Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas gift from the Quasi-Boyfriend

Merry Christmas! I’m just back from a family vacation in Penang, and surprise, surprise, I’m only halfway through Waverley

Anyhow, I got to hang out with Mohan while doing some last-minute shopping yesterday. (I’m calling him my quasi-boyfriend because I’m not entirely sure where our relationship’s headed.) But we’re still giving each other presents – he sent me an awesome ice cream maker for my birthday, for example, which has boosted his boyfriendly credentials no end.

And since we decided to exchange gifts a trifle prematurely this afternoon, I can report that he’s done well once again, proffering a work by the 2013 Nobel Literature Prizewinner Alice Munro:

It is of course a little crazy that it’s this Canadian lady, not the formidable and phenomenal Atwood, who’s won the prize. But as someone who’s currently working on a short story collection, I can’t complain if the genre of the short fiction gets a boost.

My gifts to Mohan were similarly literary: a discount copy of the early American gay novel The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal and a copy of Orlando, the Marmalade Cat: A Seaside Holiday, by Norfolk writer/illustrator Kathleen Hale. He somewhat spoilt the trend by also giving me a slushie-maker.

(Honestly, I’m touched, but I have no great love for slushies. Not sure how I’ll make use of it.)

I’ve also made use of the Yuletide season by composing a list of the best of what I’ve read in world literature thus far – it’s only natural, after all, to use this site as a space for recommending books rather than assessing them one by one. Too late for gift recommendations this year – but perhaps it’ll be valid for many more years to come!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bonus Review: "1819" by Isa Kamari

I'm back in Singapore! And it's high time to get moving on what I was asked to do a couple of months ago: review Isa Kamari's translated novels. I spoke about Song of the Wind two months ago, but in the past few days, I've neglected Scottish literature in favour of 1819, originally published in Malay in 2011 under the title Duka Tuan Betakhta (Your Sorrow Reigns). ("Tuan" can mean either "lord" or "you" in a super-polite way, so I'm iffy about that translation.)

This one's another historical novel, centred around the British colonization of Singapore in said year and its later effects. Every Singaporean kid studies this: how Sir Stamford Raffles arrives in the land with a heroic vision to develop it as a free port, and how he succeeds in his aim by double-crossing the Malay princes into giving him rights to the land. It's all presented in a rather dispassionate way - it's clear as day that he was doing some dirty dealing, but we're not inspired to patriotic fury over it.

I've seen a number of artistic interpretations of this story - children's books, Asiapac comics, Robert Yeo's play The Eye of History and Haresh Sharma's play Singapore, even a TV serial/movie I remember seeing as a kid. I've been party to this too - I wrote a play called The Last Temptation of Stamford Raffles, rebelling against the "civilising", "ordering" forces that the Brits sought to impose on us. A lot of my research actually relied on The Golden Sword by Nina Epton, a 1969 British novel about Raffles's life.

1819 gives us something new. It's a dramatisation of those times from a thoroughly Malay perspective: that is, it's drawing its historical materials primarily from Malay resources.  This means that alongside  British East India Company colleagues Colonel William Farquhar and Dr John Crawfurd, as well as colonial stooge sellouts like the Temenggong Abdul Rahman, Sultan Hussein and the scribe Munsyi Abdullah, we've got the Muslim saint Habib Noh, the silat warrior Wak Cantuk and the treacherous, queen-shagging royal advisor Abdul Kadir. These are figures who do not appear *at all* in our mainstream textbooks - whom even well-meaning non-Malay Singaporean history buffs like myself are ignorant of.

(That being said, I found out a bunch about Habib Noh and his miracles at a walking tour to his tomb, organised by the NUS Museum a few years ago. You should totally go there.)

I'd urge all Singaporeans to read this book, because the stories in here are incredibly important. They challenge the platitude that Singapore was "a sleepy fishing village" before colonisation, as well as the idea that the Malays were unified or led by noble Sultans (the nobles are opium-addled obese fools and the Malays of the Johor-Riau Empire are in a clandestine war with the Bugis). And we should learn about the miracles of Habib Noh and the murderous amok spree of Wak Cantuk, because they paint a picture of the strangeness and fractiousness that happens when societies go through rapid cultural changes, just like what we're experiencing today.

Now, I don't want to give you the impression that this is a wonderfully readable book - it's not, again due to cultural and aesthetic translation gaps. There's a ridiculous amount of historical *telling* that happens, especially in the first few chapters, as Isa is super-anxious to divulge all the details of history that he's gleaned. Even when it's plopped into dialogue, it's really heavy-handed. The Brits are cartoon villains who cackle at their nefarious plots, and the "common man" is represented by this buffoonish trio of kampung kids named Sudin, Ajis and Ramli, who gossip and piss in their sarongs in that silly distracting way that foolish peasants do in Shakespearean plays. Doesn't work, really - the average joe ends up looking dumb when he has the capacity for nobility.

And if we're gonna impose political agendas on this - and why shouldn't we? - I've also gotta point out that the constant name-calling of Abdul Kadir as a "half-breed bastard" because he's half-Indian is never challenged, not even by Munsyi Abdullah, who was 100% Tamil himself. (Abdullah seems to be a stand-in for the author himself - an intellectual who knows he has the brains to lead the Malay community, only he's been co-opted to the institutions, and only wants to be known as a writer anyway.)

Plus, there's way too little herstory in here - there's only passing reference to the wives of the players, and no acknowledgment that they too had influence on the development/devolution of Singapore: Sophia Raffles, Farquhar's half-Malay half-French concubine Nonio Clement, and the adulterous queen Tengku Perabu (okay, she does get a bit more screen time, because she's instrumental to the downfall of the Sultanate, but very little agency's portrayed). No appearance of that great independent businesswoman Hajjah Fatimah, either, even though she fits right into the time period. But I can't ask an author to be feminist, can I, especially after I've criticised his portrayals of women in his other books.

