reading Posts

“Ma Huateng & Tencent: The Story of an Online Chinese Empire”

The story of billionaire Ma Huateng and the company he co-founded, Tencent, reads like a modern fairy tale. It’s tag line on the homepage of the company’s website is “Connecting People for a Greater Future”. LID Publishing that specialises in business books has published a biography of the 14th richest man in the world ( according to Forbes) in collaboration with China Translation and Publishing House.

It is a mesmerising tale of a young middle class computer programmer who driven by ambition, focused hard work and bold strategy realised the potential of the Internet in the 1990s. He also astutely recognised that the pager company he was employed in was a sunset industry but the future lay in instant communication using technology and the internet. Innovation was required in localising existing programmes as most of the population in China was monolingual whereas new apps and programmes being released in the global market were dependant on English as the mode of communication.

Through his grit and determination, astute strategy and long term vision, Ma Huateng was able to build a business empire that within years has grown into a billion dollar enterprise recognised worldwide. Its rise and influence in the global economy is unparalleled. He copies and innovates existing ideas to make his existing customers satisfied. His vast user base is what has enabled him to experiment and be bold in his strategies while also attracting investors who know there is no other player in Tencent in China who has such deep penetration and impressive impact in the country.

Ma Huateng & Tencent is a fascinating account of the man behind the firm who built his fortune on enabling instant messaging for Chinese users to creating a global brand integrating its PC and mobile gateways. Now Tencent is also known for its pan-entertainment services by offering a range of services from online games, books/publishing, reading websites to transforming the more successful works into movie projects. In its early days when word spread about Tencent and its instant messaging, it was registering an average of over 370,000 new users every day!

There is plenty to glean from this book about how to develop businesses, innovate and remain relevant to changing tastes and expectations of customers. Although it is a rivetting read there is plenty not said too about Tencent’s engagement with the Chinese government which as anyone who attempts do business in China is a must. Thus making this book a hagiography rather than a sharply told biography of a successful businessman.

4 January 2019

Julia Donaldson in India, Jan 2018

Julia Donaldson

Universally adored children’s writer Julia Donaldson toured India in January 2018. The reception she received was heartwarming. Wherever she went there were crowds of excited children and parents. Even at the specially organised event by Scholastic India of school librarians and teachers there were many who while learning from Julia Donaldson’s performance were completely star struck — you could see it in their eyes and later when innumerable group photographs were being clicked. It was an incredible experience to witness.

Here is an article I wrote about Julia Donaldson’s trip in January. It was written days after her departure from India but never was published till today. It was an honour to meet Julia Donaldson for her humility shone through as did her vast amounts of experience in inculcating the love of reading in children. She was keen on telling a good story to the children and infecting them with the joy of reading. While being a fantastic storyteller she also shared her experience of working on the technically-sound phonetic books like the Oxford Reading Tree ( ORT) books that are introduced as part of school curriculums worldwide. According to her it was a big learning curve for it taught her how to focus on telling a story within the limited number of consonants prescribed for a particular level without losing her trademark touch of creating rhyming and play books. 

Note: Follow the links embedded in each title and it leads to the book page on Amazon India. 

Julia Donaldson MBE and former UK Children’s Laureate is to the world of picture books what Stephen King is to horror stories and both have an enviable fan base. Like Ed Sheeran, Julia too began her career busking. She enjoys performing and always has a repertoire in mind before going on stage but willingly adapts if the occasion demands it. As Julia says “audiences and moods vary depending on whether you are performing in a bar, a street or in schools.” She usually performs with her husband Malcolm who accompanies her on the guitar. Their thorough professionalism at managing crowds was evident after a performance ended when Malcolm picked up his guitar and sang while going up and down the queues of eager yet restless folks awaiting their turn to have their books autographed by Julia.

