Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book 112, Northern Mariana Islands: "Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin" by Chun Yu Wang

Happy Boxing Day! Oh, I know it's still Christmas for some of you guys in the Western Hemisphere, but I'm well in the East, both physically and literarily. In fact, I've drifted all the way out to the Pacific, back to Oceania, where there's an obscure US territory called the CNMI, full of Chamorro-speakers, known primarily for its nearby trench.   

What most folks don't know is that the biggest island of the Marianas spent the first decade of the 21st century trying to get into the industrial age, importing loads of low-cost Chinese and Filipina women to work in garment factories so they could turn out Osh Kosh B'Gosh products printed "Made in the USA".

Hence the story above: a true-life tale of a 25 year-old Wuxi woman who went to Saipan to spent nine years of her adult life breaking her back over sewing machines. It's a weird kind of memoir: one of those situations in which a guy tries to make the subaltern speak (the initiator and editor of the book is the Jamaican-American-Saipanese journalist Walt F. J. Goodridge).

But Wang (yes, her surname is Wang, not Chun) is no hick either: she left her video-game playing husband in her home country because factory work in the Marianas was marginally better-paying, and took enough English courses to be able to translate her Mandarin manuscript to Goodridge, one-to-one.(He was fascinated by the Chinese idioms she used - the title, of course, is a transliteration of 鸡毛蒜皮 - even though these sound a tad hackneyed, even clichéd, to bilinguals.)

Frankly, the book isn't a must-read. It's an interesting look at the world of contemporary Chinese migrant labour, showing their aspirations and their sweat and their abuse from crooked overseers and their losses from burglars and accidents at home and worthless husbands and cops who claim they'll get them a green card and then disavow ever having received any payment.

Of course Americans are shocked by the suffering. But as a Singaporean, who's descended from and surrounded by migrant Chinese labour, I'm often thinking, "Meh. I've heard worse."

Which is horrible of me of course - recent events have thrust these marginalised workers into the spotlight, and we have to do something about it, if only to show that we're a society that treats people with humanity. But specifically regarding this book: Wang had her own home, free English lessons and the ability to quit her nasty factory jobs and search for new (usually equally bad) ones. Blue-collar foreign workers in Singapore just don't have those rights.

The interesting thing about a situation like this is that it shows how the oppressed masses aren't necessarily just victims. Wang and many other workers protest, walk out, steal and shag around to get what they want. And even when all the factories close (towards the end of the 2000s, costs rose and competitors like Vietnam became more attractive), Wang and her sisters realised they wanted to stay on, because they'd experienced freedom from their families and their obligations on this tiny, tropical island, and even if their sons were waiting for them at home, the only way to live for themselves was to be bad mothers, staying alive in the foreign sun.

Also - unrelated to workers' rights - one does get the sense that Wang isn't a particularly nice person. In her home, and at virtually every workplace, she's fighting with people, she's dissatisfied. Wherever you go, there you are, as they say.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: Little by little, over the years and because of my trusting and kindness, I have lost most of my money. In all the years I worked, and all the money I earned, I accomplished nothing. In China, we would say, I added frost to snow. Adding frost to snow means "engaging in a futile, meaningless action that adds no visible benefit." That's what all my years of work on Saipan have been.

Next book: Tanya Chargualaf Taimanglo's Attitude 13: A Daughter of Guam's Collection of Short Stories, from Guam.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Book 111, Japan: "The Pillow Book" by Sei Shonagon

I’m back in Singapore! ILGA and the Scandinavian winter were amazing, consciousness-expanding experiences – I’ve written about some bits of ‘em on the ILGA Blog, and I might upload my e-mails to my folks to my personal site, The Paradise of Flowers and Fruit. Doing this project turned out to be pretty useful for socialising too - if I met a guy from Samoa, why, I could just mention that I'd read Albert Wendt and we'd have something to talk about straight off.

As for The Pillow Book, oh my: it took me all holiday to read. Surprising, considering how lightweight it is as a text, but Kindle for Mac had me clicking the screen all the time for the endnotes – it’s not a conducive medium to skimming at all.

But it was rather nice, absorbing these Japanese aesthetics of nature and seasonal change while trundling through the snow-covered mountainscapes of Norway. As much as Sei delights (this is a word used often) in the floral colours of court dress, she’s also in love with the images of winter: the snow on a gentleman visitor’s cloak, a lady holding a lighted coal to a letter to read it in the darkness.

Much has been made of the lists in this book – refined and elegant things, things that make your heart beat fast, things that make you nostalgic – but as translator/annotator Meredith McKinney notes, the literary form was quite established by 994, when Sei received the gift of paper which formed The Pillow Book. In fact, she deviates from standard lists, distracted by personal memories and commentaries.

And so much of this text is made of memories: little episodes in court that show off the pageantry of Emperor Ichijo and Empress Teishi, that are evidence of her wit as she bests the male courtiers in their games of quoting the Chinese classics – though a refined woman was not supposed to be able to read Chinese; thus her exhibitionism was necessarily veiled by sly self-effacement.

