Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SINI SANA Travels in Malaysia


THE DIVERSE CULTURES of Malaysia invite travellers both local and foreign to marvel at towering cityscapes where modernity dazzles with luxury or go through old trunk roads surrounded by oil-palm plantations to get to breathtaking mountains, caves, beaches and the tropical rainforests. And, of course, every traveller is amazed by the food that can be exotic or a fusion of everything you know!

Perhaps during a jungle trek, you stumbled upon an enchanting place, or had a non-fatal encounter with wild animals. Maybe you once spent an afternoon befriending villagers who had never met an urbanite off the beaten track before. If you were a journalist invited on a ‘famtrip,’ did you encounter something outside the usual itinerary of visiting the most popular marketplaces, skyscrapers and restaurants? You might have enjoyed the tranquillity of a hideaway before it was discovered and destroyed in the name of progress and development. Here is a chance for you to recapture those moments.

MPH GROUP PUBLISHING is looking for true travellers’ tales, preferably (yes, preferably) on places outside the tourist hubs of Malaysia. Stories should be in the form of travelogues with rich, firsthand descriptions of sights and sounds and smells and even tastes. We want engaging stories that will move us to visit the places for ourselves and also to understand why we should preserve the beauty of such places. This is not a travel guide; we do not want to know just where to visit and how to get there. We do not want prose that read like they were written for the Malaysian Tourist Board brochure. We do not want photographs; the words in the story should be more than enough to capture all the wonders and splendours. We want the literariness in travel writing; we want the poetry of travel. Tentatively titled Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia, we aim to publish the anthology in 2011, hopefully, depending on the number and quality of submissions we receive.

Travel stories must be original, nonfiction, between 3,000 and 5,000 words, must not have been previously published and must be in the English language. We invite submissions from both emerging and established writers. Manuscripts must be edited, typed double-spaced with a 12-point font and emailed to Please include your name, address, telephone number and email address. You may submit as many pieces as you wish. Faxed or handwritten submissions will not be entertained and manuscripts will not be returned. We will contact you only if your piece has been chosen for inclusion in the collection. Writers whose submissions are selected will be expected to work with the editor to polish their stories.

Deadline: January 31, 2010
Payment: A small flat fee and two copies of the published collection

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


REYNA GRANDE went to the US at age nine to join her parents, who had left her behind in Mexico for several years. She went on to become the first person in her family to obtain a higher education. She attended Pasadena City College for two years before transferring to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she received her BA in Creative Writing and Film & Video in 1999. She also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains (published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in 2006), received the El Premio Aztlan Literary Award in 2006 and an American Book Award in 2007. Across a Hundred Mountains has been made required reading at various high schools and colleges across the US. Her new novel, Dancing with Butterflies, will be published by Washington Square Books/Simon & Schuster on October 6, 2009. Grande, who lives in Los Angeles, California, is currently working on a memoir.

Tell me something about yourself.
I’m left-handed and damn proud of it.

Where were you born and raised?
Iguala Guerrero, Mexico.

What was it like growing up in Mexico?
Terrible. My siblings and I were always hungry, running around barefoot, dressed in rags, our hair home to lice and our stomach home to tapeworm. Both our parents were in the US and we had no idea if they would ever come back.

Where do you live now and what is it like?
I live in Los Angeles, California. Not enough trees, way too many cars.

Now that you live in the US, what do you miss most about Mexico?
I miss the simplicity of life in Mexico. People there know how NOT to waste (food, money, clothes, water, etc.). They recycle, re-use, and everything else because they can’t afford not to. Here in the US, people spend beyond their means. We don’t know how to live more in tune with the environment and protect it.

In your opinion, what’s the American Dream?
For immigrants, it’s having what you couldn’t have in your own country.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?
When I read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street.

Was writing something you had always set your heart on?
No, I didn’t really think of being a writer. I wanted to be a painter, but then I met a teacher at my city college who convinced me I had more talent as a writer.

When you decided that you wanted to be a writer, did you imagine what a writer’s life would be like?
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought being a writer was that—writing. But it is being your own secretary, your own distributor, your own publicist, everything. Writing a book is only the beginning of a long journey.

What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer now?
I love being part of something great—Chicano/Latino literature. I love my relationships with other Latina authors and being one of them. I love the fact that if I were to die today, my children would always have a way to reach me—via my novels. I love putting my imagination to use. I love the act of creation.

Could you describe your writing process?
I write when I’m inspired. When I’m inspired I can write day and night.

What part of the process do you enjoy most as a writer?
I love the act of writing. To see a character emerge. To weave beautiful words together.

Was it difficult getting your first work, Across a Hundred Mountains, published?
Yes and no. Some writers can spend years trying. It took me about four months. But during the process I had several rejections because publishers were looking for the next hottest Chica Lit novel. I don’t write chick-lit and they wanted me to change my novel so that it fit that genre.

Did you experience much difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
I found my agent very quickly. I was lucky.

