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Wednesday 31 December 2008

Devil's Place by Brian Gomez

January 1, 2009

by Suzan Abrams
in Dublin

Book Review: Malaysia - Thriller (Black Comedy)

Malaysia: What fantastic chutzpah coming from Malaysia's talented journalist/writer, Brian Gomez! Gomez recently announced the courageous debut of his slapstick thriller, titled Devil's Place! (Idle Minds, 347 pages). He has since hinted of an equally tantalising sequel.

Read this fat packed series of colourful jocular happenings comprising bent coppers, amateur terrorists, a doomed love affair, a mini dictionary of George Bush jokes and innocent heroes caught up in a crazy run of madcap hilarity from Kuala Lumpur to Thailand while swinging a bag stuffed with US$18 million received through unfortunate circumstances, and you've got the ready start to the New Year. At least, you'll ring it in, laughing till your sides ache bad. The trick is after all, to decide who gets the get-rich-quick bag at long last.

I finished the 350-page black comedy in just two sittings yesterday. I was held riveted to my seat, caught up by a terrible muffle of the giggles although none of the plot's clumsy and merciless characters thought to do me in with a gun to my head. I daresay, with their ludicrous attempts, a fictitious thug would have only held his slick pistol the wrong way round.

Gomez is a natural stand-up comic whose dramatic racy prose rockets with highly entertaining antics from start to finish . Cheeky and comical in a savage way, this brilliant book which celebrates the polished mastery of the English Language to reveal a slyly telling and humorous Malaysiana; would appeal on a universal scale while armed with its priceless political and social innuendos. This humdinger of a plot would sell like a dream too on an international scale. Hopefully, there will be wider publicity and distribution opportunities.

Devil's Place reveals the flipside to Malaysia's supposed commonplace idiosyncrasies that displaces itself from the ordinary and still lives to tell. The novel also stays topical with a relevant global slant as the subject of terrorism is brought into play and innocent characters pursue escape.

The plot starts in a seedy pub called The Hideout where a waggish drunk of a reporter Joe Maniam, makes a spectacle of himself and receives the wrath of its notorious owner, Pak Jam . Jam spots a secret heart of gold and is one of struggling guitarist's Terry Fernandez's best friends. Terry's childhood friends whisk him off to a stag party where they hire a Thai prostitute for the night. Terry is to marry a Muslim minister's spoilt cantankerous daughter, Linda. The Minister is dodgy and ambitious. Meanwhile, the Thai prostitute whose nickname is Devil, is summoned by her Chinese pimp called Fellatio Lim Boon Fatt. Lim had been so christened by an eternal enemy and accepted the challenge of a name like Fellatio, not understanding what it meant. He never figured out the guffaws that accompanied his call card. Lim sends Ning the prostitute and concerned mother of one, to a hotel to meet a sadist Arab. Remembering how the Arab had beaten her up black and blue the last time, Ning now does a Lorena Bobbit with her teeth and stuffs the partly bitten-off organ into the startled Arab's mouth. Suck yourself, she tells him feelingly and escapes. The Arab bangs his head in the bathroom in a bid to catch her, falls, slips and dies with half a penis corking up his mouth.

Earlier, the Arab crook on his murderous mission had spread his wads of cash upon the bed. Ning grabs it all and rushes off to keep her next appointment with Terry and his friends. Soon terrorists are on their way to grab the money from Ning. They kill Terry's childhood friends who get in the way and chase Terry and Ning all the way to hell.

The confused and scared couple enlist the help of a taxi driver Chia, who's always been addicted to CIA conspiracy theories. But now with a couple on the run in his taxi and real terrorists chasing him on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Chia lives his drama out for real.

Others get in the game too. There is the silly, battered Fellatio Lim who refuses to say die, a bungling terrorist Julio Chavez, a bent copper Detective Azmi and Joe Maniam the reporter greedy for a scoop. All are funny. All pounce too, hot on the trails of each other and their many bungling adventures and butterfingered attempts at securing the money are ticklish to say the least. The policemen who appear to masquerade as stooges, find themselves locked in their own jails as they stupidly let detainees escape. There are more murders along the way as 4 characters, Terry, Ning, Pak Jam and cab-driver Chia develop a close camaraderie and together, dodge the long hypocritical arms of the law.

Gomez demonstrates a splendid gift for balancing several characters in a jolly fashion. This, very much in keeping with a successful trapeze act at a circus performance. The plot's harmonious blend with characterization, lends a heightened amusing pace and never lets up to the slightest trace of dullness or boredom. He captures the essence of Malaysian life poking gentle fun at each culture's quirky traits and his devilment is genius enough to be instantly forgivable.

Far from a pretentious writer striving for a contrived style, he lets the liberty of his pen roll to high exclaimations of surprise that I daresay may shock even himself. Devoid of affectations, Gomez stretches his assortment of bizarre characters with meticulous flawless co-ordination and the author forms a distinct aptitude for the exhibition of his novel that seems to have been written with effortless grace rather than having contended with a laboured task.

What I thought especially brilliant lay once more in his show-and-tell techniques. The logistics of human vulnerability which Gomez maintains to ensure the novel's credibility, for instance. When confronted by a gunman while taking refuge in Chia's apartment, Terry professes ignorance much against his better judgement while answering the gunman's urgent pesterings to where something could be hidden. This because Terry try as he might can only recall Chia's strange addiction for newspaper clippings pasted stoutly on the walls. The reader is reminded that the hero is in a stranger's house. There are no super hero tricks to be sure.

Also, when Terry and Ning take refuge once more at Farouk's mother's house, Farouk's mum Aunty Faridah lets the tears spring to her eyes. Farouk was one of Terry childhood pals, shot by a pursuing terrorist, Sulaiman in the early chapters. When Terry says he wants to take a leak, she reminds him to aim correctly. She cries because she remembers saying the same thing to her son as a child. These were subtle elements that prodded Gomez's tale with life and colour and added on those sorely needed subdued moments without fuss. Also, the fascinating way the taxi driver, Chia held on to his love for the conspiracy theory from start to finish showed Gomez's loyalty to and care for his characters.

My only gripe was that I found it a little hard to believe in Terry's love story with the Thai prostitute at the expense of the lives of his childhood friends whom he had known for many years. I didn't feel that the old bruises on Devil's back, sustained at the hands of the wicked Arab would compensate enough for the loss of 3 lives.

Nevertheless, a sparkling story, this!

Credit: Special mention for Adverse Sdn. Bhd. who created the cover design.
As for the black discount sticker, just a bit of devilment on my part.

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Some practical reasons that could have marred sales in Britain for Evening is the Whole Day

December 31, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Malaysia: I read recently in the Guardian that sales for Evening is the Whole Day written by Malaysian writer, Preeta Samarasan and which was first published in the US, had been deemed poor in Britain, despite the writer's talent.

I would fall into the exact category of London's typical book-buyer of South Asian literature or rather that of Indian writers published in the West. I once lived in London and even while having moved to Dublin, have continued to buy almost all of my books that feature Indian stories either published or found in London from the main bookshops on Oxford Street, Charing Cross & Piccadilly. I have a few hundred novels in this category alone in London for at least 6 years now.

As you purchase much of the fascinating literature from the Indian diaspora worldwide, an interested book-buyer would always tend to study the displays, to know where to seek out selected titles or to know how well a title does from its display alone. After awhile, an astute observation becomes telling and it is easy to forsee a prediction of how well a book is likely to do.

