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What happens when a book designer is totally stumped

I find designing book covers to be tremendously difficult, and every time I start a new cover, my first thought is usually: Why on earth did I commit to this? Rarely do I find joy in this pursuit. I love the feeling of a perfect, beautifully finished cover in my hands, but getting there generally entails a long, hard journey.

When I’m lucky, a cover essentially designs itself—I read up on it, generate a few images, execute them, and one gets published! Designing Up Up, Down Down was not one of those times. I still consider it somewhat of a miracle that the final cover came out so nicely; looking at it brings back tortured memories of a painful process—a long, difficult exercise in “designy” design: a true exploration of concept, layout, color, and type. When I say exploration, picture not so much an expert explorer, but a hapless amateur, lost in the jungle, frantically trying every trick and tool they know, hoping and praying that one will be the way out. I am pretty sure lots of designers feel this way—or maybe it’s just me.

I tend to think I can have an intelligent opinion about most books I pick up. One of the things that drew me to book design is how much I like to pore over a book, pick it apart, pull out themes, discuss it, and dive deeply into it. It’s like a visual book report. But Up Up, Down Downstumped me. I read the entire manuscript, took tons of notes, made lots of sketches, and still closed the book wondering what the damn thing was about.

The text itself is a collection of short essays from one author. There was a lot of interesting subject matter. Normally I would relish rich visual material about amateur wrestling, UFO hunters, and skateboarding. But I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say with these pieces, especially when viewed as a whole. Essays would often start with what could almost be considered reporting, go straight into personal anecdote, and wind up circling the author’s anxieties about writing. I was stumped.

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Writing about Indonesia

By Anita A Thomas

Photo credit - Anita A Thomas.jpg

‘Writing about Indonesia’ predicates a knowledge of the country, and the panel discussion hosted by Books Actually on March 22nd presented interesting viewpoints from Singapore-based author Shivaji Das (also humanitarian, photographer and management consultant) and award-winning Indonesian author Okky Madasari, currently writer-in-residence at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa.

While both panellists spoke of (and write about) Indonesia from individual perspectives and experiences, their sentiments were similar – socially conscious, politically cognisant, concerned with the effects of nationalism, populism and patriotism, the increasing polarities between communities, the plight of the lesser-known groups and people on the fringes, the marginalised and the displaced.

Geography undoubtedly underpins Mr. Das’s understanding of Indonesia and all its variegated dissimilarities. The density and sheer diversity of people and experiences from across the archipelago have found a place and recognition in the pages of his Stories of the Other. His appreciation embraces it all – the physicality of the mountains, seas, forests, rivers and calderas, the pervasive humidity, the ubiquitous odour of merokok (Malay for cigarette), the buzz of urban areas with the aroma of sausages, rows of Betawi dolls and loud music in the streets and cafes; the sulphur mines of the Kawah Ijen caldera/ volcano and the incomparable electric-blue fire streaming down its sides (visible at night), funeral rites in far-flung islands, Makassar with its prostitutes, sailors, sea, ships, trucks, dandut music and scantily clad women.

Ms. Madasari’s writing – shaped by her experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society dominated by gender inequality, and compounded by the situational conflicts of minority groups, human rights and women’s rights – uses fiction to focus on individual stories that reveal the larger picture; stories about life, humans and conflict in society. Her books reflect her conviction that fiction can influence perspectives and that literature is an agent of change, as the act of writing or reading becomes, in itself, a political activity.

Mr Das found demographics and geography a block to literary research. With no access to a body of literature, writers like him have to depend on oral history in localised languages beyond the island of Java.

Ms Madasari was vocal about Indonesia’s underlying issues needing to be written about with courage and sensitivity, as a citizen and a human being. She spoke of the need for women to stop being ‘objects of consumerism’ and become ‘subjects’ inspiring other women to make their own choices, without having to justify those choices.