Could you tell me a bit about Dancing with Butterflies? What was the seed of the novel?
The seed of the novel was the semester I spent dancing for Grupo Folklorico Los Mejicas at University of California, Santa Cruz. I absolutely loved Folklorico. Due to the lack of time I wasn’t able to devote myself to becoming a good dancer, but I always wished I was in a group. So I decided to write about a Folklorico group and its members.

How did you go about researching Dancing with Butterflies?
I interviewed Jose Vences, artistic director of Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company. I also read two self-published books about the history of Folklorico. There was nothing at the public library about this subject, so it wasn’t easy to research, but I managed.

Do you know where you are going with a novel as you write or does it evolve on its own volition?
My novels emerge one scene at a time. I never know where it is going. I just follow my instincts and somehow I end up where I’m supposed to!

How do you know when your manuscript is completed?
I never feel my manuscript is completed. My editor has to yank it out of my hands. There is always another scene that can be worked on, another character that needs more development, etc. With Dancing with Butterflies I started getting carpal tunnel and that made me give up the novel to my editor, otherwise I would have asked for an extension!

What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing both your novels?
I learned that I am now officially a real writer. The first book could have just been a fluke. But now I have proven that I can indeed write another book that is just as good as (or better than) the first one.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
In middle school I read a lot of fairy tales because they were easy to read (I was learning English at the time). Then I read Sweet Valley High, and thrillers written by Christopher Pike. Then I fell in love with V.C. Andrews and Stephen King. In high school I read a lot of romance novels. But it wasn’t until college that I was exposed to Latino literature.

Who are some of your literary heroes, so to speak? Have they in any way contributed to the making of who you are as a writer today?
My heroes are Latina writers such as Sandra Cisneros and Helena Maria Viramontes. They have worked hard to be where they are now. In some ways they made it easier for me to get published. So I feel I have to live up to the expectations they have set with the quality of their work.

Who are some of your favourite contemporary novelists? What are some of your favourite contemporary novels? Do you have an all-time favourite novel?
Here are some of my favourite books: Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kim Barnes’s A Country Called Home and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

Could you suggest a couple of novels that you think haven’t got as much attention as they should?
Yes, 99 per cent of Latino novels.

What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre? What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading different stuff. I am a judge for a literary award so I got a box of 96 books to read. I like some, some I don’t. I’m just trying to get through the box at the moment, but I enjoy reading so that’s what counts.

Who are some of your favourite Mexican authors?
I really don’t like saying I have favourite authors because sometimes I might just like one book they’ve written but not all of them.

Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I think writing classes are useful, but sometimes when you are non-white or writing something not “mainstream” it is hard to get a lot of support in classes. For example, most of the time I was the only Latina in my writing classes at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and my teachers and the students didn’t “get” what I was writing about. So that could be hard to deal with. Another thing that would help is editors having higher expectations of their authors, and authors having higher expectations of their own work. I’ve been asked to blurb (endorse) books that aren’t ready to be published and I don’t know why editors didn’t ask their authors to keep working on them until they were ready. Art shouldn’t be rushed.

In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novel from the merely good?
This is a hard question. I’m not the fiction police! I think it is just a matter of making everything work the way it should work.

Tell me about your efforts at bringing literature to and promoting reading in US schools.
I have travelled up and down the country to talk to students about the importance of reading and pursuing a higher education. Maybe if the money ever starts coming in, I could set up scholarships and such—I would love that! For now, I am limited to just being a cheerleader for literature.

Monday, September 28, 2009

2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist

THE 2009 SOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE longlist was announced on September 21, 2009. The jury selected 12 titles out of some 96 titles submitted by 39 publishers from all over Canada. American novelist and short-story writer Russell Banks, British biographer Victoria Glendinning and Canadian novelist and short-story writer Alistair MacLeod made up the 2009 jury.

This is what the judges thought about the longlist: “Though they vary stylistically and structurally and connect with and extend a range of novelistic traditions, every one of these twelve books is an excellent, beautifully crafted work of fiction with a cast of vividly realised, memorable characters. We were particularly impressed by the authors’ broad and deep visions of society and their profound affection for humanity and the natural world. Equally impressive is their imaginative engagement with history, from that of ancient Greece to yesterday’s breaking news, and even in a few cases, to the history of a dystopian future.”