These are some practical reasons why I think, sales for Evening is the Whole Day in Britain is currently poor, something I had suspected would happen from way back in July 08. :

  1. Wrong timing for its release. Evening is the Whole Day came out as a chunky paperback in the summer in Britain. It had to contend with scores of paperback stories, holding lighter prose. I remember being a holidaymaker in London last summer. I was on my way to Liverpool and Wales and wanted to purchase a few books for the ride up. Just opening the pages to Evening is the Whole Day at Borders left me exhausted on that hot afternoon. First, it was the weight of the book. Then it was the elaborate prose held at every juncture. Perfect, I would think for a warm evening on a cold winter's day but it seemed sadly out of place at the time, for people on the move. What is it about a holiday that always demands a carefree mood... The hardback would have taken space and weight, enough I'd say for 2 average-sized paperbacks. I wouldn't have been the only visitor to have felt this way. Plus, in Blackwell's, the novel had to vye for attention with generous rows of of newly-released classics in paperback. This made up for a highly-decorative assortment of reads specially tailored for vacations. And what ravishing covers with which to lure the eye at that! I didn't think that Evening is the Whole Day stood much of a chance at all, with tourists milling in a bookshop in the middle of July. By the time September came along, the book would have been properly overshadowed by the many autumn titles - then suitably in hardback - with which to line the shelves. This would have signalled fresh competition.
  2. The title. It's too long and abstract to stay memorable. It also fails to say anything in particular. The titles I'm familiar with in Asian literature that have sold well in Britain, are often more streamlined and well-defined. The words hold tighter together. Straightaway, a book's name may hint at a definite plot like say, Elife Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul and Roopa Farooki's Bitter Sweets and Corner Shop or The Peacock Throne, The Kite Runner, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Bookseller of Kabul. For example, other Malaysian writers who did well on the London scene commanded titles for their books like The Rice Mother, The Harmony Silk Factory and The Gift of Rain. A reader would straightaway picture a clear story in the mind and is more likely to remember an easy title even when browsing elsewhere.
  3. A superlative blurb by the writer's friend and tutor, Peter Ho,who described her writing as that of Salman Rushdie's and Arundhati Roy's and so did her no favours in Britain. First of all, not many book-buyers in Britain I daresay, are likely to believe an over-the-top blurb. You only have to glance at the Guardian Books Blog every other day to pick up the easy cynicism, especially on the subject of cover blurbs. The British reader is not naive. Those who read Rushdie will prefer the real thing and not want to settle for an imitation. Those who don't read Rushdie will shy away from the book altogether. Most people find it easier to talk about Rushdie rather than to read him. It's been years since Arundhati Roy wrote anything significant in the way of fiction. She is seen as an activist and essayist rather than a novelist. By the way, even Rushdie got wise with The Enchantress of Florence as it was released in the spring. The sunshine cover with its sublime design knew how to tickle tenses. Also the first chapter was mostly a narration and stayed away from excessive descriptions.
  4. Readers and buyers in Britain of South Asian literature - many know of Malaysia only only in a vague sense -. At first glance, a book buyer would straightaway place a name like Samarasan's as that of a South Indian writer and especially too, as the story opens up to one of a South Indian family in Malaysia. However idealistic, Malaysia may want to applaud its literature, having met many Indian readers in Britain at odd times, this observation stays the reality.
  5. Limited distribution. I remember that Rani Manicka's The Rice Mother was displayed in several countries all at once, when it was released in September 2002. And it's still easily visible here in bookshops in Ireland. But Evening is the Whole Day couldn't even be found in Dublin where so many other Indian writers being published in Britain sit comfortably on the book-shelves. So once more, Samarasan has lost out.
  6. The publisher should have to woo the British book-buyer separately as loyalties will be different from that of the American book-buyer. At the moment, there is such a saturation of Indian stories in the marketplace in Britain. It's hard to even remember the names any more. Many readers in Britain would be familiar with the many of the earlier writers on their own homeground and also writers from India. Big names from America would include just a sprinkling. Jhumpa Lahiri of course, spots that universal touch. But otherwise, Indian writers who are published first of all in America are little known. In a way, Samarasan would have had to earn her place and not take an audience for granted. Only public awareness and a vast distribution and publicity drive in Britain - not America - could have granted her this.
  7. Also, many Indian writers who sell their novels are internet-savvy. They hold active websites and updated blogs of their own. Britain also charts up of the highest numbers of internet book sales in the world. Samarasan besides the usual introductory website, and odd web article, is not internet-savvy. In this aspect, she is easily engulfed by a host of livelier authors, who would be pushing their books but always graciously I'm sure, at every opportunity they could muster. Indian novelists are also naturally prolific at penning analytical essays on the web. This would have been Samarasan's everyday competition that would have easily contributed to robbing her of book sales - and all in the natural event of things - except that such a tendency would not have been immediately obvious.
  8. The mistaken notion and often one bordering on deception; that Evening is the Whole Day stays one of the few works of South East Asian literature to have hit the often-used phrase world map and so will sell easily. I have lived in Australia and West Europe long enough to know that nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Evening is the Whole Day has to industriously compete with Indian writers in the diaspora, writing their Indian stories from all round the world! Samarasan's competition is not with South East Asian literature at all but with Indian literature worldwide. That's where potential book-buyers and interested observers to her novel's theme, would have been nestled.
I'm sure that there is still time especially with an impending paperback. If just two or three of these reasons cited above could be seriously tackled with, I daresay, that there would be a significant improvement in sales in England.

In this case, I wouldn't specifically state the UK, as I'm not sure exactly how the distribution is based considering that I couldn't purchase the title when it mattered, in Dublin.

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Tuesday 30 December 2008

The rise and rise of Iranian literature

December 30, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Persian: 25 delightful stories from a children's book titled “Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Stories for the Nights of the Year” and this, authored by Iranian writer Mojgan Sheikhi, is to be published in both the Turkish and English Languages by Turkish publishing company, Timas, in the near future. Several stories from the book have also been chosen for a children 's programme called Good-Night Children which will soon be aired over Tehran's IRIB Channel 2.

In addition, Hamedan's local television station will also produce animated films from Sheikhi's stories in the same book.

Sheikhi has published and translated over 80 books in total. These include The Cow of No Colour, The Golden-Beak Nightingale, Looking for Bahareh, Tails Shop and Small Stories for Small People.

Pictured here is one of her picture books The Little Bat and Another Tale (Ofoq Publications). The plot revolves around a baby bat who is terrified of falling from up high, if he dares sleep upside down. To resolve the problem, the little bat sets off on an adventure. He asks a little bird and a great fish for help.

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Monday 29 December 2008

Persian Translation: The Tales of Beedle the Bard

December 29, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Persian: Literature has proved marvellous for shaping the silent steps of liberty for the straitlaced Islamic Kingdom of Iran.

Here now is the Persian version of JK Rowling's Christmas fairy tale cum charity gift, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which has already been translated into 28 languages.

Eager to share a slice of fun, Iran has hopped on board with gusto for the celebrated childrens' tales. Today's Tehran Times reports that the five stories, The Warlock's Hairy Heart, The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, The Fountain of Fair Fortune, Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump and The Tale of the Three Brothers were translated by Mohammad Nurollahi and released recently by Behnam Publications.

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Sunday 28 December 2008

Breaking News: Another Memoir Fraud - The Angel at the Fence by Herman Rosenblat

December 29, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

USA: The Daily Telegraph London, - one of a variety of interested media - reports that a much-celebrated memoir about a *Holocaust survivor meeting his future bride from across a wire fence of a Nazi concentration camp from where she often threw him apples and bread; has been declared a fraud.

The Angel at the Fence published by 76-year old Herman Rosenblat now a retired television repairman in Miami, has been questioned for its credibility to such an extent by other Jewish survivors and scholars that the book's publisher Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin has now cancelled February 3, 2009's intended publication date of the memoir.

Berkley Books said, it had cancelled the title after receiving new information from Rosenblat's literary agent, Andrea Hurst. The agent and author will now be required to return any monies handed over to them for this work.

Oprah Winfrey had acknowledged Rosenblat's tale as "the single greatest love story...we've ever told on air."

1) For a much more colourful version of the story, continue to read Here.
2) Herman Rosenblat married his wife, Roma, in 1958 and they have been together ever since.
A photograph of the couple as they appear today, may be observed Here.
3) Do read a follow-up story: a superb investigative piece on the red flags at The New Republic.

Further Reading:

The horrifying Holocaust was a systematic state-sponsored persecution programme that saw the Nazis kill 6 million Jews.
The Holocaust History Project Homepage & Holocaust Timeline.

