Book review by Tan Kaiyi

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Title: The War on Terror

Author: Rene Acosta

Publisher: Penguin, 2019

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.”

 –Simone Weil

As Southeast Asia achieves prominence as a rising tiger of the East (once again), it can be easy to forget the violence that plagued the region. Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’, but concealed is the reality of military juntas, corruption and royal drama. Indonesia, known for its pristine mythical landscapes, is also home to soil infested with the blood of suspected Communists. Even Singapore, the icon of the region’s progress, is not exempt from a history of violence. The Japanese Occupation and racial riots are just some of the stains on the history of the island nation.

The War on Terror deep dives into the vibrant yet troubled land of the Philippines. Written by veteran journalist Rene Acosta, this slim book is a concentrate of bloodshed and death. The non-fictional account is told through behind-the-scenes perspectives, detailed accounts of the operations and moments of extreme terror that not even today’s ultra-violent entertainment can match. The book centers on the Filipino military’s actions against the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). An Islamic separatist organization that operates in the Southern Philippines, it has been terrorising the group of islands—and the surrounding regions—since its first recorded activity in 1991.

The beginning sets the tone for the relentless bloodshed that pervades the book’s pages. Acosta starts his narrative in February 1993, when a group from the Philippines Marine Corp was massacred by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). They were lured out into a surprise attack by 300 members of the MNLF. Acosta spares no details when it comes to describing the atrocity of the massacre, reporting that the Marines were “…were stripped to their underwear and whose bodies showed burn and hack wounds that left most of them nearly unrecognizable…”

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Institute National Des Langues et Civilisations Orientales INALCO, (Paris) has included acclaimed Urdu novel Rohzin in its academic study from the recent semester. Rohzin is the fourth novel by Rahman Abbas and the one for which he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2018.

It was published in 2016 at the Jashn-e-RekhtaDelhi and has been widely debated in India, Pakistan, The Middle East, Canada, Switzerland and Germany.

Many scholars and literary critics consider Rohzin to be the most beautifully and creatively written novel in the recent times in Urdu language. Critic and former President of Sahitya Akademi (New Delhi), Professor Gopi Chand Narang, said that Rohzin is an important turning point in the history of Urdu fiction. Sahitya Akademi Award-winning literary critic, Nizam Siddiqui, has said that no novel as major as Rohzin has appeared in the second decade of the 21st century in Urdu.

By Mitali Chakravarty

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A versatile woman of arts and letters, acclaimed and celebrated, Aruna Chakravarti’s writing has been acknowledged by awards like Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi  Award and Sarat Puraskar. Chakravarti talks of interactions with greats like writer Sunil Gangopadhyay and actress Sharmila Tagore to discuss her books and translations in festivals. Her books are often a protest against social ills which linger beyond the past. Her first novel  The Inheritors ( 2004, Penguin)  was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and her third, Jorasanko ( 2013, Harper Collins) received critical acclaim and also became a best seller. Daughters of Jorasanko ( 2016), a sequel to Jorasanko, has sold widely and received rave reviews.  Her translated works include an anthology of songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitaan, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanta (which won her the Sahitya Akademi Award) and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those days, First Light and Primal Woman: Stories. Chakravarti was the  Principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is an academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books — three novels, one book of short stories, two academic works and eight translations.

22fa274f-4a0d-4c09-8935-35685fae7e7eChakravarti’s latest work, a novel titled Suralakshmi Villa, published by Pan Macmillan this year, will be her fifteenth book. The launch scheduled for 25th February, 2020, in Delhi’s  India International Centre will have a panel discussion on the book by eminent academics for half-an-hour followed by a multi-media presentation of an excerpt from the book created by the author herself. In this exclusive, Chakravarti talks of why and how she writes and more.

 

Since when have you been writing? What inspires you to write?

I used to write prolifically as a child. Poems and stories would pour out of me in a joyous, unthinking stream and I loved the feeling it gave me.

Things changed when, after joining the English Honours course in college, I was introduced to the academics of literature, taught the principles of criticism and how to distinguish good writing from mediocre. I became disillusioned with my work. I found it wanting on so many counts.  I felt I was useless as a writer. Self- criticism is good but, in my case, it verged to the point of negativity.

I stopped writing altogether.

There was a gap of twenty-five years before I picked up the courage to write again.

To answer the second part of your question my juvenilia reflected whatever I was reading at the time, mostly poems and stories written by English writers, and was hugely imitative. But my adult work is derived directly from living experience. It is from the world around me that I draw inspiration.