And the truth is, the imperfections of this book frustrate me to the degree that I want the right to adapt or expand the book to incorporate my own perspectives and historical tidbits - maybe this doesn't belong in a book, really; it should be its own TV serial on Suria or Channel Five, when Mediacorp actually grows a pair.

You see, the stories in this book - tales of betrayal, magic, revenge, cultural genocide - deserve a place in the wider collective imagination. There's only a limited number of eyeballs it can reach in print form, especially with this particular translation. What we need is a transcreation, that adapts with the aim of creating a work of art that stands by itself...

And I suppose I should volunteer to do such a thing, if only I'd the time. What I'll be up to instead is stealing a whole bunch of historical details from this for my own fiction.

Thanks, Isa! Will get round to reading that last book, Rawa, soon - just after my Scottish book. :D

Monday, December 9, 2013

Book 139, Northern Ireland: "Death of a Naturalist" by Seamus Heaney

One of the great things about having access to a university library is the fact that I can read a lot of poetry in its original collections, not in Compleat Works or Selected With Annotations stuff. I kinda wanna see how a writer's oeuvre was originally presented to the public, warts and all.

The Spirit Level is of course widely available - but after I'd picked it up, I realised:

1) I might've read it before, back when I first started getting curious about Heaney.

2) It wasn't actually written while Heaney was living in Northern Ireland (where he did in fact spend the first thirty-three years of his life).

3) I just wasn't connecting with the poems. 

Call me shallow, but the pieces in The Spirit Level all seemed messy and disperse and referring to incidents and people I wasn't familiar with, which is in itself not an unfamiliar sensation during this project. But I do want to honour great writers by saying nice things about their work, and to have a good time reading myself.

So I've decided to go back to the volume that started everything off: Heaney's very first collection, published by Faber and Faber back in 1966:

It's easy to like Death of a Naturalist. Most of these poems are these wonderfully earthy things, reflecting on what it means to be a poet who's grown up in the country as the son of a farmer, hence you've got schoolkid classics like Digging, wherein he imagines himself digging with his pen into his heritage, just as his forefathers dug with their spades for potatoes. Also the scary frogspawn of the titular poem, his mother's dairy alchemy in Churning Day, the tragedy of a child's death in Mid-Term Break, the assumption of adulthood and responsibility around the horse-plough of Follower. And of course the weird Thomas Wyatt-esque loss of innocence in Blackberry-Picking, another piece we kept on seeing on our literature worksheets, and which someone told me actually referred to the Eucharist.

All very sensual, all very real, all very lovely on the ears and accessible. In fact, quality actually goes sideways towards the end of the book when we just start getting fluffy love songs and nature poems, whose depth can in no way compare to the stuff in the first half. But if I'd wanted depth, I'd have gone with The Spirit Level, no? My own damn fault for being stupid and impatient.

Since we're on the topic of Northern Ireland, however, we've gotta mention The Troubles. And though the violence only peaked in the seventies (during which time Heaney wrote works like Wintering Out, which I personally find a tad forgettable), we do actually have a threatening yet thoroughly human figure of a Protestant activist whose "fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic" in The Docker. "Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again", the poet says, and sure enough it did.

Things have been peaceful enough since the nineties, thank god, and I'm planning to visit Belfast next year. Still, it did drive Heaney to Dublin, where he spent the rest of years until his death in April (which I shamefully didn't remark upon in this blog). What's the relationship between Northern and Republic of today? I've heard of people switching nationalities just to get their university fees slashed. Will find out through travel, not literature, I dare say.

Anyhow, Singapore's experiencing troubles of its own right now. Not sure how I could (should?) turn that into literature.

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

Representative quote: 

"From A Potato Digging"

Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in "forty-five,"
wolfed the blighted root and died.

The new potato, sound as stone,
putrefied when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.

Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.

A people hungering from birth,
grubbling, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.

Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato digger are
you still smell the running sore.

Next book: Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, from Scotland. Or shall I do Robert Burns?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book 138, Wales: "The Mabinogion"

I know, I know. I said I was going to do the UK as a single entity, not as the four separate nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But somehow I gave in to temptation and had a peek at Welsh literature - and it occurred to me that quite apart from the popular opinion of my friends (which was that I should indeed read four separate books), there is simply a lot of good writing from each of these lands, and I might as well avail myself of them while I'm in the British Isles. And anyway, didn't I do Macau as if it was its own country?

I had a choice of texts, too. At first I was skimming through Dylan Thomas's memoir-cum-short story collection, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Got through half of it in an evening, too. But then I flipped through the first few pages of this baby, and I was hooked:

The Mabinogion is a series of eleven Celtic tales, dated between 1382 and 1410, translated from Welsh to English in the nineteenth century by Lady Charlotte Guest. The first four of these are 'The Four Branches of the Mabinogi': ancient, primal tales of kings and witches and savagery that will f*cking blow your mind.

Lemme tell you what happens in the Fourth Branch, to give you a taste of these nuts. There's a guy called Math son of Mathonwy, and he can't live unless his feet are in the lap of a virgin. (No explanations. Just go with it.) But then his nephew, Gilfaethwy falls in love with said virgin, a gal named Goewin, who's the fairest maiden of her generation. So he and his brother Gwydion come up with a  plan. They approach Math with a plan: they wanna team up with him to capture these strange creatures who've never been seen before on the island of Britain who taste better than beef (they're pigs, I think). 