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Never Ending Nightmares by Pael Khugan

December 28, 2008

by Suzan Abrams in Dublin

Book Review - Malaysia - Fiction (Horror)

Malaysia: Never Ending Nightmares, a chunky ghost story invented in the vein of a true blue Malaysian flavour by the country's resident, Indian writer, Pael Khugan and published by SKB Publishing House in Klang, is a commendable first effort.

The complexities to a thick unfolding plot demand that a fair amount of labour is called upon to snatch the hours. It is clear that Khugan delighted in painting a vivid gloominess that lined picturesque scenes like a bleak eye-catching canvas; if only to create the unholy resurrection of a virginal female apparition. The incubus had once before and because of a surgeon's carelessness, died tragically on the operating table.

In this sense, it served as fairly remarkable to watch Khugan having enjoyed the script's nemesis that appeared determined to haunt her in return with its daunting challenge of a twisted conflict.

The countless mixed scenes of scenery and action plus romance and horror thrown together liked a colourful bonfire and meant to strike up a sparkle indicates that the writer has savoured mulling over her craft and toiled over it with the same degree of disciplined fortitude and leisurely contemplation. For that alone, her creation of this work of fiction is deemed admirable.

However, on the flipside, a future writing progress demands that Khugan may have a way to go yet. Some parts of the book worked very well while other important sections stretched itself out too thinly and so shifted into boredom. Also, the manuscript stayed painful if not somewhat dodgy to the common everyday usage of the basic English Language; more importantly, tripping up on simple grammar rules that resulted in faltering tensing throughout the book. For this alone, much of the quality of the fiction was severely and needlessly demolished along the way.

Arul and Ava are a young couple who meet and fall in love in India. Both strike the reader as beautiful people. Ava is a brainy student and Arul a promising surgeon. Soon they will marry and leave a familiar homeland to live and work on an isolated island hospital in Malaysia. Dark secrets lurk under the paradise of a jewelled sea and shore. The happy couple jump at the prospect of a beautifully furnished bungalow. However, the luxurious seaside residence is haunted by the wife of a previous owner, who died suddenly in an accident. Still, another far more dangerous apparition tails Arul from India. Thanks to a careless surgical sin, the incubus who was once a lovely betrothed young woman, is adamant at destroying Arul with the aid of a violent vengence. He is offered no forgiveness by this evil force. A series of nightmares and other ghastly visions set the scene.

Two loyal friends, a Malay servant, Noraini, whose mother was famous for casting out 'incurable' spells and the driver Faizal are destined to help Arul and Ava overcome their demons, and this too, with the ingenious guidance of an insightful, quick-witted *mak cik.

Indeed, Never Ending Nightmares served as a cleverly crafted plot, bending on a gruesome horror made up of psychological word play and frightened feelings a-plenty. With such well-defined characteristics, the story could if Khugan wished, be easily adapted for the stage.

Set round a table, the four fictional characters readily come into their own. Each with their respective tastes, inner questions, strengths and flaws, lay bare the ghosts that wait before them. Relationship ties are especially called into question by an astute Khugan. Arul and Ava provide legitimate puzzlement over their difficult marriage. Noraini must decide if she wants to follow her mother's calling for performing exorcisms, a gift that had been passed down to her. easily enough. Faizal represents the qualities of goodness and sincerity, evident in the selfless human being.

A few striking bizarre scenes were cleverly narrated by Khugan. Noraini sensing a ghost in the laundry room and her interesting reactions to it, followed by the spirit's retaliation, was one. A ghoul in the house, hanging upside down with long outstretched hands with which to greet Ava, was another.

Khugan also spots a talent for laying out a seemingly effortless conflict. She is able to plant clues with dexterity at the start of the book and connect them to solutions in the later part of her novel, employing startling revelations that would beguile the reader and make perfect sense. For example, there is good reason and this unknown to the unsuspecting reader, that the ghost would hang about a laundry room.

However, there were several weaknesses. The description of Arul and Ava felt too beautiful to be true in the first instance. The reader senses that they may just have been models plucked out of a magazine shot. The story also tended to veer too much towards a romance. Khugan seems in the book not to have decided if she would rather have written a romance over a ghost story and appears torn between the two. If she meant a smooth combination, then it must be observed that one genre failed to marry the other.

It is perhaps, an easy realisation that Khugan intended to reveal how easily visions of beauty could dissolve in the face of fear. But despite the courageous experimentation, the description of both Ava and Arul's picture perfect appearance at the start, were too artificially-inclined to be taken seriously.

Writing a ghost story demands a dramatic pace with suspenseful overtures. In this aspect, Khugan failed her carefully manouvered plot which she slowed down tremendously through overly-long and tedious lines. This often made reading Never-Ending Nightmares an uphill task. A 300-page book could well have been served as a 200-page book.

For instance, "...she frantically looked around for any plastic wrapper that may have been thrown around the floor of the jeep. Luckily, being a new jeep, part of the plastic seat cover was still stuck under the driver's seat. She pulled it out and wrapped the kemayan in it and then stuffed it back into her jean's pocket." - Never Ending Nightmares - Pael Khugan

Wouldn't it sound so much better just to say, "Frantic, she rummaged about the new jeep for a plastic wrapper. The kemayan had to stay dry. Finally, she spotted the remnants of a plastic seat-cover. The kemayan was now safe." - suzan abrams

The idea is to not break a fast-paced mood and perhaps when writing a ghost story, especially as a first effort, it's best to cut to the chase to keep the reader hooked. You don't want to bore the reader with the cumbersome motions of everyday living. At the start, Khugan took great pains to describe the beautiful bungalow that Arul and herself, had been offered by the management but the ghost hardly touched the facilities. This created a loose connection between the bungalow description with the ghost story and so proved fruitless and unnecessary.

One suspects too, that Khugan would be better honing her hand at general fiction rather than literary. With serious literary fiction, it's a case of Many are called but few are chosen.

The pursuit of indulgence in long frivolous lines, in an acute ambition for perfection or a glossy first impression, should not be undertaken until a fluency with the basic grasp of the English Language has been accomplished.

As it is, what held back the plot was the constant mixing up of tenses, present continuous against past continuous, can for could and will for would or singulars instead of plurals which made reading some parts of the book itself a nightmare.

These primary errors never seemed to end. This reader half-suspects that the manuscript may never have been edited in the first place, or otherwise while in a hurry to be printed; treated in nothing more than a mediocre fashion as a finished work.

One unnecessary ghostly scene to an otherwise fine plot was when the ugly apparition masqueraded once more as a beautiful girl with which to seduce Arul. For a while he stayed hypnotised and was willing to die for her. This emerged as the imitation of a common plot; one that has gone many times before in films and books. It was totally ill-fitting with the course of the tale. Also, the idea of a woman first squatting on the ground and then rotating about in sudden flight, assumed the soppy air of melodrama and so too, the apparition crawling on all fours. This reminded me of female ghosts in those famous Japanese horror films that notoriously crawled out of telly sets and such. Khugan was insistent in her studied attempts to offer the reader a hopeful scare.

Also, poor conversational techniques didn't help matters. People don't speak as they would write say, a letter. The ghosts spewing out writerly English lines seem to veer towards silliness with their threats and tirades. At times, this reader felt that Khugan married the supernatural and the mortal world together; unable to draw a fine line between the two.

One example of an excellent dramatic pace and scene lay towards the end as all four characters met with the wise old Mak Cik who would lead them in an exorcism. Without giving anything away as spoilers, the plot was fast-paced and even-tempered with just the right balance of emotion and haphazard events to wind down the rambling tale.

Words like clambered over, ponder and merry birds chirping also lent a slightly childish Enid-Blyton tone to the story. Words like these went out of fashion in modern contemporary British fiction a long time ago.

As a parting shot, this pocket book had good production value, was well-produced and reminds me of Singapore's Times Publications novels once-upon-a-time in the early 90s.

