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. :)