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Could there really be only one new black male novelist in Britain?

Until this week, I thought that at least we could be consoled by fiction. That we still had the borderless joys of stories to fend off the dark forces of xenophobia and insularity. Culture is crucial in times of political uncertainty or crisis, and encountering other people’s stories in fiction seems like the surest way to keep our inner, imaginative boundaries open.

Except that we’re not encountering other people’s stories because they’re not being published. At least, not in Britain. The novelist Robyn Travis this week gave an inspirational talk on his struggle to find a publisher for his debut novel, Mama Can’t Raise No Man, about prison life and masculinity, and then to fill the 1,300-seater Hackney Empire in London for its launch this autumn. Go Robyn. Less inspiring was the fact that Travis, according to his publisher Crystal Mahey-Morgan, was most likely the only male black debut novelist to have been published in Britain this year.

Mahey-Morgan says there must be a “flaw in the industry” but no one in publishing should claim to be particularly shocked. A survey earlier this month by the Bookseller magazine found a “shockingly low” number of black, Asian or minority ethnic authors among the UK’s top 500 titles. Before that, a 2015 report, Writing the Future, found a glaring lack of inclusion across every level of a stubbornly white, middle-class publishing world. Read more


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Book Review: Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

beauty-is-a-wound

Prize-winning Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan isn’t for the squeamish. Freighted with semen, menstrual blood, excrement and urine, his tour-de-force, “Beauty is a Wound” (originally published as “Cinta itu Luka”) isn’t “la-di-da” chic-lit, a “adultery-in-bourgeois-Hampstead” novella or Euro-crime noir.

Instead, Kurniawan hurls his readers deep into the heart of Java, reminding us along the way that the world’s most densely-populated island (one hundred and fifty million souls on an area the size of England and still counting…) is far more rambunctious than the “sopan santun”, carefully-calibrated demeanour and unblinking passivity of its courtly elite with their slow-moving palace dances and often indecipherable double-speak.

The novel is like story-telling on acid.

Densely-plotted and overflowing with characters and incidents, “Beauty is a Wound” is also studded with pithy one-liners, witness the gangster Memen Gedeng’s frank assessment of mankind: “Every human is a mammal, just like a dog and walks on two legs like a chicken.” Read more


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Krys Lee: becoming North Korean and entering ‘elsewhere’

Born in South Korea, raised in America, educated in England and equally comfortable speaking Korean or English, novelist Krys Lee has trouble pinpointing her “home.” She is now based in Seoul, where her world is “intimate yet alienated,” but when she returns to her old lives in the U.K. and U.S. — places that “should be immediately close to me” — she feels no different.

“I return feeling more a prodigal son (or daughter) who no longer knows what home is,” she says.

The idea of home is a complicated one for Lee, and she examines and reexamines it through her writing. It’s a theme that runs through the recently published, critically acclaimed “How I Became a North Korean,” a haunting, aching novel about three characters — two of them North Korean and one Korean-American — who are stuck in China waiting to travel to South Korea. Read more


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Writing is like making love: An interview with Mustansar Hussain Tarar

by Muhammad Asim Butt & Mushtaq Bilal

Mustansar Hussain Tarar

Mustansar Hussain Tarar

Lined with trees on both sides, a narrow alley leads one to the cloistered quarters of the house where Mustansar Hussain Tarar writes. He spends most of his day in this room. Almost all of his novels, travelogues, plays, and columns were written in this room. Despite being in the vicinity of Firdous Market, this particular neighborhood in Gulberg III has an air of tranquility about it. There are two parks in front of Tarar’s house. A few years ago, when I went to meet him for the first time, he had said, while giving directions, “There is a park right in front of the house, with a slide for kids. If you look in the direction in which kids slide down, you’ll be able to see my house.” The slide is no longer there.

The room opens into a small, narrow hall full of antiques worth thousands of dollars. Tarar has been collecting antiques for decades.

