Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Backpack and a Bit of Luck, by Zhang Su Li

SINCE SHE FLED IN TERROR from an earthworm on the workbench of her biology lab, Zhang Su Li has found herself at various crossroads in life. Her penchant for travelling and talking to strangers may have begun when, as a schoolgirl, she met an old British chap who was posted to Malaya and had lunch with him at his home. This pattern of meet, greet and eat would repeat itself at various junctures in her life.

Unemployment is not a bad thing when job searches lead her to quirky, often charming characters in a British pub and a gambling den. A flat tyre along a dark silent highway ends in a late-night tom yam and lessons on patience, humility and the kindness of strangers. She helps raid an ostrich nest at a farm for a monster-sized sunny side up. A throw of the dart sends her to Myanmar on a bumpy cross-country bus ride to a feast of salad, fried bugs and sago palm worms. And her story on her (mis)adventures as an apprentice Odissi dancer in India is worthy of its own staged epic.

Go on. Pick this up and find out what one phone call, a swing of the steering wheel, or a knock on the door can lead to. You might be surprised.

ZHANG SU LI was born in Ipoh, educated in the United Kingdom, and now lives in Kuala Lumpur. She is a freelance copywriter who spends half her day at work and the other half writing for causes she believes in, cooking, and taking walks in the jungle with her rescued dog Russell. A Backpack and a Bit of Luck is her first book.

JULY 2013 | NONFICTION TRAVEL | 5.15 x 7.75 | 300pp | ORIGINAL PAPERBACK | ISBN 978-967-415-866-8 | e-ISBN: 978-967-415-867-5

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Inspired by Immigration

JANET TAY speaks to Canadian author JUDY FONG BATES about the Chinese diaspora in Canada and growing up as an immigrant child caught between two worlds

JUDY FONG BATES is the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection, China Dog and Other Stories, and the novel, Midnight at the Dragon Café. Her family memoir, The Year of Finding Memory, was published in April 2010 by Random House of Canada. The Canadian author was in Kuala Lumpur in early 2012.

Judy Fong Bates, the author of Midnight at the Dragon Café
and China Dog and Other Stories, at Kinokuniya KLCC

Tell us a little about growing up in Canada, what kind of neighbourhood you lived in and what life was like for you and your family.
I grew up in a small town in southern Ontario. We have four seasons with winters that are cold and long. My family was very poor and my father operated a hand laundry. For my parents, life didn’t change that much from one day to the next, because all they did was work. I went to school and played with my friends. My childhood didn’t feel all that different from what other Canadian children were experiencing. School was the focus of my life. It is only in retrospect that I realise that it was different. My parents did not speak English, we ate different food, we were separated by language and culture. There was no Chinese community in the small town where we lived. We were only an hour’s drive from Chinatown in the big city, but because we were poor and didn’t have a car, it might as well have been a thousand. For the first few years, I was the only Chinese child and my mother was the only Chinese woman in town.

Is the experience of an immigrant child easier than that of adults, your parents, for example, as there would be more ways in which you could be integrated into Canadian culture and society through school?
Absolutely, no doubt about that. Just by virtue of going to school, I soaked up Western culture like a sponge. Being far away from the influence of a Chinese community, my cultural reference points became white. I never saw myself reflected in the community around me, and was thus never really validated. In trying so hard to fit in, I became completely westernized.

Is it important to retain that culture?
The answer is both yes and no. I would never want to turn my back on my Chinese roots. That culture is at the heart of who I am. My parents grew up in China. I, however, am a product of a different environment. I grew up in a Chinese home, in a small Canadian town, surrounded by white people. I am a reflection of that situation. I became a hybrid. I was unlike my parents and the people in my town. Like most children I had no say in where I lived. There is no point in apologising for being a product of one’s childhood.

Identity crises must have had a prominent place in your life growing up. Do you think it is an issue that affects most immigrants? Did you have other immigrant friends who experienced this? Is it something that stays with you even in adulthood?
I don’t think I had an identity crisis while growing up, at least not in the sense of a meltdown. If I was questioning my identity it was occurring on a subconscious level. I have always been an outsider, even within my own family. But that realisation came slowly, something that I came to understand as an adult. While I was growing up, I was so busy trying to fit in, that I don’t think that I spent much time, at least consciously, dwelling on the fact that I was living in two worlds. It was my given and I accepted it. I cannot speak for other immigrants. However, my hunch is that identity is something that most immigrants struggle with, some more than others.

Do you feel it now?
I have two half-brothers and a half-sister in Canada. We left behind in China a half-brother and a half-sister. The sibling closest to me is eight years older, so I grew up, in a sense, as an only child. I am the only one of my siblings who has been completely educated in English. We are separated by age, language, culture and education. When I moved to Toronto as a young adult, I felt, again, like an outsider. Even though there was a Chinese community in the city, I didn’t feel connected to it. But then again, I think most writers are outsiders. It’s where I find my voice.