When Julia Donaldson’s tour of India was announced excited adults squeaked “Her picture books are fabulous! The illustrations! AndGruffalo…Will he be there as well?” Chirrups of delight from the children who became eager volunteers at every performance! She would call upon children from the audience to come up on stage to play minor roles in the stories she enacted such as SuperwormThe Ugly Five,and What the Ladybird Heard. Ideally Julia prefers it if her audiences have read some of her “play books” in advance as it enriches the experience. This fear was put to rest in India. Whichever city she visited the enthusiastic crowds of children and adults alike sang with her. It was like being at a pop concert where the  hysteria of the audiences upon seeing Julia Donaldson in flesh was worth witnessing.

The crowds in India were far larger than any she has performed before anywhere else in the world. Yet the warm, cuddly, grandmotherly figure with a radiant smile that lit up her already twinkling eyes remained unperturbed. She performed happily even though some of her little extras decided to plonk themselves on stage to read the pile of picture books placed in a pile rather than participate in the sing-along!  Despite battling terrible bronchitis Julia Donaldson managed to mesmerise folks with her storytelling. Certainly she had sophisticated props; mostly recognizable characters sketched by her long time illustrator Axel Scheffler, yet she relied mostly upon vast dollops of imagination to make her stories come alive.

Julia Donaldson’s magnificently magical storytelling is technically perfect in using rhythm and wordplay. She demonstrated to teachers that while sharing light-hearted stories with new learners it is easy to convert a simple classroom into a vibrant one with music and colour. A happy child learns fast. The importance of reading is critical to her and has always been — she taught her younger sister to read! Of the nearly 200 books Julia Donaldson has written the bulk are phonic readers; requiring her to blend vowels and consonants precisely according to early learning rules of phonetics. This is in keeping with her fascination for sound patterns and letter stories.

Julia Donaldson grew up in a home filled with music and poetry with her grandmother instilling a lifelong passion for Edward Lear’s nonsense language —in The Giants and the Joneses Julia invented Groilish! (Later to her delight she was commissioned to write a sequel to Lear’s “Ówl and the Pussycat”.) Age 5 she was presented by her father, a still treasured edition, of The Book of Thousand Poems inculcating in her a dream to a poet/lyricist. Her mother would play a version of “antakshri”, encouraging her daughter to find a word beginning with the last syllable of a word she had uttered. All of which helped Julia while writing her books in blank verse.   

In the 1970s she worked in a publishing firm while contributing songs and plays to radio. One of these was A Squash and A Squeeze which an editor recollected two decades later persuading Julia to turn it into a picture book.

Julia Donaldson’s fascination lies in experimenting with well-known folktales. In the Gruffalo it was the retelling of an ancient Eastern tale where a little girl goes into the forest and tames a tiger that follows her meekly home. But Julia was stuck for an appropriate rhyming word for “tiger” so used “Grrr… “ Rest they say is history! She recalls fondly that her sons could never cross a bridge without enacting the Three Billy Goats, now she hears of picnic expeditions that revolve around a Gruffalo hunt!

Her books have sold millions of copies worldwide, translated into many languages. She structures each book carefully paying close attention to her conclusions: “She does not like rosy endings that tell the child that it was all a dream. Sealed endings are not to her liking.” In 2014, 40p of every pound spent on buying picture books in UK, went to Julia Donaldson. It was more than spent on Harry Potter books! On Christmas Day 2017 The Highway Rat premiered on television as an animated film, fulfilling an annual ritual of converting a Julia Donaldson picture book into film since 2012 when Room on the Broom was nominated for an Academy Award. ( For Christmas 2018 it will be Zog and for Christmas 2019 The Snail and the Whale are to be adapted.) 

Running on the Cracks is the only young adult novel she has written. It has her characteristic gentle empathetic touch without underplaying hard issues such as immigrants, mental health, sexual predators and runaway kids. Even so “she would rather make picture books that allow her the freedom to play with words that get made in a shorter time than writing a novel which takes some effort.”

Ultimately Julia Donaldson firmly believes that children should read a variety of genres including comics – give them anything that appeals to them!

And yes, Gruffalo came. Many selfies were taken!

8 Dec 2018


Times Lit Fest, Delhi, panels on “Cultivating the passion of reading in children” and “What India Reads”

The Times LitFest Delhi ( 1-2 Dec 2018) was organised at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. I moderated two sessions with the both panel discussions focussed on reading.  The first panel was on how do cultivate the love of reading amongst children.