The judges have longlisted the following novels for this year’s prize:

1. The Year of the Flood (McClelland & Stewart, 2009) / Margaret Atwood
2. The Incident Report (Pedlar Press, 2009) / Martha Baillie
3. The Disappeared (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada, 2009) / Kim Echlin
4. The Heart Specialist (Cormorant Books, 2009) / Claire Holden Rothman
5. The Color of Lightning (HarperCollins Publishers, 2009) / Paulette Jiles
6. The Factory Voice (Coteau Books, 2009) / Jeanette Lynes
7. The Golden Mean (Random House Canada, 2009) / Annabel Lyon
8. The Bishop’s Man (Random House Canada, 2009) / Linden MacIntyre
9. Fall (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada, 2009) / Colin McAdam
10. The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart, 2009) / Anne Michaels
11. Valmiki’s Daughter (House of Anansi Press, 2009) / Shani Mootoo
12. The Mistress of Nothing (McArthur & Company, 2009) / Kate Pullinger

Female authors, led by Margaret Atwood, Paulette Jiles and Anne Michaels, dominate the longlist this year. There are only two male authors: Linden MacIntyre and Colin McAdam. There are two début novelists: Jeanette Lynes and Annabel Lyon. Surprisingly, Michael Crummey’s Galore and Lori Lansens’s The Wife’s Tale were not longlisted!

A shortlist of five will be announced in Toronto, Ontario, on October 6, 2009.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


2008 Man Asian Literary Prize-winner MIGUEL SYJUCO talks to ERIC FORBES about his unconventional début novel which begins as a murder mystery and evolves into a meditation on Philippine history and society

MIGUEL SYJUCO (pronounced as ‘see-hoo-co’) was born in Manila in 1976, and has lived in New York, Paris and Adelaide. In 2008, the manuscript of his début novel, Ilustrado, won the US$10,000 Man Asian Literary Prize and was awarded the Grand Prize at the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, a significant literary award in the Philippines. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

Tell me something about yourself. What do you work as? Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Manila and lived most of my life there, but I ran away to become a writer. My father is a politician, and it was hoped that I would follow in his footsteps, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stomach the compromises or hypocrisies necessary to succeed in politics there. I’ve always hoped my role was as a writer, as an interpreter of different truths. And I’ve lived my life to be able to pursue that goal, residing in New York, Adelaide and Montreal, and working some very odd jobs (bartender, Ebay powerseller of overrun ladies’ handbags, assistant to a bookie, medical guinea pig, door bitch). Thankfully, I didn’t have to do those jobs for too many years, and I was able to make some sort of life as a freelance writer, journalist and copy editor. Now, I’m very pleased that I can focus on my fiction full time, and I quit my job at the Montreal Gazette in February 2008 so that I could focus on writing full time.

What was it like growing up in the Philippines? Where do you live now? Which is/are your favourite place/s and why? What is it like living in Montreal?
I found living in the Philippines to be very confusing. I think that we as a people are constantly beset by collective puzzlement, because the country’s problems are so complex, the solutions so elusive, and the morality so skewed. If one grows up comfortable, as I was fortunate to, you see friends and classmates (and yourself) engaged in daily justifications and rationalisations for why we’re not doing more than we’re doing. All too often the attitude is: things are the way they are, and we can’t do much to change them. And yet, we can’t leave our houses and drive down the street without seeing beggars, street children, environmental rape, and the guarded and gleaming convoys of the rich and powerful parting traffic on their way to congress, or the golf club, or the mall, or home. So we scratch our heads and wonder: this is our reality that cannot be changed? It’s so heinous that we can’t fathom it as a constant, and yet progress is so slow, and two steps forward are usually met with three steps back. So growing up in Manila is complicated—and frustrating. (Metro Manila traffic is the perfect metaphor.) On the other hand, you see a country that is so naturally paradisiacal and bountiful, and you meet a people who are friendly, smart, hardworking, who love to sing and dance, who have learned how to cope in a society that wears on them every day. So frustration lives alongside hope, anger stands beside joy, and good and bad are blurred out by the realities of trying to survive. I now live and write in Montreal, which is a wonderful city, because it is a place where I can make a living as a writer, and I can also be free to write what I like. But I constantly wonder if I should be returning home to do more. I do want to be an international writer, or a post-nationalist writer, because I believe more in the potentialities of a general humanity than I do in the limitations of nationalism, and therefore I like just selling everything I own to wash up in an entirely foreign city. Every city I’ve lived in has been a favourite of mine, especially in retrospect. Nostalgia is a very powerful force.

When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
In college, I flunked out of my economics major. I didn’t know what new major to pursue, but I knew I liked reading and couldn’t do maths, so I chose English literature. It was then that I started writing short stories and very bad poetry. After I graduated, during the dot-com boom, I started a city guide and lifestyle website with some classmates. As the editor, I had to teach myself how to be a reporter and reviewer, and my only teachers were newspapers, books and magazines. That was a great experience: I learned with the rigorous trial and error of the self-taught; and I also started the very intimate relationship I have with Manila as a city, and also changed the way I engage with any of the cities I find myself in. I left Manila in 2001 to do a master’s degree in creative writing at Columbia University. Aside from the odd jobs I did, I also interned in the fiction department of The New Yorker, worked as a research assistant at Esquire, and served as a fiction reader for The Paris Review. In 2005, sick of hustling, I went with my girlfriend to start a life in Australia. There, I worked as a reporter, copy editor and then online editor at The Independent Weekly newspaper in Adelaide. That was one of the best working experiences I’ve had. We were an upstart start-up trying to fight the good fight in what had been a one-newspaper town, whose daily rag was The Advertiser, Rupert Murdoch’s home paper. During my stay in Adelaide, I was given a full scholarship to do my PhD in English literature, with a focus on creative writing, and I jumped on that chance. It would allow me to write full time. So I quit my jobs and put all my eggs in one basket, and started writing Ilustrado.