There is a kind of deliberation to the way Tarar’s writing table is arranged. Coffee mug-shaped penholders sit in a neat queue by the wall on his writing table, with pens, pencils, paper cutters, sharpeners, a letter opener, and a stapler stowed separately. There is also a solitary ashtray sitting on the table. On one side of the table, there is the latest issue of Loh (The Slate) along with a couple of files and a few documents. There is another table in the room with a folding tabletop. Tarar told me that the carpenter who made the table had died and that this was probably one of the last tables of its kind. He lifted the tabletop and slid open a wooden tray, which converted it into a writing table.

Right next to this table is a tall cupboard stuffed with books. A few paintings hang on one of the walls. One of them is by Sadequain. A huge portrait of Tarar by Saeed Akhtar hangs on the wall adjacent to his writing table. Saeed Akhtar also made a bust of Tarar’s, which is placed on the table by the sofa. There is another portrait of Tarar’s made by Bashir Mirza, which depicts Tarar as a carefree vagrant. Continue reading


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Kitaab interview with Isa Kamari: Writing is like therapy to me

by Zafar Anjum

Isa Kamari

I had heard of Isa Kamari ever since I set foot in Singapore over a decade ago. Winner of many awards, Isa Kamari is a major Singapore Malay author. He has been a regularly featured author at the Singapore Writers Festival. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to read Malay and I did not know that Isa’s novels had been translated into English.

It was only recently that I got to know him in person. A few months ago, he sent me a copy of his novel, Intercession. I found it a bold work of fiction dealing with serious themes of science and religion, and yet it was so thrillingly narrated that I could barely stop reading it.  The book reminded me of Hermann Hesse’s masterpiece, Siddhartha.

Born in 1960 in Kampung Tawakal, Isa’s family moved to a Housing Development Board apartment in Ang Mo Kio while he was still in his teens. After studying at the elite Raffles Institution, he went on to take the degree of Bachelor of Architecture (with Honours) from the National University of Singapore in 1988. He now holds a senior position with the Land Transport Authority. Isa has also earned a Master of Philosophy degree in Malay Letters from the National University of Malaysia in 2007.

A prolific writer, Isa has so far published two volumes of short stories, eight novels, six volumes of poetry, one collection of stage plays, and several albums of contemporary spiritual music. He has been honoured with the SEA Write Award in 2006, the Singapore government’s Cultural Medallion in 2007 and the Singapore Malay literary award Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang in 2009.

Isa-quote2Isa’s novels are increasingly being translated from Malay for wider audiences. Satu Bumi (One Earth, 1998) was published in Mandarin in 1999 as Yi Pien Re Tu and in English in 2008, under the title of One Earth (translated by Sukmawati Sirat). Two other novels appeared in English translations in 2009: Intercession (Tawassul, 2002, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Alvin Pang); and Nadra (Atas Nama Cinta, In the Name of Love, 2006, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Aaron Lee Soon Yong). In 2013, four translations have been released: The Tower (Menara, 2002, translated by Alfian Sa’at); A Song of the Wind (Memeluk Gerhana, Embracing the Eclipse, 2007, “rendered in English from Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); Rawa (Rawa: tragedi Pulau Batu Puteh, Rawa: The Tragedy of White Rock Island, 2009, “rendered in English from the original Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); and 1819 (Duka Tuan Bertakhta, You Rule in Sorrow, 2011, “rendered in English from Malay by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan”).

Here is a two-part interview with Isa Kamari:

PART ONE: Becoming a Writer

IsaSmile

What set you on the road to being a writer? Do you ever regret the drive or passion that makes you keep writing?

I have always loved writing since my secondary school days but never took it seriously until my late teens. Something happened to me in 1979, the story of which I have told in my novel Memeluk Gerhana (A Song of the Wind).

That incident made me look at life in a more critical manner. It made me view writing not as a hobby but more of a calling. In any case, I begin to write only if an event or issue disturbs me deeply. I do research on the subject and try to find my own resolution/ take on the issue/predicament. Only when I understand and come to terms with the problem and form my own opinion or position do I begin to pen my thoughts on it in the form of a poem or fiction. Thus writing is like therapy to me. It is my way of finding meaning and peace with myself and the world. Continue reading


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Writing as an act of survival: The Kitaab interview with Meira Chand

Novelist Anuradha Kumar interviews Singapore-based novelist Meira Chand

Meira ChandMeira Chand the novelist and short story writer has lived in the UK, Japan, India and now in Singapore.   Her novels, every one of them presenting a unique angle into history or an outsider’s life in a different country, are then part of a literature that belongs to the world, making her a writer to be read and cherished.