They dress up with eleven other men as poets, and go to the court of Pryderi, son of Pwyll. They offer in exchange for the pigs twelve stallions with golden saddles and bridles, and twelve hounds with golden collars and leashes, which Gwydion made out magic, because that's a thing. And they get the pigs, but when they get back to Math, they tell him, oh no, Pryderi is after us because the magic's worn off and he now knows he's been cheated. Math and his armies flee to another cantref (province) where the pigs are being held, and meanwhile Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin on her master's bed.

Then there's a huge war between Math and Pryderi over these pigs, and when peace returns and Math returns to his castle to lay his feet in Goewin's lap again (he didn't die because the rules don't apply when he's at war), she says, sorry, I'm not a virgin anymore. And Math gets crazy mad at Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, and says they'd better not show their faces up here again. And they don't. For several years. But then they do turn up, 'cos Math banned anyone from giving them food or drink, and they come to the court, and Math takes his magic wand, and turns Gwydion into a stag and Gilfaethwy into a hind. And he curses them to live and mate with each other like wild animals, and return within a year.

And they do return after a year, and they've got a little fawn with them. Math keeps the fawn, but he turns Gilfaethwy into a wild boar and Gwydion into a wild sow. And they go off and mate with each other for a year, and they come back with a wild piglet, which Math keeps. Then he turns Gwydion into a he-wolf and Gilfaethwy into a she-wolf, and they go off and mate with each other for another year, and come back with a cub. And Math say, okay, you guys have been punished by having to have incestuous cross-gendered sex with each other for three years, here are your fawn and piglet and cub who've turned back into boys and I've had baptised. Oh yes, and I need another virgin please. So they suggest their sister Aranrhod, and Math makes her walk over his magic wand, and she immediately gives birth to a yellow-haired boy, which makes her flee in shame...

And that's just the beginning of the tale of the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffen, who is said yellow-haired boy, cursed by his mother to never have a name, never have weapons, never get married, et cetera, all of which he manages to overcome by outsmarting her.

Talk about magical realism - these stories just rattle off impossible things in crazily compressed language and expect you to deal. There's Bendigeidfran, who deals with a demolished bridge in a battle by lying across a river and letting his men walk over him (because suddenly he's a giant!), a massacre in Ireland that leaves no-one alive but five pregnant women, whose sons eventually grow up and repopulate the island by having sex with each other's mothers, a giant and an even bigger giantess who can only be got rid of by luring them into an iron house and heating it until it's white hot (and even then they manage to flee by breaking down a near-molten wall), talking immortal salmon and stags and eagles, murderous shieldmakers and shoemakers, a hero who tries to hang a pregnant field mouse despite being dissuaded by a cleric, a priest and a bishop (she turns out to be the queen of an enemy king who turned his army into mice to eat up all the grain in the fields), a princess made of flowers, a cauldron that reanimates the dead, Welshmen stranded in England who maintain their language by cutting out the tongues of their English wives, so their children will speak only Welsh...

Trippy. Things actually get a little more standard and formulaic in the book's second half, which is dominated by Arthurian romances - all these Welsh knights fulfilling their destiny in the court of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (yes, that's how they spell Guinevere), and every knight more handsome and noble and strong, and every maiden more beautiful than the last. But it's still gloriously mad, and by the time we get to the piss-soaked stable and unexplainable ravens and gwddbwyll games (it's a board game of some kind) and half-red half-white half-black horses of "Rhonabwy's Dream", we're pretty much spent.

Anyhow: while I'm in Great Britain, I'm gonna milk it for all it's worth.

Also of note: this is where Lloyd Alexander got his Prydain series from! I grew up on that stuff. There's even a forgotten Disney movie based on the books, The Black Cauldron. I know: Disney did a Welsh princess before a Scottish princess. Odd, huh?

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Representative quote: 
           ‘I want the birds of Rhiannon, they that wake the dead and lull the living to sleep, to entertain me that night.’
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. The cauldron Diwrnach Wyddel, the steward of Odgar son of Aedd, king of Ireland, to boil food for your wedding guests.'
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. I must wash and shave my beard. I want the tusk of Ysgithrwyn Pen Baedd to shave with. It will be no use to me unless it is pulled from his head while he's alive.'
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. I will not enturst the keeping of the tusk to anyone except Caw of Prydyn. The sixty cantrefs of Prydyn are under him. He will not leave his kingdom willingly, nor can he be forced.'
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. I must dress my beard to be shaved. It will never straighten out until you get the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch, from Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell.'

Next book: Seamus Heaney's "The Spirit Level", from Northern Ireland.

Monday, November 25, 2013

POETRY THINGY #4 featuring STEPHANIE DOGFOOT, JERROLD YAM, and special appearance by NG YI-SHENG.

I'm hosting a poetry event with London-based Singapore-culture-dissemination group Platform 65. Come come!

feat Stephanie Dogfoot, Jerrold Yam and Ng Yi-Sheng
Date: Wednesday 4 December
Time: 7pm
Location: Woolfson & Tay Bookshop, 39 Bear Lane, London SE1

Platform 65's Poetry Thingy is a series of casual poetry + music open-mic sessions featuring poetry, spoken word, and live music by Singaporean artists. Each event features a headline artist (or two), but the mic’s open to everyone! Bring your friends, your poems, and your songs.



Stephanie Dogfoot, also known as Stephanie Chan, is a poet and sometime law student from Singapore, currently based in London. In 2010, on a summer holiday home, she won the Singapore Slam Championships and represented Singapore in the Indian Ocean Slam Championships on Reunion Island in December that year. In 2012, she won the Farrago UK Slam Championships and represented the UK in the European Slam championships in Antwerp (where she came 2nd runner-up). In June 2013, she represented the UK in the Poetry Slam World Cup in Paris and got into the semi-finals.

