dark Forest (Tor Books), published in English in 2015, details how Earth deals with a Trisolaran invasion coming in 400 years’ time.

In the concluding installment, Death’s End (Tor Books), published in English last year, the two civilizations coexist peacefully at first, but before long, humanity is once again faced with the threat of annihilation. Death’s End is up for Best Novel at the 2017 Hugo Awards, which will be presented in August.

Collectively, the trilogy is known as Remembrance Of Earth’s Past (Tor Books).

Liu adds wryly, though, that the attention lavished on The Three-Body Problem has not been a tide that lifts all boats.

For example, with regard to his translated book of short stories, The Wandering Earth (Beijing Guomi Digital Technology Co, 2012) he says: “There’s been not much impact, it’s like throwing a stone into a pond.”

Still, he can be justifiably proud of what he has achieved so far.

Bologna 2017: Varied Perspectives from Asian Publishers

And imagination, Huang added, is something that children’s book writers and illustrations have in abundance. Take Julia Liu and Leo Tang’s Tony Bunny: A Rabbit with Short Ears (CommonWealth Education Media and Publishing Company), which has been published in Korean, Russian, Thai, and Turkish. The story is is inspired by the spike of children with microtia (small ears) and a desire to boost their confidence; a follow-up title, featuring the courageous short-eared bunny and his timid elephant friend, has the same goal. “In fact, illustrator Leo Tang created a piggy bank featuring the bunny and elephant to encourage children to save their coins and donate to their peers with microtia,” Huang said. “One cannot help but be inspired by these unique and uplifting titles.”

Picture books, said Huang, “transcend barriers—cultural and societal—and now, it is time for the picture book to transcend its traditional format, to move beyond print into other forms. That is the mission of this pavilion with its 45 illustrator exhibits. We want our content creators, and those from other parts of the world, to think beyond the printed pages, and to think differently.”

Pushing Technology- and Membership-based Programs

For Kyowon, one of the biggest publishers in South Korea, its picture books continue to sell well, especially new series such as the 30-volume World Folktales and 24-volume Smart Science with Book TV (which incorporates QR codes that link to videos, animations, augmented reality experiences, and virtual experiments).

…. Trend-wise, activity, counting, and game-based titles were popular three to five years ago, according to Nonoka. “We had great success with Toshio Iwai’s 100 Stories series. Then the popularity of Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinska’s Maps threw the spotlight on illustrated nonfiction, and that category became very popular. This year, we are seeing a return to titles with beautiful illustrations and unique storylines.”

Interestingly, Kaisei-sha has been working very closely with industry counterparts Fukuinkan Shoten, Iwasaki Shoten, and Kodansha to produce a series of tactile picture books with Braille for Japanese children. “We share the technology so as to defray the production costs, and we market the books—currently at around 62 titles—together as a part of our social responsibility and awareness campaign. We believe that visually impaired children should be able to read and enjoy the same picture books that are available to others. While we are not promoting these titles to overseas publishers, we are exhibiting them at this fair to show that Braille can be applied successfully and effectively to picture books.”

Working on Social Responsibility and Beyond

Responsibility is also a major topic at Beijing-based Children’s Fun Publishing Company, a joint venture between Egmont Group and Posts & Telecommunications Press. “We are talking about social responsibility that goes beyond worker welfare and environmental protection. Sustainability when it comes to printing and selecting the correct printing partners is equally important,” said general manager Ao Ran.

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Philippine Literature in the Spanish Colonial Period

The existing literature of the Philippine ethnic groups at the time of conquest and conversion into Christianity was mainly oral, consisting of epics, legends, songs, riddles, and proverbs. The conquistador, especially its ecclesiastical arm, destroyed whatever written literature he could find, and hence rendered the system of writing (e.g., the Tagalog syllabary) inoperable. Among the only native systems of writing that have survived are the syllabaries of the Mindoro Mangyans and the Tagbanua of Palawan.

 The Spanish colonial strategy was to undermine the native oral tradition by substituting for it the story of the Passion of Christ (Lumbera, p. 14). Although Christ was by no means war-like or sexually attractive as many of the heroes of the oral epic tradition, the appeal of the Jesus myth inhered in the protagonist’s superior magic: by promising eternal life for everyone, he democratized the power to rise above death. It is to be emphasized, however, that the native tradition survived and even flourished in areas inaccessible to the colonial power. Moreover, the tardiness and the lack of assiduity of the colonial administration in making a public educational system work meant the survival of oral tradition, or what was left of it, among the conquered tribes.

The church authorities adopted a policy of spreading the Church doctrines by communicating to the native (pejoratively called Indio) in his own language. Doctrina Christiana (1593), the first book to be printed in the Philippines, was a prayerbook written in Spanish with an accompanying Tagalog translation. It was, however, for the exclusive use of the missionaries who invariably read them aloud to the unlettered Indio catechumens (Medina), who were to rely mainly on their memory. But the task of translating religious instructional materials obliged the Spanish missionaries to take a most practical step, that of employing native speakers as translators. Eventually, the native translator learned to read and write both in Spanish and his native language.