Both panelists agreed that Indonesia today is almost a country of strangers unto itself. Geography, demographics and intra-island migration has given rise to minority groups seeking identity and community. Religion, an anchor for those seeking to ‘belong’, has led to overt and intense religiosity. It was posited that Indonesia’s current problems stem from the Suharto regime, noted for protectionism through collusion, power and nepotism. Decades later, the system, culture and habits have not changed and repression and intimidation continue the tyranny of the majority and the legacy of colonialism. Indonesia has the ‘great capacity’ to forget and carry on with a smile, noted one panelist.

Errant stewardship of the environment, intense nationalism, provincialism, parochialism and frustration with traditional political groups; inequalities in education and opportunities, the need to discourse values, culture, knowledge and ideas – all these call for awareness and demand a society of writers, artists and activists to rise above current popular chick-lit and religious themes to influence and bring about change. It was noted that newer Indonesian writers largely aspiring to the book-to-film route, write within the context of a ‘city’ reflective of western cities and not representative of other parts of Indonesia like Aceh, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Papua, Flores or Lombok.

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When a language dies, something irreplaceable dies: Ganesh N. Devy

The scholar’s quest to document languages began as an intellectual one but went on to take a strong emotional turn

“I’m this angry person,” Ganesh N. Devy tells my photographer colleague, but his eyes are mild, and what might be a smile touches the corners of his lips. If the scholar is indeed ever upset about anything, it rarely shows. All through our conversation, on the lawns of a Goa conference centre where, the next day, he is to speak about murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh, his voice does not rise above a conversational tone, his expression stays genial.

I begin by asking the literary critic and linguist about his academic journey and his evolution into a public intellectual. Devy tells me he dropped out of his first attempt at college because “everything happened in English, and I did not understand all of it properly, I felt inadequate.” He had read in Marathi, but not in English, which he could write but hadn’t spoken. He moved to Goa and did manual work before giving higher education another shot.

There’s a little story about how he turned his weakness — the lack of familiarity with English — into a strength. (He has a B.A. in English literature, two M.A.s and a Ph.D., and was professor of English literature at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.) As a 17-year-old, he chanced upon a book by Nobel prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck — The Good Earth. “I found I could actually understand it fully. With the help of a dictionary, I read two or three other books. Then I decided I like literature, enjoy it. I found my natural inclination.” He then decided to read at least 200 to 300 pages every day. “Even if it took eight or 10 or 12 hours. Even on the day I got married, I read my quota. I continued without any exception for the next 25 years, till I was 42.” Then, he won a Sahitya Akademi Award, for After Amnesia, a book in English, “I said to myself, now I do not have to learn any more English. I decided not to read books at all.” He says he covered most of the literature worth reading in those 25 years, and now only reads challenging books: something disturbing or highly philosophical, some obscure book.

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A crash course in diversifying your bookshelf

Is your reading list looking a little monochrome? We’ve compiled 15 books to help you broaden your horizons

In the past year, I’ve made a conscious and intentional effort to read in an inclusive and representative way. For me this means reading perspectives that differ from mine, about experiences that are new to me, and learning from people who have lived in ways that offer precious teachings. It also means reading nonfiction and fiction in equal measure. Consuming the news and nonfiction about important but heavy topics can be emotionally draining; whereas poetry and comics can uplift us when we feel weltshmerz or despair.

This is why I’ve put together a list of books by writers, poets, and artists from a range of backgrounds. When read in the order presented, it creates a narrative arc of its own. The list builds from a slow crescendo of more accessible books to heavy-hitters that draw on academic and historical research, finishing with a few books that unearth the kinds of futures we want to create.

These titles will humble you and fill you with wonder. But most important, they will hopefully also inspire you to create your own stories in ways that are most representative of your experiences.