And what a strange world for women this was: where it was proper for court ladies to remain behind screens when addressing men, yet extra-marital affairs were not frowned upon. (A disproportionate number of these East Asian texts I’m reading are by women; have you noticed?)

Of course the whole work’s made more poignant because you know this gilded world was not to persist: Teishi fell from favour and died two days after childbirth, after which Sei left the court and by tradition died an impoverished crone; a couple of centuries later and the empire was transformed into the wartorn battlefield of The Tale of the Heike.

But for a while, this beauty, this perfection. And how grand that these moments of delight were captured well enough to remain on the shelf of world literature, perennial amidst the changing seasons.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: 
[71] Rare things – a son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.

A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.

A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master.

A person who’s without a single quirk. Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, who’s remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world.

You never find an instance of two people living together who continue to be overawed by each other’s excellence and always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect, so such a relationship is obviously a great rarity.

Copying out a tale or a volume of poems without smearing any ink from the book you’re copying from. If you’re copying it from some beautiful bound book, you try to take immense care, but somehow you always get ink on it.

Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.

Next book: Chun Yu Wang's Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of  Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan, from the Marianas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I'm at the ILGA World Conference in Stockholm!

That's International Lesbian and Gay (and Bisexual and Transgender and Intersex and Queer) Association. I'm an official blogger - check us out over here.

We're a really international team, from Argentina, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Italy, Lebanon, Singapore, St Lucia, Sweden, Syria, Trinidad & Tobago and Zimbabwe. In fact, because of the liberalism of the Swedish government, this is going to be the ILGA Conference with the most representation from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean, ever.

As for what I'm reading currently - well, I couldn't find my dad's Kindle before I left home (it was found as soon as I reached the airport), so I'm doing The Pillow Book via Kindle for Mac. It's taking longer than I expected, partly 'cos I keep clicking on the annotations.

But one must always carry a hard copy book (e.g. for those moments on the plane when all electronic devices must be turned off), so I'm ploughing through Thant Myint-U's The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma.

I bought this before the Ubud Writers Festival 2009, when he was in attendance (can't remember if I actually managed to talk to him). Figured it'd be good prep for both my creative non-fiction class and my upcoming Flying Circus Project trip to Myanmar. But despite all the bestseller bleah, it's pretty slow going. Too much historical fact so far, not quite enough drama.

Have been dipping into both since I began the trip in Bergen, Norway: might not be done with either by the time I lift off again in Helsinki, Finland. See how.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Book 110, North Korea: "Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick

I'd read a couple of books about North Korea before: Guy Delisle's graphic memoir Pyongyang and Hyejin Kim's "novelisation" of defector accounts, Jia. I didn't think I had to read any others, especially not this one. After all, if a Canadian and South Korean had already given me their two cents' worth, what fresh insights could an American have?

Ah, but Barbara Demick's proven me wrong. I've realised that the two above accounts capture only a tiny fragment of the North Korean experience, mostly confined to the capital city, which it seems is a huge Potemkin village, where only good-looking, able-bodied citizens are allowed to roam so that foreign visitors will be impressed.

This book looks instead at the northern factory city of Chongjin, home to gulags and coal mines and party officials and undesirables alike. We follow the lives of six ordinary North Koreans who escape the famine in the nineties, wading their way past the border with China, then flying into South Korea: the rebellious POW-daughter Mi-ran, the rich university student Jun-sang, the party loyalist Mrs Song, her daughter Oak-hee, the street kid Kim Hyuck.

And god, it's heartbreaking. Demick is a master storyteller: she begins with the teenage love story between Jun-sang and Mi-ran, in the blacked-out darkness of their city, bereft of electricity, noting its provenance: Mi-ran was now a prosperous and well-adapted resident of Seoul, married to another man, yet wistful for her innocent past.

The density, maybe length of the story, matters so much. We learn how life is different for insiders and outsiders, what they ate, what they feared, what they sang (the title is a reference to a North Korean children's song, that claims We Have Nothing to Envy in the World). We see disaster unfolding, slowly, as the horrible political realities of Juche creep up on idealistic youngsters and Kim Jong-Il dies and the famine descends with its pellagra and constipation, weird rashes appearing in spectacle-circles around people's eyes, the most virtuous dying first, the old then the children then the men then the women, and the crazy run-around cycle of imprisonments and recaptures that so many people had to go through to finally make it into the promised land of Hanguk.

Come to think of it, it's also important that we're hearing the stories of individuals. So many images of North Korea portray its people as brainwashed masses, or else single out idealised heroines among them (seems a majority of defectors are women, partly because they can sell themselves off as wives or prostitutes). The unique quirks that these people have, the different extents to which they've adapted to South Korean culture (did you know, what strikes the Northerners as weirdest is how South Koreans kiss and hug in public?) are just so compelling, and inspiring - because of all the six, all of them seem to have done okay, in the end.

Also amazing is Demick's discipline in creating this book: she spent six years interviewing over 100 defectors, heaven knows if she speaks Korean, she must by now. I'll be teaching a non-fiction course next semester - how can I convince kids that that kind of investment is worth it?

