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The Reading Life with Parul Sehgal, Book Critic at the New York Times

On Privacy, Profile Writing, and Avoiding the First Person
Interview: Durga Chew-Bose

In Sehgal’s “First Words” columns for the Times Magazine, on topics like privilege and its devalued import, or cultural appropriation, or the rhetoric surrounding the use of ‘survivor’ in place of ‘victim,’ or in 2015, the frequency of ‘flawless,’ Sehgal recasts today’s usage (or erosion) of faddish language, recontexualizing occurrence in favor of meaning, ideological precedent, and perspectives that are rarely centered. There’s nothing showy about her criticism. Sehgal finds the thread and invites her reader to see not just as she sees, but to marvel at how she’s arranged her discoveries just so.

Sehgal is so precise and alive to, it seems, the pursuits and even strange tendencies authors of varied spheres might share—that lettered chromosomal-ness—that even the most popular-reviewed ‘it’ book, reads like an exclusive. An interception. Of Arundhati Roy’s two-decade-later return to fiction, with her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Sehgal wrote this past summer in The Atlantic: “You will encounter no victims in this book; the smallest characters are endowed with some spit […] From the fine-grained affection that stirs [Roy’s] imagination springs an ethical imperative—after all, how can one appreciate the world without desiring to defend it? And it must be defended not merely from war or political calamity, but from that natural, more insidious phenomenon: forgetting.” Her interrogation of Roy’s novel is a perfect instance of Sehgal positioning literary criticism beyond a work’s achievements or shortcomings, and locating its value not only within a literary tradition, but beyond. How art and criticism provide dynamic ways for understanding instead of limiting how to be a person in this world. And more urgently, how to pay attention.

ON GROWING UP

I was born outside of D.C. We moved a lot—every three years. I lived in Delhi, Manila, Budapest when I was little. I think I thought we were on the run, because it was always so abrupt. I remember my mother found me in the library of my school in Manila when I was nine, and she was like, “Okay, we need to go home early and pack.” And I was like, “Where now?” And she said India. It was a life of jump cuts.

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In China: Bookselling Trends and OpenBook’s Bestseller Lists for October

As we report news from the 2017 Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair, we also have our monthly listings on overall Chinese bestselling books, produced through a partnership with OpenBook in China and the US-based distribution network Trajectory. Details of what’s reflected in these charts appears at the end of the story.

Our colleague Rainy Liu reports that there’s a notable trend in China toward publisher-owned bookstores, and this is a phenomenon seen among both private and state-owned publishers.

In August, for example, Liu tells us, the Singapore-based bookstore Page One was acquired by Chinese publisher Thinkingdom Media Group Ltd, which recently was listed as a publicly traded corporation. The company, we’re told, anticipates retaining the Page One brand’s coffeehouse style with food and beverage service in addition to books.

Meanwhile, state-owned publisher Citic Press Group has opened 69 bookstores in close to a dozen airports in China.

Another development attracting retail attention is that of the “shared bookstore,” which is a kind of library service now seen in Beijing and Shanghai. The trend is reported to have been seen first in Hefei, in China’s eastern Anhui province in July.

As an article in People’s Daily describes it, “Customers are allowed to borrow up to two books valued under 150 yuan per visit (US$22.75) after registering with an app and paying the 99 yuan deposit fee (US$15).

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Why a 19th Century American Slave Memoir is Becoming a Bestseller in Japan’s Bookstores

No one imagined that the Japanese translation of the book, Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs (1861), would become a long-selling hit in Japan when it was first published in 2013. It is the life story of a slave girl in the United States in the 1800s, and not something one would expect to strike interest in Japan, which while struggling with its own issues of race, has a 98% ethnically Japanese population.

And the woman who would push for the book to be translated and published in Japanese, Yuki Horikoshi, had no background in literature or translation, and at first found it difficult to find a willing publisher. “I didn’t meet the profile for what an author should be and it was hard to explain why this book was so compelling.”

The book is now on its eighth edition in hardback and was published in paperback this summer. In its first month in paperback, it sold 25,000 copies, a remarkable feat for a book of its genre. It’s what in Japan is called “a quiet bestseller.”

The book that fascinated Horikoshi has been compared to The Diary Of Anne Frank. It is considered a remarkable work in how it sheds light on the female experience of slavery, including the never-ending threat of sexual exploitation. It was thought to be a work of fiction but many believe the authenticity was definitively established in 1981.

Horikoshi remembers when she first read the book. It was the summer of 2011, the same year that Japan experienced the Great Eastern earthquake which resulted in nearly 16,000 deaths and a nuclear meltdown. Horikoshi, who works for a large consulting firm, was riding the bullet train on a business trip, looking for something inspirational to read. On her iPhone she downloaded a copy of the book, began reading, and was enthralled.

