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The moon is beautiful tonight: On East Asian narratives

1.
Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.

“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”

That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.

Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?

It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.

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Ayelet Gundar-Goshen recommends the best of Contemporary Israeli Fiction

Do you think Israel’s fiction must engage with her politics?

I think Israel is a very political country. We are in the middle of a huge conflict zone and we have two thousand years of history of very difficult politics. I don’t think it is possible to write anything in Israel without referring to politics, and if you were to decide to write something without referring to politics, then that in itself is a political decision. I don’t mean to say that fiction has to limit itself only to the current conflict. Writing is a political act, but it’s much wider than everyday politics: it’s a political act because it deals with morals, with people, with power and knowledge.

It goes without saying that the political situation is immensely complex. Have you found that Israeli fiction engages with all sides of the debate?

Most of the writers I know are left-wing, while the majority of people in Israel vote for the right-wing Netanyahu. So there is a gap here between literature and the political map.

Where does that gap come from?

I think literature is a humanistic act. While writing a novel, you have to put yourself into the shoes of ‘the other’. Once you try to write from a different perspective, you cannot remain blind to the needs of other people or other nations.

So writing literature is fundamentally a left-wing activity?

I’m not saying that all writers are left-wing, but I do think there is something humanistic about the very idea that human life is important enough for us to sit down and write about it for pages and pages. Of course there are fascist novels in the history of literature, but I think there’s something in writing fiction that forces you to look where you don’t usually look – otherwise it would make bad literature. Maybe that’s why, if you write about the conflict, you can’t just say: ok we’re right and that’s it, you have to start asking questions. I see myself as an Israeli patriot—I believe Israel has every right to exist—but I can’t ignore Palestinian rights as well.

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Short story: Coming Home by Pravinsinh Chavda

Translated from the Gujarati by Mira Desai (from Pravinsinh Chavda’s short story collection Ek Evun Ghar Maley, published by Gurjar Granthratna Karyalaya, 2005)

Pravinsinh Chavda

Ranjit dressed in clothes that he’d carefully ironed and told his father, ‘I’ll be back in a while.’

His father would drape a napkin on his shoulder and sit in an armchair on the front porch all day; his loss of vision had bestowed a certain grace to his posture. If he heard a vehicle pass by or footsteps approaching, he would smile in expectation and his smile would last even after the footsteps had faded away. Ranjit was at a loss as to how to fill in the vacuum of unending time even on Sundays, so he’d pick any direction and begin to walk, enjoying whatever he encountered along the way. His vision had been sharpened, so everything that he saw sprang to life.

Where will you go, son? His father didn’t ask such questions. There wasn’t much that was different in sitting idle on the otlo, the porch, or wandering about like his son did; perhaps he knew this.

That morning Ranjit walked with a special energy; he’d remembered Shriram Mulay as if he’d stepped forth from an old sepia photograph, dressed in his school uniform khakhi shorts and a toothy smile. They didn’t meet very often now; at times a gap of six months or a year would pass before they met, but Shriram’s riverside house and the surrounding backyard often impinged on his memory. When he’d reach Salvivad with his schoolbag on his way to school, Shriram’s Ayi would be waiting on the porch to see him off. All the happenings and news that they collected during the course of the day would be brought out carefully and shared in the evening by that house. Shriram would lead him indoor for a drink of water, and from there they’d step into the backyard as if drawn there. He could still see Shriram’s Ayi walking up to them with a bowlful of goodies, a ladoo or perhaps a til sweet.

The rustic tea stall and the flour mill at the entrance to the neighbourhood were still there. There weren’t too many changes in the locality either; he felt as if he were stepping into the past as he climbed up the steps to the porch. He stood there quite a while after he had gently knocked on the screen door. After what seemed like infinity, Shriram trudged to the door pulling his shirt into place and stared at him quizzically from behind the door-bars.

‘Who is it, bhai?’

‘Just a passer-by. I’ve come here for some water.’

Shriram didn’t laugh out loud. ‘Come,’ he said indifferently and turned away. This was a new way of greeting. Whenever they met in the past, they would trade accusations by way of greeting: You’ve become an important person. Your time is too precious… Only after both of them were satisfied that neither had become overly important would Shaliniben offer a cup of tea as a peace offering.

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“The tragedy of going back”: Jhumpa Lahiri on her work as a translator

In 2012, having published four books and won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome. There, she experienced what she described as “a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.” A set of preconceptions had hardened around her writing, and in Italy, Lahiri hoped to jettison these in pursuit of a new vulnerability. She looked to the Italian language to reinvent herself on the page, restoring the joy and freedom in her work.