She performs and organizes spoken word nights around London, sometimes other parts of the UK, and (when she gets to go home) Singapore. She has also performed at the Glastonbury Festival, Small World Festival, Nozstock Festival, the Poetry Cafe, Southbank Centre, various squats in London, and many cities around the UK from Birmingham to Oxford to Aberdeen.


Jerrold Yam (b. 1991) is a law undergraduate at University College London and the author of poetry collections Scattered Vertebrae (2013) and Chasing Curtained Suns (2012) by Math Paper Press. His poems have been published in more than seventy literary journals and anthologies across twenty countries. He has won first prize and three honorable mentions in the National University of Singapore’s Creative Writing Competition 2011, first prize in the British Council's History and the City Competition, and is the youngest Singaporean to be nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has been featured at Interrobang, London Book Fair and Singapore Writers Festival, among others. His poems have recently been translated to Spanish.

Jerrold will also be launching 'Scattered Vertebrae' at Poetry Thingy #4, with a short discussion moderated by Ng Yi-Sheng.


Ng Yi-Sheng is a full-time writer of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and drama. Since 2006, he has curated the annual LGBT literary event ContraDiction, and also co-edited "GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose". His books include "SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century" and "last boy", which won the Singapore Literature Prize. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Norwich, UK.


Directions: Woolfson & Tay Bookshop is 5min walk from Southwark Tube station. (Follow the orange Tate Modern lamp-posts onto Union Street, turn left onto Great Suffolk Street, and turn left again once you see The White Hart pub.)

Buses: 45, 63, 100, 381, RV1.

** Open-mic slots up for grabs! For enquiries, send Platform 65 a private mesage on FB or email

Sunday, November 17, 2013


I could’ve and maybe should’ve finished Anecdotes of Destiny by now (it’s excellent) but I’ve got to finish a report on Val McDermid’s The Mermaids Singing, so nothing this week yet.
Still, this is a pretty good time to give you an idea of the courses I’m taking.

This involves ten of us taking the prose course critiquing each other’s fiction, under the guidance of acclaimed novelist Andrew Cowan, who gives us about fifteen minutes of Yoda-like advice before every class.

This one is under crime novelist Henry Sutton, who’s got a weekly reading list for us of:

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep
Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me
Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley
John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall's Roseanna
Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty
Val McDermid's The Mermaids Singing
Martin Amis's Night Train
Lee Child's The Affair
Denise Mina's The End of the Wasp Season

In addition, we’re each completing a 5,000-word work before next term starts – and it can be fiction, an essay, or a combination thereof. So far, everyone’s workshopping crime/thriller fiction ideas, which is pretty much what we signed up for.

Plus, I'm auditing an undergraduate class with Thomas Karshan, just for fun. Have a look at the title, have a look at the texts:

Assorted pre-19th century nonsense including excerpts from the Bible, Shakespeare and Donne
Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (plus Edward Lear's poetry)
Emily Dickinson's poetry
Wallace Stevens's Harmonium
Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan
James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake
W. H. Auden's poetry
Sylvia Plath's Ariel
John Ashberry's Collected Poems

A lot more to say about all this, of course. But I'll save that for future filler weeks. :)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book 137, England: "Henry IV" (Parts One and Two) by William Shakespeare

UPDATE: The country marker for this post was later changed from the United Kingdom to England, due to a decision to cover each of the four nations of the UK separately.

It's been a bloody long time since I finished a book while actually located in the nation that book was written - in fact, that moment was probably three years ago, when I started this blog in Singapore.

And truth be told, the last pages of these plays were read in a country that might not even want to be part of the UK anymore. I'm spending Reading Week in Scotland, zipping between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, St Andrews, holding prolonged conversation with my local informant Scotticus (no, that really is his name) about devolution and the likelihood of secession from the union. In the process, I've learned a bit about how separate this land is - they don't just have their own parliament and banknotes, they've also got a sense of an independent culture - Scotticus didn't even study Shakespeare in English lit! The school did Philip K. Dick instead, which I can't say is an awful choice.

Anyhow: Shakespeare. I know he isn't the most British of writers - he set most of his plays in Italy, for crying out loud - so I'd been thinking about doing Dickens instead, or perhaps a great novelist like George Eliot or Zadie Smith whom I've never actually finished a book by.

But I've been swayed a little by watching Simon Schama's Shakespeare: This England on the plane - piqued by his assertion that Shakespeare was great because he represented the genuine, earthy voices of the pub and the market that still make England England today. In particular, the voices of Falstaff and Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet from his seldom staged duology, Henry IV (Parts One and Two).

Falstaff I'd heard of, of course - he's supposed to be one of the great characters of Shakespeare, popping up again in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which in turn became a Verdi opera. In the Henry plays, he's the wayward father figure whose drunken carousing and mischief-making is viewed as a corrupt force on the young Prince Harry, the future warrior king Henry V. And yet you're supposed to find him a lovable buffoon, a jovial rascal, a character so popular that he promises to come back for further excitement in an epilogue after Part Two (in fact, he died offstage in the first act of Henry V, purportedly because the original actor, William Kempe, had a huge falling out with Shakespeare and left the Lord |Chamberlain's Men to go on a Morris-dancing marathon for London to Norwich).
I didn't actually like Falstaff all that much. One reason, of course, is that reading Shakespeare is hard - even with the Arden footnotes, which are academic rather than explicatory - which dampens the enjoyment of a text. But it's also because he isn't a member of the proletariat: he's a knight who happily exploits the poor, whether by loading the innkeeper Mistress Quickly with credit he can't pay off or by accepting bribes from peasants who don't want to be conscripted into the army and retaining the pay of the poor schmucks who actually get killed in battles. Plus, his whole big prank at the beginning of Part One is a highway robbery. What is this guy, a sociopath?