TOI, 2 Dec 2018

My co-panelists were Saktibrata Sen, Programme Director, Room to Read India Trust; Manisha Chaudhry, co-founder Manan Books; Sonya Philips, Founder, Learning Matters Foundation and is a reading specialist and Shailendra Sharma, Principal Advisor (Hon) to the Director Education, Government of NCT Delhi, India. The freewheeling conversation was on ways to promote reading. Every panelist spoke about their strengths and initiatives. From being a part of the government as is Mr Sharma and realising that it is critical to have a reading corner in every class and every section. So much so that the Delhi government has now allocated a handsome budget of Rs 10,000 / section to buy books.

L-R: Manisha Chaudhry, Shailendra Sharma, Sonya Philips, Saktibrata Sen and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

Fact is that even today few families can afford to buy newspapers, magazines, let alone books. So the first time many children particularly in the government primary schools hold a book is their school textbook. Few have any role models in the adults and older children in their immediate environment and as Principal Advisor to the government, Mr Sharma’s job is to introduce the love of reading. Both Mr Sharma and Mr Sen were of the view that reading is a lifeskill that is critical and needs to be learned beyond just being able to identify your name in whatever written script the individual is familiar with. Mr Sen, representing Room to Read, is involved in setting up partnerships with the governments to set up libraries. In India the Room to Read India Trust is working with 11 state governments. Ms Philips stressed on how till Grade 2 a child learns “how to read” but after that the emphasis is on “learning to read”. Ms Chaudhury with her many years of experience in publishing, looking at multilingual publishing and the critical need for children to have books in their own languages rather than only in English is what spurs her on to create new material every single day. She has recently launched two new magazines in Hindi called Mithvan and Chahak, the latter is meant for the early grade reader.

Everyone was of the agreement that it is important to create the joy of reading and align it as closely as possible to the child’s lived experience rather than alienate him/her from using complicated language in the written word. This was illustrated beautifully by an anecdote Mr Sharma shared about the complicated language used in a Hindi textbook to describe food which was a far cry from what is commonly used at home on a daily basis. Manisha Chaudhry spoke of her earlier initiatives to publish in tribal languages.

Alas we ran short of time otherwise it was promising to become a wonderful conversation on how to cultivate the joy of reading in children.

Join Sonya Philip, Manisha Chaudhury, Shailendra Sharma and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose in conversation with Saktibrata Sen – brought to you by Room to Read in the session, 'Cultivating the Habit of Reading in Children' at #TLFDelhi

Posted by Times Lit Fest – Delhi on Saturday, December 1, 2018

L-R: Ranjana Sengupta, Parth Mehrotra, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Udayan Mitra and Himanjali Sankar.

The second panel discussion was on “What is India reading?”. The panelists consisted of commissioning editors of four prominent publishing houses — Himanjali Sankar, Simon & Schuster India; Ranjana Sengupta, Penguin Random House India; Parth Mehrotra, Juggernaut and Udayan Mitra, HarperCollins India. Once again a freewheeling, adda-like, conversation about trying to figure out what India reads. The role of a commissioning editor has changed quite a lot in recent years. Traditionally commissioning editors were responsible for forming reading tastes but as Udayan Mitra pointed out that at times now the editor has to commission based on events and trends too. It is a kind of commissioning that did not exist earlier.

Today readers are accessing books through multiple platforms and in various formats — ebooks and audio books. It becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain how and what anyone is reading, let along a sub-continent like India where so many languages abound and there is rich regional literature too. Measuring reading tastes as Juggernaut is doing with their app and also because they are able to control their production pipeline while platform is something few are able to do even now. Most editors and publishing houses rely on print products that once released into the market are impossible to track. Some may be sold through brick-and-mortar stores, others through online spaces and yet other copies get sold as remaindered copies and secondhand books.

Listen to the conversation. So much was said. Many important bases within the Indian publishing landscape were touched upon. So much to think about.

