Friday, December 26, 2014

My Book of the Year

Just a quick little entry to mention that I submitted a nomination for Book of the Year at the Singapore Poetry Website.

There's 26 different respondents - check 'em out. Weirdly enough, though some of us nominated foreign books, most of us (me included) stuck to choosing stuff by our fellow countrymen. Patriotism, or parochialism? Or just plain old nepotism?

Ah, what the hell. I just went with what touched me most.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Queer Singapore Lit!

Confession: I haven't started reading War and Peace. I've downloaded it onto my Kindle and dipped into the reader-friendly preface (carting this thousand-page tome around in hard copy did not seem to be a wise decision), but what's been occupying my intellectual space recently has been the literature of Singapore.

Specifically, the queer literature of Singapore. I've been invited to contribute an article for an academic journal on the subject. And even though there are multiple wikis about it, and numerous essays (including one I wrote as part of the introduction of GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose), I've found them to be woefully incomplete.

For instance, if you want to talk about the first queer Singaporean work, then you run into some murky ground. Most people say it was Chay Yew's short play, As If He Hears, in 1988.

But then what about the highly successful 1987 play Army Daze by Michael Chiang, which features a flamboyantly effeminate ensemble character, Kenny Pereira, with a heartstring-tugging monologue about how much his parents are forcing him to be a real man? What about Wei Tongque's Mandarin short story Mei Jiang/媚将, which won the Golden Point Short Story Competition in 1986? What about the codedly queer poem gaudy turnout by Arthur Yap, published in 1977? And what about James Eckhardt's Singapore Girl, a memoir of a young American's passionate love affair with a Singaporean transwoman, scribbled down in 1975 and left unpublished until 2007? And what about the weirdly homoerotic Michael and the Leaf of Time by Gregory Nalpon, which could've been written anytime between the 1950s and the author's death in 1978 - and which wasn't published until 2013?

Should we incorporate these works into any kind of queer Singaporean canon, given that they're either oblique or written by straight people?

Even after queer people started writing openly queer books, there's weird gaps in the academic record. These two books, for example were mainstream publishing successes:

But today they're not only out of print - you can't even find them in the National Library's reference section. I had to get a Temporary Readers' Permit for the National University of Singapore Central Library to hunt those two down.

(They're Joash Moo's Sisterhood: The Untold Story - a collection of short stories inspired by the lives of transwomen, published 1990; and Bonny Hicks's Discuss Disgust, a semi-autobiographical novel, published 1992. I'm not sure if the second book has queer content, but Hicks was quite open about her bisexuality in her 1990 memoir, Excuse Me, Are You a Model?)

And of course there's all the unpublished plays, and all the new books published in the last four years, and all the new live poets who're gracing the stage, being loudly and proudly lesbian (or bisexual, or pansexual, or queer), as so few Singaporean writers were before.

Basically, there's a lot of ground to cover. And I am fiendishly late with getting started on the actual writing.

Story of my life. Tolstoy will have to wait.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book 163, Belarus: "King Stakh's Wild Hunt" by Uladizimir Karatkevich

Somehow the National Library never processed my request for Nancy Richler's Your Mouth Is Lovely, which left me stranded in terms of Belarusian lit. (Richler is Canadian, anyway, and the story might take place in Russian Siberia. :/)

My options included Nechama Tec's Defiance, a non-fiction work about a Jewish resistance army during World War Two (available in the library) and Vladimir Kozlov's Number Ten: A Novella In Translation (available for 99 cents on Kindle).

Luckily, I managed to Google up a free pdf of this:

And I'm glad I chose it. I knew from the description it was gonna be kinda up my alley: a bit of a fantasy thriller about a modern man facing down the phantom of a cursed king, riding for eternity. But in fact, the background's a little more complex than that.

This book was written only in 1964, but it's a Gothic novel - the events take place in the autumn of 1888, with the first-person protagonist Andrey Bełaretski recounting the events as a 96 year-old man. He's an ethnographer (which I hadn't really thought was much of a profession in Europe in the nineteenth century) and his mission is to venture into remote parts of Belarus and document the dying legends, folktales and epics of his people to publish back in Minsk.

So you see we've got a theme of identity formation going on: the rise of a nationalist bourgeois class who want to go back to their peasant roots to understand what their culture is. Unfortunately, that culture is kind of horrifying - we've got horribly impoverished gentry (descended from the Polish, it seems) starving in their broken-down castles and burning their antique furniture for warmth, and thousands of muzyk (that's the word they use for serfs) who're living on even less. 

Andrei's pretty gloomy about all this at the beginning of the book. Then he gets lost in an undisclosed area of his country during an expedition, almost dies from falling into a swamp (a quagmire, they call it), and seeks refuge in the rain in the castle of Marsh Firs, where he's greeted by the Countess - an ugly little 17 year-old thing named Nadzieja Janouskaja, who's plagued by the doom of her noble line, unfamiliar with concepts of sunshine and friendship, and convinced that she, as the twelfth and last of the Janouski dynasty, is fated to die from the curse of King Stakh, whom her ancestor betrayed in his uprising many generations ago.