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9 hopeful books about schizophrenia

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The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This is a deeply considered and gorgeously rendered work, part memoir and part clear-eyed assessment of the past, present and future of genetic study. Mukherjee, both a physician and gifted writer, begins by describing the several members of his family whose lives have been devastated by schizophrenia. In order to better understand schizophrenia, he explains all of genetics generally, unraveling the fascinating story of how researchers have come to know what they do about genes. Arriving in the present day about halfway through the book, he then shifts into exploring the ramifications of genetic knowledge today. He discusses such matters as race and gender and identity and intergenerational trauma and psychiatric diagnoses like schizophrenia. I think the world would be a better place if everybody read The Gene.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg

This 1964 novel fictionalizes the author’s self-described descent into and recovery from schizophrenia right before the dawn of psychopharmaceuticals in the late forties and early fifties. The book rivetingly animates the protagonist’s elaborate inner world, and the devoted efforts of her psychiatrist — who is based on a real-life doctor, Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Rose Garden was initially published under a penname at the behest of Greenberg’s mother. It resonated with a surprising number of readers, becoming an unexpected bestseller and inspiring many adaptations. Today Rose Gardenremains something all too rare: a widely read story about schizophrenia written by someone who had herself been diagnosed. It’s a very powerful and formally daring work, one that remains as necessary as ever.

Agnes’s Jacket by Dr. Gail Hornstein

In this memoir, an academic psychologist traces her own journey toward a more scientific and historically grounded understanding of madness. I recommend this book particularly for mental health care professionals seeking to better understand schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses, and to those partaking in the debates about how to best treat people diagnosed. For those interested in psychiatry, I also recommend Dr. Hornstein’s thorough biography of Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (of Rose Garden fame), To Redeem One Person is to Redeem the World.

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Finding Eastern and Western selves through Eastern and Western stories

Gish Jen investigates the effect of Western cultural influence on storytelling and identity.

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Namrata Poddar: In exploring cultural assumptions and differences, your book aptly reminds the reader that the East and the West aren’t mutually exclusive binaries, or for that matter, strict geographical concepts. And yet, it repeatedly reminds the reader how differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of the self do dominate our understanding of creative practices. Can you reiterate your understanding of East–West perceptions toward the self? What do you think are some of the factors engendering this cultural gap?

Gish Jen: This is an enormous simplification but in a nutshell, people in Western industrialized societies, especially the U.S., tend to imagine ourselves as avocados: We imagine ourselves as having a big pit at our center, to which we must above all be true. What’s more, we are preoccupied with the features of those avocado pits, and the ways in which they are unique. In other parts of the world — and, I should say, many parts of the U.S. — people are also unique, courageous and capable of independent action. They have just as much integrity and just as much creativity. But if you ask them why they just undertook what they undertook or made what they made, they will not say because they did it to be true to their avocado pits. Rather, they will say they did what they did out of duty or obligation — because they wanted to repay someone for something, or because their religious beliefs demanded it of them, or because they saw themselves as a part of a great artistic tradition. This might entail self-expression, but it will not be self-expression for self-expression’s sake. That is, the reason will not be their avocado pit.

The factors contributing to this difference? There are way too many to list. But to give you an idea, they range from the realities of rice farming to the experience of immigration to the American frontier to the invention of the horse collar.

NP: As a creative writer, I’m particularly intrigued by the ways in which your book shifts the reader’s understanding of storytelling in different parts of the world. What do you perceive as some of the key differences between Eastern and Western literary storytelling?

GJ: Oh, how I hate to generalize(!) — aware as I am that, truly, every writer is sui generis. But in a general kind of way, post-19th century Western literature has tended to focus on the avocado pit — on the exploration of a single character, whose interior — visible or not — is given great consideration. This character’s idiosyncrasy is more important than his or her representativeness; the character must, above all, not have what MFA programs call a “generic” quality. And the structure of the story further reinforces the idea that nothing counts more than the avocado pit, as the pit ultimately generates the plot events.

In earlier Western literature, as well as much non-Western literature, characters are more often “types,” and often cope with, rather than drive, events. Of course, they, too, have inner lives. But the uniqueness of those lives is less important; and the overall emphasis is often on a group or network of characters, even on capturing an entire world.