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Title: The Best Asian Short Stories, 2019

Editors: Hisham Bustani (Series Editor: Zafar Anjum)

Publisher: Kitaab

Year of publication: 2019

Pages: 377

Price: $25

Links: Kitaab Bookstore

About: War, loss, love, compassion, nightmares, dreams, hopes and catastrophes; this is literary Asia at its best. From a wide range of geographies spanning from Palestine to Japan, from Kazakhstan to the Malaysia, mobilizing a wide array of innovative narrative styles and writing techniques, the short stories of this anthology, carefully curated by one of Asia’s prominent and daring writers, will take you on a power trip of deep exploration of local (yet global) pains and hopes, a celebration (and contemplation) of humanity and its impact, as explored by 24 writers and 6 translators, many of whom identify with many homes, giving Asia what it truly represents across (and beyond) its vast territory, expansive history, and many traditions and languages. This book is an open celebration of multi-faceted creativity and plurality.

Contributors:JOEL DONATO JACOB (Philippines); LANA ABDEL RAHMAN (Lebanon): RAZIA SULTANA KHAN (Bangladesh); DEENA DAJANI (Palestine); ALAN IRID FENDI (Syria); SAMIDHA KALIA (India); SCOTT PLATT-SALCEDO (Philippines); ANITHA DEVI PILLAI (Singapore); ANGELO WONG (Hong Kong); ODAI AL ZOUBI (Syria); SIMON ROWE (New Zealand / Japan); SEEMA PUNWANI (Singapore); VRINDA BALIGA (India); NAMRATA PODDAR (India / USA); T.A. MORTON (Ireland / Hong Kong); HAMID ISMAILOV (Uzbekistan); SUCHI GOVINDARAJAN (India); YD CHANG (China / Malaysia); JOLIN KWOK (Malaysia); IMRAN KHAN (Bangladesh); YAN TI (Taiwan); ZIRA NAURZBAYEVA (Kazakhstan); KAISA AQUINO (Philippines); JOSE VARGHESE (India)

 

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Title: Scream to the Shadows

Author: Tunku Halim

Publisher: Penguin SEA

Year of publication: 2019

Pages: 360

Price: SGD 14.50

Links if any: Penguin Random House

About: Unconfined to a single theme, this new collection of twenty short stories by Tunku Halim offers five distinct worlds—the paranormal mysteries from ‘The occult world’, with its dark settings reveal supernatural existences in the characteristic Halim style.

By Gargi Vachaknavi

The Singapore Writers’ Festival stretched to ten busy days with events glittering on the literature of Asian diaspora. The opening was by a Booker winner from Jamaica,  Marlon JamesPico Iyer was another major highlight as were local Singapore legends like Edwin ThumbooIsa KamariSuchen Christine Lim and Meira Chand .

IMG_0692One of the attendees caught the excitement of the event. Upcoming writer Elaine Chiew, who just released her debut collection of short stories called The Heartsick Diaspora with Penguin, had a lot to say: “I caught Marlon James’ Festival Prologue and Roxanne Gay’s Lecture: ‘Understanding Identity Through Pop Culture’, and lots of programming in between, including catching the exhibition on Eurasian Singaporean writer Rex Shelley (which I loved, especially Brian Gothong Tan’s stunning multi-media display), ‘Literature and Pioneer Women’, ‘First Dates and So Many Feelings’, ‘What Being Brown In The World Means’, ‘Language and the Body’, ‘Writing in Dialect’, and ‘What’s the Most Versatile Singlish Word’.” Elaine Chiew has been attending the festival since 2016. This year she attended as an author and a panelist.

IMG_0480Aysha Baqir, writer and social activists explained: “This is my first time as a featured author in Singapore Writers Festival. My novel, Beyond the Fields, a fiction about a young village girl (in Pakistan) on a quest for justice, was published earlier this year by Marshall Cavendish. I have attended the last two Festivals and like the previous years I am delighted to listen to and meet the wide diversity of authors and panelists.  This year I am particularly enjoying the relevance of the sessions to current life events and issues — migration, special needs, mental health, and diversity.”

Kitaab also launched three books during this festival: a translation of Isa Kamari’s Kiswah, Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal’s Masala Chai, a collection of poems and the Best Asian Short Stories (2019).

