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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Vatikiotis

Universal themes: Bringing Asian literature to Western readers

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Among the foreign participants in February’s Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay were a handful of literary agents and authors interested in exploring ways to introduce the works of Myanmar writers to a wider audience of English-language readers.
While not all of these visitors had direct experience with Myanmar, many were well-versed in the challenges of pitching Asian stories to British and American publishers, and they were under no illusions that the situation here would be any different.
Hong Kong-based literary agent Kelly Falconer – who describes herself as representing “Asian authors, experts on Asia, and writers living in Asia, be they Asian or not” – said she looks for works that will sell in the English-language market and have appeal to Western readers.
“I’m looking for fine writing, something that really captures my heart and takes my breath away, and that I hope will have a similar effect on anyone who reads it in the UK or the USA,” she said.
Falconer – whose clients include poet Ko Ko Thett, co-editor and translator of the 2012 anthology of Myanmar poetry Bones Will Crow – said that while she thinks the appeal of Asian literature is growing in the West, there are many challenges to overcome, including the tendency for agents, editors and readers to “reach out for the familiar”.
“I think there are editors and agents who are looking for something to confirm their prejudices … Readers in the West often want something that’s very familiar. They’re reading about the Cultural Revolution in China and are still trying to understand how China has reached the point it has today,” she said.
“But my fiction writers are writing about what’s going on now, and I’m finding it challenging to convince the West that these are the fresh voices of Asia.”
Michael Vatikiotis, a writer and journalist who has published several fiction and nonfiction works on Southeast Asia, agreed that the world of publishing often relies on perpetuating stereotypes.
“A publisher will fixate on something that’s worked – the Harry Potter of India – and everything else just falls off a cliff,” he said.
He cited Indonesia – the subject of much of his writing – as an example of a country that can be a hard sell to Western readers.
“Indonesia is probably one of the most colorful and interesting countries in the world … [but] there’s a rather bleak view of Indonesia – that it’s a dark, forbidding place that people do not really enjoy reading about.”
Writer Dipika Mukherjee, whose 2011 novel Thunder Demons is set in Malaysia, said she constantly struggles with the issue of how to connect with readers in the West.
“Malaysia is not a country that is very big in the American imagination. I think places like Thailand are a lot larger in terms of what people know about it,” she said. “So although there is interest, I think I have a much larger following in Malaysia, where they really get what I was trying to do with this book.”
Kerry Glencorse, a literary agent based in London who represents Golden Parasol (2013) author Wendy Law-Yone, said many readers prefer being “spoon-fed” stories that are easy to digest, making it difficult for books about unfamiliar cultures to break out of a small niche.
“But there are books like [Chinese author Jung Chang’s] Wild Swans from other cultures that have gone on to be huge successes. They can be really big. It’s just trying to find the right one,” she said.
“If you happen to hit upon a story that really works for whatever reason, then I think there’s great opportunity because there is a hunger and appetite for literature from these places and for a different point of view – especially one like Myanmar that has been closed for so long.”
Marysia Juszczakiewicz, who founded the Peony Literary Agency in Hong Kong, said she tries to find stories that “speak to an international audience” and that “are not so steeped in that culture that people outside have no comprehension of it”.
One of the writers she represents is Duncan Jepson, the Hong Kong-based author of the novels All the Flowers in Shanghai (2012) and Emperors Once More (2014) and former managing editor of Asia Literary Review.
“You do end up thinking, ‘We can’t publish this because it’s too esoteric.’ It’s a story about Laos or some aspect of Cambodia that people think is too arcane,” Jepson said of his work at the literary review.
“But I was interested in communicating to a broad audience about things that are happening, so that there is greater awareness and understanding. It’s a slow process.”
For many Asian authors, regional idiosyncrasies manifest themselves not only in subject matter but also in writing style, which only adds to the challenge of cross-cultural publishing.
Myanmar author Ma Thanegi – who has written several English-language nonfiction works, including the travelogue The Native Tourist (2005) and the prison memoir Nor Iron Bars a Cage (2013) – said the format and characteristics of English and Myanmar literature are very different.
“I can be irreverent in English, but the written word is taken very seriously by the Burmese – especially for a woman who is no longer young and ‘should be dignified’ – unless it is an all-out complete satire, which is also rather rare. Burmese satirical books often have the subtitle ‘satire’ just in case a reader misunderstands and gets angry,” she said.
Juszczakiewicz, who represents Chinese writers such as Su Tong, author of Raise the Red Lantern (1990), and 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, said Chinese novels are often constructed differently from Western works.
“[Chinese novels] are often third-person, and there often isn’t the development of character or psychological analysis to the same level that you would get in an English-language or European novel. This is simply the difference in cultures,” she said.
Glencorse said one of the big challenges for Asian writers is keeping the style “simple enough” for Western readers.
“We are accustomed to a slightly more straightforward prose style,” she said. “That’s where the good translators come in because they can capture the atmosphere, lyricism and story … while also making it palatable to a Western reader who is accustomed to a slightly different way of reading.”
Like Glencorse, nearly everyone interviewed for this article brought up the thorny issue of translation, which Vatikiotis described as a “fine art”.
“It’s not just about rendering the story comprehensible,” he said. “A lot of dialogue is highly idiomatic, and how do you translate that idiomatic sense of dialogue into something that’s conveying the sense but also conveying meaning in a bigger sense of what the author is trying to get across?”
He said the shortage of good translators in Asia was a big deterrent to providing the rest of the world access to the region’s literature.
“I have nothing but respect for good translators because they are the people who are bringing the gift of literature into the wider world of comprehension. There’s a great wealth of writing out there that is not made available enough across the boundaries.”
Ma Thanegi has done her own small part by translating 25 short stories by Myanmar authors into English and anthologizing them in the 2009 book Selected Myanmar Short Stories.
“I translated the stories over a period of 40 years. Right from the start I chose the stories carefully so that the style or format would not be too different in a foreign language,” she said.
One difficulty Ma Thanegi faced was with editing. In her introduction to the anthology she notes that some editing was necessary for the sake of clarity, for which she asks the forgiveness of the writers, “since unlike in the publishing houses of the West we do not have a tradition of another person editing an author’s work”.
Falconer said there was a similar tendency in China’s publishing industry.
“Chinese writers tend to write and then they’re published. There isn’t a whole lot of editing that goes on. But I think a lot of them do appreciate being edited. I think that any writer should appreciate a good editor,” she said.
“The writers who refuse to be edited are usually the worst and most egotistical … The editor’s job is to make it the best it can possibly be for everybody’s reputation. It’s all for the better of the book.”
As for increasing the English-language readership of Asian literature, Ma Thanegi said that would require writers, translators and readers “to open their minds to consider the ‘newness’ of other cultures and not dismiss them out of hand”.
“They need to be curious with a positive attitude. And for us [in Myanmar], we need not to think that every Western thing or idea is ‘decadent’,” she said.
Juszczakiewicz said that in the end, good stories with universal themes have the power to overcome cultural differences.
“Though Asia is very much the future, at the end of the day selecting a work is the same as everywhere else: There’s only so far you can go with being culturally interesting. It’s got to have a good story, be it set in Burma or Vietnam, and the characters have to spring out from the pages,” she said.
“A good writer is able to speak to a wide audience, and on universal themes that affect us all, mainly through the beauty and strength of their writing.”
Glencorse agreed, citing as an example Myanmar writer Nu Nu Yi’s novel Mya Sein Pyar Kamaryut (Emerald Green Kamaryut), which received Myanmar’s National Literature Award in 1993 and is expected to be translated into English soon.
“In a small extract that I have read from Nu Nu Yi’s novel, there’s lots about the petty bickering between neighbors and the relationships, the jealousies, the friendships of all the different people living in this apartment block, which are the same as any apartment block anywhere in the world,” she said.
Nu Nu Yi, whose other works include the novel Smile as They Bow, which in 2007 was shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize, said a good story told from the heart would always find an audience.
“A writer’s creation is dependent on her inspiration and her own feelings,” she said. “I don’t think there is much difference between the way Myanmar authors and Western authors tell their stories. If the story is good, it doesn’t matter where the author is from.”