What makes Falstaff rather more likable, however, is the fact that his rambunctious world of prostitutes and thieves is so much less nasty than that of the kings. There's the gloomy eponymous Henry IV, who feels guilty about his usurpation of Richard II (this is where we get the "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" line), and Prince John, who reneges on his courtly promise to the rebel leaders to do no them no harm, and of course Prince Harry himself, who's supposed to be on a huge coming-of-age voyage, graduating from his wild boyish days to heroic responsibility, but who actually seems to have had the whole teen rebellion thing planned out in a Machiavellian way from his first appearance:

"So, when this loose behavior I throw off  
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,  
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;"

And then at the duology's end, when he's crowned, he refuses to even recognise the fat old man who's Falstaff, and has his old innkeeper Mistress Quickly whipped. Oh, and he acts like a complete dick to Falstaff all through. What a turd bucket.

So really, it's the rebels I have more sympathy with - Henry Hotspur, in Part One, is something of your classic tragic hero, battling against both royal Henries and dying honorably on the battlefield (though his slaying is falsely claimed by Falstaff, who's a coward and liar on top of everything else). The Archbishop of York's got some great lines in Part Two as well. Plus, in their insurrection, they've actually teamed up with the Scots and the Welsh - they're more of a united kingdom than the king's, thank you very much.

Oh, and Doll Tearsheet's got some great speeches too. She's a doxy: Falstaff's paramour, whom he's promised marriage to, and she's tender and loving to him, but she's a sharp-tongued virago to everyone else. Just do a search on her lines in the full text of Part Two. Bad-ass.

Ah, but as Mohan told me, there's no way I'm able to really grok these plays until I've seen them in performance - even on video. And didja know, Orson Welles did a condensed film version? Even Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho is supposed to be a 20th century gay hooker reinterpretation of the tale.

Odd how no-one stages the history plays - other than Richard III, which is arguably to be classed with historical tragedies like Julius Caesar or Macbeth. Richard II's had a recent revival, of course, but King John and Henry VIII and the trilogy of Henry VI plays have kind of ended up on the historical/literary trash heap. Maybe it's because of the way historical fact gets all wound up into these stories, weighing them down with these interminable speeches and milquetoast queens, while legendary stuff like King Lear allows so much more room for the imagination.

Who knows? Anyway, good to get the UK out of the way. I'll return to Scotland if the referendum says over half the population wants independence. I respect self-determination, y'all.

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

Representative quote:
King: Harry the Fifth is crown'd. Up, vanity
Down, royal state. All you sage counsellors, hence.
And to the English court assemble now,
From every region, apes of idleness.
Now, neighbour confines, purge you of your scum.
Have you a ruffian that will swear, drink, dance,
Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit
The oldest sins the newest kind of ways?
Be happy, he will trouble you no more.
England shall double gild his treble guilt;
England shall give him office, honour, might;
For the fifth Harry from curb'd license plucks
The muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog
Shall flesh his tooth on every innocent.
O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!
When that my care could not withhold thy riots,
What wilt thou do when riot is thy care?
O, thou wilt be a wilderness again.
Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants!

Next book: Isak Dinesen's Anecdotes of Destiny, from Denmark.

Friday, November 1, 2013

I won't be at the Singapore Writers Festival...

... but my books will! Gonna take this opportunity to publicise the book launches I'm part of. (Sadly, Diary of a Stone Monkey is still being delayed at the publishers.)

The Last Lesson of Mrs De Souza by Cyril Wong | Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe | The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One
2 Nov, Sat
 11:30 AM - 12:30 PM, 
Festival Pavilion, Campus Green, SMU

The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories is a new biennial anthology series, with this premiere volume showcasing the best short fiction from Singaporean writers published in 2011 and 2012. Join Jason and five notable contributors—Alfian Sa’at, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Alvin Pang, Stephanie Ye, and Wei Fen Lee—in a discussion of their works.

Featuring: Alfian Sa’at , Alvin Pang , Amanda Lee Koe, Cyril Wong, Jason Erik Lundberg

The Substation Fairytales: Stories in The End
6 Nov, Wed
 7 PM - 8 PM, 
Binary Pavilion, Campus Green, SMU

The Substation Fairytales: Stories in The End are modern tales of love, identity, and belonging for adults. Reasons for the Rain is a poignant tale of serendipity and chance, of two strangers crossing paths in the concrete jungle. The Crocodile Prince is about a boy finding himself in a magical jungle of mystery. Jack and Alice is a story built from inner thoughts and how the lives of the title characters are built both parallel and divergent from that of each other and in the fairy tales. There will be readings followed by a book signing, Q&A session and reception.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bonus review: "A Song of the Wind" by Isa Kamari

Hey folks! Somehow I neglected to mention on this blog that I was dropping by Singapore for a weekend, to watch a closed-door reading of my new play SHEARES (and to be bombarded by constructive criticisms during a Q&A afterwards).

Of course, while I was there I took care to stock up on books:

Top row: Tse Hao Guang's Hyperlinkage, Amanda Lee Koe's The Ministry of Moral Panic, Jason Erik Lundberg's Lontar #01: Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, Theophilus Kwek's Circle Line.
Middle row: Gwee Li Sui's The Myth of the Stone, 24 Flavours: Dolphin Meat, Best New Singaporean Short Stories (I'm in this!!!)
Bottom row: Cyril Wong's The Last Lesson of Mrs De Souza, Gregory Nalpon's The Wayang at Eight Milestone and Other Stories, Isa Kamari's The Tower.

A fair handful, I know. But today I'd like to focus on another book: a novel that was pressed into my hands shortly before my first departure from Singapore - A Song of the Wind (originally Memeluk Gerhana) by the stellar Malay-language poet, playwright, songwriter and fictionist Isa Kamari.