“I had gone to school in the United States and yet I had never heard of this book, nor really understood slavery. It was an eye-opening experience.”

In the protagonist’s resolution to fight against inequality and make herself a place in the world, Horikoshi saw inspiration for young Japanese people, especially women.

Japan is currently ranked 114 out of 144 countries in gender equality; women here face an uphill battle establishing themselves in the business world or in politics. The Japan Timesin a 2016 editorial, lamented how that even 30 years after laws mandating equal employment opportunities for men and women were introduced, women still struggle to get a fair shake in corporate Japan.

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Poetry: When They Open Our Bodies They Will Find the Whales by Urvashi Bahuguna

Urvashi Bahuguna – When They Open Our Bodies

urvashi

Urvashi Bahuguna is a poet from India whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Nervous Breakdown, Barely South Review, Jaggery, The Four Quarters Magazine and elsewhere. She was recently shortlisted for the Beverly Prize and the Wingword Poetry Prize. She has a poetry pamphlet forthcoming from Eyewear Books (UK). She was awarded an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom in 2014. Her essays have appeared in Hindu Business Line, Scroll, Helter Skelter Magazine and others.


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China Reinvents Literature (Profitably)

Smartphones may be killing print in China, but they’re revolutionizing literature. Last year, 333 million Chinese read fiction written for their phones and other devices, according to government data. Some is written by hobbyists and some by professionals. Increasingly, though, it’s hard to tell the difference, as China’s “online literature” morphs into a $1.3 billion industry.

Investors have taken note. On Wednesday, China Literature Ltd., the country’s biggestonline publisher, will go public in Hong Kong, with a market value expected to exceed $6 billion. Its success should put the rest of the publishing industry on notice that the future of the book is being written in China — and it looks nothing like the past.

For decades, China’s publishing industry was dominated by government-owned companies that steered clear of subject matter that might cause controversy. Politics was just the most obvious topic. But sex, romance and violence — the stuff of so much popular entertainment — were also generally discouraged. Good books still managed to get published, but formal and informal restrictions severely inhibited creative expression.

Then the internet offered a back channel. In the late 1990s, authors began posting serialized novels to online forums and bulletin boards. It was an informal and largely uncensored way to publish, and some of the early books — especially romances — became sensations. Among other factors turning these early serials into hits were the online forums themselves. They were the social media of their time, and parallel commentaries and discussions organically sprung up around this new literature, becoming as much a part of the experience of reading as the story itself. In many cases, these commentaries influenced how the authors wrote, and thereby drew in even more readers eager to be a part of the story-making process.

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Book Review: Available Light – New and Collected Poems by C.P. Surendran

By Mani Rao

Available Light_Front Cover
Title: Available Light
Author: C.P. Surendran
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 272
Price: INR 499/-
Buy

Available Light is a collection of new poems by C.P. Surendran appended with his four previous books of poetry — Gemini II (1994), Posthumous Poems (1999), Canaries on the Moon (2002) and Portraits of the Space We Occupy (2007) – of which the first three are out of print. The publication of Available Light brings these early poems back into circulation, and to our attention, helping us survey the achievement of this mid-career poet.

Like most collected works, Available Light is chronologically ordered, as though requesting a biographical reading or an evaluation of how the poet’s craft progressed or changed over time. I duly read this book from the end to the beginning so that I might arrive in the present, maybe with Darwinian notes; instead, I found a circle. After the stunning opening of Gemini II, the next two books were disappointing; Portraits returned to the passion and technical brilliance of the first book, with added maturity. The latest poems in Available Light continue to soar, but now the political and impersonal has become personal and C.P. draws his blood and ink from the wider world. The circle has come around, but now it is wider.

The book also includes an essay written by C.P. as a tribute to his friend, poet Vijay Nambisan, who died in August 2017, in which he describes the 90s Bombay. The inclusion of this essay helps us contextualize the angst in C.P.’s previous work. It also illuminates C.P.’s own milieu and lets us locate his time and place in the history of Indian English poetry.

A devastating separation fuels C.P.’s first collection, Gemini II (1994), which remains a fresh and fulfilling read. The poems do not indulge in melodramatic declarations, nor dampen intensity with platitudes. The narratives seem quick but they are terse and well-controlled; lines play off each other for resonances. A discussion of a single poem from this book will illustrate C.P.’s craft:

Renunciation

First light on the kitchen table.
Breakfast for one. Beer and wine.
Feline eyes kiss fallen tart.