What is India Reading? watch the conversation live at #TLFDelhi with Udayan Mitra, Himanjali Sankar, Ranjana Sengupta and Parth Mehrotra talking to Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

Posted by Times Lit Fest – Delhi on Saturday, December 1, 2018

All in all two fantastic conversations that I was glad to be a part of.

2 December 2018 

Trevor Noah

Comedian and Daily Show talk  show host Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime is a moving, at times funny, at times brutal and hardhitting account of his childhood in South Africa. Born to Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, a Xhosa, who chose to have Trevor out of wedlock with a Swiss man made Patricia a criminal. For her crime as a native female was to have “illicit carnal intercourse” with a European white male as stated by the Immorality Act, 1927. She made a fine mother and being a single parent had its share of ups and downs.

Born a Crime  is to be turned into a biopic with Lupita Nyong’o playing the role of Patricia.

Here is a powerful extract from Born a Crime when Trevor recounts how his mother taught him to read and be independent.

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My mom told me these things so that I’d never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. “Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.” And she never was. The deprivations of her youth, the betrayals of her parents, she never complained about any of it.

Just as she let the past go, she was determined not to repeat it: my childhood would bear no resemblance to hers. She started with my name. The names Xhosa families give their children always have a meaning, and that meaning has a way of becoming self-fulfilling. …

When it was time to pick my name, she chose Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. It’s not even a Biblical name. It’s just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.

She gave me the tools to do it as well. She taught me English as my first language. She read to me constantly. The first book I learned to read was the book. The Bible. Church was where we got most of our other books, too. My mom would bring home boxes that white people had donated — picture books, chapter books, any book she could get her hands on. Then she signed up for a subscription program where we got books in the mail. It was a series of how-to books. How to Be a Good FriendHow to Be Honest. She bought a set of encylopedias, too; it was fifteen years old and way out of date, but I would sit and pore through those.

My books were my prized possessions. I had a bookshelf where I put them, and I was so proud of it. I loved my books and kept them in pristine condition. I read them over and over, but I did not bend the pages or the spines. I treasured every single one. As I grew older I started buying my own books. I loved fantasy, loved to get lose in worlds that didn’t exist. I remember there was some book about white boys who solved mysteries or some shit. I had no time for that, Give me Roald Dahl. James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. That was my fix.

I had to fight to convince my mom to get the Narnia books for me. She didn’t like them.

“this lion,” she said, “he isa  false God — a false idol! You remember what happened when Moses came down from the mountain after he got the tablets . . .”

“Yes,, Mom,” I explained, “but the lion is a Christ Figure. Technically, he is Jesus. It’s a story to explain Jesus.”

She wasn’t comfortable with that. “No, no. No false idols, my friend.”

Eventually I wore her down. That was a big win.

If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. My mother spoke to me like an adult, which was unusual. In South Africa, kids play with kids and adults talk to adults. The adults supervise you, but they don’t get down on your level and talk to you. My mom did. All the time I was like her best friend. She was always telling me stories, giving me lessons, Bible lessons especially. She was big into Psalms. I had to read Psalms every day. She would quiz me on it. “What does that passage mean? What does it mean to you? How do you apply it to your life?” That was every day of my life. My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think. (pp. 66-68)

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Buy it on Amazon

Hardback and Paperback 

On readership by Philip Pullman

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman is a selection of his essays and speeches delivered during the course of his career. There is a lot of wisdom buried amongst these pages. A book to dip into and think about. For instance the following extract is from his essay “Intention” discussing the author’s intention on when he embarks upon writing a book. A question he says that is usually reserved for authors at literary festivals where the audiences need to be entertained. He illustrates the problematic nature of such a question by extending the argument to that of labelling books with an age figure.