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Isa Kamari and Zafar Anjum launching Kiswah

Kiswah kicked off the start of the Kitaab launches with Isa Kamari explaining how he conceived the novel as a reaction to the needs of the times. Kamari said in answer to moderator Mitali Chakravarty’s query that he was getting the translations done to be read more widely. Earlier he had been translated even to Urdu by Kitaab. Zafar Anjum, the founder of Kitaab, explained: “Isa’s Intercession was translated into Urdu — the first work of Singaporean and Malay fiction to be translated into Urdu. The plan is also to get it translated into Hindi and we are working on it.”

Thapliyal’s Masala Chai came next. Thapliyal was accompanied by Singapore writer Robert Yeo on stage. Yeo had mentored her collection. Moderated by Dr Pallavi Narayan, the poetry launch was vibrant and interesting.

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Singapore writer Robert Yeo, poet Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal and moderator Dr Pallavi Narayan

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Title:  The Heartsick Diaspora and Other Stories

Author:  Elaine Chiew

Publisher:  Penguin Random House SEA

Year of publication: 2019

Pages: 256

Price: SGD$22.90 (before GST)

Links : https://www.penguin.sg/book/fiction/heartsick-diaspora-stories/

About: Set in different cities around the world, Elaine Chiew’s award-winning stories travel into the heart of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas to explore the lives of those torn between cultures and juggling divided selves. In the title story, four writers find their cultural bonds of friendship tested when a handsome young Asian writer joins their group. In other stories, a brother searches for his sister forced to serve as a comfort woman during World War Two; three Singaporean sisters run a French gourmet restaurant in New York; a woman raps about being a Tiger Mother in Belgravia; and a filmmaker struggles to document the lives of samsui women—Singapore’s thrifty, hardworking construction workers.

 

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Title: An English Writer

Author: San Lin Tun

Publisher: Duwon Books

Year of publication: 2019

Pages: 216 pages

Price: 7, 500 MMK (local price), 10 USD (foreign price)

Links: Bookstores at Yangon

About: An English Writer is a story about a forgotten English poet/writer, C.J Richards (retired I.C.S) who lived and worked in Burma for over 35 years as an Indian Civil Servant. He retired in 1947 and settled in Swarraton, Hampshire in UK. Although he wrote seven books and many articles on Burma and UK, not many people know much of him and his life. The novel “An English Writer” explores the life of the English writer and defines his connection with both communities, Burma (Myanmar) and Britain as a poet and writer. The story, set in present Yangon, transports people back into the times of the English writer, C. J Richards, from 1920 to 1947 and then to 1976.

Uma Trilok in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty

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Dr Uma Trilok

Dr Uma Trilok is a small vivacious woman, well-dressed and polite… almost more like a retired college professor. She could be a heroine of one of the novels she writes. But as one reads her poetry in both Hindi, Hindustani, Punjabi and English, one is left wondering what goes on behind that serene, calm exterior.

With her writing, Uma draws word pictures which vividly converse with herself as well as the world outside. Through them she asks questions which enquire and eventually appear on her canvas as expressions of love, anguish, loss, hope, smiles and unions. Acclaimed and awarded, she has the rare art of  balancing joy with pain which subtly leaves the reader with a profound sense of hope, courage and enterprise. “Her moving and touchy narrative brings out the deeply spiritual aspect of her writing,” writes India Today.

Besides being an acclaimed bilingual poet, her short stories and novels have been staged as plays. “She presents her lines with a  unique facility of phrase and depth of feeling. In the play of her words, myriad moods of anguish and  ecstasy come to the fore vividly,” writes the Journal of Poetry Society of India.

Uma Trilok has written award winning books including her much acclaimed debut novel, Amrita  Imroz: A Love Story. In all, she has penned 16 books. Here, in this exclusive, she talks of how she started writing and what she sees as her future.

 

Mitali: When did you start writing? Can you tell us what put you on the path of writing? What was your inspiration? Do you have any book, music or art that inspires you?

Uma: At the age of 32,  I was the heading a college for women in Mahashri Dayanand University. While sitting in a quiet environment, when students were taking their exams, a poem arrived, and I put it on a paper…That was the beginning.

Prior to that, I taught at Delhi University. Trained in Indian classical Music and Kathak dance, I sang at the All India Radio and gave dance performances at places like Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi. I had to conceal this part of myself from the conservative management of the women’s college. My journey as a poet started as a result of this trammel, way back in the 1970s. My creativity needed to flow somehow in some direction. I picked up the pen, a safe medium.

Writing was not a choice, it was a compulsion.