And of course our modern, Minsk-educated ethnographer pooh-poohs it all, and is determined to discover a rational explanation for why he hears the invisible footsteps of the Blue Lady outside the corridor, not to mention the apparition of the Little Man, and all the other strange phenomena out of folklore that have come out of the mouths of goodwives to haunt him in real life.

As the tale unfolds, however, we realise this is more than a Dracula story, for the main players are actually the various impoverished nobles who are battling over the lands she stands to inherit - some good at heart, like young pure-minded suitor Sviecilovic; some evil, like the impetuous Varona, and some with plenty to hide, like Nadzieja's garrulous uncle, the huge, supremely jovial Rubatouk.

And [SPOILER ALERT!!!] we soon see that this is a book of the Soviet era indeed, because the phantoms are indeed revealed to be the work of jealous nobles, and our working-class descended hero is able to use his wits and strength to defeat them, with the aid of a peasant uprising, complete with pitchforks and a gruff hunter named Ryhol who's able to smack some sense into him every time he wants to take *pity* on one of these leeches of society. (It's kind of like a Scooby-Doo episode - the real monsters aren't the undead, but simple money-grabbing mortals, who'll cloak themselves in masks and darkness to fool the superstitious into believing they cannot be defeated.)

But there's a fairy-tale ending after all - Nadzieja grows in beauty and maturity throughout the story (though she's pretty passive even by the end), enough for Andrej to fall in love with her and marry her and live happily ever after, which frankly made me a little cross, because everything in the novel had been indicating that the story ended in tragedy. Did Karatkevich do this for the censors, the pleasure of his readers, or because his moral compass bade it so? I do not know. [SPOILERS END.]

If you wanna check out this book, it really is loads of fun - a bilingual PDF is for some reason available here, so you can check the English against the Belarusian (which I did not know was a language up till now).

Oh, and by the way, I can't figure out how to embed Google maps properly, so it's already zoomed in on the region I'm talking about. Any advice?

Representative quote: 
"Nothing," she answered dryly. "But it's too late. Everything comes too late in the world. You are too much alive. Go to your people, to those who are alive, who go hungry and can laugh. Go and conquer. And leave the graves to the dead."

"But aren't you my people?" I exploded. "And these people, frightened and hungry, aren't they my people? And Sviecilovic, whom I shall have to betray, isn't he of my people? And these god-forsaken swamps where abominable things occur, aren't these swamps my land? And the children crying at night, when they hear the hoofs of the Wild Hunt, trembling with fright all their lives, aren't they my brethren's children? How can you even dare suggest such a thing to me?"

Next book: Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, from Russia.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

On comics.

I'm not done with King Stakh's Wild Hunt yet - turns out travelling for work purposes leaves you with a lot less random reading time than travelling for leisure.

So I'm just gonna seize this opportunity to talk about comics. For starters, here's a few of the graphic novel series which I finished in the earlier half of this year:

Mind you, I wasn't introduced to these comics recently. I got into comics all the way back in the nineties, with Neil Gaiman's Sandman and The Books of Magic. Then Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen got published, and what with me being such a literature nerd, I followed it religiously (I'm still thoroughly digging his Captain Nemo series now) and began scouring New York comic shops for his other works - From Hell, Top Ten, V For Vendetta, Promethea, Supreme - plus other lauded graphic novels like Lenore, Zero GirlSnake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret...

(You'll notice, strangely enough, that I wasn't hooked in by conventional superhero comics, but by literary ones. Does that make me more of a nerd, or less of one?)

Along the way I started reading the above titles: Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan and Planetary; Garth Ennis's Preacher. But I never got to the end of them, 'cos they were multi-volume, epic stories which would've cost megabucks to buy and ship all the way to Singapore, and the National Library never managed to stock all of them either. (Methinks the high levels of violence may have turned them off. Kudos to them for having a graphic novel section at all, though.)

It was only when I was at UEA that I got round to stopping by the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library (which I first investigated because I wanted to borrow textbooks instead of buying them for classes). Turned out they had a wealth of graphic novels, ready on display on the first floor, which was the only bit of the library that was open on Sundays.

So I started finishing the epics. Fantastic stuff. Didn't pick up any new series while I was there, sadly. Old dogs, new tricks?

One reason I'm bringing this up is that I'm frankly a little ashamed of the fact that I'm not including graphic novels and comics on this reading journey. I'm not sure how it happened. Perhaps it's because comics as we know them aren't really a universal art form - though I did grow up with Old Master Q / 老夫子 comics in my mum's hair salons, and my childhood and adulthood love of Lat's Kampung Boy is so profound that I listed it as THE Malaysian text to read in my Read the World Proportionally list.

I suppose my limitation is because there's no nation (not even Malaysia) that regards a comic as its greatest literary achievement, and most comics are fairly easy to digest anyway. There isn't the same kind of intellectual heft in reading Maison Ikkoku as there is in reading War and Peace (which I'll be getting to,  soon).

I do try to keep up with the non-Western graphic novel form, though, at least with regards to how it's developing in my neck of the woods. I've bought every one of the Liquid City anthologies of Southeast Asian comic artists, for instance:

And I freaking love Troy Chin's The Resident Tourist:

Otherwise, alas, I'm mostly following nerdy American webcomics. But if there's other international graphic novelists you wanna point me towards, I'm all ears. :)