*Mak Cik in the Malay language, meaning a female elder to whom respect is given or otherwise, called auntie

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Friday 26 December 2008

Tales from the Court and other stories by Matthew Thomas

December 27, 2008

by Suzan Abrams
in Dublin

Book Review - Malaysia Short Stories

Malaysia: Without the fraction of a doubt, 63 year old Malaysian lawyer and short story writer, Matthew Thomas commands an open ability to pen a high wry comedy befitting its gentle ease and practised verve, and this too; not relenting of a well-served nostalgia in the flushed youth of his suave telling years.

As his travels once afforded keen enthusiasm with comical and satirical observations made from over the high seas, and from motley Malaysian neighbourhoods; this would in turn be recorded with astute diligence and so too would Thomas on retiring from law, secure his first major published work of fiction in Kuala Lumpur.

In Tales from the Court and other short stories, published recently by Silverfish Books Malaysia and easily purchased from its e-bookstore, all of the humoured tales stretch with a supposed calm enjoyment from post-colonial Malaysia's early golden decades of the 50's, 60's and 70's. No doubt, they stay dressed with slight splendour, tailored to a harmonious pose reminscent of the cartoonish Indian-woman-with -her-black-bun-in-regal-sitting-pose on the cover.

In the same like-minded way, it is the writer's gallant mastery over his rib-tickling prose and recounted episodes in the 13 short stories, that make for immediate transparency without discomforture to a discerning reader's intuitive perusal. With each turned page of a playacting clownish maze, narrations cloaked in their jazzy wit, rise from strength to strength, ready to regale an audience with flashy or subdued happenings that may or may not change the course of one's life. Through fictional characters, philosophy is dictated more from the priceless commodity of cleverness shaped by logistics and common sense, rather than a marked sign of inheritance through a scholarly field. This is one of Thomas's storytelling gifts that would add a clear subtle theme to his stories.

How refreshing indeed to read of Malaysian fiction published in its capital city where book production whips up a classy fare and the fluency of the rich English vocabulary itself is held to its generous artistic measure and a high merit, capable of global appeal. In any case, the publisher of Silverfish Books, Mr. Raman Krishnan, is reputed for having produced excellent-quality books that would make a perfect present for any book collector's library. Tales from the Court and other stories, fits well into that perfect fold.

With titles like Comrade Michael Nambiar, Mike Kumar, esq, Cross Road Hotel and The Fortune Teller and where into the heart of these tales, quaint character names like George Kuttappan, Abdul Rahman Kutty, Daisy Mo and Boniface have been eagerly spun; the stories reflect a fascinating Malaysian Indian culture in often perplexing and clumsy circumstances - Thomas's own heritage is Indian - that may have the reader in stitches at odd moments and bid universal appeal with Indian communities worldwide.

Quirky personality traits outline sub-themes.

Rukumani Devi, the prim and prudish court clerk has to deal with a stubborn monkey, that squats on a judges' chair, eager to applaud the waiting cases. The puritannical Rukumani who prides herself on rigid efficiency, scorns and frowns her way into all things even gloating on a perfect prediction for a judge's hesitant fine at a traffic offence. The De Costa and Christie homes, particularly the wives, rival for superior gossip and showy Christmas celebrations that finally go awry. The Very Reverend Verghese Verghese, a Syrian Orthodox Christian has a morbid encounter with a ghost. Jaswant Singh who works in an electronics shop, smuggles goods in his turban with elaborate efficiency and slyly sweet-talks his way out of a dire situation with a suspicious guard. Lucian Sinnadurai, a classic drunk and wife-beater almost get his comeuppance - a good wallop with a stick - from a thoroughly fed-up neighbour called Mr. Petrus. And so forth.

In his writings, Thomas doesn't try to impress anyone. His talent is his own. He is naturally funny in a style similar to Indian novelist and diplomat Vikas Swarup's Six Suspects and one suspects too, a sparkling conversationalist at parties. Thomas writes in a racy fashion, almost as if he is eager to end a newly-begun tale and start a new rush with the next one; the keen lone writer sketching tales without deliberation or delay.

He adopts an almost classic American thriller style when recalling a glib talker in Mike Kumar, esq. The story reminded me distinctly of the late Erle Stanley Gardner famous for his Perry Mason books. Mike Kumar, esq, held that bewitching quality about it.

'...He then abruptly ended the meeting. Addressing me, he said, "Meet us at the Planters' Inn Bar at the Hilton at approximately 7pm tonight." I rushed home to take a shower and change before keeping my appointment. En route to the Hilton, I weighed in my mind, the possibility of being let down by MK... ...On the other hand, the presence of Mousieur Mauclair... - Matthew Thomas, Tales from the Court

One of his slick techniques lay in an ingenious show-not-tell episode in Cross Road Hotel, a recollection full of sarcastic quips. The narrator holidays with a friend at a small hotel in a tidier part of London. However, they pay a fortune for a modest housekeeping style and room service. Nothing appears to work. Everything is either unavailable, shabby or may have broken down. Thomas writes of Gabriel, the handsome pony-tailed Argentian manager who offers soothing consolation for every unfortunate encounter.

At first, Gabriel professes nothing short of integrity, honesty and a religious modesty. He confesses to pure worship and one gathers, the highest respect of the hotel 's owner, Mrs. Yavari from whom he would eventually announce that he had industriously been taught Islam. Over this slice of education, Gabriel claims utter devotion. After all, Mrs. Yavari had been kind enough to give him a poor emigrant a job and to this, he feels highly indebted. His only ambition was to visit Egypt for which the narrator thinks, he may have meant Mecca instead. The facilities in the hotel turn out to be be a poor show and none of Gabriel's soothing promises come about to make the narrator's life suitably comfortable. At the end, without revealing too much, the narrator discovers that far from being engrossed in a religious discipline, Gabriel instead survived a somewhat vigorous occupation as a striptease dancer in a club and is known to have lured 20 girls all at once.

It is Thomas's absolute sensitivity and respect towards the reader's imagination that provokes sophistication for this story. He allows a skilled manouvering of incidents to play in the reader's mind. This encouraging the fact that that individual conclusions may be found without Thomas being preachy or comparing notes in retrospect.

The story of a haunted house narrated in a semi-tragic classical style and coated by dry overtones, proved to be one of the most amusing of all of Thomas's tales.

Also, one of the simple reasons that Tales from the Court works admirably with nostalgia and history, is because the writer writes from a life well-lived and remembered and such expertise will always dissolve the works of another writer, who may rely solely on the imagination. Malaysia's early tradition of using Good Morning towels and buying Big Sister fruitcake at the ancient MS Ally & Sons shop, for instance, is a clear indication of each story's full-bodied flavour.

This reader's only problem with the stories were that many did not hold commas and it was difficult not to want to pause but to settle for collecting too many thoughts all at once. The lack of necessary commas made some of the lines overwhelming in their conjectures. Also, while many of the Malay words were famously scattered about the stories that any foreign reader would have been able to grasp the meaning of those words easily enough, the very first one on the first page, that started with Banguun, did not. Thomas goes on to describe the judge and to talk about the court occupants, rising in unison, only much later in a different paragraph. Unless he had specifically said, they rose, before jumping to the next thought of description featuring the judge's entry, no foreign reader is likely to understand that term offhand.

Again, it depends. Is this book written solely for a Malaysian audience? If it is, then it doesn't matter. But if it's published for a world well-locked in a swift digital age, the international reader would expect to know the meaning of words all at once. In an age of instant gratification, for many things, a glossary is more important than ever, failing which the intended paragaph will simply slide over the reader's head without further thought.

Another captivating quality about Matthew Thomas's Tales from the Court and other stories are the delightful illustrations sketched throughout the book, with which to define a fictitious character or plot. These b/w doodles and the cover of exaggerated but homey pencilled figurations were produced by Thomas's son, Aaron Thomas. His attentive drawings superbly complemented his father's savvy writing craft.

Further Reading:

A photograph of writer Matthew Thomas may be seen Here in this personality story featured in Malaysia's national weekend newspaper, The New Sunday Times.