You say that had you not been an immigrant, you would probably not write. The theme of immigration and diaspora does feature prominently in all your books. Is this also true of your first book, China Dog, a collection of stories?
Yes, stories that take place in Toronto, in a small town and about the Chinese community. Some of them are funny, some of them deal with cultural clashes. Conflicts in these stories have to do with cultural as well as generational differences. The older generations arrived as young adults, and the younger generation arrived as children or are born there. So they have different points of view.

Is it more difficult to write a memoir than fiction? Hemingway often talks about the importance of honesty and of course there’s his famous “one true sentence” quote. It can be hard to be honest with even yourself when you put pen to paper. Did you have this problem when writing your memoir, The Year of Finding Memory?
I think that because you are dealing with people who are still alive, you have to be careful. Except for my husband, I did change the names of the people in the book to protect their privacy. I get asked that question a lot by creative writing students. As a writer, you have to ask yourself, what kind of truth you are aiming at when you write a memoir. Is it factual or emotional truth? In a memoir, there is a certain degree of what I call recreation. For instance, there are certain scenes in my childhood which I recall in great detail. Those may not be factually accurate to the last detail, but through recreating a particular scene I hope to convey an emotional truth to the reader.

What about difficult memories?
The most important question is whether I have a story. And yes, there are difficult memories, but the question always goes back to if those memories help to move the story forward. And if they do, then you have to find a way of including them. For another writer, that might not be so important, but for me it was.

You’ve seen Perak, Penang, Kuching, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca during your travels in Malaysia. Could you tell me about your impression of each state and whether you have a favourite city?
Malaysia is one of the most fascinating countries I have ever visited. My impressions stem from the fact that the culture is a product of many generations of fusion. Although there are distinct groups, each group is influenced by the other. You see it especially in the food. The Chinese might hang on to the rituals of ancestor worship, the Tamils to their Hindu temples, but food always seems to find a way drifting over and adding another flavour, spice or ingredient. It is hard to choose a favourite city. It would be a toss-up between George Town and Kuching. George Town, for its food and historic architecture of Chinese shophouses. I loved the fact that although some of the buildings have been restored, you are still left with a sense of what the town looked like in its original form. Kuching, again, I loved for its food. It’s obvious where my passions lie. But Kuching also because of its proximity to so many wonderful places of natural beauty. In a single day my husband and I hiked in Bako National Park and saw proboscis monkeys, and returned in the afternoon to have dinner at our favourite seafood hawker stall. You can’t do much better than that.

What do you think is the biggest difference between the Chinese diaspora here and in Canada?
Age. The Chinese community in Malaysia is older and much more firmly rooted in the mainstream. The Chinese community in Canada is still relatively new. Even though the first Chinese arrived as labourers on the west coast at the end of the nineteenth century, the biggest influx across the country occurred after 1967 with changes in immigration laws. We are in a sense still “a work in progress,” working towards the mainstream.

How is multiculturalism here different from what exists in Canada?
The multiculturalism that I see in Malaysia is deeply ingrained. It feels like it has been there for a long time. The different groups seem to have a strong sense of belonging, that Malaysia is in fact their true home. Multiculturalism in Canada is relatively new. Before World War II, Canada was predominantly an Anglo culture, French in the province of Quebec. Immigrants didn’t start to arrive in large enough waves until after the war. Canada is very much a young country, one that is still evolving its multicultural identity.

Could you recommend some Canadian novels on the diaspora to our readers?
People from all over the world call Canada their home. The Canadian immigrant story has many different points of view. These are a few: Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, Denise Chong’s The Concubine’s Children, Madeleine Thien’s Simple Recipes, Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, Nino Ricci’s The Lives of the Saints, Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love, Antanas Sileika’s Buying on Time, Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? and Austin Clarke’s The Origin of Waves.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

June 2013 Highlights

1. The Quarry (Little, Brown, 2013) / Iain Banks
2. The Shining Girls (Mulholland Books, 2013) / Lauren Beukes
3. If You Were Here (Harper, 2013) / Alafair Burke
4. Apple Tree Yard (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Louise Doughty
5. The Road Between Us (Doubleday, 2013) / Nigel Farndale
6. Shadows on the Nile (Sphere, 2013) / Kate Furnivall
7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2013) / Neil Gaiman
8. Last Friends (Little, Brown, 2013) / Jane Gardam
9. The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013) / Andrew Sean Greer
10. Carnival (Penguin, 2013) / Rawi Hage

11. The Asylum (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / John Harwood
12. Children Are Diamonds (Arcade, 2013) / Edward Hoagland
13. Firefly (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Janette Jenkins
14. The Year of the Ladybird (Orion, 2013) / Graham Joyce
15. Those Who Wish Me Dead (Little, Brown, 2014) / Michael Koryta
16. Death of a Dyer (Minotaur Books, 2013) / Eleanor Kuhns
17. The Flamethrowers (Harvill Secker, 2013) / Rachel Kushner
18. Time Present and Time Past (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Deirdre Madden
19. A Treacherous Paradise (trans. from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson) (Harvill Secker, 2013) / Henning Mankell
20. TransAtlantic (Random House, 2013) / Colum McCann