What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer? What do you fear most as a writer?
There are many things I enjoy about my life as a writer. Like any life, it’s filled with profundities and superficialities: I love never, ever having to wake up to the shriek of an alarm clock ever again; I love the fact that the constant reading of good books is a required exercise for the betterment of my craft; I love being able to take a week off whenever I want, while I’m ostensibly “thinking,” and that the act of living is research for what I will one day write. More than anything, I love being able to see how things connect and work out, and seeing my skills grow before my eyes. But like anything, there’s the flip side—I wake up and have to have a tremendous amount of discipline to work and not just watch TV or think of titles for great works I dream of one day writing; I have a hard time reading books for pure enjoyment because I’m either reviewing them or unavoidably studying them for my craft; and I have to work long stretches—weekdays, holidays and weekends—to meet deadlines, or get bits of my work right. As a writer, I have many issues: Am I hamfisted? Am I relevant? Is my work worth reading? Have I lost touch with the world while I was at home sequestered at my desk? Am I pigeonholing myself into an ethnicity? Am I misguided in my experiments and theories about how my fiction works? Should I just quit and do something else? I write to better understand myself and my place in the world, and my writing is an articulation of what I’m working through. Those can’t help but be very private thoughts and ideas, but we write and publish because we have faith that what we’re writing has some value worth sharing. But there’s always that fear that I’m wrong, that I’m just like that guy at a party who is drunk and coked up and insists on telling everyone his great ideas. The search for self-knowledge can’t help but come with self-doubt. The quest for constant improvement can’t help but include growing pains.

What was it like winning the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize? How scary was it when the literary world turned its attention on you and your novel?
Winning the prize was an incredulous experience. It still is. I’m still stupefied that they gave me the prize because I was up against some very strong and seasoned competition: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Kaveri Nambisan, Yu Hua and Alfred A. Yuson. This is my first novel. I’ve never even tried to write a novel in my life, so I was shocked that anyone finished reading it, much less liked it. I spent years sending my stories to competitions, my novel excerpts to agents and publishers, but nobody bit. It was many years of constant return to the proverbial drawing board, to rethink, revise, redo my work. Winning the prize was also reassuring that perhaps my ideas of how fiction can work—how the novel can function differently from usual—weren’t entirely daft. It’s still a very scary thing to have the literary world looking at me and my work. I’ve been blessed with getting fantastic agents in the US and UK, and with amazing publishers. If anyone told me my novel would be published in 15 countries and 11 languages, I would have laughed so hard at them I’d have cried. But now I deal with the fear that I only have that because I won the prize, and not because the prize got the book into the hands of the right people who would appreciate it. Ultimately, the real test will be whether readers like it. If the book can make them think, feel and laugh, then I’m happy.

I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary heroes and influences?
I read everything I could get my hands on. The Hardy Boys series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and The Bible, were all wonderful works that had a profound effect on me when I was young. So did comics—Marvel, DC, and later the work of Neil Gaiman. Fantasy and sci-fi were my gateway drugs into the addictions of literature. In high school and college, I read a lot of American writers, because the Philippines always seems to be influenced by America. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, etc. Now, I’m interested in any good writing. Roberto Bolaño has been very important to me because I discovered him after I wrote Ilustrado and saw that here was someone also trying something unconventional and getting away with it. I love Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Sadly, I’m very Western-centric in my reading, though I’m changing that more and more.

What kinds of books do you read now? Any particular genre, and why?
Personally, I’m partial to imperfect books, because the good imperfect ones are the result of a writer who reached further than he or she was comfortable with. A sublime failure is more interesting to me than an easily perfect book. And those books doomed to fail because of their ambition are the books that I look for. More prosaically, I do read almost anything, and I try to finish even those I don’t like, out of respect. I host a weekly radio slot called The Biblio-File on CBC’s Radio Canada International where I discuss a book a week and I try to do two Canadian books and two international books a month. So now I’m discovering Canadian literature, which is wonderfully rich. As for genres, I read everything, but mostly fiction, because fiction is what I do. I’m trying to read romance novels and crime writing, because I know there are many things—like plot development, sustaining readers’ suspense, etc.—that I need to learn for my own craft. But I’m finding it hard because I learn from their structures but I can’t get past the uninspired writing. Though, I must admit, Patrick O’Brian’s work is like crack to me.