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December 26, 2008
Back in Dublin and hope to write more later after I've had myself a good rest. The bookshelves Des made me are terrific. I have a proper library in the living room now. I would like to pen my experiences of the book scenes in both Singapore and Malaysia especially with regards to consumer spending, the effect of book production value on book-buyers and the writing aspirations of local writers who write in English. I'd also like to pen some book reviews on literature I'm currently reading from these countries and to carry on with Middle-Eastern stories. I don't know what gives me the vibrant energy to do all the things I do but I'm thankful for the gift. I believe it stems from pure passion really and nothing else. This stays the root cause for my pursuit of knowledge and experience in these areas. - suzan abrams

Wednesday 24 December 2008

December 25, 2008

I am flying to Europe today, on Christmas day, so I shall write next from Dublin. - suzan abrams

December 24, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

I have made the spontaneous decision to return to Dublin already as my partner, Des, is missing me too much and I thought that it would be a good idea to spend the New Year with him. I made this decision just 2 days ago. My travel schedule meant going in to East Africa first and then returning to Ireland so I am just moving things around a bit. I will carry on with my journey to the African continent in mid-January.
There are a couple of advantages at least as I won't have to lug my many new books with me. I have purchased a fair bit of Malaysian and Singaporean literature and just can't wait to read and review them all while I am in Dublin. I also plan to offer my thoughts on some experiences here in Malaysia and Singapore.

Des has installed new bookshelves for me in the flat. He says there is space for storage of another 50 hardbacks at least. That excludes my collection of world cinema dvds and music cds. At least, I'll travel with my usual light luggage to East Africa and if you only knew how much I disliked packing, you'd know what a godsend the very idea of a light clothes bag, represents to me.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

December 23, 2008
by Suzan Abrams
No proper post for today sorry, but I will have one tomorrow. From the 26th, I'll be settled at my new destination and will be able to let you know what I've been up to on the subject of books. I half-expect to be in a somewhat serene/sedate disposition with which to catch up on my reading and writing until it's time to fly again in mid-Jan '09.
I'm excited about the New Year for sure and the possibilities that wait to greet me.

Sunday 21 December 2008


December 22, 2008
by Suzan Abrams
Have lots to write. Not on the blog maybe but other forms of creative input. Just one new destination alone commands so much in experience and adventure. My life feels concocted with and shrouded by tales. I'm writing this from the Premier lounge in Changi airport once more and will have to find a place in the next few weeks to settle down and do some serious writing.
On the blog, I'd love to talk about the books I've read, have bought and am about to lug about to read and also my impressions of literature as afforded to a destination - especially places that I'm lucky to have witnessed as a person. (Des... not to worry. I am missing you.)

Saturday 20 December 2008

Back in Singapore this evening. I haven't yet decided where I want to go for the next 2 weeks or maybe slightly more, starting Christmas. There is a country I badly want to visit for the literature but it is somewhat intimidating to travel alone and I don't know if I have the nerve. I have been warned to stay confined to its safe boundaries if I do head there. However, I feel lured to its infinite possibilities. I could choose a country for the daunting or the familiar but will have to make up my mind by Monday. The travel agent knows of my indecisive ways and says she will wait and in any case, flights are still spotting seat availability for international outback regions, so I shall meet her on Monday to confirm everything. We will work things out and I shall buy my ticket and that will be that. And then once more like the quintessential adventurer that I am, I shall be off on the spur of the moment and as too, as often is the case, at an odd hour sometime in the night.

Friday 19 December 2008


December 20, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

My posts will be erratic from now as I am constantly on the move. I am flying back to Singapore this afternoon and am at a situation in my life where I have to balance flight schedules, collect tickets, see travel agents, collect luggage and all sorts. I am flying to another country at Christmastime. I will write more to explain this evening from Singapore.

Thursday 18 December 2008

Malaysia's former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad at the MPH Bookstore, Mid-Valley Megamall, Kuala Lumpur today

December 18, 2008
by Suzan Abrams
Malaysia: I flew in to Kuala Lumpur on Singapore Airlines. I love Changi Airport which reminds me of the Belfast City Airport for their top-class service, plush facilities and warm hospitality.. The Belfast City airport is a domestic airport in the heart of Northern Ireland which serves several regions in the United Kingdom. I actually have quite a few stories now on airports and quirky characters I've met about the place and somewhere, somehow, I shall have to stop a moment to write them all down.
Thought I'd come to the MPH Bookshop at Mid-Valley and found myself walking straight into a press conference with the limelight on Malaysia's former Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and based on his new book on his blog, called Blogging to Unblock. It was just about to start so I was very fortunate . Also, that I had a good view.
How very handsome the former Prime Minister looked. How serene his face. And how well too, his wife appeared. They still made a ravishing couple.
Tun Dr. Mahathir allowed four questions to be asked of him at the conference and the humoured emcee himself broached one. Of course, there was a big crowd and plenty of press. Tun Dr. Mahathir said he would only answer questions on writing as he saw himself a writer and nothing at all on politics. Everyone laughed when he joked that whoever asked him about politics would be promptly arrested.
He was also asked about the possibility of publishing his memoirs, for which there was more sound banter.
Out of the five questions finally, one of them lay on censorship when Tun Dr. Mahathir's thoughts were sought on the importance of the internet over print. The former Prime Minister said that he could write anything and it all came up on screen with no difficulty whereas with press interviews, many of his answers were often edited or sometimes twisted to project certain things he never said.
He also talked about the importance of writing fairly when posting a blog entry and not to undermine people and gave an example to this effect like a blogger who may make threats saying he/she wanted to "kill someone".
What I found inspiring was when someone asked a question about Malaysian writers writing blogs on the internet and what advice he had, Mahathir replied that there was nothing like repeated writing. That the most important discipline was to keep writing and not to stop. The more often you penned out thoughts on your blog, the more skilled a writer you would eventually become, he said.


Tuesday 16 December 2008

Silverfish Books: The Rolls Royce of Paperback Publishing in Malaysia

December 16th 2008

by Suzan Abrams

They quite took my breath away when I picked up these splendidly-produced books at the Kinokuniya Bookshop in Takashimaya, Singapore, a day ago.

Independent Malaysian publisher, Mr. Raman Krishnan of
Silverfish Books Kuala Lumpur published these interesting titles some months ago by a few very talented Malaysian writers.

Matthew Thomas is a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur and the other three short story writers are well, clever young things. You'll see that the beautiful covers really don't do any justice on his website.

In reality, they have been so painstakingly produced, that they may have been limited pieces heralding a sophisticated work of art or little paintings in my hand.

I was thrilled to pick them up on this side of the world finally - I had been dreaming of that exquisite porcelain cup and saucer back in Dublin - that they're already tucked away in my luggage. The inside flap is just as charming. It shows the frothy coffee before it was drunk.

I want to explain to you the personality of the covers, announce their credentials and talk about the stylish page layouts for both books.
I have to catch a flight tomorrow so I'll write more when I reach my new destination.

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Popular author Amulya Malladi Shares a Festive Mood

December 17, 2008

As told to Suzan Abrams

Popular bestselling novelist, *
Amulya Malladi, probably best known for her highly popular tale of diarrayed cultures, spicy gossip and a clandestine approach to romance all wound around the sizzling subject of fruit in The Mango Season, reopens her blog - famous for its frank take on social, cultural and equally controversial situations in Copenhagen - after a long spell of having closed it down.


Malladi who is currently working on a new title for a sixth novel, sees herself as "ready to talk about it in the next few months."

Meanwhile, her exploratory journey as a writer, probably best lies in the element of surprise. "I think in terms of telling a story or answering a question especially...I'm never quite sure and never quite know what that will be.

"Every story is a surprise to me and thank god for that because it would be so boring to write something that was not a surprise, something I knew well and was sure about."

On Christmas 2008

"We don't do that many Christmas markets in Denmark. There is one at Tivoli, the amusement park but we don't go religiously. I did got to some fabulous Christmas markets in Vienna last year. That was amazing.