One consequence of this immersion was In Other Words, Lahiri’s memoir about language, and her first book written in Italian. (An English translation by Ann Goldstein appeared in 2015.) Just as important, in their way, were her first efforts at translation—a pair of novels, Ties and Trick, by her friend Domenico Starnone, the author of more than a dozen books and a winner of Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize. Ties, published last year, tells the story of a marriage in extremis and dissects a lifetime of accrued routine, deception, and petty resentment. When it came to light that Starnone is married to the writer who goes by Elena Ferrante, critics returned to Ties, suddenly eager to read it as a counterpart to Ferrante’s own Days of Abandonment.

Trick, Lahiri’s second Starnone translation, out in March, is another vivisection of family life, a novel as lean and unflinching as its predecessor. An elderly illustrator, Daniele, visits his childhood apartment, now his daughter’s home, to babysit his four-year-old grandson. The boy’s frenetic energy fills Daniele with foreboding, forcing him to reckon with his past and his senescence—to accept that his creative powers are waning and his body is failing him.

In a pair of phone conversations—one last year, after Ties came out, and one more recently, following the publication of Trick—I talked to Lahiri about the raw power behind Starnone’s work; about her approach to translation and her love of the Italian language; and about balconies, which are scary. 

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to Ties, and what made you decide to translate it?

LAHIRI

Well, I read it when it was first published in 2014. I was living in Rome, and I knew Domenico already.

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Why the new wave of East Asian authors is targeting YA

It took Emily X.R. Pan nearly a decade to write her debut novel The Astonishing Color of After. She’d initially conceived the book as a 40-year exploration of her grandmothers’ coming-of-age in Taiwan, but due to a lack of information about how she grew up, the author reworked her premise — and her genre. “It was adult literary. I tried middle-grade, I tried YA, I tried adult again,” she recalls. Compounding the difficulty of categorizing the book was the way her own life was seeping into the material. She lost her aunt to suicide in 2014 and refashioned the narrative to center on a Taiwanese-American teenager whose mother dies by suicide. The genre? YA.

Pan is one of many East Asian-American authors to recently make a splash in the YA space with highly original and culturally specific fiction. Her book is a relatively literary entry in the canon, a nearly 500-page novel set in Taiwan which combines mystical and realistic elements. The protagonist, Leigh, goes to be with her grandparents in Taiwan after her mother’s death, and — believing her mother has turned into a bird — seeks to find and speak with her, and in turn gain a better sense of self.

Pan had been toying around with the image — without any particular significance attached — of a person turning into a bird for a long time. And as her own grieving process made its way onto the page, she found that the image attained a rich emotional significance. The book is layered with Buddhist ideas, and Leigh’s belief of what happened to her mother reflects the religion’s concept of post-death spiritual limbo. “I didn’t want to write an intentionally Buddhist book at first because I was really nervous that it would seem too inaccessible to people,” Pan says. “I worried that the religious culture would alienate people.”

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In Teheran, Noir is a political act

Writing crime fiction in post revolution Iran

Back in the day, so my mother tells me, on the rare occasions when my father took her along to one of the cabarets of old Tehran, the tough guys—the lutis—the bosses, the knife brawlers, and the traditional wrestlers, would lay out their suits and jackets on the floor of the place for my mother to walk on. It was a gesture of supreme respect for one of their own. And it says a lot about a Tehran that simply doesn’t exist anymore—a Tehran of chivalry and loyalty, a place where allegiances meant something, where friendships harked back to a classical world of warriors from the great Persian epic, the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), and to the medieval Islamic notion of the ayyar brotherhood in Iran and Mesopotamia where the bandit and the common folks’ champion were one and the same, and where every man followed a code of honor set in stone.

Or else, all of this may simply be wishful nostalgia for something that didn’t exist even back then. Back then means a time before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That watershed event that sits in the mind of every Iranian as a chasm, a sort of year one after which everything strange became law. The brutal eight years of war with Iraq—the longest conventional war of the twentieth century—the persistent pressures from America in its own everlasting twilight war with Iran, the official corruption of the new ruling class, and the snowballing inflation turned just about everyone into a “night worker.” Living an honest life was no longer an option. Prostitution, theft, an explosion in the drug trade and addiction, the selling off of raw materials and historic national treasures—plus endemic, in-your-face bribery—became a way of life. Meanwhile Tehran grew and grew, until it was one of the megacities of the world, now pushing at fifteen million stray souls—a leviathan that can barely stand itself, a purgatory of unmoving traffic, relentless pollution, and noise and anger and inequity, surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world.