The final aspect of ‘intention’ I shall look at here is to do with audience. ‘What age of reader is this book written for?’ is a question that different authors feel differently about. Some are quite happy to say, ‘It’s for sixth and seventh graders’, or, ‘It’s for thirteen and upwards.’ Others are decidedly not. In 2008 most publishers of children’s books in teh UK announced that in an attempt to increase sales they were going to put an age-figure on the cover of every book, of the form 5+, 7+, 9+, and so on, to help adult purchasers in non-specialist bookstores decide whether a particular book would make a suitable present for a particular child. They met a passionate and determined resistance from many authors, who felt that their efforts to write books that would welcome readers of a wide age-range were being undermined by their own publishers, and that the age-figure would actively discourage many children from reading books they might otherwise enjoy. The argument continues, but again it shows the problematic nature of ‘intention’. Does age-guidance of any sort imply that the book is intended for a particular kind of a reader? My own view is that the only appropriate verb to use is, again, hope rather than intend. We have no right to expect any audience at all; the idea of sorting our readers out before they’ve seen the first sentence to me presumptious in the extreme. 

I too have my reservations about this given that this principle is increasingly being turned on its head by bracketing the child’s reading to what is deemed as “age appropriate” rather than allowing them a free run of book collections whether at the school library or at bookshops/ bookfairs. Off late this basic principle is being turned on its head by adults discouraging children to pick up a book that has been labelled in this manner as not being age appropriate. Horrific turn of events given that this was not the intention at all. Age-guidance numbers were merely that — guiding principles. These numbers are not meant to bracket the child’s reading and thereby curtail their enthusiasm in reading. Children ( like adults) test themselves constantly and evolve in their reading habits by flitting between easy and challenging books. Whereas emprical evidence as collected in the bi-annual Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Reports ( KFRR) show that if children are allowed to pick up books for themselves there are greater chances of them becoming lifelong readers. ( These reports have been published across continents including India after conducting surveys in various cities, tier 2, and tier 3 towns too.) So it is not a good idea to prevent children from accessing books. If they do not understand something they will ask or drop it and return to the book later. But don’t straitjacket their reading in this manner.  Philip Pullman is absolutely correct in expressing his reservations about the intention of publishers on printing age-guidance numbers on the back cover of children’s literature.

Philip Pullman Daemon Voices ( ed. Simon Mason) David Fickling Books, Oxford, 2017. Hb. pp. £20

27 February 2018 

Scholastic India Session on reading, Times of India LitFest, New Delhi ( 26 Nov 2017)

On Sunday 26 November 2017, I moderated the ‘SCHOLASTIC INDIA SESSION’, a conversation on young adult fiction with Shantanu Duttagupta, Scholastic India and Arti Sonthalia at the Times of India LitFest, Delhi (#TLFDelhi). The conversation began with Arti Sonthalia introducing her fabulous chapter book, Hungry to Read.  The story revolves around a reading competition in Grade 3 with the aim of inculcating the love of reading amongst the students. The prize of a night stay in school to use the telescope to watch the night sky is what every student dreams of! The delicious way in which Arti makes it more than a dull story about a competition. Read it!

Using Hungry to Read as a springboard, the conversation expanded to reading levels, tools for measuring reading such as lexile and numbers at the back of books, reading for young adults, reading as a lifelong skill particularly in this information age where content is the oil of twenty-first century!

Watch the conversation:

28 November 2017 

“Reading with Patrick: A True Story”

“Ms. Kuo,” he said. “Things I see ain’t nothing worth talking about.” 

Reading with Patrick: A True Story  by Michelle Kuo is an moving memoir of her efforts at teaching American history through black literature in the Mississippi Delta. She is convinced that book therapy “could change the lives” of her students. She was twenty-two. She sets about her task with evangelical fervour.

“We all front,” I said. “You know why I love to read? It’s because books don’t front.”

They were listening — it was working.

“You can hear what people are thinking in books,” I continued. “They do crazy things, but you can figure out how they feel. You get to figure out what’s happening to them on the inside.”

We talked about what it meant to see only the outside of people. I asked, “Why do people keep their insides hidden?” The responses were painfully insightful, and the most common was a variation on this one: “People are afraid that if they’re honest about what they want, they won’t get it.”