Bloody amazing, anyway. And I'm glad I finished this before I fly off for the ILGA Conference tomorrow.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative Quote: Dr Kim looked down a dirt road that led to farmhouses. Most of them had walls around them with metal gates. She tried one; it turned out to be unlocked. She pushed it open and peered inside. On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer - it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. Dr Kim couldn't remember the last time she'd seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing there, just sitting out on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog's bark.

Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn't deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

Next book:  Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, from Japan.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I'm back from Penang!

The Georgetown Literary Festival was awesome, by the way. Lovely food, beautiful architecture, extraordinarily passionate people, almost all of them committed to activism in some way in their own countries. Turned out they liked my performance poetry style, too! Loads of new friends. Lots of photos if you click the link.

Penang itself is going through a remarkable moment in its history. Its heyday was the 1860s to 1920s - since then it's gone through a period of (relatively benign) neglect and decay. But in 2008, the city/state scored twice: it gained its coveted UNESCO Heritage Site status and elected DAP politician Lim Guan Eng as Chief Minister. Now, with the rise of the tourist trade and the economy and the arts, there's a wonderful sense of optimism rolling through the land, a feeling that KL-ites and Singaporeans both envy and identify with, 'cos we know it's happening too, quietly, on our own turf.

Lim was at the festival opening, btw, where he championed the arts and freedom of expression - even sat smiling throughout my expletive-riddled version of Sandra Cisneros's You Bring Out the Mexican in Me,  titled You Bring Out the Hokkien in Me.

His endorsement of the arts means that Georgetown is finding its feet as a new city for secular humanism for the whole of Malaysia. At ChinaHouse, where several of our events were held, there was a semi-political art exhibition from Sabah, of all places. Probably half of the festival attendees were KL-ites, eager to kick-start culture in this city (even though it's Malaysia's second-biggest city, there really is pitifully little nightlife as it is).

So we may be seeing more theatre performances, more music, more poetry, flowing up from Singapore and KL to that island to the northwest. Excited? I sure am. Can't wait to pig out on that laksa and nasi kandar again.

Oh, but I've another reason I'm uploading this now: I've decided that Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven simply cannot qualify as a North Korean text. So I'm reading something else, in the precious little time I have on this island before I fly off again. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

North Korea: "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven"

Update: I have decided to disqualify this book as my North Korean text. Previously, it was listed as Book 110.

Well, this is embarrassing. I wanted to buck the traditional representation of North Korea as a Communist dystopia (which it is) by focussing on its glorious past. It used to be the more developed bit of the Korean peninsula, doncha know; the centre of a whole lotta history. But now I'm bussing out of Singapore to Penang overnight and I've just realised the great Korean epic  Yongbieocheonga was in fact compiled by Sejong the Great in the city of Hanseong, better known today as Seoul.

Alamak! But not to worry. The songs in this 15th century work are composed in praise of Sejong's ancestors: they're the six dragons of the title, Mokjo, Ikjo, Dojo, Hwanjo, Taejo, Taejong. And they did indeed wander through what's now North Korea, before conquering the hell out of the Goryeo Dynasty and setting up the Joseon.

Quick explanation: we don't know who wrote these 125 brief cantos. But we do know their purpose: they were written both to glorify the roots of the scholar-emperor as well as to instruct him on the proper paths to take into future (yep, literati get to tell the emperor what to do! This was the age of Neo-Confucianism).

The poems are also the first ever text written in Hangul, invented specially by Sejong. It's a moment of transition: the annotations were inscribed in the scholarly language of Chinese, as were many of the words within the poems. Pretty much all the allusions being made are to Chinese history: other emperors of the Zhou and the Han and the Tang - these guys are trying, almost for the first time, to build up their own culture, and they need to resort to crutches to do so.

The reason why you don't see this selling in airport bookstores is that it's actually quite difficult to read: the brief poems contain such allusions to specific incidents in history that you've got to switch over to the annotations all the time to understand them, breaking up any sense of reading rhythm (me, I just skipped them on a first read and looked at them later).

What makes things even worse is the fact that there are no names involved - it's the annotations that tell you whether we're talking about Taizong of China or Taejong of Korea, that the false claimant is the usurper King Sinchang of Goryeo.

Oh, but if you do read the annotations, such fun! These kings are pimps: shooting down magpies, two at a time with a single arrow, and being honoured by snakes; getting their armies rescued when they encounter gods in the forms of white-haired old women and white-bearded old men; shooting black dragons out of the sky when they're battling white dragons after being warned by dreams (yes, archery is a big theme here; it's also used for fortune-telling); fending off Red Turbans and Japanese pirates. Even the queens get into the action, handing their husbands armour and feigning sickness so as to meet with them and warn them of developing conspiracies.

But I've no more time to go on babbling; I have a boyfriend to meet and a bus to catch.

[Insert a link to Songdo, where in 1399 a white dragon with fish-scales shining in the sun appeared on the roof of Taejong's submerged palace, foretelling his elevation to the throne.]