Beginning with The Gossamer Fly in 1980, Meira has written seven other novels and numerous short stories.  Her most recent novel is A Different Sky (2010), the novel that could arguably define Singapore of the early and mid 20th century.  As she describes in an essay on her website (meirachand.com) in words that echo Faulkner’s,   writing is indeed a dream,   one that takes over one’s complete being.  And the writer is not satisfied till she has written that dream down and achieved for some moments at least, an ‘ecstatic peace’.  Continue reading


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Abraham Verghese: Fiction as a truth-telling device

Author and medical practitioner Abraham Verghese talks to Meenakshi Kumar about his twin careers and how his work as doctor closely related to his writing: The Hindu

abraham_vergheseAV: “The first two books were memoirs and, therefore, needed to be autobiographical. I actually found it quite difficult to write those memoirs, because I assumed the story was largely not about me, even though they were true stories — I was just the observer. My Own Country was about AIDS in rural Tennessee and The Tennis Partner about the phenomenon of doctors and drug addiction. But in both cases it appeared that I became more of a character in the story, in the sense that my reaction to what I was seeing was germane to the story. My editors kept coaxing revelations out of me, pointing out that the reader would feel shortchanged if I slammed the door every time the narrative lens swung in my direction. So, I wound up revealing a lot, but I feel good about it: the reader who has done me the honour of picking up the book deserves to know those things.”

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Ravi Subramanian: Guns don’t kill people, bad prose does

ravisubIn writing about gun rights and academic malpractice, Ravi Subramanian strays from his usual subject to decidedly mixed results: Tehelka

It’s one of the most clichéd pieces of advice given to new authors of fiction, both literary and commercial. Write what you know. It’s good advice; one of the worst things a new author can do is seem inauthentic. Indian commercial writers certainly follow it to the T, with a conveyor belt of engineers writing about being engineers, bankers writing about being bankers, college students writing about being college students. Continue reading


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Shrinidhi Prakash: Britain’s first child genius

The 11-year-old writer on being crowned Britain’s first child genius and ‘sniffing and licking’ her books (Outlook India)

You’ve held the Under-12 and Under-10 World Chess champion titles. What’s your success mantra?

My house rules are: Don’t slog, but don’t laze. Also, don’t do something you don’t enjoy.

And you’re writing your fifth and sixth novels.

Yes, the fifth book is about a boy who’s blasted into AD 3067 by a time machine disguised as a grandfather clock. The sixth is about twin spies and the world’s biggest diamond unearthed from the ocean bed.

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Balli Kaur Jaswal: It never hurts to think about who your audience will be

balli kaur jaswal

Balli Kaur Jaswal grew up in Singapore, Japan, Russia and the Philippines. She attended the creative writing programs in Hollins University and George Mason University in the US. In 2007, she won the David TK Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, where she wrote Inheritance, her first novel, published by Sleepers Publishing in February 2013.

Currently, Jaswal teaches VCE English in a secondary school in Melbourne.

Inheritance is a story about a traditional family grappling with their rapidly modernising surroundings.  It is a nation’s coming-of-age story, seen through the sharp lens of a traditional Punjabi family as it gradually unravels.  Set in Singapore between the 1970’s and 1990’s, Inheritance follows the familial fissures that develop after teenaged Amrit disappears in the middle of the night. Although her absence is brief, she returns as a different person.

In this interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Jaswal discusses the journey of her first novel from its genesis to its publication.

Inheritance is your debut novel. How did the idea of this multi-generational saga come to you?

The characters came to me before the story did. When they started interacting with each other and conflicts began to arise, the story was born. In rising Asia, there is a palpable tension between tradition and modernity. The characters from different generations play out these tensions – they’re living proof of one country’s uneasy balancing act of past and present. As the landscape of Singapore changes, the characters have to decide between adjusting to them or completely retreating.

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