Last night, Janet and I took a bus to the gorgeous National Library
on Victoria Street for the Singapore book launch of Tash Aw
's new novel Map of the Invisible World
(my capsule review
). The event was on the restricted top floor, level 16, dubbed "The Pod" as it faintly resembles a science-fictional escape pod, with the feeling of an observation deck, almost 360 degrees of windows that allowed an extraordinary view of downtown Singapore and beyond. It was a beautiful space. I'd heard Aw speak at the previous Singapore Writers Festival
in 2007, and was impressed by what he had to say; hopefully, this event would be equally as interesting and enlightening.
And it was. Aw was asked questions about the subject matter of Map of the Invisible World
and the difficulty of writing about Indonesia in the 1960s, a period before he was born in a place where he did not live. His answers were articulate and intelligent, and amounted to meticulous and diligent research to get the facts right, although the politics and factual events were not the focus of the novel. Rather, it was the characters that he was most interested in, and making sure that the authenticity of the setting served to make them fully realized. This certainly comes through in the book itself, which feels much more like a character study than any kind of political plot-driven text.
Zariena Solleh of Horizon Books
was Aw's interlocutor and did an excellent job of mixing her questions about the book itself and his writing process, as well as dealing with the success of his first novel The Harmony Silk Factory
. His answers revealed a diligent work ethic (Aw writes full time) and an insecurity that not only would his second book not match up to his first, but that it would not match up to his own sense of artistic quality. He also talked about the way that books are marketed by US and UK publishers to Asia (either expensive hardcovers or cheap-ass mass-market paperbacks that tend not to last), and of his insistence on having affordable but good-quality books distributed in the region; this led to the Indian arm of HarperCollins publishing a hardcover edition especially for an Asian audience, and also a nice trade paperback edition for Singapore. This was an experiment, he admitted, and one that his publishers likely would not have embarked on had not his first novel done so well.
Thoughtful answers all. He also answered some questions from the audience, and then afterward signed books and chatted with the folks in attendance. As he signed my copy, I asked about the paperback edition with "For Sale in Singapore Only" on the back, wondering whether this was a special edition that had been censored in some way (although after reading the book, I couldn't see how this could possibly be the case, unless offending passages had been completely elided), but he insisted that the content of this edition was identical to the hardcover edition in the UK, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. At my remark that the statement on the back of the book limited HarperCollins' ability to also sell this edition in other parts of the world (the Australian edition is also in paperback, but I'm not aware of such a statement), Aw just shrugged his shoulders and said he wasn't sure why they'd done this, that they had very specific plans for each edition of Map of the Invisible World
Throughout the whole evening, Tash Aw was both self-effacing and humble, and though he thoughtfully answered all the questions asked of him, he never claimed to have all the answers (such as to "Must an author leave his or her home country in order to effectively write about it?"). He was gracious with his time, and made sure to thank both Horizon Books and the National Book Development Council of Singapore
for hosting the event; he also made a point of thanking the members of the audience for attending, especially on a Monday evening, and talked with everyone who lined up to get their copies signed. A wonderful literary evening, and it made me long for the readings, talks, panels, and other events that Janet and I went to almost every other weekend in the Triangle area while we still lived in Raleigh.
Another recent literary event, held a little over a week before, was quite a different experience. Again hosted by the Book Council, and held at the Arts House in the old parliament building, was a meet-the-author event with Wena Poon
as part of the Singapore Book Club; she was there to discuss her collection Lions in Winter
(my capsule review
) and the process from an random assemblage of short stories to a complete book. Her interlocutor was Sharon Bakar, who maintains the fantastic blog Bibliobibuli
. The event was held in the Play Den at the Arts House, a black-box theatre more suited to small theatrical productions, with seats far in the back and on either side; not exactly conducive to a literary event, but I was withholding judgment.
Rather than a discussion of Poon's collection and her artistic process, the evening started with a 45-minute lecture by Poon on what Singaporean writers were doing wrong in the global literary marketplace. She briefly talked about how she had started publishing, selling stories to regional anthologies, including the (sadly defunct) Silverfish
series; these caught the attention of Sharon Bakar, who contacted her acquaintances at MPH Publishing
, which led to the offer of a collection of Poon's stories. This explanation took about five minutes. The rest of the 40 minutes were taken up with what Singaporeans need to do to make their books more available to the English-speaking world. Much of this focused on the business of writing, and the monetisation of craft, and taking advantage of technologies like print-on-demand and worldwide distributors like Amazon, rather than on improving the quality of Singaporean fiction-writing (which, imho, feels stunted and hesitant to take risks).
Frankly, this was not why I was there. The fact that this event was part of the Singapore Book Club led to me to believe, perhaps naïvely, that it would focus on the stories themselves, which deal with alienation, dislocation, and expatriation, all of which I have a personal interest in as someone who now lives in a country not of his birth. I was under the impression that members of the audience would also be discussing the masterful stories in Lions in Winter
, the techniques that Poon used to achieve certain effects, the sadness and isolation and also the joys of discovery that can come with adjusting to a new country and culture, the ways that each story adds to the thematic whole that makes up the entire collection. Instead, what we got was, basically, a business lecture reducing the artistic process down to units sold and product moved.
Now, I'm not jejune enough to think that publishing is indeed not a business. I know this fact full well, as a writer and as a publisher. But much of the proseletysing being done by Poon is available at any number of websites devoted to writing reference, as well as entire bookstore shelves full of titles aimed at beginning writers. It's possible that she assumed the event was for hopeful n00bs, as both the content of her lecture and her attitude (which bordered on arrogance and condescension) were represented in this way. This is not to say that her presentation had no validity; she indeed made good points about the dissemination of Singaporean literature in the wider world and the insularity of the literary community here. But she did it in a way that suggested she had all the answers, if only people would smarten up and heed her words. She also had to keep justifying her credentials, several times mentioning her stint at Harvard Law School and the award recognition that Lions in Winter
The event got much more interesting when the lecture was over and Sharon Bakar was able to ask more literary-related questions. Bakar's insight into the literature of the region (and especially in Malaysia, where she lives) allowed a broader context for which to frame the discussion. At this point they discussed more of the themes above that I was hoping to hear earlier. I can't speak for the other audience members, but I would have appreciated a truncated version of the lecture (10 minutes at most), and much more time spent in conversation, as the interview felt both crammed and rushed because of the time constraints.
After it was over, I asked Poon to sign my copy of Lions in Winter
, and she did so quickly, hurrying outside to sign more copies and talk to her friends who had come to the event. I introduced myself to Bakar, told her how much I enjoyed her blog and appreciated another ang moh
's presence in the ongoing discussion of Southeast Asian literature. She offered to bring me up to Kuala Lumpur sometime in the near future for Readings@Seksan’s, the reading series that she hosts periodically, which was incredibly nice of her. I also met R. Ramachandran, the executive director of the Book Council, and thanked him for all the work he does with NBDCS to keep alive the love of literature in Singapore.
So, an interesting comparison between the two literary events. Both authors have received international accolades for their writing, but they handled each event in very different ways. Both have worked as lawyers, both received their university education at prestigious institutions in the West, and both live as expatriates in their adopted countries. But you can probably tell from the above account which event I appreciated more.