Elaine Chiew is a writer and a visual arts researcher, editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora is forthcoming from Penguin Random House SEA (Oct 2019) and Myriad Editions UK (Jan 2020). Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore. Originally from Malaysia, Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. Elaine lives in Singapore and blogs about art at www.invisibleflaneuse.blogspot.com. In this interview, she reveals more about her new book and her ideas.
Why do you write?
Very simply, I can’t not write, call it word-constipation or what Danish short story writer Naja Marie Aidt calls ‘an urge that cannot be overlooked’ or a ‘point of desire’. A character or voice arrives out of the blue, takes hold of you as in a waking dream, make me real, it says, and you do.
With the literary festivals season blossoming around Asia, Singapore will host its 22 nd writers’ festival from 1st to 10th November with big names dropping in, including Pico Iyer. Pico Iyer, who has spent the last three decades in Japan will be talking on ‘Beyond Borders, Beyond Words’. Iyer will reflect on human connection and belonging. After his talk, he will be in dialogue with acclaimed novelist who has spent a large part of her life in Japan too and now lives in Singapore, Meira Chand.
This year Pico Iyer has been the writer in residence for the newly renovated Raffles Hotel in Singapore. He penned down a book on the Hotel called This could be Home. the novel was launched on 5th august. Long ago in history, this heritage hotel had housed the likes of great writers like Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.
Pico Iyer was born Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer in 1957. His great-great-great-grand father was a Gujarati writer-reformer in the late nineteenth century, Mahipatram Nilkanth . His parents were Indian academics who moved to England to study. Iyer’s unusual name is a combination of the Buddha’s name, Siddhartha, with that of the fifteenth century Florentine neo-Platonist Pico della Mirandola and the last name is that of his father. Schooled in Oxford and Harvard, Pico Iyer is known for his brilliant essays and travel writing. He has written a few novels too.
The Asian Festival of Children’s content organised by Singapore Book Council from 5 th to 8 th September, 2019, celebrated its tenth year with the country of focus being Myanmar. There were talks and discussions on the need for book reviews, the need for diversity in children’s literature, translations and how to proliferate books from different cultures all over the globe.
Panel discussions and lectures dotted the event with delegates from USA, England, different parts of Asia and more. Some of the discussions were thought provoking. For instance, at the end of discussion on diversity with panellists from North American background ( academic Philip Nel, writer editor Emily Pan and Lisa Charlieboy) with moderator Avery Fischer Udagawa, the relevance of their experience to the Asian experience was put under scrutiny by a member of the audience as even Emily Pan grew up in USA identifying as an American.
During a discussion on ‘Portrayal of Special Needs in YA (Young Adult Fiction)’, while award winning writer Suzanne Kamata focussed on the need to assimilate children with disabilities into the mainstream, Hannah Alkaff from Malaysia totted off statistics that proved more children would suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder( OCD ) over the years and therefore the need to create fiction like hers where children could identify with such issues. One wonders though why schools and caregivers would allow this rise in OCD to occur. Sarinajit Kaur from National Institute of Education, talked of how teachers could create not just better readers but generate hope in children by giving them books that are empathetic.
Mahmood Farooqui in conversation with Gargi Vachaknavi
Dastangoi is the art of Urdu storytelling that was popular all across India and could regale commoners and elites alike. That was in times of Mughal splendour. The performers were artists and writers rolled into one who left behind over 46,000 pages of published fantasies. The Dastans were the stories told by these storytellers, the gois. Unfortunately this art form completely vanished, leaving behind few memories.
Inspired by the scholarship of one of Urdu’s greatest living writer S. R. Faruqi, Mahmood Farooqui began its revival in 2005 and has since then trained dozens of other storytellers or Dastangos, staged over a thousand shows all around the world and has composed over a dozen modern Dastans for the genre. With all the innovations that he and his team have spearheaded, a virtually new genre of performance and a new kind of writing for the stage has emerged in our times.
Farooquiis an award winning writer and performer. He was awarded the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar by the Sangeet Natak Akademi of the Union Government for his efforts in reviving Dastangoi. His book on the 1857 uprising Besieged: Voices from Delhi, 1857, was awarded the Ram Nath Goenka Award for the best non-fiction book of the year by the Indian Express Group. He has been a visiting fellow at the Universities of Michigan, US and Berkeley, California and was a Rhodes scholar at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His latest book is A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain. He has written over 15 modern Dastans for the stage and has trained nearly 50 people besides performing close to 500 shows himself. His wife, film maker Anusha Rizvi, is not only the producer of the Dastangois but also the award winning writer-Director of Peepli Live, a 2010 satirical comedy with the involvement of greats like Aamir Khan and Raghuvir Yadav.