This development marked the beginning of Indio literacy and thus spurred the creation of the first written literary native text by the native. These writers, called ladinos because of their fluency in both Spanish and Tagalog (Medina, pp. 55-56), published their work, mainly devotional poetry, in the first decade of the 17th century. Among the earliest writers of note were Francisco de San Jose and Francisco Bagongbata (Medina). But by far the most gifted of these native poet-translators was Gaspar Aquino de Belen (Lumbera, p.14). Mahal Na Pasion ni Jesu Christo, a Tagalog poem based on Christ’s passion, was published in 1704. This long poem, original and folksy in its rendition of a humanized, indeed, a nativized Jesus, is a milestone in the history of Philippine letters. Ironically — and perhaps just because of its profound influence on the popular imagination — as artifact it marks the beginning of the end of the old mythological culture and a conversion to the new paradigm introduced by the colonial power.

Until the 19th century, the printing presses were owned and managed by the religious orders (Lumbera, p.13). Thus, religious themes dominated the culture of the Christianized majority. But the native oral literature, whether secular or mythico-religious continued. Even among the Christianized ethnic groups, the oral tradition persisted in such forms as legends, sayings, wedding songs such as the balayan and parlor theater such as the duplo (Medina, p. 32).

In the 18th century, secular literature from Spain in the form of medieval ballads inspired the native poetic-drama form called the komedya, later to be called moro-moro because these often dealt with the theme of Christians triumphing over Moslems (Lumbera, p. 15).

Jose de la Cruz (1746 – 1829) was the foremost exponent of the komedya during his time. A poet of prodigious output and urbane style, de la Cruz marks a turning point in that his elevated diction distinguishes his work from folk idiom (as for instance, that of Gaspar Aquino de Belen). Yet his appeal to the non-literate was universal. The popularity of the dramatic form, of which he was a master, was due to it being experienced as performance both by the lettered minority and the illiterate but genuinely appreciative majority.

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The Ekphrases of Eye/Feel/Write: Writing About Architecture

EFW II NGS Dome Opening Pix

The building is but material structure. Within its architecture is imbued its aesthetic character. What happens when a writer confronts such a created space, and what texts emerge, themselves rendered as works of art?

At the Singapore Writers Festival, Eye/Feel/Write will launch its third instalment, with the publication of a beautiful anthology, titled Eye/Feel/Write: Building Architectonics, as well as curated reading tours at National Gallery Singapore. A special commission by the National Arts Council, Eye/Feel/Write is an ekphrastic project that invites distinguished writers in Singapore to pen texts inspired by art institutions here.

This year, editor Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé extended the invitation to twelve eminent writers — Aaron Lee, Aaron Maniam, Amanda Chong, Clara Chow, Daryl Lim Wei Jie, Heng Siok Tian, Josephine Chia, Kirpal Singh, Nuraliah Norasid, O Thiam Chin, Toh Hsien Min, and Tse Hao Guang — each creating texts inspired by the history and architecture of the Gallery.

In the preface to the anthology, a series of questions are posed: “On its own, architecture already surfaces its own symbols and associations, its own poetry. How then may a writer gaze upon a building and take in its space, then render the experience in language? How is the language of architecture translated into the language of lyric or narrative? Across artifice and edifice. What of proportion, of range? What of scale and shape, body and motion? What is inhabited, what inhabits, through time and space? What is made manifest, what new memories in the poetry of fiction — and how momentous, how memorable?”

Towards understanding any emerging discourse borne of these ekphrastic experiments, Kitaab shares beautiful insights from several of the contributing authors, as they contemplate how they went about their particular creative renderings.

AARON LEE

“The former Supreme Court building holds special memories for me. In 1998 I was admitted to the Singapore bar to practice as a lawyer in a ceremony that took place in the grand hall of the building. As an apprentice litigator I often accompanied senior lawyers to hearings in the chambers of various judges in the same building, and visited the Court library to do research. The National Gallery Singapore that now stands in the place of the former Supreme Court and the former City Hall, is a marvel of architecture and design. Since it opened I have spent many a contemplative hour in its various galleries enjoying the spectacular art and the grandeur of the building’s interior. For this ekphrasis project I thoroughly explored the NGS several times, always taking my time and stopping occasionally to make some notes when inspiration struck me. I paid particular attention to the exhibitions which told stories about the people who inhabited the Supreme Court building as it was then: judges, lawyers, court workers and victims of crime and those affected by conflict. I wanted to challenge myself to write three different poems for this anthology. The poem ‘Lady Justice Contemplates’ expressed the reverie of a person I imagined as a conflation of an actual judge and the figure of Justice in the tympanum pediment of the building. The poem ‘Then & There, Here & Now’ is a response to two books that I read about the NGS building project. I wrote it as a ‘twin cinema’ poem as a tribute to a newly-invented poetic form native to Singapore, and also because the NGS comprises two buildings, each with its unique history and purpose, now put together. ‘Poetic Justice’ is a tongue-in-cheek mash up of common idioms related to the law.”