I realized that I needed also to give them a sense of ownership over the people and stories in these books. I researched black writers for teenagers: Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Flake, Sharon Draper, Sister Souljah, Nikki Grimes, Jacqueline Woodson. I ordered these books and then I read them. I felt these writers knew better than I did what stories teh kids needed. The heroes were people who looked like them, talked like them, and faced the problems they faced. In Tears of a Tiger, by Sharon Draper, Andy, a teenager blames himself for his best friend’s death. In Jazmin’s Notebook, by Nikki Grimes, Jazmin, fourteen, is her mother’s primary caregiver. In Begging for Change, by Sharon Flake, Raspberry has to decide whether or not to welcome her estranged father back in her life. A state fund for new teachers had given me eight hundred dollars for the classroom, and I spent it all on these books. 

While teaching at the school she came across a lot of children who were existing but no one really cared about them. There was one particular student she was concerned about — Patrick. She persuaded him to return to school and be regular. He slowly picked up reading and writing. A couple of years later she had to leave to join law school. Two years after that she got a call to say that Patrick had been arrested for a murder. She was horrified and flew back to meet him in prison. She discovered he had stabbed a drunk who had brought his simple-minded sister home on a school night. The drunk had been aggressive at first and without realising what he was doing Patrick had stabbed him probably in the arm but a few steps from the house the victim stumbled and died. The police charged Patrick with manslaughter though months after the crime had been committed. All the while the young man languished in a prison. Around the time Michelle Kuo finished her law degree, passed her bar exam and decided to return to the delta. She also decided to set Patrick daily homework in prison of reading and writing while he awaited to go on trial. Reading with Patrick is about this extraordinary relationship of teacher and student. It is very reminiscent of the 1962 classic The Cross and the Switchblade in which the priest “saves” the young gang leader ultimately converting him to Christianity. In Reading with Patrick Michelle Kuo manages a similar transformation by gently persuading and teaching Patrick so that by the time he is released on parole for good behaviour he is able to apply to the local community college for further studies. He is able to get through the admissions test as his scores are good much to the astonishment of the official.

Years later when Michelle Kuo met a consultant who recognised her from Richard Wormser’s documentary Delta Dreams he remarked, “You have a gift for children, a real gift. For speaking with them. And speaking about them.” While writing this book Michelle Kuo told Patrick about her project but was not sure if she should use his real name or not. His reply:

“You can use my name,” he says. “I believe in testimony; I believe in God.”

I feel relieved. But I am thinking to myself, this is not his testimony: it is mine.” 

Michelle Kuo Reading with Patrick: A True Story Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. 

24 Sept 2017 

*Note: All images are off the Internet. If you know who is the copyright holder please let me know.

An Interview with Award-Winning Indonesian Author Eka Kurniawan

( My interview with award winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017.  In India the books have been published by Speaking Tiger Books.) 

Award-winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, whose writing, often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an exceptional blend of myth-making, supernatural, fantastical, historical facts and horrendous amounts of violence. Told with such a flourish, his storytelling is unforgettable. Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia, in 1975 and has a degree in Philosophy. He writes novels, short stories, as well as non-fiction pieces. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are two novels set in unnamed places with all the characteristics of Indonesia. His third novel to be published in English,Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, will be available in July 2017. Eka Kurniawan kindly agreed to an interview for Bookwitty:

How and why did you get into writing fiction? What is your writing routine?

First of all, it was just for fun. I read some stories when I was a teenager, and I tried to write my own versions. I shared my stories with some of my friends. When I studied philosophy in University, sometimes I got bored with my study and skipped my class to go to library and read a lot of classic novels. And then I found a book by Knut Hamsun, Hunger. After I read it, I felt like I wanted to be a writer. So I started to write stories, seriously. My writing routine? I don’t write everyday. I always think that I am more a reader rather then a writer. I read anything every day, and only write something when I want to.

Who are the writers who have influenced you?

Like I already mentioned, Knut Hamsun. I love his deadpan humor and how he discovered his characters. And then there are three great Indonesian novelists: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Abdullah Harahap and Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo. The last two are a kind of genre writers. They wrote horror and martial art novels. I can make a very long list of writers that I believe have influenced me, but let me add these three writers: Miguel de Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Your storytelling is told with such a flourish that at times it is very visual or creates a strong physical reaction much like a response to watching a theatrical performance. While writing, how conscious are you of the reader’s response?