Mahmood Farooqui and his troupe will be performing in Singapore on the 14thof September. In this exclusive, he talks to Gargi Vachaknavi of his work, of how a Dastangoi performance varies from normal theatre and what he is going to perform in Singapore.
Gargi: Why did you think of reviving Dastangoi, an art of 13 th century storytelling in Urdu? What is the potential you see that makes you feel it is necessary to contextualise it for the present day?
Farooqui: I was a student of history and had been active in theatre for many years when I came across the great S. R. Faruqi’s study of the world of Dastans. I had been reading Urdu literature all my life but had never really heard of this incredibly enchanting world. When I dug deeper, I was totally bowled over by the genius of the writers and the of the performers. Here was theatre in its purest form, one or two narrators, sitting still and holding an audience captive, just like our ancient rishis (sages) narrated epics and Shastras to rapt listeners. I felt that this was the most essential art form of the Indian subcontinent. From the word go, it was an instant success perhaps because in India everything, including religion is a story.
The innovation I made was to have not one but two narrators and our designer, Anusha Rizvi, kept the basics very simple so we brought it into the ambit of modern theatre by using techniques of lighting, stage decorum and presentation.
Eric Khoo, the acclaimed filmmaker from Singapore, has another feather in his cap. His films have been acknowledged for contributing to ‘international solidarity’ with the Bishwaratna Dr Bhupen Hazarika award this year.
Said Eric Khoo, the fourth recipient of this biannual award: “I believe that every person has intrinsic value beyond his or her race, religion, nationality or social class. This belief I understand was also shared by the late Bhupen Hazarika in whose honour the Award for International Solidarity was named. In this spirit, my films seek to bring people together, despite their apparent differences and thus, I am truly privileged to receive this award and to be associated with the late Bhupen Hazarika and his philosophy of International Solidarity.”
The Bhupen Hazarika award was instituted in 2011 by the Assam Sahitya Sabha ( Assam Literary Society). Given to artistes who exhibit international solidarity through their works, the awards represent the best in bridging borders drawn by mankind as did the lyrics and writings of artiste after who the award is named.
I was setting up the livestream on the living room’s television when Ma called. “Ah Boon, hand me the gift packs on the table.” I ignored her for the moment, playing around with the video settings. Finally, the words “The Parade Will Start In…” appeared on screen, followed by a countdown timer below them.
There was an ongoing discussion to call the parade ‘a ceremony’. I remember a member of the opposition questioning a minister of the ruling party on the choice of words. “It’s a show of power, of our strength,” the minister had said. “Is it? Many performances seem more like acts of reverence, not deterrence,” his opponent had fired back. She had a point though. The parade usually began with protective blessings from the leaders of our four major religions.
But nothing changed. It was still called a parade.
Ma shouted for me again. I yelled back, saying that I heard her.
I took up the four scarlet packs, one for each of us, from the dining room table and walked into the kitchen. There used to be five but that was two years ago.
Singapore has completed more than half a century of independent existence. It is now a thriving country with an intrinsic personality of its own. What went into making Singapore a distinctive island cannot be just found in history books but between the borders of fact and fantasy, where lingers fiction that tunes us to the distinct flavour of this unique metropolitan city-state.
As Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father said in one of his speeches, Singapore started with people of “many races who speak many languages, who worship different gods, who have different diet habits” and yet they all unified under the banner of a single flag. The kind of culture that evolves out of the union of these diversities is best explored in stories that are of the people, by the people and for the people.
These are some novels that showcase the culture and history of Singapore and how it evolved out of the colonial past to become what it is today. These are all books that focus on issues against the backdrop of a national landscape. The issues addressed transcend to become larger than the personal. Some of the writers are Singapore Literature Prize and S.E.A. Write Award winners and have been translated to multiple languages.
Interpreter of Winds is a collection of four stories which brings together Fairoz Ahmad’s experiences and observations while growing up as a Muslim. In a world where we are (sadly) divided by religion and united by our bitterness towards it all, these stories are an invigorating read. This short collection is a remarkable attempt to interpret faith and capture its challenges.
Ahmad is a young voice who is striving to be the change he wants to see in the world. Having co-founded an award-winning social enterprise Chapter W — which works at the intersection of women, technology and social impact, he has been awarded the Outstanding Young Alumni award by National University of Singapore for his work with the community. He believes that magic, wonder and richness of one’s history and culture, together with their quirks and eccentricities, could help narrow the gap in our understanding. His stories seem to be an amalgam to repair the breaks that whisper incompatibility through the world.