Tehran, then, is a juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty that breaks the heart. A place where not one but two inept dynasties came to miserable ends, and where, arguably, the third most important revolution in history (after the French and the Russian) was started. It is also the city where Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt met to divvy up the world while the flames of WWII were still burning. And it was where one of the CIA’s first manufactured coups (with the prodding and support of the British—who else?) against a democratically elected government was put into motion, thus ushering in years of a dictatorship which in turn was swept aside by the first real fury of fundamentalist Islam, a harbinger of the world we now live in and call post–9/11.

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Spotlit at last: Asian American writing’s new generation

After years on the peripheries of US fiction and poetry, Asian American authors have stepped into the spotlight during 2017. Books by writers of east and south-east Asian heritage are one of the hottest trends this year. Led by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jenny Zhang and the poet Ocean Vuong, it marks the emergence into the centre of the US literary world of a previously marginalised group.

Transcultural writers, born to immigrant parents in the US or immigrants themselves as children, they are channelling their experiences into writing that, with perfect historical timing, challenges readers to resist attacks on immigrants’ rights and to see refugees as individuals with unique stories.

The experiences of displaced people are central to the work of this new generation of Asian Americans, and their books cross genres and forms. Vuong, who recently won the Forward prize for best first collection, arrived in the US as a refugee from Vietnam in 1990. His poems in Night Sky With Exit Wounds mix migration with myth and eroticism. Early in the collection, the narrator of Telemachus pulls his father from the sea, dragging him “through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail / the waves rush in to erase”. Such images stick in the reader’s mind and, though it is never said explicitly, feel as if they are etched in the memory of the young gay Asian man navigating the 21st-century US in subsequent poems.

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The four classic novels of Chinese literature

Water Margin, Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber; these four novels form the core of Chinese classical literature and still inform modern culture. As with Dante or Shakespeare in Europe, they are touchstones to which Chinese literary culture persistently returns to discover new relevance and fresh insight.

Dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, these four novels are the bedrock of Chinese literary culture. Their influence has spread across Asia to inform elements of Japanese, Korean and South East Asian mythology. The writing and dissemination of these four works marked the emergence of the novel form in China as a counterpart to more refined philosophical and poetic works. The more expansive form of the novel allowed for a synthesis of the historical and the mythological, whilst also developing along more accessible narrative lines. These works thus marked a limited but notable democratization of literature which is perhaps most evident in their use of vernacular Chinese, rather than the Classical Chinese which had previously dominated. These four works also revealed the novel’s potential to embrace a multitude of perspectives, and to allow for irony; this permitted writers to voice previously suppressed critiques about the ruling order, whilst also expressing the vast multitude of voices which made up the Chinese populace.

Water Margin

Published in the 14th century, Water Margin was the first of the four classical novels to be released, and introduced the vernacular form and style which the others would adhere to. The title has been translated in a number of ways, including as Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, All Men Are Brothers, Men of the Marshes, or The Marshes of Mount Liang, and whilst doubts persist over the identity of the author, most attribute it to Shi Nai’an, a writer from Suzhou. The novel is set in the Song dynasty and depicts a group of outlaws who eventually go on to serve the Emperor in battling foreign invaders. It was based on the real life story of the outlaw Song Jiang, who was defeated by the Emperor in the 12th century, and whose gang of 36 outlaws came to populate folk tales throughout China…

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Sheikh Zayed Book Award announces 2018 winners

Now in its 12th year, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award announced on April 2 its 2018 winners across seven categories. Worth US$1.9 million in annual prizes, this award—organized by the Department of Culture and Tourism- Abu Dhabi—aims to bring global attention to Arabic-language writers and to celebrate academics writing about Arabic culture in other languages.

Syrian author Khalil Sweileh is the 2018 winner in the Literature category for his latest novel, Remorse Test, published by Nofal-Hachette Antoine. This timely novel takes the reader inside the Syrian civil war and its devastating consequences on the country’s people and places.

The jury statement reads, “The novel portrays an inward view of the Syrian Civil War tragedy; the author takes the reader on a trip around Damascus, trudging down the memory lanes and presenting the psychological conflicts amid the shattered reality of place and society—marking an important addition to the Syrian literature, with a unique use of narrative tools and vocabulary construction.”

Sweileh won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2009 for his novel, The Scribe of Love, which was translated into English by Alexa Firat and published by The American University in Cairo Press.

In the Children’s Literature category, this year’s winner is Emirati author Hessa Al Muhairi for her book, The Dinoraf, published by Al Hudhud Publishing and Distribution. In this picture book, Al Huhairi teaches children about tolerance and acceptance.

Of its decision to award this year’s prize to The Dinoraf, the prize jury wrote, “The story is set in the Animal Kingdom, where a dinosaur is out on a mission to find his parallel among the rest of animals. Throughout his journey, he gets to know the differences between the animals, which finally lead him to find his connection with the giraffe, hence becoming the ‘Dinoraf,’ in a unique portrayal of the contemporary case of peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance of cultural differences within the global society.”