I've been following Isa's work for some time now: reading the novels he's had translated, trying to read his poems in Malay, watching his plays (okay, it was one play). Always, I've been intrigued by his perspectives, but also frustrated by his authorial decisions, the style he chooses for narration, the quality of his translations, and of course the pervasiveness of Islam in his works - not in a transcendental form but manifesting in the form of a structure of rules that often prevents his characters from doing and thinking truly interesting things.

These problems are here again in A Song of the Wind, but we'll focus on the positives first. Basically, this conveys more intimately than any other text I've read what it was like to grow up in a kampung in Singapore. It follows the story of Ilham, a kid who moves into Kampung Tawakal in 1967, playing war in the jungle with his friends, collecting spiders in matchboxes, building go-carts from shopkeepers' leftover crates, stealing chickens, peeping at the neighbour's wife in the bath hut. It's also fortuitous that the kampung in question is on Bukit Brown, the site of the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, now threatened by development. (The Malaysian translator, alas, has mistakenly translated this as simply "Brown Hill").

But this isn't just a record of a vanished community. It's also a memoir of the political climate of the late '60s and '70s. Ilham listens in on discussions of current events: the moon landing, the Vietnam War, Nixon's impeachment. There's not much explicit related about the PAP, but there's National Service in army and the police, and there's also the resentment of some Malays, some of who wish they'd taken up Malaysia's 1965 offer of farmland in return for changing citizenship. Plus, *SPOILER ALERT!!!!* there's a clash between Ilham's religious study group and the ISA which happens in the last section of the book, which ultimately ruins his chances of advancing in society as a smart young Malay man.*SPOILERS END* There's definitely a degree of testimony going on here - Isa wants us to remember that all this happened.

Then there's the romance stuff. Sure, I get it, sexual/romantic feelings are going to be a major part of almost any boy's adolescence. There's a place for that in a book like this. What I don't understand is why it has to be such a huge part - why on earth does he end up with three different girls from different eras of his life by the time he's doing his A-Levels in Raffles Institution? There's an ideological reason why, I suppose - each one represents a different facet of his destiny - and inevitably there's the bad Muslim girl who refuses to wear her tudung (I don't think many girls did in the '70s anyway!) and (shock, horror) kisses another boy in public. Seriously, though, these girls do not come across as three-dimensional, independent characters with lives of their own. Also, having three suitoresses does not endear us to Iham - we're alienated 'cos that sure didn't happen to us, and anyway he's a namby-pamby goody-two-shoes who can't actually do good by any of them.

The real flaw of A Song of the Wind, however, is that it's trying to do too much. Perhaps this is all stuff that actually happened to Isa (don't think the spoiler bits above did, though). Very well: then he can write a memoir about it. Otherwise, the rise and fall of the kampung is one story; the romance is another; the downfall of a promising young Malay boy is (possibly) another. The whole does not cohere.

There are probably different standards in Malay literature that render these flaws inconsequential. But in the Anglophone tradition, the book's problematic. It's only fun to read for a while before you stop caring much about the characters.

Mind you, I'm glad I read the book. It's just that I'd be more inclined to recommend it for academic purposes than for entertainment ones. That's not a good thing.

I've also got Isa's other two recently-translated books, Rawa and 1819, to review - that is, unless the publisher stops me. In case you're still stoked, he's having a launch for them on 10 November, 11:30am at the Singapore Writers Festival, Festival Green. More on the SWF here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book 136, Jersey: "Menagerie Manor" by Gerald Durrell

During my primary and secondary school holidays, my English teachers had a habit of prescribing Durrell - and why not? Kids love animals, and a bit of light, classic British humour is always a delight. Never got round to reading him, though, so it was only when I conceived this project that I realised he was the founder of a zoo in Jersey; the very first zoo to have an interest in sustaining endangered species through captive breeding pairs, in fact.

The image above isn't of the copy I read, I'm afraid - I ended up with the UEA's mammoth compendium of Durrell's writings: My Family and Other AnimalsThe Bafut BeaglesThe Drunken ForestEncounters with AnimalsA Zoo in My Luggage and The Whispering Land, as well as this baby. Didn't feel compelled to consult the other books - they're all about his growing up amidst wildlife in Corfu, or collecting creatures in Cameroon or Argentina.

But I might read 'em someday, The animal yarns here are loads of fun - little adventure tales about escaped tapirs, nail-biting stories of charismatic gorillas on the brink of death, blunder-after-blunder anecdotes of attempting to work with live reptiles and primates on TV (for some reason, he had to crate up his animals and send them to Bristol for the recording).

And yeah, it does make you want to visit. Singapore's zoo is often ranked as the best in the world, and the scenes in the Manor of des Augres aren't a hundred percent charming - there are cages and chicken-wire mentioned a-plenty. But this was back in 1959, when Singapore was still getting its own self-rule - Durrell couldn't even figure out the sex of his lizards, and everyone in Europe was still killing their New Zealand tuataras by putting them in tropical greenhouses. Makes you want to see how they've moved on - this book was written just five years after the zoo's opening; think how many more stories have bred since then.

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I'll leave you with one of the more alarming descriptions of animal behaviour Durrell managed to catalogue, regarding that most loved of Singapore Zoo animals, the orang-utan:

Representative quote: It is unfortunate that, like many apes, Oscar and Bali have developed some rather revolting characteristics, one of which is the drinking of each other's urine. It sounds frightful, but they are such enchanting animals and do it in such a way that you can only feel amused to see Oscar sitting up on his iron ladder urinating copiously, while Bali sits below with open mouth to receive the nectar, and then savours it with all the air of a connoisseur. She puts her head on one side, rolling the liquid around her mouth as if trying to make up her mind from which vineyard it came and in what year it was bottled. They also, unfortunately, enjoy eating their own excreta.