I am very conscious about the reader, but that reader is me. When I write something, at the same time, I always place myself there as a reader too.

“Magic realism” and “historical fiction” are how your books are described but how exactly would you like your special brand of storytelling to be known as?

I never think about it. People can give me any kind of label they please. But let’s be honest: in my novels, there are not only historical or magical elements, but you can find romance, saga, fighting, horror, adventure, even political and social criticism. I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

Your stories seem to rely heavily on the oral storytelling narrative form as the structural basis allowing you the flexibility to expand and repeat details and incorporate supernatural elements…

It is something inevitable. I grew up listening to a village storyteller when I was still a kid. And then there was also drama on the radio, told by one particular storyteller. I was very fascinated by all of these stories, especially because I had only read a small number of books at that time. The stories were usually about village legends, full of monsters, jinn, beautiful ladies and brave men. Many of these stories I actually retold in my novels, including the princess who married a dog.

There are so many brutal aspects of sexual violence which you explore in your stories. Why?

First, when you take a look into Indonesian history (maybe even world history), you can’t help but find yourself faced with this kind of violence. It can be sexual, physical, mental or political violence. Second, I wrote my first novel just two years after the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. It was time for us to be bolder in writing, to open all these scars in our history and face them. Third, I used to write stories in a “matter of fact” manner, I don’t want to hide things.

You write with the sensitivity and understanding of a woman, often sharing her point of view, making the stories seem more feminist than what some women themselves pen and yet the plots move with a predominantly male gaze. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

It was a conscious decision. Actually, my first two novels were inspired by some women, and they are really at the center of my novels. I tried to place myself from their point of view. It is always something important for me as a writer to be there, to know how they feel, how they see the world around them, and how they react to something.

 

The strong women characters  in Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound make choices which they follow through only to be labelled by society as insane. Why and how did you choose to create these women?

I think they just appeared like that in front of me. These two characters are very different from each other. They are strong, die-hard, but have different reactions. I never write stories with a plan. I usually just have a small idea, and develop it gradually. The characters come out one by one. I rewrite it several times, and the characters, including these two women, become more complex and have their own personality in the end.

Dewi Ayu (in Beauty is a Wound)  remarks “The best stories are in religious texts”. Your stories seem to imbibe a lot of storytelling elements from the Hindu epics, the Bible and the Quran. How have these stories influenced you? What are the challenges posed in transference of popular tales when trying to recreate or apply them in secular literature?

My grandmother used to tell me stories from the Quran, and my father taught me to read it. So I am very familiar with these stories, as well as stories from the Bible (I read it later) as they are close. I discovered Hindu epics from wayang (puppet) performances, that usually used Mahabharata or Ramayana epics. The challenges occur with the fact that these stories are very popular. Many writers and storytellers retold them. I just picked the basic ideas and retold them in my own stories that have nothing to do with religious aspects, but with a parallel allusion to them.

Are the English translations true to the original Bhasa texts? How closely did you work with the translators – Annie Tucker and Labodalih Sembiring? Also why did you choose separate translators for the books – it is a slightly unusual practice given how authors and translators tend to forge a long term relationship. 

It’s almost true. I worked very closely with the translators and we tried our best to render the original into English. Of course we faced some problems with grammatical and word nuances, as Indonesian and English are very different, and we discussed this a lot. Those two books were acquired by two different publishers. Verso and I approached Labodalih to translate Man Tiger after we tried some translators, and around the same time Annie Tucker proposed to translate Beauty Is a Wound, later acquired by New Directions. So, that’s why I have two translators.

Given the time lag between your novels being first published and then made available in English do you think having Indonesia as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 helped in discovering contemporary Indonesian writers and making them available to the English-speaking world?

To be honest, before the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, I knew nothing about that. My books were published in English translation the same year, but we prepared them three years before, in 2012. But of course, as guest of honor at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, this gave us an opportunity to be discovered, including my books. Publishers started to wonder about Indonesian literature…

Who are the Indonesian writers – based in the country or of the diaspora – that you would recommend for international readers?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, of course, and Seno Gumira Adjidarma.