Representative quote: 


The Four Ancestors knew no rest.
In how many places did they swell?
How many rooms
Did their houses contain?
Living in multi-storied palaces,
Enjoying halcyon days,
Let Your Majesty not forget this!

Next book: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, from Japan.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Eating Air and Other Books

First, the other books. This is my stash from the Singapore Writers Festival and the recent help-us-cover-our-deposit sale at BooksActually.

I'm screwed. I'm never gonna finish this. Too much even to catalogue for now. Off to the Georgetown Literary Festival in a bit, btw - am gonna have to try my bestest not to buy too much crap.

Also, in more me news: I'd like to advertise a film series at the Arts House, called But Is the Book Better?: Watching Local. They're screening of the fabulous 1999 motorcycle gangster movie at the Arts House, after which there'll be a talk about my novelisation thereof!

But Is the Book Better?: Eating Air
Venue: Screening Room, the Arts House
Date/Time: 28 Nov, 7.30pm; 1 Dec, 3pm.
Free admission
(on a first-come-first-served basis)

My talkback is on 1 December, with director Jasmine Ng! More info here.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Book 109, South Korea: "Please Look After Mom" by Kyung-Sook Shin

Turns out Kyung-Sook Shin didn't turn up at the Singapore Writers Festival after all - claimed she was sick, although some organisers suspect she's just being a diva. 

Well, I'm here to report that any diva-dom is fully justified. This is a fantastic book: wholesome and magical and real and informative and devastating, everything I could want from a volume on my circumnavigational project.

The story (as you may have heard, given that this is indeed an international bestseller) is that an old woman named Park So-Nyo, gets lost in the Seoul Station subway - her husband always walks ahead of her, and when he turns around, she's gone. With "mom"'s disappearance, her family goes through an accelerated breakdown, narrated in second-person from the viewpoints of her novelist daughter, her property agent son, her retired farmer husband, and then her youngest daughter who's become a mother of three and - am I giving away the ending? Not really - herself.

But this isn't a tale of a search-and-rescue mission; it delves into the past of the family, reveals their struggles and sacrifices as they moved from third world living in the impoverished farming community of Chongup to the postmodern glitz of Seoul and beyond (the novelist daughter goes on book tours to China and Japan and spiritual pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela). We begin in the 21st century and we hearken back to the Korean War, to miscarriages and starvation and illiteracy, within just a generation.

The point being that even in the age of Gangnam Style, the Park So-Nyos are still among us. The women who gave up everything for the sake of the Korean New Wave who don't even go back to their home villages to perform rituals at their ancestors' graves. (At least in Singapore we're too small for that excuse, but we expatriate too, don't we?)

And oh, by the end when the mother's voice is disembodied - perhaps the reason we've been hearing a second-person narration all along is because the first-person has been the mother? Hard to say. 

Anyhow, wow. Oddly enough, I was reading this at the same time as Monique Truong's Bitter in the Mouth (did an interview with her), another book full of dysfunctional families and odd writing and food. Also thought of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse: Mrs Ramsay and the Angel of the House. Only problem being that in this case the mother is utterly fallible, utterly human, as desperate and mortal as any of us lost Gen X-ers out there, forced by circumstances to be strong.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: Mom looked around, as if she was going to tell you a secret, and whispered, "I broke jar lids several times."

"You broke jar lids?"

"I couldn't see an end to it. At least with farming, if you plant seeds in the spring you harvest them in the fall. If you plant spinach seeds, there is spinach; where you plant corn, there's corn... But there's no beginning or end to kitchen work. You eat breakfast, then it's lunch, and then it's diner, and when it's bright again it's breakfast again.... It might have been better if I could have made different side dishes, but since the same things were planted in the fields, I always made the same panchan. If you do that over and over, there are times when you get so sick of it. When the kitchen felt like a prison, I went out to the back and picked up te most misshapen jar lid and threw it as hard as I could at the wall. Aunt doesn't know that I did that. If she did, she would say I was crazy, throwing jar lids around."

Next book: "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven", from North Korea.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

'Tis the Festive Season!

And no, I don't mean Hari Raya Haji and Deepavali. I'm talking about the Singapore Writers Festival and the Georgetown Literary Festival!

Just bussed back from the SWF opening, in fact, where Math Paper Press did a twin launch of Alfian Sa'at's The Invisible Manuscript and Cyril Wong's Straw, Sticks, Brick

My book, Diary of a Stone Monkey, was supposed to come out too, but alas, there were printing problems. Seems like this is my year of stymied book launches. One of my stories is featured in the Sunday launch of Fish Eats Lion, though. Come, come!

Launch of Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction
Sunday 4 November
4pm-5pm Pavilion, Campus Green, SMU (Singapore Management University)

Quite a few prominent names are featured in the fest, including Michael Cunningham, Monique Truong, and the author of my Korea book, Shin Kyun-Sook. Will see if I can get interviews and autographs. :)

But, more importantly, I've been invited to Penang!

See that upper left hand corner portrait? That's me! I'm actually being featured in the opening ceremony, where I'll be performing my poetry right next to A. Samad Said and Omar Musa. Can you believe it?