"We have always had a Danish Christmas, even when we lived in the States. I'm Hindu and new to Christmas so I get pretty excited about the tree and the decorations and the toys. We will celebrate Christmas at my in-laws' place this year. It is going to be a difficult Christmas. My mother-in-law passed away this summer and we're not quite looking forward to all these firsts without her.

"I love the lights and the cheer of the season. I always feel that it starts to smell like cookies as we get closer to Christmas. I love to go shopping, pick presents, drink glogg, eat ableskiver...and in general cosy up."

*Amulya Malladi was born and raised in India before leaving to reside in America for several years. She later moved to Copenhagen, Denmark with her Danish husband and two young sons.

Her five books, including The Sound of Language which has its setting in Denmark and was released last December, have all sold incredibly well, especially in the States.

Please note that The Sound of Language will be released in the Danish language in May, 2009.

Credit: Photograph of Amulya Malladi shot by Soren Rasmussen and is author's own.


Monday 15 December 2008

Lions in Winter by Wena Poon (Singapore)

December 16, 2008

by *Suzan Abrams

General Analysis


Singapore: No doubt, Singapore's engaging literary manner and popular for its slightly starched, matter-of-fact writing style, is what stays immediately distinct, from the first page of writer Wena Poon's compelling short story collection.

The tales in Lions in Winter yield their sub-themes, structure, vocabulary and technique readily to general fiction and offer a mostly riveting read to any reader unfamiliar with the tangled complexities that dress world culture. However, astute readers on the other side of the fence may be baffled.

As it stands, only a stranger to Singapore literature past and present, will fail to recognize the exclusive trademark that heartily stamps its approval on the Causeway's many exciting works of fiction.

Often spelling a dry, wry approach to form, wit and style with measured simplistic vocabulary exercised at the outset, the contemplative tales of Philip Jeyaratnam for instance, the memorable plays of a prolific Ovidia Yu and the plucky plots so eagerly fielded by Su-Chen Christine Lim for the longest time; all drum up a number of shared notable writings with similar idiosyncrasies.

Of course, this signalled gift stems as a unique signature tune afforded to Singapore alone. None in world literature are known to pen narrations quite like them.


Having affirmed the above however, impressions for the 11 short stories were a mixed bag.

When the Writer Should Speak Up

The Cover

For me, a serious book collector back in Ireland, the production quality of the cover conducted by a publishing house in Malaysia, was indeed poor.

There were no two ways about it. Such is expected mostly of an amateur self-published writer who ferries her manuscript to a lone printer. No London or Irish bookseller that I know stocks books with inferior covers. I'm sadly, used to those standards and I think that any publisher from the East, who wants to compete in highly-competitive bookstores in West Europe at least; should seriously think about raising their production quality value where book buyers may just prove more discerning.

So here was the enigmatic and bewitching still-life image of a solitary autumn leaf so alluringly captured, but now tragically overpowered by a weak front, that was determined to compete with the furled pose in the picture. My brand-new copy didn't take long to curl at the tips and edges and rush with intended folly towards the spine. It prepared to shape itself into a cone while challenging the book lover's irritation. On reading Poon, I fingered each precious page as if my life depended on it and still, the cover would wrestle for a bent ambition of self-destruction.

I had observed the same at the Borders bookshop on Orchard Road where I first purchased Lions in Winter. The first few copies brazenly exhibited their bruised covers. I had mistakenly thought this to be the result of gregarious browsing and carefully selected one from the far back. In this vein too, it is wise to bear in mind that a white or cream shade for a jacket design reveals every amateur flaw of the production process.


In the choice of a theme

I did not consider the stories to be specifically those of displaced Singaporeans or one of Asian emigration and felt as a longtime traveller that the theme proved deceptive. Unnoticed, it may be seen to separate stereotyped ethnicity into little boxes. Many of the fictitious characters emerged as stubbornly clinging to preferred lifestyle choices. The attempted grand ideals at carpeting this theme from start to finish, failed to command the desired effect for this reader and instead geared silent observations in the direction of the author's possible lack of exposure at a broadened lifestyle, travel and the subject of international Asian emigration, in general. In being overly-ambitious, the writer's vulnerability now in danger of slipping up halfway, is straightaway called into focus.

I was able to discern without effort, the writer's somewhat limited experiences at world literature. My instincts shouldn't have been called into question in the way that it did especially that I see Poon's art as talented if somewhat still engrossed in apprenticeship.

Most of the stories reflected nothing more than an assortment of misplaced personality traits and this, relegated to the active motion of indulging in everyday issues. In this way, the stories of resignation and sometimes misfortune, stayed sharply faithful to the universal way of life. The main emotional themes embraced Chinese customs and habits thrown in as supplementary decorative ornaments.

Travel widely and consistently and the intellect will contemplate the battle of fragile human emotions that often arrow complexities into the enduring self and tighten the durability of survival. From the North Pole to the South, customs and culture merely make for a reluctant camoflaouge.

In that sense, it proved a piece of cake for this reader to spot the forced stereotyped conclusions drawn from simply glueing a mottled pattern of American and Singaporean lifestyles together.

I couldn't glimpse the satisfying marrying of extraordinary cultures as the problems surrounding each character could just as well have affected a group of West Europeans or even Siberians.


I think it would have been far more honest to label the theme around Chinese stories with complex individual personalities or of how life's experiences and the pursuit of materialism may dog the modern Chinese in certain regions of the world. Throw in a new setting - suburbs instead of flats and when it comes to the cores of the plots, I could well identify my Malaysian Chinese friends with all the stories in this book. They're not Singaporean by nationality and they're not emigrants. But their stories are one and the same. Even leaving a house unclean on the Chinese Lunar Year was explained to me by my Malaysian friends and neighbours when I was little. It's still a common ritual among Chinese families from different countries all over the world.

The vast Chinese population in Sydney, Melbourne and Kolkata tell the same stories and outline identical problems. On the subject of homosexuality, Western cultures face the exact problems as the Chinese characters in the book did, on the problems of coming out of the closet. So too, the idea of suicide.

On the subject of cuisine, not just America cooks up an elaborate menu of sandwiches. So does almost every country in the West or Australia, the Middle East and even in a primitive town in East Africa where I was recently. They will ask you the cheeses, breads, gravies, sauces, salads, and all of that.

Unless an emigrant or traveller tramps a rural village, the world has globalised itself, good and proper.

The issues in this book are certainly centered more on modernism, the pursuit of materialism and generational gaps which are evident with almost every culture, all round the world and even in tribal outback regions.

The adoption scenes described in the Hair-Washing Girl are also common among Indian communities entrenched in poverty.

In Kenny's Big Break, the plot could just as well have taken place in Hong Kong, China or Malaysia. There's nothing that specifically suggest Singaporean except for the tragically unexplained initials of the HDB flat to the Western reader. It also doesn't need an American-Jew to annul a wedding from loss of face. An Indian groom would do just the same to an Indian bride. It's just a funny story but doesn't propose new conclusions to a specific culture. There is also no sense of displacement...just the reminder to the pitfalls of rudeness and greed.

Other countries besides Singapore legalise different forms of National Service too. Here Poon was a little vague and had she attempted to compare the National Service laws as opposed to say, Malaysia or Iran - where they are called Revolutionary Guards instead - then maybe the story would look decidedly Singaporean. As it is, soldiers everywhere drive trucks.

The Shooting Race admirably produced by Poon, also revealed an oaf of a boorish character who possessed nothing more than a disturbed personality trait and a trail of arrogance with varied insecurities to match. Timid succumbing wives, resigned attitudes, ignorance and a guilty conscience heaped on by a desire not to get involved at the worst of times but merely to stay on as spectators, exist everywhere in the world. Such situations take place daily and pit West against West and East against East. In what way can they be defined as Singapore stories? If the location is changed, the plot could still work.

Addiction was indeed an addictive story except that the idea of fake British accents are pretty much passe in England these days. Maybe a decade or two ago but no longer. That section feels outdated. No one bothers to put on a British accent anymore. London has changed and currently houses Europe's largest populated city. There are over 300 languages being spoken on London streets every five minutes. Also, the English from different townships and states have all moved about regionally. There really is no distinct accent that serves as news anymore.