AARON MANIAM

“Working at the Treasury Building on High Street, I visit the National Gallery often — sometimes for lunch, sometimes during lunchtime in search of silence amidst the whirring routine of a day. I love the art, but I think I love the architecture more; particularly the clean lines and curves, and how light shines into the most unexpected corners. Desmond’s challenge to us — to write about the architecture — was therefore very welcome! Many of my usual poetic concerns play out here — silence, in-between-ness, space and how we find names for them when they defy easy articulation. I also decided to experiment a bit with myth-making; the Gallery has always struck me as a world unto itself, and it seemed like a fun experiment to see what the dwellers in, and travellers into, such a world might be like. I’ve long been fascinated with world creation, where knowledge of ‘True Names’ enables heroes and heroines to claim a special kind of power. Perhaps such Naming is all that poetry really is!”

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Daren Shiau

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Kitaab Daren Shiau Pix

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I liked reading when I was child, and I enjoyed studying literature in secondary school – it opened a door for me. In my teens, my best childhood friend and I both decided to pursue an audacious wish of publishing a novel before we were 21. It seemed impossible at that time, but Johann actually did it with Peculiar Chris which went into print while we were in National Service, and has become somewhat of a cult classic (I am very proud of him). I took much longer, and only managed it by receiving a commendation award of the Singapore Literature Prize, which in the 90s was a competition for unpublished fiction. It’s funny because Cyril Wong says Heartland reads like a Peculiar Chris for straight people. That was 1998. I wasn’t able to write prose following Heartland for a while soon after, for some reason, so I turned to poetry. In 2000, I put out a poetry collection, Peninsular, thanks in large part to Ethos Books, which had faith in someone unschooled in that genre. In 2007, I published a microfiction collection, Velouria, which has a deliberately sparse and minimal style, and was probably a reaction to how much I had become unconsciously associated with the verisimilitude of Heartland.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I’ve been working on two books, one short fiction and the other poetry, for the last ten years – I need to do better at writing less slowly <laughs>. The current title of the poetry collection is We Remember Killing Tigers, which is the last line of the poem ‘We Must Be Lions’ in Peninsular.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Music is a big part of my writing. For Velouria, which has a deliberately pared-down style, Richie Hawtin and Kings of Convenience were often playing in the background while I was writing it. Almost half the story titles in Velouria are names of songs. My earlier work was heavily influenced by the aesthetic of bands such as Cocteau Twins, Joy Division and The Smiths.

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Six Decades of Sinhala Poetry

There is something unusual and distinct about poetry. Poetry in any context is hard to define, but somehow of the highest importance. As critics have often pointed out, the expectation with which we approach poetry is utterly different from the expectation with which we approach prose. This is more or less observed as a truth in the local context.

The folk poem for instance is more popular than any other literary genre as it embraces several social and emotional streams of expression. Over the years, Sinhala poems grew in strength and spirit as a result of the sensitive influence of folk poetry.

Those who toiled hard in the paddy field as well as the other areas of engagement took time off to voice their feelings via the sound of poetry. While that happened to be the breeding ground for the growth of Sinhala poetry more significant expressions too came way ahead.

In order to advocate the protest nature of the feelings towards the bonds of colonialism, the Sinhala poets made use of the poetic expression. These poetic messages are firstly seen in the poems of Ven S Mahinda Thera in his poetic works such as ‘Nidahas Dehena’ and ‘Nidahase Mantraya’. The great Sinhala journalist Piyadasa Sirisena took over the same poetic message via the pages of his pioneering national newspaper ‘Sinhala Jatiya’. More and more poets gathered round him with their minor and major Sinhala poems. Most of them come under the banner of Colombo poets or Kolamba Yugaye Kavi, with the stalwarts such as P B Alwis Perera, G H Perera and Munidasa Cumaratunga.

There were two observable streams. One was the print medium or instant poetic renderings called ‘hitivana kavi’. This period is covered from 1947 to 1956.

Finally when Independence was declared in 1948, the poets saw a certain degree of their function as put to practice. More and more social factors entered the poetic scene. The poets happened to honoured and at times state awards were bestowed on them. In 1956, as an honour to the great poet R Tennakone for his presentation to the poetic field, he was given the honour of a poet laureate, called Maha Kavi. Each year passed as honouring Sinhala poets on the part of the local cultural ministry functions.

The second trend happened to be the poetic studies taken seriously on the part of the university education. The university dons inclusive of the living figure of Siri Gunasinha ushered in a new era. From the Peradeniya seat of learning he clamoured for a visible detour from the mere conventional forms of poetic creations.

The term ‘nisandas’ though does not sound a good literary term nevertheless mean the detour to bring in a period of free verse of nidas kavi. The poets of the calibre of G B Senanayaka, Gunadasa Amarasekara, became the rest of the pioneers in the group of free verse.

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