These are the events I'm involved in:

Poetry Workshop with PELLTA and Arts
Friday 23 November
Sekeping Victoria
Writers: Ng Yi-Sheng, Omar Musa and Nii Ayikwey Parkes

Official Opening Ceremony by Chief Minister of Penang, Y.A.B. Lim Guan Eng
Friday 23 November  and Nii Ayikwey Parkes
Sekeping Victoria
Readings and performances by A. Samad Said, Ng Yi-Sheng and Omar Musa

Poetry Rant: Mad As Hell!
Sunday 25 November
Sekeping Victoria
Five poets get angry. Watch them get mad - and bad!
Writers: Ng Yi-Sheng, Omar Musa, Alfian Sa'at, Shivani Sivagurunathan and Nii Ayikwey Parkes
Host: Jasmine Low
FREE ADMISSION - seating on first come, first served basis

Reading and Panel DiscussionTaboos or Travesties
Sunday 25 November
Sekeping Victoria
How do writers go about saying the unsayable? How do they deal with issues and themes that may cause scandal and uproar? See how these writers deal with challenging issues that simply need to be said.
Writers: Ng Yi-Sheng, Reggie Baay, Dina Zaman, Linda Christanty and David Van Reybrouck
Moderator: Bernice Chauly
FREE ADMISSION - seating on first come, first served basis

... and then from 3 to 20 December I'll be in Stockholm for the ILGA Conference. More about that later. :)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Book 108, Taiwan: "Notes of a Desolate Man" by Chu T'ien-Wen

I've actually been holding on to this book for ages - got it while I was in Columbia, not long after my Modern East Asian Literature course (our token Taiwanese text for the class was Chang Ta-Chun's Wild Kids.) 

Was considering other options for this segment, though: tempted by the thought of doing something untranslated, like that copy of Wang Wenhua's 蛋白質女孩 we have lying around. But life is short, and my excellent translator/author/actor friend Jeremy Tiang recommended this.

And it's a gay experimental novel - by a woman, too. What's not to like?

Oh, but this isn't a casual read - takes a lot longer than the 166 pages of its contents might suggest. There's no real plot: we're wandering with the mind of the narrator (he's too passive for me to really call him a protagonist) Xiao Shao, an ageing Taiwanese gay man, as he contemplates the death of his friend Ah Yao from AIDS.

Ah Yao's the kind of guy you'd expect to be a hero: he's introduced as an extrovert, an ACT UP rights activist who's worked in the US, and a precocious sex maniac. Our narrator nearly humped him in his youth, before he was out himself, but held back. Now he's sitting in his friend's house, observing the decay of Ah Yao's body, contemplating the wastage of his own life - no love, no family, no longer even a real desire for sex.

And yet as the tale wanders, we find there's very little about Ah Yao - most of the story is about his own love affairs and near misses, mostly with a photographer named Yongjie and a dancer named Jay - both absolutely gorgeous men, we're told, even though Shao is a mere academic, with neither fortune nor glamour to his name. And though we witness despair and yearning and heartbreak and the absolute pathetic-ness of aged singlehood (what is the noun form of this word? Internet says patheticalness but that sounds awful), what we're also left with is genuine love, obsessive and romantic and stupid and all, but observed from a distance, like everything else in this tale.

See, Xiao Shao's mind joins up Fellini and Tripataka and Nijinsky and the Rubaiyat and Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa, just to describe what he's feeling - not to show off or be politically correct, like I do. And it's paralleled by his own casual descriptions of travel to Athens, to Nara, to Kushinagar, to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt (he resists ever visiting China, which is where Yongjie eventually falls in love with a young farmer on the Silk Road).

All these expanses contrasting with the severe limits of his childhood, growing up in the shadow of the Chiang Kai-Shek dictatorship, and the shadow of his adulthood, his loneliness in the public toilets and video arcades of Taipei and Kaohsiung.

Oh, I won't go on too long about this. Must do some writing of my own. But it is such a different book from most of the works I've been reading - a story that meanders and is lost, and is comfortable being lost.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:  
And so I felt that life and death shared the same face, right in front, looking down at me.

It was often there, when I crossed a street, or when I was in an elevator, or right now, while writing. The face wasn't all that scary; it even had the hint of a smile, like a Noh mask hanging on a wall looking down on me - or that's how it felt. If it had grown more vivid, it would have been the picture of an Indian goddess, a sword and a human head in two of her outspread arms, while the other two promised blessings and protection. I was right in front of her, coexisting with her. Therefore death is not the Angel of Death, who wore a black cape and a black robe and played chess with a knight in Bergman's The Seventh Seal. It was, instead, life, who looked down on me.

The ancient Greeks said, You can never place your fee tin the same river twice.

Yes, the kalpa gone, the kalpa now, the kalpa to come.

The past, the present, the future.

Next book: Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mom, from South Korea.

Friday, October 19, 2012

And the Nobel goes to…

I know I’m late on the uptake and all, but I did want to say a little something about the Chinese novelist Mo Yan winning the Nuo Bei Er.