Next book: William Shakespeare's Henry IV (Parts I & II), from the United Kingdom.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book 135, Guernsey: "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows

I've decided, with some regret, not to do Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England as separate entities. We do not have a majority of citizens in these regions calling for independence (not even in Scotland!). Also, if I did all four countries within the UK, I'd logically also have to do all seven emirates in the UAE. All fifty states in the US might be pleasant, but Emirati writing still has a long way to go.

But we're on Guernsey now! One of the two Channel Islands - and you'll see on the map below how close they are to France, and thus how understandable it is that they're regarded as a separate from the UK. Also understandable is how they were occupied by the Nazis during WWII, the Brits tactically abandoning them for the sake of their own behinds.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society is a description of that occupation, narrated through the letters and telegrams of the single, thirty-something year-old writer Juliet Ashton in 1946. She's a London girl, the recipient of recent fame and success after the publication of her humorous wartime newspaper columns - because people did need humour during the war - and now on track for her next book. 

One day she receives a letter from a certain Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey fisherman who's very much enjoyed a second-hand copy of Charles Lamb's Selected Essays of Elia which once belonged to her. He mentions the existence of the eponymous literary club during the war - at first an excuse to explain to the Germans why they were out so late during curfew, but later a coping mechanism (the pie being another such coping mechanism). The two commence a correspondence, and gradually Juliet comes to realise her destiny is to go to Guernsey and chronicle the experience of the war there.

It's honestly rather lovely to read an epistolary novel of this sort, recalling a time before e-mail and Whatsapp (though I really have no idea how one-sentence letters exchanged on the same day work - these people do not have footmen, after all). Principal author Mary Ann Shaffer has a wonderful range of voices, vivacious and folksy and prissy, bringing to life the cast of her novel. 

And what a cast it is. On the island, there's the poultice-brewing wise woman Isola Pribby, the haughty Adelaide Addison, the worried half-Jewish butler John Booker - and off the island, there's the frighteningly charismatic American publisher Markham V. Reynolds, and of course the terribly fun Juliet herself. Plus the unseen figure of Elizabeth - this young independent woman who invented the ruse of the literary club and was eventually arrested by the Nazis towards the end of the war, and who ends up being the subject of Juliet's book.

Mind you, this isn't high literature, by certain standards. The cover above shows how marketable it is as  pure and simple chick-lit - period too! An adaptation of Pride and Prejudice's love story: Dawsey is Darcy and Markham is Wickham. But it is so full of story, and texture, and joy, which is why it was a bestseller, and what I'm having so much trouble with in my own writing.

One final note: Shaffer was the original author of the book - wrote it as her first complete novel when she was an old woman, years after being stranded in a bookshop during a foggy Guernsey excursion and learning all about the occupation. However, once the novel had been optioned, changes were suggested - and she was seriously sick - so her niece, Annie Barrows, stepped in and filled her shoes, recreating the familiar style of storytelling she'd heard so much during family visits. I rather like that. Two women, one beginning a story, the other ending it. But there'll no more Shaffer novels, I'm afraid: she's dead and gone as of 2008, just before the book was published in its current form.

I actually finished this book last week - have been trying to keep up with my own reading in the meantime. It's a quick read, as is my next book, so I'll probably have my next update up pretty damn quick.

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Representative quote: As the mail boat lurched into the harbour, I saw St Peter Port rising up from the sea, with a church at the top like a cake decoration, and I realised that my heart was galloping. However much I tried to persuade myself it was the thrill of the scenery, I knew better. All those people I've come to know and even love a little, waiting to see - me. And I, without any paper to hide behind. Sidney, in these past two or three years, I have become better at writing than living - and think what you do to my writing. On the page, I'm perfectly charming, but that's just a trick I've learnt. It has nothing to do with me.

Next book: Gerald Durrell's Menagerie Manor, from Jersey.

Monday, October 7, 2013

I've got a gig in London!

Since I know I have a number of UK readers, I'm just gonna announce the following. 

Next Wednesday, I'll be taking the train down from Norwich, performing 15 minutes of slam with some UK artists in Forget What You Heard (About Spoken Word).  The Facebook page is here.

My fellow Singaporean poet, Stephanie Dogfoot, programmed me in - she recently represented the UK in the World Cup for Poetry Slam in Paris! It's also her farewell gig, 'cos she's returning home soon - hopefully developing our own scene.

Date: Wednesday, 9 October
Time: 19:30-23:00
Venue: Ryan's Bar, Stoke Newington Church St N16, London

That's the best photo I took of Steph when we met up in London the second day I was here. The blurb for the event's below!

Autumn is upon us, cold weather is approaching, the year 2013 is drawing to a close so what does this mean?

NOTHING! Except that the October edition of Forget What You Heard is round the corner and its the LAST ONE where we'll have co-host Stephanie Dogfoot before she moves back to Singapore....
So come down and join STEPHANIE DOGFOOT and MATT CUMMINS and celebrate/commiserate/bid farewell, and October's three spell-binding features you will definitely remember for a long time coming..fireball Anna Kahn, one of the most exciting & funny & accomplished young poets from Singapore today Ng Yi-Sheng and the tender yet ferociously compelling Alex Etchart.

and of course, YOURSELVES on the open mic! As always, entry by donation.
p.s. Since our open mic is so consistently packed out nowadays, we'll only be letting half of the open-mic slots go BEFORE the night, so that there's still room for people to rock up on the day and take part. So that means there are SIX spots up for grabs to you eager social networkers. Go, go, go!