About umbrellas not being able to sustain tropical rains. That doesn't just happen in Singapore anymore thanks to global warming. In Dublin on an average rainy day, your umbrella will be destroyed in the first five minutes of having opened it unless you're carrying a hardy one. Rains have brazenly adopted a tropical heaviness in several countries these days, not just on the Equator.

A valuable pointer when producing multicultural fiction from the Far East

Always remember that China and India started tackling emigration themes and individual identity first of all and that these topics had already reached their peak in the West from about 3 to 4 years ago. This is how the West draws on the Chinese and Indian population on general terms. That is where the majority of readers still turn to when they want to dip into multicultural fiction. The Far East currently dogs the larger footsteps of West and South Asia in aspects of literature produced in the English Language. Japan has also made a tremendous impact with fiction in the English Language but always in the nation's famous unhurried way.

In Europe, scattered countries like Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia are often referred to as the Far East. Malaysia is sometimes remembered first as Malaya.

Emigration issues are already considered a stale theme by South Asian writers of the diaspora in the States and the West. Writers from China and the Indian sub-continent have been at the game a very long time. They have had a progressive foot in the door of big publishing houses in the States and New York for the last three decades.

Almost as if to prove a point, Jhumpa Lahiri hardly touched on emigration in Unaccustomed Earth. She concentrated on newer modes of lifestyles for Indians in the West. Others have fervently turned to thrillers.

To be distinctively Singaporean-Chinese or Malaysian-Indian means having to unearth even deeper extraordinary or unusual traits that only one country in the world could boast about. That a situation could happen to no Indian in the world except in Malaysia or that a situation could happen to no Chinese in the world except in Singapore. That without that situation or the character's identified nationality, the character simply ceases to exist.

So far, successful Malaysian novels in the West have drawn on history as a shield to separate their plots from the ordinary, a technique that has always worked. Because history straightaway says who you are and defines the country's personality for what it stoutly is.

Touching on modernity after you have stripped away history, customs, traditions, superstitions, folklore and the very gift of exotica that together shape Asia for what it is and this simply because the writer finds these areas too tiresome, suggests a dicey venture. If a writer lacks the adequate harmonious balance, the plot turns up in nothing more than a masquerade of wobbly fragments.
As an aside, a Helpful Checklist for Chinese & Indian writers from Singapore & Malaysia submitting international multicultural fiction.

a) Read contemporary new fiction from India & China to see what's selling around the world.

b) Read critical essays and interviews on authors to see what's gone before and to understand present trends by publishing companies. Sometimes, themes simply die out and the demand for them disappears.

c) See how you can write a manuscript on Chinese or Indian culture in South East Asia (if that's your preferred choice, so that the Chinese & Indian titles/themes/execution techniques are not rehashed from a bigger region and that the Western audience sees the difference.

d) Writers from the Indian sub-continent are known for their natural exquisite prose. They command a smooth mastery in stringing long lines together when they have to. Not many writers can do this. Make sure your manuscript is equivalent with those standards if you're an Indian writer from this part of the world and choose long passive tenses over shorter active ones. When it comes to Indian stories, the West stays intimate mostly with writers from the Indian sub-continent where a trusted reading relationship has already been formed.

e) Chinese themes are constantly different and changing. Know the authors and works that have gone before in the last 10 years.

f) Read as much challenging serious fiction as you can so that your vocabulary is enriched and your form and style progressively determined.

g) Make sure that your manuscript has a strong foundation and exceptional identity if you are writing international multicultural fiction to from the Far East, with which to sell in the West. One of the following will help you:

  1. history
  2. build on a vast geographical landscape
  3. tradition
  4. generational habits attributed to family sagas in a particular location.
  5. folklore
  6. fashion, cuisine, unusual regional occupations
  7. extraordinary sport for eg. a plot wound around the *sepak takraw in Malaysia. A clear speciality.
  8. a celebration of a universal festival/wedding/thanksgiving/orientation in a particular regional location that makes the universal feasting suddenly appear unusual, odd, interesting, fascinating and exceptional.
  9. nostalgia i.e. Wena Poon's excellent tale in The Man Who Was Scared of ATMs exhibited oldtime Singaporean nostalgia as a sound framework. This foundation in turn, resulted in outstanding storytelling.

*sepak takraw: a sport similar to volleyball and popular in SouthEast Asia with the exception that the ball is a rattan one and that players only use their feet, knees, chests and heads to touch the ball.

Arrangement of Stories

The arrangement of the short stories in Lions in Winter were disjointed. Some were strong and others weak so a talent for placement was very important. Shouldn't each story read like parts of an aria to a dramatic or flamboyant opera or even a harmonious orchestral composition where no hint of a haphazard arrangement that make for straggly threads, occurs? It should leave the reader at the close of the book with a sense of wholeness or fulfillment.

It also did not help that amateur and misplaced editing techniques that served to lace some of the stories like a fatal touch of poison would only serve as a raw injustice to Poon's very promising talent. A good editor is a jewelled asset. This absence was sorely felt for some of the episodes.

I thought the first story although spunky and slightly colourful, to be the weakest from the collection, serving best as adolescent fiction. This story also employed lazy editing techniques.
Please see tomorrow's entry under editing flaws.

The witty tale of a little boy who plots against his sister is a right lark no doubt and well recounted in the Just William series, mastered by the British novelist, Richmal Crompton.

I had read it happily at 13. It reflects an identical storytelling description served on a platter of easy vocabulary. Like Kenny who banters with his schoolfriend in the bus, so too does William lost in tomfoolery with his friend while they walk home from school. Like Kenny, William too plots with cunning to triumph over an older sister he considers to be much too self-righteous for her own good. And like Kenny, William too takes revenge on an even more annoying suitor for the sister, with a prank except that it's not a wedding scene as such. I had read a similar tale at 13. Having said this the satire and humour were ticklish - a strong showing from Poon as characterization over events is where she excels.

Another story, The Toys, immediately brought Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window to mind.



Poon's highly-skilled stories definitely had to be Mrs. Chan's Wedding Day, Dog Hot Pot and The Man Who Was Scared of ATMs. In these episodes, she was brilliant and I will reaffirm the fact that if Poon could keep up with tales like these with specific attention to detail on everyday topics and on more modest themes concentrating mainly on a motley of eccentric individual characters surfacing from their ordinary lives, she could be up and running as a distinctive writer over time.

Poon is marvellous at spinning the longer short story.

In Mrs. Chan's Wedding Day which was superbly edited, the tenses were simply perfect. The story read like a wonderful dream. Dog Hot Pot commanded an exciting storyline where Poon was honest even about the careless ugliness that threatened to mar the strange justification of human nature and habits, and the narration proved oddly striking. However, there lay a few editing flaws. The Hair-Washing Girl turned out to be sensitive and enlightening. The Man Who Was Scared of ATMs, revealed Poon at her best...her excellent acumen at tapping into a web of intricate feelings, distressing emotions, harrowing reflections and an agonizing sadness, that revealed contrasting generations bearing the wounds of nostalgia and their complicated wants. The fascinating comparison with Canadian uniforms for instance, remained the skeletal qualities that unearthed and moulded the story's distinction. This was one of the fraction of tales that came closest to being uniquely Singaporean.


The schoolgirlish voice evident in several phrases featuring explanatory prose and not slang/dialogue lay in words like mind-numbingly dull, sort of, kidding me, really absolutely...
are what robs prose of its sophistication, grace and elegance.

In parts, the lucid introspective pieces were made severely handicapped by childish phrases. With each deformity, I stopped being mesmerised.

Words like rather which is very British seemed out of place in this book. Also, a line which has words in it like rather pregnant. A woman can only be slightly pregnant, pregnant or very pregnant but rather pregnant dangles in the sentence without achievement and stays meaningless in its interpretation.

Too many repetitive words locked to a single line. From Kenny's Big Break, They were sticking stickers into sticker albums. There are many more lines like these splattered across the other stories. Is it supposed to be a genius technique, meant to create some kind of impact?