It’s come out of the blue for most people. Folks were putting money on Haruki Murakami, that Japanese wunderkind of mildly surrealist, disaffected hipster fiction.

And while I would’ve been perfectly happy if any Asian writer had won the prize, I’m actually rather happy that Mo Yan won out.

Y’see, back in ‘05, I did my Comp Lit BA thesis on Gabriel García Márquez and Mo Yan, so I had to do a bunch of reading up on both of ‘em – ingesting what books I could, either in their original language or in translation.

So I’ve a bunch of the laureate’s works: Red Sorghum; The Republic of Wine; The GarlicBallads; Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For A Laugh; Big Breasts and Wide Hips (not my favourite, and the translation corrupted the plot somewhat), and the one I focused on in my thesis, 41 Bombs. (As yet untranslated, to my knowledge.)

Reason I chose him was because his work’s been specifically compared to Gabo’s before: he too uses techniques of magical realism, attributing his inspiration directly to the Colombian master – though it’s not slavish imitation by any means; coming across One Hundred Years of Solitude was merely a licence to go ahead and be true to his own folk tradition of tall tale-telling, same way as Gabo was liberated by Kafka.

Mo Yan’s most famous work is Red Sorghum, which was made into the groundbreaking Chinese New Wave film of the same title by Zhang Yimou. The ‘90s were actually the heyday for Chinese novelists, between perestroika and the invasion of TV and blockbuster film. So he’s actually been on the Nobel watchlist for some two decades. Give him the 8 million krona; he’s waited long enough.

But that’s not the only reason why I’m glad he beat Murakami. I mean, look at the Japanese guy’s works: they explore the world of middle-class jazz aficionado Gen X-ers, revisiting so many old tropes that you can actually play Bingo with his books.

(Disclaimer: I’ve only read Sputnik Sweetheart and Dance Dance Dance in full, both of which I enjoyed.)

Mo Yan, on the other hand, is the son of Shandong farmers. He writes in peasant Mandarin (this is why I was able to read his works), and is enjoyed by a broad base of proletariat countrymen as well as by East Asian Studies majors in Stockholm.

He’s come a long way since the nostalgia of Red Sorghum. He’s documented the crazy collectivist/industrial/capitalist transformations of his nation, from famine to gross excess, utilizing a dazzling range of realisms and surrealisms to get past the Communist Party’s censors – god, you should check out the Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness at the end of Republic of Wine. He changes, just as China does.

So basically, we’ve got a populist peasant with a penchant for experimentation, versus an ageing hipcat who’s stuck in a rut. Also, China’s never had a Nobel for lit before. Who’re you gonna pick? (Also helps that Mo Yan's using his leverage to say nice things about Liu Xiaobo.)

And sure, sure, Murakami’s populist too. Give it to him another year. He'll live.

By the way, I've set up my poll for my Japan book on the right. Any Harukists who're mad at me can sentence me to finishing 1Q84.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Holiday stash!

Haven't moved on to my Taiwanese book yet because I've gotta write an article about The Hobbit movie for the children's newspaper I work for. Trying to read the original novel in a hurry.

Of course, this just means it's a good time to take stock of the books I've accumulated over recent travels. A recent bus ride up to KL had me at Silverfish Books, where I was promoting the poetry collection I translated, The New Village. Also popped over to the Annexe at Sentral Market for Art For Grabs.

Here's my harvest after the events:

Look at 'em!

Silverfish Malaysian Classics Series: 
1. Marong Mahawangsa: The Kedal Annals
2. Sejarah Melayu
3. The Epic of Bidasari (and other tales)
4. Malaysian Fables, Folktales & Legends

Farish Noor's essays:
5. The Other Malaysia
6. From Majapahit to Putrajaya
7. From Inderapura to Darul Makmur: A Deconstructive History of Pahang
(-). What Your Teacher Didn't Tell You (actually I bought this ages ago, but added it to complete the set)

8. Salleh ben Joned's Adam's Dream
9. Bernice Chauly's Growing Up With Ghosts
10. Afi Noor's Ten Poems

I have rather fewer books from Laos, because of the bigger language divide. One British lady resident in Luang Prabang (who ran a book exchange) even told me there's a serious dearth of Lao literature, pre-colonial and contemporary, because they just aren't a very literate culture. Folks go back to the village and forget all the English they learned, she said; they even forget their own Lao alphabet.

Anyhow, Monument Books did supply me with a couple of treasures:

1. Outhine Bounyavong's Mother's Beloved
2. Steven Jay Epstein's Lao Folktales (published in Thailand)

There was even a book of condensed Lao epics, Volume 2 - but this was wafer-thin and the writing just wasn't very good. I figured I'd bug the National Library to buy Volume 1, or else just wait for a proper publication to come out.

In other news, I finished an awesome novel over the hols: Zhang Yueran's The Promise Bird, translated by my friend Jeremy Tiang. But that deserves a post of its own.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book 107, Hong Kong: "The Unwalled City" by Xu Xi

I'm currently on holiday in Laos, and on holiday from my reading project. But three hours before I left, I managed to finish off my Hong Kong book! Of course I considered Jin Yong (since he's probably HK's most successful writer), but none of his swordfighting novels take place in the city. Also Eileen Chang, but she only spent a couple of years there, it seems - she was essentially Shanghainese.