ANNA KAHN Anna Kahn writes letters for a living and poems because apparently thinking about words for eight hours a day is not enough thinking about words. She once beat Scroobius Pip in a Golden Gun contest judged by a lady with questionable taste (true story). She writes everything from PG-rated poems about sexual deviancy to firmly 18-rated poems about her own grandmother, but she promises that if you'd ever met her grandmother this would make perfect sense. She's never been published, partly because she's one of those dreadful spoken-word impostors the Independent says is killing poetry by never actually submitting anything to anyone.

NG YI-SHENG Ng Yi-Sheng is a Singaporean poet-playwright-journalist-fictionist and LGBT activist. He's the youngest ever winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, which he received for his debut poetry collection "last boy". Recently, he co-edited two literary collections: "GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose" and "Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore". For the past few years, he has taught in his country's only university-level creative writing program and co-organised the monthly multi-disciplinary arts event SPORE Art Salon. Right now, he's based in Norwich, doing his Masters in Creative Writing (Prose) at the University of East Anglia. He was possibly the first slam poet Stephanie ever saw and got inspired by in one of the first queer literary readings in Singapore in 2005.

ALEX ETCHART Alex Etchart is a community musician, folk singer, poet, activist, clown, drama teacher, workshop facilitator and all-round decent human being. He has been involved with and inspired by Occupy London, Friern Barnet library and Balcombe anti-fracking Community Camp. Taking a page from folk singers from Woody Guthrie to David Rovics, his poetry is urgent and unapolagetically critical of the world as we know it, and unflinching in its call to unfuck-it-up, with a solid dose of heart and humour.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Book 134, Isle of Man: "The Manxman" by Hall Caine

UEA’s library isn’t quite as voluminous as some I’ve seen, but it does contain some nice surprises. I was originally planning to read some book of folklore for the Isle of Man (which is actually classified as a separate entity from the UK). While searching the catalogue, I also happened to come across a biography of an eminent Victorian named Hall Caine – a bestselling author and playwright, a companion of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and a proud Manxman.

Once a recognizable face on both sides of the Atlantic, Caine is largely forgotten today. This online biography suggests that his greatest work was The Scapegoat, but the library offered me a copy of The Manxman instead: 29th edition, printed in the 1920s. Sadly, I dropped it - the librarians will have some gumming together of spines to do after this – and resorted to reading an online edition for the remainder of the week.

But heavens, this is good stuff. It’s fundamentally the tale of a love triangle: simple Pete, his smart half-cousin Philip, and the fair Kate. But the story follows them from birth to childhood to adolescence to tumultuous adulthood, their drama playing out against the charming backdrop of Sulby, a coastal village alive with superstition and fishermen’s rebellions and Christian extremism and ridiculous codes of honour – Philip and Pete, for instance, are both the grandsons of the old Deemster, a high-born judge in his castle, but the father of the first was disowned when he married a common-born girl and the second was the fruit of an affair with his mother paid off in cash for her shame. There’s this stupid, stupid taboo against marrying below or above your station – it’s something a gentleman simply cannot do if he wants to continue receiving the respect of the tiny island community.

But I suppose it’s character that really drives the tale. Philip's a social climber, guilt-tripped by the memory of his late father whose ambitions were ruined by his love for his lower-class, equipped with the intelligence and the personality for a rising career in law and politics, ultimately becoming a Deemster, or a judge for the island. He falls in love with Kate, who used to be Pete's sweetheart, before Pete set off for the diamond mines of Kimberley for five years, so he could earn a fortune worthy of her hand. The guilt of this tortures him utterly - and it tortures Kate too. Meanwhile, Pete's just the most big-hearted, loving man possible, unaware that his every forgiveness of Kate and his kindness to Philip just tortures them further.

Basically, this is a story of adultery in which everyone involved is actually a good person - sure, they do terrible things sometimes, but they feel horribly guilty about it (mind you, they're the sort of folks who feel guilty even when they do good). And it works. We're thrust into the minds of all three protagonists, and we struggle with them, feeling for them. (Me particularly: I'm in a weird halfway state in my relationship to a very good person, and I'm not sure where how it's all going to end up.)

But there's also a huge level of absurdity to the characters' quandaries - their values, their conceptions of sin that outweigh any considerations of social achievement, are very un-Asian (or perhaps un-21st century, or simply unworldly). It's a little mad, how a successful young man with a rising career, a credit to his race, et cetera, should be in agony over the thought of marrying a "fallen woman" - or indeed, that any woman should consider herself fallen at all.

Messy thoughts today. Also on my mind is the fleetingness of Caine's fame - he peddled his exotic status as the "Bard of Manxland" in a manner that presages the workings of "world literature" as a contemporary genre, but because he was only a geographical minority, not a racial of gender one, he's fallen quite out of the Canon. Plus, his irrelevance to my current course: it'd be unwise for me to emulate his maudlin histrionics, no matter how effective they may still be.

Plenty more reading for me to do for school. If, however, you'd like to spend just a couple of hours with the story, you could check out the film version, directed by no less than Alfred Hitchcock!

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Representative quote:
That night Philip dreamt a dream. He was sitting on a dais with a wooden canopy above him, the English coat of arms behind, and a great book in front; his hands shook as he turned the leaves; he felt his leg hang heavily; people bowed low to him, and dropped their voices in his presence; he was the Deemster, and he was old. A young woman stood in the dock, dripping water from her hair, and she had covered her face with her hands. In the witness-box a young man was standing, and his head was down. The man had delivered the woman to dishonour; she had attempted her life in her shame and her despair. And looking on the man, the Deemster thought he spoke in a stern voice, saying, "Witness, I am compelled to punish her, but oh to heaven that I could punish you in her place! What have you to say for yourself?" "I have nothing to say for myself," the young man answered, and he lifted his head and the old Deemster saw his face. Then Philip awoke with a smothered scream, for the young man's face had been his own.

Next book: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, from Guernsey.