Could you suggest a couple of good reads that haven’t got as much attention as they deserve in the press? Which novel, in your opinion, should never ever be out of stock, and why?
That’s a tough question. I’m at the moment absolutely in love with the work of two Canadian literary writers: Joseph Boyden (Through Black Spruce, Three Day Road) and Colin McAdam (Fall, Some Great Thing). They are fantastic writers and I will read anything they come up with. They are getting good attention in Canada, but I think they are absolutely world class. My favourite novel, which I always come back to, is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It’s got everything—deep and shallow—to keep a pseudo-intellect like mine interested. But in terms of inspiration, I go to the books of Ryszard Kapuściński.

What is the current state of literature in the Philippines today?
The state of Philippine literature has always been complicated and therefore very interesting. We’ve had a very rich literary tradition, in English and in our native languages and dialects, but we’re not a country of readers. I believe to have a national literature, that literature has to be read. And it’s just not happening as much as it should be. You wouldn’t know it by going to a bookshop in Makati, though, because they are bustling, with people snatching up Harry Potter, The Alchemist and The Secret. But then the Filipiniana sections of bookshops are usually overlooked. If a Filipino writer publishes abroad, then usually that book will be displayed prominently in the bookshop, no matter how badly written it may be compared to those languishing in the section of local books. So Philippine literature is freighted with so many issues. We ask: why doesn’t the world read us? I think the honest answer is that not all that comes out is of a high quality, and those that are of a high quality don’t have access to the agents and publishers that can get the book out into the world. I think we Filipinos need to work together to help each other refine our work and to push that work to a global audience. But sometimes—not always—we suffer from a crab mentality, pulling each other down. I think the best way to answer your question is with this anecdote: I’ve been working on my novel for nearly four years now, and after it received attention I had many from the Philippine literati asking to see it, saying they wanted to help me edit and revise it so that we could have a good showing internationally. Naive as I am, I sent out my manuscript to about a dozen fellow writers. Either they hated it, or something else deeper is going on, because I haven’t received a single bit of help from any of my countrymen. As I revised it over the years, I’ve had Western editors, writing programme colleagues and literary friends go line by line, poring over my work through multiple versions. But not a single Filipino has helped me. And yet, they are so proud of the book having won the prize, and hope it will help shine a light on Philippine literature.

Who are some of your favourite Filipino authors—both contemporary and in the past?
My favourites have always been Carlos Bulosan, Bienvenido Santos, Nick Joaquin and Gregorio Brillantes. Of the more contemporary authors, there’s Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Antonio Hidalgo and Lourd de Veyra. One fantastic writer is Clinton Palanca, whose prose is probably the most beautiful in the country, though he is between books right now and I do hope he’ll be coming out with something new soon. Jose “Butch” Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, and he’s a wonderful stylist. And we can’t forget the Filipino-American writers, who are an integral part of our national literature as chroniclers of the Filipino experience. We have Jessica Hagedorn (Dogeaters), Han Ong (The Disinherited), Bino A. Realuyo (The Umbrella Country), and so many others. If we’re talking about poets, there are just too many to mention. We’re a culture of poets, though not enough people read poetry.

Was it difficult getting your first novel published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher? When will it be out?
I spent years querying agents while I worked on it. And the constant flow of rejection slips served to keep me rethinking my approach and goals. But the rejections also spurred me to try writing other things, because I figured a shotgun approach might get me somewhere. So I wrote a second novel, a short-story collection, and was halfway through a third novel when Ilustrado was picked up. All the while, I had a colleague from my Columbia writing programme, a brilliant writer named John C. Evans, helping me revise and develop almost every draft, and he both encouraged and guided me all throughout. I’m really lucky to have a friend like him, or I think I’d have given up a long time ago. Now, thankfully, people have deemed Ilustrado worthwhile. Luck has always been on my side, and I now also have a wonderful editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Eric Chinski, who is helping me revise the manuscript to completion. His guidance has been so valuable to me. It’s been kismet, in a way, as Eric believes in my work, plus his wife is Filipina! So it does seem like the stars have been aligned for me. Ilustrado will be out in late spring of 2010.