2 thoughts spring to mind for this reader. That the writer must surely own a limited vocabulary range and what a betrayal indeed for the English Language as the keeper of one of the broadest vocabulary choices in the world.

The dangerous absence of footnotes/glossary when writing about foreign cultures.

To not take the trouble to explain Asian terms to an unfamiliar European reader - to not even bother with an index - is risky to say the least. It says that the reader is automatically expected to know what you are talking about which of course, the reader won't. It also speaks the silent language of a writer's arrogance, rudeness or laziness.

Some quick research will show that publishers invest weeks to create indexes and footnotes as they represent an intense scholarly approach and are often handled with meticulous care. The labour abroad for this process alone, is also deemed expensive. That's how essential it is.

In this visual, digital age, the writer loses out in the long run.

Simple logistics and common sense. The reader will simply let the foreign line/words slide over with scant interest and any desired impact or effect meant for the reader would be lost in the process. As regards to any unexplained Asian term, the unfamiliar worldwide reader is also unlikely to retain that section in the memory. Explain nothing and the writer's effort would have been totally wasted. Remember that we live in the 21st century, a readymade technological age where readers expect things instantly.

Recently, an Irish writer on television complained about the speedy mechanical functions of The Sony Reader. He remarked that it took "a good few seconds" for the next page to load up. A few seconds is still a slight delay, he had grumbled while looking aggrieved.

In this aspect, popular Singapore poet ng yi-sheng demonstrated humility in his description of the odd, perplexing poetic term or two , on the last page of last boy. The reader was saved the inconvenience of further inspection and too, the indignity of closing the book while feeling sheepishly ill-informed.

A few editing flaws from the many I found but I think you get the picture.

I wonder if when stories are gathered together from different media sources that editors in a publishing house don't have a responsibility to clean them up instead of leaving terrible straggly ends. I felt that a prominent lack of deserving editing industry certainly did not do Poon's stories any favours, especially in the tale below.

Kenny's Big Break ran up a loose and clumsy copy because of a nonprofessional and mostly, lazy editing effort. Remember that a good editor always aims to make a writer's work sparkle and not leave it sedate as in a coma.

They got onto the train: (Me: They got on the train. Otherwise, 'they climbed onto the train.') A toddler was swaying up and down the train. - Why would an editor allow a passive approach that makes a line sag? Much of modern fiction published in the UK today, including translated fiction use short tight lines. Very few settle for present continuous or past continous tenses because these often drag down prose. Such techniques went out of fashion a long time ago.

Why not the active approach? Me: The toddler swayed up and down the train. Reads just as well, is tight and crisp. Strengthens the prose. Always choose the active over the passive if possible. That's how the award-winning Lahiri wrote her stories in Unaccustomed Earth. She used short active lines for almost page.

His mother harangued him constantly to get back to his seat.
(Me: Get like got is such a stagnant word and doesn't paint any picture in a reader's mind).
Look at the marked difference. Me: His mother... him... to return to his seat.
(Straightaway, you picture the little boy running to his seat.)
Me: Harangued: means long, tedious and without stopping: a diatribe... This makes the word constantly redundant.

Me: Do understand that I like many readers, want to be seduced by prose and not made to feel that we were reading a textbook.

Kenny pointed out, with t..... revulsion of a .... teenage boy... with his head firmly on his shoulders...
Me: My God! Where else can a human head possibly be? Why if not firmly, will it come loose?
Also one already knows that Kenny is a boy. So why the repetition?But now when I think about it, isn't the head firmly on the neck?

A head leans against the crook of a shoulder but it cannot sit firmly on it. Or someone else may lean on your shoulder.) Maybe the writer is trying to say ...with his head held stiffly upwards. (fullstop). Or ...with upright shoulders (fullstop). Metaphorically speaking, there is a famous proverb. He has a good head on his shoulders. But that is abstract of course. It means that the person is highly sensible and adept at showing responsibility in life. (Not the same thing at all.)

And now at age 34... (Me: And now at 34...

("I already told her.... " said Kenny, boredly. Me: Boredly? It makes the line sound really odd and echoes of teen language. But this isn't dialogue. I also think it reads badly.
If you want sophistication, eloquence or a correct version, say something like this:
.... said Kenny, bored. ... said a bored Kenny. ... said Kenny with a bored look. ... said Kenny, wearing a bored look. .... said Kenny wearing a bored expression

He didn't mind going to ... the M..., he told CB on the b...ride home, before it disappeared under the rising tides of global warming. Me: Wrongly constructed.

Correct version: He didn't mind going to ... the M before it vanished under the rising tides of global warming. He said as much to CB on the bus ride home. (2 different thought patterns so 2 different lines.)

Their whispering attracted the men, (wrong tense). Me: Their whispers attracted the men

Nothing grand. But far more effective.

There are dozens more wrong tensing, strange lines and repetitive words locked to a single line, splattered here and there in certain stories. For example too, from Dog Hot Pot: I went to visit a Ma... journalist friend of mine. Me: A friend indicates that the narrator already knows the individual personally. Thus, the words of mine, are redundant.


By contrast,

last boy by ng yi-sheng - winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2008

  1. sophisticated production value for book
  2. elegant cover design that lived up to a hilt thanks to the quality of production
  3. good quality paper
  4. meticulous polished copy from start to finish.
  5. no editing flaws at all.
  6. no typos at all.
  7. graceful and splendid underlying symmetry that held each poem together although they were written at different times. Perfect synchronisation of poetry.
  8. Provided the overall impression of a class act.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - winner of the Frank O'Connor International Irish Prize & where the judges felt that even a shortlist was pointless.

  1. excellent production process for book
  2. faultless to any editing flaws. no such visibility apparent.
  3. prose employed the active approach over the passive approach.
  4. no long tensing unless for applied intricate wordplay.
  5. rich vocabulary but discreetly peppered about the lines.
  6. no excessive adjectives.
  7. no unnecessary descriptions.
  8. creative structure and techniques now and then. This prevented the stories from sounding dull.
  9. easy-to-read
  10. short tight lines used mostly.
  11. a highly elegant symmetry that blended all the stories together into a neat composition. Nothing appeared weaker or stronger than the other. Nothing appeared messy or out of place. Fictional characters provided an easy recognition of a refined style.
  12. Provided the overall impression of a classy prose.

The Lies That Build A Marriage by suchen Christine Lim - shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2008.

  1. Thoughtfully and carefully produced by Monsoon Books, Singapore.
  2. Presentable quality for book.
  3. No editing flaws.
  4. Highly confident writing established in prose.

Rainbows in Braille by Elmo Jayawardena - shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2008.

  1. Self-published by the author. Book production could have been of better quality. So too, the cover design. However, quality of book cover still exceeded that of Lions in Winter. Expert choice of colours for cover design.
  2. Long clever lines. Humorous and philosophical.
  3. No editing flaws.

A few of several recent book reviews from The Iranian magazine and Cafe Arabica:

Yasmina Khadra's The Attack.

Afsaneh: Short stories by Iranian women
Let it be Morning by Sayed Kashua
1) De'Niro's Game & 2) Ramallah Diaries
SuChen Christine Lim

*Suzan Abrams whose real name is Susan Abraham is a Malaysian writer based in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland. She has straddled cultures all her life. She was born in Malaysia to a mother from the Punjab and a father from Kerala, South India. She lived an early childhood in Singapore and grew up in Malaysia. She has had several radio plays aired over Radio Malaysia and worked as a copywriter in advertising for then AP Foote Cone & Belding in Kuala Lumpur. Later, in the mid-nineties, she worked as a fashion journalist and eventually assistant editor, for Female Magazine Singapore/Malaysia. In 1999, she began travelling to the world's outback regions, from the South Pacific, West Asia and Africa to minor regions of the Arab world and Europe. She has also been several times to Hong Kong. As a traveller for nine years, she lived in Melbourne, Australia for five of this and in London for the next 3 years, using these countries as a base. She currently divides her time between the African continent and Ireland.

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