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12 Indonesian books you should add to your reading list

Before Dawn: The Poetry of Sapardi Djoko Damono ( 2005 )

Author: Sapardi Djoko Damono

Translated by John H. McGlynn, this book contains poetry written by Sapardi Djoko Damono, one of Indonesia’s most renowned poets. It contains 30 more poems than Before Dawn – Suddenly the Night, which was released in 1987.

Some of the most popular poems in the 2005’s book are Rain of June and I Want, with the latter being commonly quoted by and even put to music by fans.

Man Tiger (Lelaki Harimau) ( 2004 )

Author: Eka Kurniawan

The book, which recently named a nominee for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, follows Margio, a youngster from a rural area in Indonesia, who decides to kill a man. This leaves the whole village confused as Margio doesn’t seem like a person who could actually harm anyone. The worst crime he has ever committed is stealing a chicken, which was regarded as something that “happened out of spite”.

But, Margio really did kill the man, moreover in a brutal way. When asked why he did it, he answered, “It wasn’t me. There’s a tiger in me”.

The Land of Five Towers (Negeri 5 Menara) ( 2009 )

Author: Fuadi

Alif was a country boy from Maninjau in Padang, West Sumatra. Even though he dreamed to be another BJ Habibie, the country’s former president, circumstances led him to enroll at Pondok Madani, an Islamic boarding school in East Java.

Although disappointed at first, he learns the words man jadda wa jadda during his time there, which translates into “He who works hard must be successful” in Arabic, and later finds his life changed because of it.

Winter Dreams ( 2011 )

Author: Maggie Tiojakin

Nicky F. Rompa went to Boston, Massachusetts, to have a new life. During his stay, his new family, lover and his boss—apparently everyone around him—teaches him new lessons about living in a multicultural society.

Not only does he have to learn more about himself through it, he also embarks on a journey that will last throughout his life.

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Why Rupi Kaur and her peers are the most popular poets in the world

John Ashbery’s death in September gave my world a lurch, as the 90-year-old eminent American experimentalist was my favorite living poet. But the compensation was to discover how many others felt the same way. The appreciations became a rare public conversation about poemsrather than about Poetry, and what it is or isn’t (as in last year’s exhausting brouhaha over Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize) or whether it’s “dead,” or corrupted by elitist obscurism, or replaced by popular music, or secretly thriving. On social media, people posted their favorite Ashbery poems and passages, like this one from 1977’s “The Other Tradition,” which might seem to refer to those cyclical debates: “They all came, some wore sentiments / Emblazoned on T-shirts, proclaiming the lateness / Of the hour … ”

It was sweet while it lasted. But now the T-shirts have come a-blazing again, because the 25-year-old Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has published her second book, “The Sun and Her Flowers.” Kaur is the kind of poet who prompts heated polemics, pro and con, from people you never otherwise hear mention poetry, because among other things she is young, female, from a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant family, relatively uncredentialed and insanely successful. Her first collection, “Milk and Honey,” has sold two and a half million copies internationally since it was published in 2014. “The Sun and Her Flowers” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times paperback fiction best-seller list in October, and has remained near the top ever since.

These are airport novel numbers, not poetry ones. Ashbery’s publishers were delighted if any of his books sold north of 10,000 copies, which generally happened only if he’d won the Pulitzer or National Book Award that year. But Kaur established herself not in poetry journals but on platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram (where she has 1.8 million followers, and posts glamorous shots of herself). And she’s only the biggest of several popular “Instapoets” who have graduated from being retweeted by Kardashians to publishing books, including Tyler Knott Gregson, Lang Leav, Amanda Lovelace and the pseudonymous Atticus.

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Top 10 books about growing old

We have all seen old age in action and often it is not a pretty sight. Chances are, it strikes suddenly. “It is,” said James Thurber, “one of the most unexpected of all the things that can happen to a man.” In Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth, an elderly composer played by Michael Caine sums it up: “I’ve become old and I don’t know how I got here.”

But we should never allow catastrophe to get in the way of good humour and practical common sense. “One of the most irritating things about getting old,” a friend of mine once said at lunch, “is not having any idea of how much longer one has got. Take George’s dinner jacket. He’s nearly 80. His old one is practically falling to bits, but what is the point of getting a new one if he isn’t going to get decent use out of it?”