Could you tell me a bit about Ilustrado? What are some of the themes you deal with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
I’d much rather let my work stand for itself, but since people are curious and since the publication date is a year away, I’m happy to talk about it this time. I did indeed have a pretty solid idea of what I wanted to address when I started the book. Ilustrado starts out with the death of Crispin Salvador, a former lion of Philippine literature who is found dead in the Hudson River in New York. He had been living in exile, after his literary career rose then fell. Suicide is ruled as the cause of death. His young acolyte, Miguel, is suspicious, because missing from Salvador’s apartment is a long-awaited manuscript that was to have been an exposé of the corruption of the Philippine ruling elite. So Miguel returns to Manila to investigate, but discovers that the story is as much his as it is his mentor’s. That’s the summary of the book, but the murder-mystery construct allowed me to pull the reader in so that I could attempt a broader meditation on Philippine society. The book collects the fictional Salvador’s oeuvre, and I therefore created his work: excerpts of a memoir, short stories, poetry, interviews, jokes, notes, biography, etc. This allowed me to expand the novel’s scope to include Philippine history, without coming off as didactic (a problem with a lot of Philippine literature in English, which is often weighed down by self-conscious explanation to Western readers, or self-exoticisation to sell books to the West). Crispin’s work was itself weighed down by those problems, and therefore I was allowed to address and parody such issues. I was also able to go back in time, to touch on the Spanish settlers, to touch on the revolution of the late 1800s, the Spanish-American War, the American Occupation, World War II, the post-war communist threat, the Marcos regime, and the post-Marcos problems. Of course, as a début novelist, I had to work within restraints (few publishers would risk publishing a 400,000-word history of a far-flung country). I also had to keep in mind that I wanted to be read by both Filipinos and international readers. So I tried a light touch, sort of a teaser into Philippine history as a way to delve deep into current Philippine culture and show that the problems are recurring and endemic, just as the hope and the idealism is recurring and constant. I also had to include my own experiences a bit, too, since I’ve had my perspective of Philippine society, and also because my work is my own way of working out my own questions and understanding them myself. So what resulted (I hope) is a somewhat personal, but also universal, and also historical, story. The term “ilustrado” refers to a group of young Filipinos in the late 1800s who left their country and studied abroad, leaning all they could to later return to the Philippines and contribute to our revolution against the Spanish colonisers. In my book, I tried to expand the idea of an “ilustrado” to include every Filipino abroad now who has the potential to contribute to a new social revolution for our troubled home. In a sense, the book is a call to remembering that we are Filipinos, no matter how long we’ve lived abroad, and that hope is not dead even if the country’s problems all seem so hopeless. The literal translation of “ilustrado” is “enlightened.” The enlightened Filipinos can be the nurse, the student, the maid, the construction worker, the whore, the diplomat, the professional, as long as we don’t forget who we are. As long as we don’t pull up our roots, or bury them with indifference.

How would you describe your second novel which you are still working on? How different is it from your first, Ilustrado?
My second novel, “I Was the President’s Mistress” is the biography of the Philippine starlet Vita Nova, as told to her ghostwriter Miguel Syjuco. It is a collection of her interviews as she talks about her rise from a very simple country girl as she slept her way through Philippine society to ultimately become the mistress of the president. It has already been sold to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton, and I’m really looking forward to working on it with them.

I read in an interview that you write short stories. Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
I do indeed write short stories, but I’ve come to prefer the novel form. My favourite short-story writers are Cheever, Borges, Updike and Bolaño. I recently finished The Boat, by the wonderful writer Nam Le, and was blown away by how good it is. The book works on so many levels and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Do you think short stories are gaining more popularity? Publishers find story collections a hard sell. Do you think it is harder to publish story collections than novels? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
I think that compared to novels, short stories are much easier to write in the creative writing workshop setting. Therefore we have so many writers now writing them. I can’t help but think that will lead to higher-quality writers, and I’d like to have faith that readers will therefore read more short stories. I’m told that publishers have a hard time selling story collections, and that agents therefore discourage their clients or potential clients from writing them. But it makes sense to me that because of the proliferation of creative writing programs, there will be a proliferation of story writers, stories written, and story readers. What can we do to make people read more short stories? I don’t know. One of the reasons I’ve grown a bit cold on short-story collections is because many of them are so conventional—they deal with the microcosm of domestic drama, or offer a slice of life of some sort of ethnic experience, or simply chart the same sort of narrative trajectory we’ve seen all too many times. I don’t know why short stories can’t reach for more. I certainly think they can and should. That being said, I try with my own short stories, but they don’t turn out very good. Yet.

Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
Yes, there is of course a huge difference. Novels give you far more space to develop your story and its characters. You can go off on digressions, develop ideas, and simply take your time. I much prefer the novel form, perhaps because I don’t have maybe either the skill or the discipline to pull off short stories.

Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I think that anything that gets people reading more and writing more will increase the number of good writers and good writing. Perhaps this is even more important now because it may offset the fact that people are reading newspapers far less, and those newspapers they are reading have become so abbreviated and anaemic they now only convey news. I don’t believe you can teach someone how to write, and that’s a good thing, because it proves that writing is still an art and craft. But you can indeed teach people the skills they need to learn how to work their material into something formidable. I enjoyed my creative writing programs, because they gave me a community of people as lost and as dreamy and as ambitious and as curious as I was. Much of writing is very solitary, though creative writing programs show new writers that it doesn’t always have to be completely lonesome, and that it can be collaborative in many ways. They are also good training grounds for teaching us not to be precious with our work, to have thick skin, to value editing and revision, and to treat writing like a job and not something contingent on inspiration.

What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is a training ground for novelists?
Like I said, writing anything will prepare you for writing other things. Short stories are good training for novels, but I also think that journalism is equally, if not more, important. At least to me it was. I hope to be able to try my hand at scriptwriting one day, because I’m sure it will also teach me new skills for my novels, my short stories, my journalism, and my life.