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Book Excerpt: Race Course Road by Seema Goswami

Race C Road

I.

Gaurav Agnihotri was apoplectic with anger. The editor-in-chief of the News Tonight Network (NTN) paced up and down his office, as his deputy editor and production in charge quailed in their seats at the conference table in the corner. The bank of televisions that covered an entire wall was showing what was playing on all the other news channels. By now, every news network had managed to get their OB vans into AIIMS and was broadcasting from there. The only channel whose reporter on the spot was calling in on the phone was NTN. Apparently, there was some glitch in the network, which the technicians were working to fix.

‘Just how long is it going to take?’ Gaurav asked yet again, his voice quivering with fury. ‘It’s been ten minutes since they’ve been working on it. That’s a lifetime on live television!’

There was no answer from the men quailing in the corner. They were used to Agnihotri’s wild rage, but this temper tantrum was in a different league altogether. Gaurav stopped his pacing suddenly and switched on the sound of the television beaming AITNN’s feed to the world. Manisha Patel, her immaculately highlighted hair swishing gently around her shoulders, was looking suitably solemn as she did her piece to camera: ‘The Prime Minister has been rushed into surgery. Our sources inside AIIMS tell us that the PM’s condition is stable but serious. The senior leadership of the party has already arrived at the hospital as have Birendra Pratap’s two sons, Karan and Arjun.’

Gaurav felt that familiar mix of anger and admiration wash over him as he watched Manisha on the screen. How did she manage it? How did she succeed in getting in front of the story no matter what? And why was it that every minister who trooped into AIIMS was first stopping by to pay homage at her shrine, taking questions they clearly had no answer to. As he watched Manisha go into sympathetic-listener mode, Gaurav’s mind flashed back to the time that both of them had started as lowly reporters at Doordarshan (DD) News. Coming up against the tired old bureaucracy in charge of DD News, they had bonded over bread pakoras and masala chai in the office canteen, swapping war stories and comparing battle wounds. And then, with a speed that was both astonishing and inevitable in equal measure, they had found themselves in bed, caught up in a passion that took both of them by surprise. Of course, it hadn’t lasted. How could it? They were both Alphas. Both had been competing for the same stories. And neither was willing to back off or compromise. The end had been brutal, with each turning on the other viciously. They hadn’t exchanged as much as a ‘hello’ since then. And now, a decade later, Gaurav felt that old bitterness corrode his insides, as he saw Manisha performing what he derisively referred to as her Oprah Winfrey number.

Her hazel eyes looked suspiciously moist, her voice quivered ever so slightly, as she kept the nation updated with the latest on the Prime Minister’s condition. Of course, there was more emotion than facts in her account. But that was what worked in such situations. And Gaurav had to grudgingly concede that she had got the tone just right: a mix of calm and disquiet underpinned by a layer of barely-suppressed hysteria. The door opened and his production manager rushed in. The link had been fixed. Gaurav straightened his tie and took one last look in the mirror that hung opposite his desk. His salt-and-pepper curls were tousled as artlessly as his hairstylist could manage. The subtle application of bronzer had given his somewhat pudgy face contours it did not, in fact, possess.

Slipping on his rimless glasses (he didn’t really need them but he thought they gave him a suitably ‘intellectual’ look) he headed into the studio, mulling just how he could distinguish his coverage from Manisha’s. By the time he had taken his place behind his desk and been miked, Gaurav knew exactly how he was going to play this. The Prime Minister of India was in surgery, suspended between life and death. The doctors weren’t saying very much about his condition. But the truth was clear to anyone with one and a half brain cells. Birendra Pratap had been targeted in some way at the rally as he went into the crowd. A healthy man like him didn’t just collapse for no reason. There had to be foul play. And if there had been foul play there was only one suspect: Pakistan. India’s perennial enemy number one. The country that had vowed to inflict a thousand cuts on India by using terror as an instrument of state policy. Clearly, it had now decided to up the ante with a direct attack on the Prime Minister himself.

The cameraman counted down, ‘Three, two, one…’ as NTN came back from a break. Gaurav took a deep breath, looked straight into camera, his eyes already bloodshot, his mouth an angry line, and started: ‘This is a sad day in the history of our nation. Our Prime Minister is in hospital, the target of a diabolical attack.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be misled by all these so-called liberal journalists who are talking about how he has had a stroke or a heart attack. We at NTN are here to tell you the truth: Birendra Pratap was the victim of a cowardly assassination attempt. Somebody has tried to take the life of the Indian Prime Minister. And the finger of suspicion points directly at Pakistan.’

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