Lunch is a conceit of three. My cat,
Your snapshot and me. Secret rum
In mint tea. Invalidation of the sun.

Last light comes to sup. Dinner is a feat
In rectitude. Water and whiskey. Campaign
Of shadows on the wall. No despair.

A silver of music around the ankles.
Endless retreat of inaccessible feet.

Each of the three stanzas is a tableau set around a kitchen table at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The scene is similar but slightly different each time. If the first stanza is somewhat cryptic, the second stanza clarifies the three characters — the narrator, a cat, and a missing lover. Pronouns mark relationships — “my cat, your snapshot” with the slant rhymes of “[C]at” and “shot” and “rum” and “sun” against the monotony of “me” and “tea”. Every detail adds to the poignancy of the missing person — the evening visitor is none but the sunlight, and even the cat’s kiss is only visual. The dynamic events, a “campaign of shadows” and the “silver of music” are a counterfoil to the sun and silence.

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The Literary Oligarchy is Killing Writing

With the staggering rise of wealth inequality and the increasing concentration of ideas and access to an audience in the hands of a few, largely elite writers, it’s the voices on the margins that need to be heard.

Years ago, when I was first trying to make a name for myself as a writer, a prominent Indian novelist and one whom I admired told me I was being a fool to ever think my fiction – influenced by the American and European modernists I grew up reading – would ever be accepted by the mostly white boy club of the terminally hip who ruled New York City publishing – the trustafarian rich kids who defined cool, and by extension, who got published, who got reviewed and who got attention.

He told me to start wearing a turban and pen a gritty but ultimately celebratory novel about Sikhs in California, where I grew up – be the native informant for the bored white US searching for a new ethnicity to discover, consume, go all gaga over and ultimately discard. That way, he said, lay my surest path to even the slimmest foothold in the literary world.

I ignored his advice and told him so. What he described sounded like self-cannibalisation to me. For me, the whole point of writing – great writing at least – was that at its heart it promoted a fundamental freedom of the mind to engage the world in whatever way one chooses. Soon after, the prominent writer made a point of “dropping” me. I suspect he decided my poor judgment proved I was never going to be famous enough for him to waste his energy cultivating while my insufficient sycophancy was in no way going to compensate.

At the time, I had written two novels. One was about an enormously fat satellite television magnate who gets eaten by a huge fish; the second about a wild girl found in the mountains of an imaginary Asian country. While the former suffered from many usual first novel failures, the latter, I believed, and still do, genuinely succeeded.

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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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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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LGBT Writing in West Asia: How writers are using the pen to fight stigma and oppression

Many Armenian, Persian and Kurdish artists and activists address homosexuality and gender issues through their work.

On May 28, 2013, a small group of environmentalists gathered at Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the removal of trees. The police’s brutal response sparked the indignation of the city’s residents and soon, Gezi Park was flooded with ordinary citizens and activists. They voiced a number of grievances, chief among them the government’s refusal to engage with citizens about urban planning. The protests lasted for weeks and the makeshift camp erected in the Park featured a dizzying array of groups: ecologists, Armenians, Kurds, Zazas, Alevis, Communists, syndicalists, anti-capitalist Muslims and LGBT rights organisations.

The diversity of identities on display brought into the open the complex and sometimes confusing imbrications composing individuals’ self-identification in contemporary Turkey. Since the 1980s, sexual identities have played an increasing role in this construction, and over the last decade the stories and struggles of Turkish sexual minorities have been featured in a number of different media

To be certain, homosexuality, lesbianism, transgenderism and cross-dressing are far from new concepts to Turkish culture. Same-sex intercourse has been legal in Turkey (and the Ottoman Empire, its predecessor state) since 1858; 110 years before the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain. The topic of gay and lesbian relations in Ottoman society and its imagining among Orientalist writers is particularly popular among Western scholars.

While Turkish authors do treat similar subjects within their works, contemporary issues of social, political and economic equality, as well as the battle against discrimination, are more likely to be explored within Turkish academic publishing. Scholars Cüneyt Çakırlar and Serkan Delice, have been particularly active in their writings, whether in collections of contemporary Turkish studies on gender, queer identity and politics or in their participation in the Queer Düş’ün series by *SEL Yayıncılık, which seeks to bring English-language Queer writing into Turkish. Other writers, too, address difficult issues, whether theoretical or practical. Evidence of such comes to us from works such as Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet: Türkiye’de Beden, Sağlık ve Cinsellik (Neoliberalism and Intimacy: Body, Health and Gender in Turkey), where we find Cenk Özbay’s study of neoliberal sociology and the case of rent boys, as well as Yener Bayramoğlu’s look at heterosexism and homosexuality within contemporary advertising.

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