7 February 2017 

Neil Gaiman, “The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction”

Neil Gaiman is the superstar of storytellers and one of the leading influencers on social media with his strongly voiced opinons. He is incredibly generous while sharing his knowledge, he has bundles of energy, oozes with charisma and can pack quite a powerful punch while speaking his mind. He comes across as straightforward and can be blunt when he wants as in the essays — “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013” or “The PEN Awards and Charlie Hebdo ” ( 2015). He is charming in his hero-worship when he writes about meeting legends such as Fritz Leiber and magnanimous with his compliments such as on illustrator Charles Vess with whom he often collaborates. Gaiman is passionate about his love for reading, letting the imagination roar and creativity blossom as evident in the innumerable speeches he has delivered. One of them being “Good Comics and Tulips: A Speech”or after his visit to a Syrian refugee camp, Azraq refugee camp, Jordan — “So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now: May 2014”. Here is a typical Gaiman straight-from-the-heart observation:

I realise I have stopped thinking about political divides, about freedom fighters or terrorists, about dictators and armies. I am thinking only of the fragility of civilisation. The lives the refugees had were our lives: they owned corner shops and sold cars, they farmed or worked in factories or owned factories or sold insurance. None of them expected to be running for their lives, leaving everything they had because they had nothing to come back to, making smuggled border crossings, walking past the dismembered corpses of other people who had tried to make the crossing but had been caught or been betrayed. ( p.506) 

Most of the essays and speeches collected in this volume have gone viral on the Internet recently. They have developed a life of their own for the ideas they spawned. As Gaiman says in “Credo”, “I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast. He also firmly believes that “Literature does not occur in a vaccuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.” The title essay refers to his appearance at the Oscar ceremony when the film adaptation of his book Coraline had been nominated and he walked the red carpet but was given a seat in one of the top balconies.

The articles included in this collection may over a period of time vanish from their original place of publication in cyberspace or disappear behind pay walls as business models of media websites evolve. This is an anthology that is must have that will constantly be read and re-read for its thought-provoking ideas, its analysis of the changing game of publishing, the relationship between writer and readers but most importantly it will be remembered for Gaiman’s fervour in infecting others with his passion for reading and allowing the imagination to run wild.

Buy it. Treasure it. Preserve it. Share it widely. Pass it on to the next generation.

Neil Gaiman The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction Headline Publishing Group, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 532 . Rs 599

Hachette India distributes it in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. 

19 June 2016

Graham Swift, “Mothering Sunday”

Mothering SundayThe Beechwood library has its wall’s worth of books, most of which ( a maid knows) had hardly ever been touched. But in one corner, near a buttoned-leather soft was a revolving bookcase ( she liked to twirl it idly when she was cleaning) in which were kept books that clearly had been read. Surprisingly perhaps, in such a generally grown-up place, they were books that harked back to childhood, boyhood or gathering manhood, books that she imagined might once have flitted between the library and those silent rooms upstairs. There were even a few books that looked newly and hopefully purchased, but never actually begun. 

Rider Haggard, G.A.Henty, R.M.Ballantyne, Stevenson, Kipling … She had good reason to remember the names and even the titles on some of the books. The Black Arrows, The Coral Island, King Solomon’s Mines …she would always see their grubby, frayed dust jackets or the exact coloration of their cloth bindings, the wrinkling and fadings of their spines. 

Of all the rooms at Beechwood, in fact, the library, for all its dauntingness, was the one she most liked to clean. It was the room in which she most felt like some welcome, innocent thief. 

( p.66-67)

 

Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday is a dazzlingly splendid meditation on reading. If it were not for the fabric of a plot and the misleading subheading in the title “A Romance”, this little novella would be a prime example of a powerful interior monologue by an accomplished writer exploring his individual talent in a literary tradition.

Read it. Read it for the story at its face value. Read it for its social commentary. Read it for a century of world of English literature and translations it unveils. Read it to find your inner equilibrium. (It is incredible how much more at peace I was at for having read this slim book.)

Graham Swift Mothering Sunday Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016. 

9 March 2016