But Xu Xi's as Hong Kong as Hong Kong noodles - born and bred and teaches at the university there, though she's hopped around Asia and North America in the course of her career. First met her at the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival in 2007; read her Daughters of Hui and really liked it. 

Wrote to her to ask her which one of her works she'd recommend for this project. Of course, she had to suggest the only one which the National Library doesn't stock. Read this on the Kindle, which I didn't want to run the risk of losing or breaking while backpacking.

But I had trouble with this book at first - truth is, the characters float from scenario to scenario with little visible motive force. They're all these lost, good-looking privileged men and women, living in Hong Kong on the cusp of the 1997 handover. They're not even particularly scared of the prospect of going back to Red China. If I were marking this for my creative writing class, I'd have been asking where the thrust was, what made us *care* for these characters.

Still, as time wore on, the story grew on me. It's interesting reading this in the wake of The Bewitching Braid, or that classic Hong Kong romance The World of Suzie Wong, both of which are about race and class relations clashing, then becoming happily reconciled in an age of colonialism. The Unwalled City is determinedly postcolonial - no, that word fails to encapsulate the theme: it is post-postcolonial, occupying a world where global capitalism has collapsed the importance of race and gender.

Look at Colleen, a white Bostonian who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, married to a Hong Kong Chinese guy but having affairs with loads of men, white and Asian. Look at Gail Szeto, divorcee offspring of an American pilot and a Hong Kong prostitute who's climbed her way to the top of the corporate ladder, caring for her senile mother and more Chinese-than-ever son Gu Kwun. Look at Vince, the Brooklyn photographer and low-caste expat who goes from being an HK newbie to a Cantonese-spouting old hand; Andanna/Lei You Fun who dumps her jazz career to become a Cantopop singer.

These figures whose lives intersect, whose actions frustrate one another (Xu Xi will shift perspectives from one character to the next without warning, so that the follies and misperceptions of the characters are clearly visible to us). They have affairs and dates and epiphanies, but nothing happens, not really, we don't know where their lives are going by the closing chapter as Andanna sings on the stage of the handover ceremony.

The story drifts. We drift. The characters drift, even geographically, from Wan Chai to Singapore to Shanghai to New York. Is this how tales are told today? With no deaths, no marriages, no births, with only pre-planned unhistorical historical events? I'm thinking aloud, of course. Just wondering how people do it - put enough words together, call it a novel. 

Me, I can't finish writing anything right now. Ah well. Maybe the nights in Laos will inspire me.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map
Representative quote: "You are privileged to be here in our city at this moment of historical change." Albert spoke as if he were some kind of elder statesman for Hong Kong, with a possessiveness that conferred distinction to utterances on high. "In a way, Vincent, you are in a slightly better position than some to appreciate it because you originate from a city that once almost defined a new order for what a city was and should be. Of course, New York is somewhat passé now."

Proclaimed not as an opinion but as a fact.

Next book: Chu T'ien-wen's Notes of a Desolate Man, from Taiwan.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book 106, Macau: "The Bewitching Braid" by Henrique de Senna Fernandes

Guess what? We're in East Asia! And we're in China, but not in China per se, because if they're going to go around claiming every little island is theirs, I'm going to assert my right to proclaim every disputed and recently returned colonial territory as a distinct country from the mainland.

Thus, Macau. But golly gosh, I'm glad I decided to do this former Portuguese colony, because The Bewitching Braid is loads of fun.

It's fundamentally a romance: boy meets girl and (SPOILER ALERT!) their love triumphs against all odds. The intro notes that the author may be influenced by soapy Cantonese yarns in this respect. But it's written in Portuguese, by a member of the Macanese community: one of the many half-European, half-native mestizo groups the Portuguese empire-builders sired in Goa, Sri Lanka, Melaka, Timor, Brazil.

And it's an interracial love story, too. Thus, we've beautiful details of the privileged 1930s Macanese middle-class world of Handsome Adozindo, playboy about town, as well as the dignified squalor of the Chinese quarter of Cheok Chai Un, where the indomitable Chinese water-seller A-Leng plies her trade. Of course he becomes fascinated with her braid and her spirit, and is determined to seduce her - and yet ends up as her loyal and steadfast husband.

It's not a snap-happy convenient happy ending, mind you: the two are thrown together permanently rather against their will, the boy's family and the girl's community disowning them, leaving them to fend for themselves. Adozindo, being a good-for-nothing, really does look like he's going to become a drunken opium-addled sot at one point.

But they work through it at the end, and by the story closes not with a marriage but with Adozindo's family finally accepting him and his wife and his four children. The point is that it's not comfortable or easy to overcome ostracism and class differences and poverty, but it's possible.

(Btw, I honestly thought there'd be another crisis with the onset of World War Two, but it seems that Portugal was neutral during the war, so Macau ended up being one of the few peaceful refuges during the Japanese Occupation of East Asia.)