In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
There are so many links to that chain. For fiction to be more than mere entertainment, it needs to have some weight to it. For it to have weight, it needs to tackle important quiddities. For it to approach quiddities, it has to have its grievances, because a world with grievances is just reality. But for it to be good and be read, it needs to be carefully written and beautiful and entertaining. To me, it needs to be all those things. The best fiction teeters on the fine line between being too simple and being too obscure—it has to challenge the readers, but it also has to reward them. And to understand that relationship with the reader, the writer needs to be engaged with the world. When I read a book, I think of the work of Ryszard Kapuściński, whom I mentioned earlier. I once read an interview he had with Bill Buford. Kapuściński was asked about his work and he replied: “Ah, you have just touched upon an important point in my thinking. Twenty years ago, I was in Africa, and this is what I saw: I went from revolution to coup d’ètat, from one war to another; I witnessed, in effect, history in the making, real history, contemporary history, our history. But I was also surprised: I never saw a writer. I never met a poet or a philosopher—even a sociologist. Where were they? Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere? Then I would return to Europe and I would find them. They would be at home, writing their little domestic stories: the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage, the divorce—in short, the same story we’ve been reading over and over again for a thousand years.” I’ve been lucky that I had the palette of Philippine experience to paint from. But once my two books on the Philippines are done, then I’ve got to get out there and follow Kapuściński’s path. Against the standard work like his has set is how I’ve developed my idea of what makes good fiction good.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am revising Ilustrado for the last half-dozen times before the end of July 2009. The finish line is in sight, and I hope I’ve run with all my heart. At the very least, I think I’ve grown as a writer, which is all I can really ever ask for.

What do you look forward to experiencing at the Singapore Writers Festival in October 2009?
I’m really looking forward to learning more about my fellow writers and their work. I am ashamed that I am not as Asian-centric as I ought to be, and I hope that the Singapore Writers Festival in October 2009 will be another important step towards remedying that tilt. Alas, the Philippines has historically had an affinity with the United States, our former colonisers, and because I later studied in New York and am now living in Montreal, I tend to miss out on a lot of the exciting literary happenings in Asia. I’ll be attending the festival not only as a writer, but as a voracious reader as well, so I’ll be able to see both sides of what the festival is famous for doing so well. Also, I can’t wait to have a Singapore Sling at the world-famous Raffles Hotel, and eat a lot of stingray. I know I’ll leave Singapore several kilos heavier, with my notebook filled with ideas, and lugging overweight luggage brimming with books from the writers I’ll meet there. That sounds to me like the definition of a successful festival!

Ilustrado will be published in late spring 2010 in Canada by Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton, in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (April 27, 2010), in the UK by Picador, in Australia and New Zealand by Random House, and in the Philippines by the University of Philippines Press

The interview was conducted in June and July 2009 in conjunction with Miguel Syjuco’s appearance at the Singapore Writers Festival on October 24 to November 1, 2009

Saturday, September 26, 2009

NEW from MPH Publishing

Eight Jewels of the Phoenix (2009)
By Tutu Dutta-Yean

Eight Jewels of the Phoenix brings together eight legends and folk tales from the countries around the Asia-Pacific Rim. The tales in this collection are cultural icons, retold and reinterpreted in many forms through the ages. Just like the Phoenix, they are fierce, full of colour, magic and adventure, celebrating the richness and diversity of the cultures of Asia. For those unfamiliar with these cultures, the book will be a journey of discovery. Readers will find universal themes: the reversal of fortune, quest for love—possible and impossible, sacrifice for the greater good and even the charming story of a Malay Cinderella. The Phoenix sometimes makes an appearance in these stories in various guises. The cultures covered in this book include China, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, North America and Thailand. The author’s black-and-white illustrations bring a fresh perspective to the stories. These are timeless tales that will appeal to both young and old alike.

OCTOBER 2009 / 144pp / Softcover / 9789675222320

Eight Fortunes of the Qilin (2009)
By Tutu Dutta-Yean

Eight Fortunes of the Qilin brings together eight legends and folk tales from countries around the Asia-Pacific Rim. Each story in the collection is rooted in the culture of its people. It is also a window to the past as some of these cultures may no longer exist or are undergoing rapid transformation. As the fabled Qilin represents compassion, wisdom and respect for nature and life, these qualities are echoed in the stories. Nature, whether in the form of a mighty river, a little cricket or snail, plays a prominent role in these enthralling tales. It is also the thread that binds all these elements together. Humans, spirits and deities cross paths, and unseen worlds collide. The countries brought to life in this collection include Borneo, Central America, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Philippines and Vietnam. Accompanying the rich tales are black-and-white illustrations by the author to bring a fresh perspective to the stories. These are timeless tales that will appeal to both young and old alike.