I am confident that my own dinner jacket will see me out. Being a mere 78, I am still enjoying late middle age. However, I am all too aware that senectitude is lurks around the corner and it occurred to me that, before it strikes, I could do worse than fill the unforgiving minute with a few light-hearted observations on the perils and pleasures it may bring. Most of the writers below have taken a positive, and often wry, look at old age, while never forgetting that beneath the eccentricities that accompany advancing years lie uncertainty, grief and thoughts of mortality.

1. The Summer of a Dormouse by John Mortimer
Mortimer was only too aware that the price to be paid for getting old is making oneself looking ridiculous. The opening sentence says it all: “The day will come in your life, it will almost certainly come, when the voice of God will thunder at you from a cloud: ‘From this day forth thou shalt not be able to put on thine own socks.’” Reading this collection of theatrical anecdotes, gossip, fond memories of friends and witty observations made while growing old disgracefully reminds one that possibly the greatest pleasures of old age is reminiscence.

2. A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness
Guinness is equally reassuring to those of us who wonder what enjoyment can be found in old age. Chock-a-block with opinions on books read, plays and films seen, stories of happy times spent with old friends such as Alan Bennett, Irene Worth and John Wells, and the joys of life at home in Hampshire, this diary is interspersed with poignant accounts of the death of friends and funerals attended.

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In the age of litfests, this model of intimate literary exchange is a vastly different experience

Since 2008, the Almost Island Dialogues have offered a literary gathering that offers what expansive literary festivals cannot – intimacy and a meaningful exchange of ideas through the lens of literature. At this year’s conclave in New Delhi (December 15-17), they will celebrate a decade of the Dialogues, with writers like the Chinese poet Bei Dao, the Arabic poet Mohammed Bennis, the Argentinian novelist Sergio Chejfec, and, from India, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Allan Sealy, and Joy Goswami. Almost Island also publishes an online literary magazine as well as a small number of books. Sharmistha Mohanty, founder-editor of Almost Island, spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that keeping the Dialogues small and intimate is important to you. What would you say intimacy achieves in the literary space?
It is very difficult to have any meaningful discussion in a setting where there are hundreds of people and writers must speak as part of a panel for ten minutes on a very deep subject. This is what the big litfests have done.

Unlike a literary festival, which concentrates on a product, be it a book or a reading or a performance, Almost Island is concerned with process, with how things are learnt, explored, created, and created again. It is concerned with the unravelling of things, in a stretched time, in being within the labour of literature, and not in the end product of its presentation. Literature is not a performing art and it requires a certain degree of quietness and closeness for things to unfold, for writers to speak genuinely and slowly about their work and their lives. Intimacy and small gatherings allow that. I have seen it work repeatedly at our Dialogues. In our India-China dialogues our Chinese writer friends spoke with candour about everything – a father who commits suicide because he is pursued by the Party, how and why some of them were exiled – because trust could be established in the closeness of our meetings.

The great Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai spoke to us for over three hours about his life in Communist Hungary and how his novels emerged from his life in that context. He spoke about his work with the community in a small town and how the government retaliated by burning his library of thousands of books, a library he has never been able to rebuild. What he gave us was not a talk or a lecture – he was speaking to all of us who were there as if one to one. It was a very moving experience for all of us there.

The Dialogues complete a decade this year. How would you say they have evolved over the last ten years?
I would say that there has been a kind of lateral growth, a fullness that has been achieved with these meetings. Not a linear evolution. The fullness is in the wide register of voices we’ve had, in poetry and prose, and from many different parts of the world. What connects them is that they enlarge – through the innovativeness of their work – the spaces of prose and poetry. The wide register is rigorous and not merely there for the sake of diversity.

That said, I have been thinking of new ways to have these meetings. There may be other ways that I haven’t discovered yet. Ten years is a good watershed and I intend to give some time to thinking about that in the next year.

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