By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

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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.

Physical Map of Asia

When we travel or go on a holiday, we look forward to discovering spaces and cultures new to us. Here is a list of ten books that can vicariously give us a flavour of diverse cultures in the same way. The selection zips across Asia collecting books that have won Man Booker Prize, Man Asian Literary prize and more.

The books sail from Philippines to China, Mongolia, India, Japan, Vietnam to satisfy the fussiest of palates with fiction from different cultures.

Books by award winning and popular writer Haruki Murakami of Japan; Man Asian literary prize winner Bi Feiyu of China; Man Booker prize winning writer Arvind Adiga from India and the last and only female winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, Korean writer Shin Kyung-sook , are featured in this listing.

 

“Only novels can make people feel through words that they went through actual experiences. Depending on whether or not people experience those stories, their thoughts and ways of seeing the world should change. I want to write stories that will penetrate the heart. I have a lot of hope in the power that novels hold,” said Haruki Murakami, the seventy-year-old Japanese novelist, in an interview with Japan Times. 

The interview introduces his latest novel, Killing Commendatore, where the protagonist, a thirty-six year old artist  goes into his paintings. He weaves the natural and supernatural to explore reality and admits that his protagonist is based partly on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

A popular novelist, Haruki Murakami was the sixth recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize  in 2006, given in recognition of  “humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times”. He has received many awards at both international and national levels and has three doctorates, including one from Princeton University.

By Aminah Sheikh

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

I write because I have stories to tell. Because I want to tell these stories in a particular way. Some characters, and a vague, blurry indication of their predicament just pop up inside my head and I have no idea how they got there. Together, my characters and I, we embark on this journey to find out. This entire process – unpleasant at times but mostly exciting – provides me with the rush of air that keeps me going.

Sometimes though, I meet my characters in the real world. I may have heard about them from someone, so I go and meet them and find out their stories. I am talking about my non-fiction and reportage work here.

Basically, I am quiet, introverted and a loner. There’s silence all around me. Writing helps me to survive because I can’t talk much. I like to dwell in my own world in the company of my books, very few people I can relate to, and, the only way I am able to give vent to what’s buzzing inside my head is through the written words – whether it is published or what remains in the closet.

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

My recent book, Out of War (non-fiction), published by Speaking Tiger Books, is about the narratives of surrendered CPI (Maoist) cadres. I spent two years travelling through different parts of India – Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. I located them, talked to them for hours, and I’ve remained in touch with many for four years now. I tried to understand their lives and stories. In my book, I look at the Maoist movement, its successes and failures, the passions and sacrifices, through the struggles of individuals – their individual needs, personal longings, sufferings and self-respect.

How do these foot-soldiers themselves view the Maoist movement? Is the movement free from hierarchies and compromise? Are the soldiers free to visit their parents, partners, children? What about those that trust the police with the promise of a safe life and opt out? I visited their homes, heard their stories – stories of abuse, poverty, suffering, hurt, deceit, joy, love…

I worked hard to get these stories. The research was also emotionally taxing for me. It wrung out all my energy. These people and their stories deeply influenced me. Now I know why people turn to the Maoists for support, I know why they become Maoist cadres.

Professionally, I’ve achieved only that much – I’ve written the book, pouring my heart into it.

But personally, I’ve achieved much more. Without expecting to. It was incidental. There was a time when I worked full-time with a reputed newspaper, earned a fairly decent salary and felt happy about certain material comforts. I quit my job to write this book, but the cravings for material things had remained. Bit by bit, in the last four years that I worked on this book, the attachment to material things has gone, and I hope for good.

By Aminah Sheikh

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

Because eventually we will all be reduced to nothing – and that is something I refuse to accept, or believe.

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

Epigram Books released my first novel, Kappa Quartet, in September 2016. It was a conscious effort on my part, I believe, to have my first novel encapsulate who I was/am as a writer. For instance I believe in the essential premise of irrealism – that a gap exists between the infinite possibilities of the universe and the limited ability of our consciousness to perceive or understand it – and that a writer of fiction really shouldn’t be viewed as an oracle, or a sage, or provider of solutions. But I did, on a basic level, want to explore the various ways in which people learn to live and cope with feelings of emptiness; it was the baseline on which I built my stories and characters for the novel.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

As an observer of the world I believe in immanence; as a member of human society I believe in interconnectivity, diversity, and the power of shared experience; as a craftsman of words I lean towards simplicity, a lightness of touch, and a good clip, a steady pace.

Who are your favorite authors?

My favourite authors are Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, and Haruki Murakami. And I will always be in awe of Stephanie Ye, David Mitchell, and Yoko Ogawa.

The only dead person I will credit as a favourite is Willa Cather, for Death Comes for the Archbishop.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

It’ll have to be my current project. Titled Lovelier, it’s a book-length project that intertwines poetry with short stories to tell a complete but broken tale about a cast of millennials. They’re creative, ambitious, and yet constantly prone to failure, and so I adore them. I could have gone with a simpler structure, of course – I could have gone with one or the other, poetry or prose – but that’s just me. The pieces are all there, and I’m still waiting on the decision to cut half of it away or keep them all.