OCTOBER 2009 / 128pp / Softcover / 9789675222313

Tropical Affairs (2009)
By Robert Raymer

Robert Raymer has had the pleasure of chasing after a madwoman who stuffed his letter down her blouse, being trapped by a monitor lizard inside his own house, and being frisked by three men wearing pincushions. He’s had close encounters with several Emmy- and Oscar-winning directors and actresses, including Bruce Beresford, John Boorman, Glenn Close, Catherine Deneuve, and Jodie Foster. He’s been arm-twisted into playing Santa Claus, misled on a night hike, and stood up on Valentine’s Day! He’s held a live crocodile in his arms and survived two operations with two of his babies (who naturally got all the attention). He’s been an extra in five movie scenes, written four books, fathered three boys, taught at two universities, and has, on more than one occasion, been completely out of luck! In Tropical Affairs, a collection of creative nonfiction, the author gives a lush, multi-layered rendition of the Malaysian way of life, colored and influenced by his experiences living in Malaysia for over 20 years.

NOVEMBER 2009 / 320pp / Softcover / 9789675222375

Never Been Better (2009)
By O Thiam Chin

In this new collection of stories, O Thiam Chin has created a series of unforgettable, deeply-affecting portraits of individuals whose intersections of loves and losses mark the dawn of awareness and longing in their lives. Never Been Better illustrates his literary versatility in his assortment of characters who occupy a world of ambivalence and false optimism, yet still persist in trudging on with strength and resilience. From free-spirited teenage runaways and a lonely child who collects dead animals to hidden family secrets and migrant workers who live squalid lives far away from home, these eclectic stories are heartbreaking, haunting and rendered with a touch of grace, compassion and poignancy.

DECEMBER 2009 / 284pp / Softcover / 9789675222467

Logomania (2009)
By Ellen Whyte

Ever wondered what a pyrrhic victory is? Been curious if there is a connection between real white elephants and expensive properties that don’t make money? Can’t figure out what a banshee is and why it screams? If you’ve always wanted to know where your favourite expressions come from or are flummoxed by those you haven’t heard of before, this book is for you. ‘Logomania,’ which means ‘being crazy about words,’ is derived from the Greek roots, log, meaning ‘word,’ and mainesthai, meaning ‘mad.’ It’s a made-up word, so it’s not in the dictionary yet! Logomania delves into the meaning and history of over 400 English phrases from ‘a babe in the woods’ to ‘you reap what you sow.’ Arranged by chapters so you can check out phrases linked by common imagery, and indexed so you can find the phrase you want quickly, this little reference is chock-full of information. Each entry also comes with an example so you can see how the expression is used.

JANUARY 2010 / 328pp / Softcover / 9789675222474

Friday, September 25, 2009

2009 Nobel Prize for Literature

THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE has come a long way since French poet Sully Prudhomme was awarded the inaugural prize in 1901. Albert Camus won it at the age of 43 in 1957. French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008. British playwright Harold Pinter won the prize in 2005, the first Briton to win the literature award since V.S. Naipaul won it in 2001, while Orhan Pamuk was awarded the prize in 2006 for his contribution to World Literature with a consistent body of work, both fiction and nonfiction, the first ever Turkish writer to win the prize. And Günter Grass and Derek Walcott got theirs in 1999 and 1992 respectively. J.M. Coetzee got his in 2003.

Despite what we may think, the Nobel Prize is still considered by many to be the highest accolade for writers.

So who will it be for 2009? A couple of candidates easily come to mind: Adonis, Chinua Achebe, Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Yves Bonnefoy, Peter Carey, Don DeLillo, Assia Djebar, E.L. Doctorow, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Luis Goytisolo (or is Juan Goytisolo?), Peter Handke, F. Sionil Jose, Ismail Kadare, Milan Kundera, Claudio Magris, David Malouf, Javier Marías, Harry Mulisch, Herta Müller, Alice Munro, Les Murray, Michael Ondaatje, Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Antonio Tabucchi, Tomas Transtromer, Michel Tournier, Barry Unsworth, Mario Vargas Llosa and A.B. Yehoshua. Paul Auster, A.S. Byatt, Anita Desai, Richard Ford, Mary Gordon, Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon and William Trevor are also worthy choices. Who else should be shortlisted?

The Swedish Academy will announce the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. The Monsters of Templeton (Windmill Books, 2009; first published in 2008 in the US by Hyperion Books and in the UK by William Heinemann) / Lauren Groff
2. How to Paint a Dead Man (HarperCollins USA, 2009) / Sarah Hall
3. The Vagrants (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, 2009) / Yiyun Li
4. Sunset Oasis (trans. from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies) (Sceptre, 2009) / Bahaa Taher

1. No god but God (Random House, 2005) / Reza Aslan
2. Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) / Pico Iyer
3. Giving Up the Ghost (Picador USA, 2004; first published in 2003 in the UK by Fourth Estate) / Hilary Mantel