21. Jacob’s Folly (Canongate, 2013) / Rebecca Miller
22. Instructions for a Heatwave (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Maggie O’Farrell
23. The Emperor of Paris (Portobello Books) / C.S. Richardson
24. The Shadow Year (Orion, 2013) / Hannah Richell
25. The Professor of Truth (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) / James Robertson
26. Sparta (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books, 2013) / Roxana Robinson
27. Big Brother (Harper, 2013) / Lionel Shriver
28. Sisterland (Random House/Doubleday, 2013) / Curtis Sittenfeld
29. Taipei (Vintage, 2013) / Tao Lin
30. The Illusion of Separateness (Harper, 2013) / Simon Van Booy

31. The Silver Star (Scribner, 2013) / Jeannette Walls
32. A Place at the Table (Touchstone, 2013) / Susan Rebecca White
33. The Why of Things (Simon & Schuster, 2013) / Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
34. All the Birds, Singing (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Evie Wyld

First Novels
1. Every Promise (trans. from the Italian by Alastair McEwen) (MacLehose Press, 2013) / Andrea Bajani
2. The Herbalist (Penguin Ireland, 2013) / Niamh Boyce
3. We Need New Names (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / NoViolet Bulawayo
4. Eleven Days (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Lea Carpenter
5. Children of the Jacaranda Tree (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2013) / Sahar Delijani
6. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Riverhead/Tinder Press, 2013) / Anton DiSclafani
7. The Silent Wife (Headline/Penguin Books, 2013) / A.S.A. Harrison
8. Crazy Rich Asians (Doubleday, 2013) / Kevin Kwan
9. Red Sparrow (Scribner, 2013) / Jason Matthews
10. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press, 2013) / Eimear McBride
11. The Raven’s Gift (Pintail, 2013) / Don Rearden

12. In Times of Fading Light (trans. from the German by Anthea Bell) (Graywolf Press, 2013) / Eugen Ruge
13. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton (Crown/Headline Review, 2013) / Elizabeth L. Silver
14. The Story of Before (Corvus, 2013) / Susan Stairs
15. The Center of the World (Other Press, 2013) / Thomas Van Essen
16. The Blood of Heaven (Grove, 2013) / Kent Wascom

1. Town and Country: New Irish Short Stories (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Kevin Barry (ed.)
2. Bobcat and Other Stories (Algonquin Books, 2013) / Rebecca Lee
3. Binocular Vision (Pushkin Press, 2013) / Edith Pearlman

1. Glass Wings (Bloodaxe Books, 2013) / Fleur Adcock
2. Belmont (Graywolf Press, 2013) / Stephen Burt
3. The Last Parade (Liveright, 2013) / Adam Fitzgerald
4. The Shape of a Forest (Parthian Books, 2013) / Jemma L. King
5. War Reporter (CB Editions, 2013) / Dan O’Brien

1. The Time by the Sea: Aldeburgh 1956-1958 (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Ronald Blythe
2. Twenty-First-Century Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2013) / Peter Boxall
3. Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood) (trans. from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin) (Princeton University Press, 2013) / Italo Calvino
4. Algerian Chronicles (trans. from the French by Arthur Goldhammer) (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2013) / Albert Camus
5. Careless People: Murder, Mayhem & the Invention of The Great Gatsby (Virago, 2013) / Sarah Churchwell
6. Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City (Atlantic Books, 2013) / Jonathan Conlin
7. Distance and Memory (Carcanet Press, 2013) / Peter Davidson
8. Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Life of Janet Ross (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Ben Downing
9. Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Harry Eyres
10. How to be a Victorian (Viking, 2015) / Ruth Goodman

11. The Sea Inside (Fourth Estate, 2013) / Philip Hoare
12. J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing (trans. from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns) (Scribe UK, 2013) / J.C. Kannemeyer
13. Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-1959 (Bloomsbury, 2013) / David Kynaston
14. The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) / Alberto Manguel
15. China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (Allen Lane, 2013) / Rana Mitter
16. The North (And Almost Everything In It) (Bloomsbury, 2013) / Paul Morley
17. Distant Reading (Verso, 2013) / Franco Moretti
18. Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (W.W. Norton/Harvill Secker, 2013) / Tim Parks
19. The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013) / Rebecca Solnit
20. Kafka: The Years of Insight (trans. from the German by Shelley Frisch) (Princeton University Press, 2013) / Reiner Stach

21. Kafka: The Decisive Years (trans. from the German by Shelley Frisch) (Princeton University Press, 2013) / Reiner Stach 
22. A Backpack and a Bit of Luck: Stories of a Traveller with No Sense of Direction (MPH Group Publishing, 2013) / Zhang Su Li