Of course, now Macau's gone and become the Las Vegas of the East, and my Hong Kong friends tell me it's hard to find that old, sleepy town they loved so well, a ferry ride over from the hustle and bustle of Kowloon City. More important than ever, then, to have this record of a vanished era.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:
Adozindo staggered to his feet, his clothes torn, his face and body covered in cuts and bruises. A-Leng swung her weapon of war around to give the boy cover, and urged him to go. She was magnificent, inspiring respect, queen of her territory, beautiful, barefoot, her braid twisting like a whip. Adozindo moved off as speedily as his strength would allow. He was safe and it was a heroic display of love that saved him.

Next book: Xu Xi's History's Fiction, from Hong Kong.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"Furikake" by Stephen Black

I've only got ten more pages to go with The Bewitching Braid, but I didn't bring the book with me to KL. So I'm just going to take this opportunity to promote a Kindle e-book by my friend, Singapore-based American writer/artist Stephen Black.

He's been bugging all of us to buy the e-book via Amazon, partly 'cos he has this dream of getting to the bestseller list while pricing his book at the same level as Stephen King novels: $9.99. So get out your credit card and start a-clickin'.

What's the book about? Is it any good? I have no idea. I've downloaded it but haven't had time to read it. Still, when a friend wants something this bad, I might as well do something to appease him.

The crazy thing is, there are days you can download his books for free. The schedule's up here.

KL is awesome by the way. Will post more another time.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book 105, the Philippines: "Noli Me Tangere" by José Rizal

In case you haven't heard of José Rizal, well, he was a freakin' genius, that's who he was. Look him up. Lived in Spain's most backwater colony in the 19th century but nonetheless learned 22 languages; found employ as "an ophthalmologist, sculptor, painter, educator, farmer, historian, playwright and journalist"; while also dabbling in "architecture, cartography, economics, ethnology, anthropology, sociology, dramatics, martial arts, fencing and pistol shooting".

Oh, and he did that all before he was executed at the age of 35 on 30 December 1896, thus igniting the Philippine Revolution. Way more than just a martyr: he was one of the great modern thinkers of Asia, in the league of Sun Yat-Sen and Tagore. Amazing. 

The way he fomented his ideas, of course, was through his novels, which are studied by every kid in the Philippines today (in English or Tagalog translation from the original Spanish). And the wonderful thing is that the Noli ages well: because he published it in Europe for the benefit of those who didn't know about colonial abuses, what he does is he provides a thorough ethnographic sketch of his homeland at the time, which is just as fascinatingly foreign to us 21st century people as it would've been to the Iberians. 

Y'see, seems that the Philippines was a friarocracy - its priests outranked the Spanish colonial officers in practice if not on paper. Rizal (an atheist!) highlights the crazy hypocrisy that this birthed: sales of indulgences, inflated fees for sermons in languages the laity can't understand, an utter lack of interest in uplifting the population in any way through education, and a sense of being an invulnerable caste - you don't tip your hat to them in the street, they excommunicate you, and the rest of the sheep-like population looks upon you with scorn.

No idea if the Franciscans and Dominicans and Jesuits were really as nasty as described in the book, but absolute power corrupts absolutely, so I've a feeling the answer's yup. 

There's deep shades of Uncle Tom's Cabin here: from the stock characters (the noble hero Don Crisostomo Ibarra, the virtuous heroine María Clara, the evil priests Father Dámaso and Fray Sibyla, the revolutionary Elías) to the sheer purpleness of the prose when tragedy strikes. But there's also a Dickensian joy in descriptions of the follies of people (Doña Victorina, who pretends to be Spanish and murders the language whenever she speaks it, and takes it all out on her actually Spanish husband by pulling the false teeth from his mouth). Also maybe a Wilkie Collins-esque touch of melodrama - the nail-biting death scenes, the apparition of the ragged nun on the convent rooftop - and remember, Rizal, the genius bugger, probably read all these guys and digested them.

Lor, no wonder the Philippines is so creative. If only our country was founded on the bulletwound of a polymath poet. One last note: this book is good, but it ain't light reading - might be a while till I move on to the sequel, El Filibusterismo.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: "You're right, Elías, but man is a creature of circumstance. I was blind then, disgusted, what did I know! Now misfortune has ripped off my blinders. Solitude and the misery of prison have shown me. Now I see the horrible cancer gnawing at this society, rotting its flesh, almost begging for a violent extirpation. They opened my eyes, they made me see the sores and forced me to become a criminal! And so, just what they wanted, I will become a subversive, but a true subversive. I will call together all the downtrodden people, everyone who feels a heart beating in his heart, those how sent you to me... No, I won't be a criminal, you aren't a criminal when you fight for your country, just the opposite! For three centuries we have held out our hand to them, asked them for love, eager to call them brothers, and how do they answer us? With insults and mocking, denying us even the status of human beings. There is no God, no hope, no humanity, nothing more than the rights of power!"

Next book:  Henrique de Senna Fernandes's The Bewitching Braid, from Macau.