The downs and ups of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival

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Duncan Jepson, Douglas Kerr and Tom Vater (left to right) speak about crime writing at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay on February 14.

The second edition of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, held in Mandalay from February 14 to 16, produced its share of controversy.

A month before the festival even started, about 50 local poets and 30 cartoonists announced plans to boycott the event for a smattering of reasons, including harboring bitter feelings about the inclusion of authors from government-linked writers’ associations.

Once the festival got underway, there was grumbling among a few international authors about Htoo Foundation’s sponsorship of the event. One Bangkok-based writer told me that he would not have come to Myanmar had he known Tay Za was involved, and he named one other prominent author who felt the same way.

These feelings were a source of minor amusement among my local friends, including a small-business owner I ran into at the Yangon Airport on the way back from the festival. Her response was typical: “Tay Za is no worse than the rest of them. To be fair, you’d have to boycott everything sponsored by a major Myanmar company.”

Meanwhile, the festival’s opening day descended into confusion after the Ministry of Culture revoked permission for organizers to hold the event at the last minute at Kuthodaw Pagoda, forcing an abrupt change of venue to Mandalay Hill Resort.

The venue switch resulted in the circulation of a rumor around Mandalay that the first day’s events had been cancelled. In reality, the transfer to the hotel was made with impressive speed and adeptness, and the first round of panel discussion kicked off only about an hour behind schedule.

The cancellation rumors ensured that the crowds remained small throughout the opening day. The first discussion I attended – featuring authors Douglas Kerr, Tom Vater and Duncan Jepson talking about crime writing – was held under a tree behind the hotel and attracted about a dozen people. Triple that number found their way to a talk by Mr Vater later in the afternoon.

One of the main draws at the festival – and for many, the only draw – was the appearance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on February 15.

I had mixed feelings about her inclusion in the event: Sure, she’s swell and all, and of course her presence was an enticement to foreign authors who attended.

But it seemed unfair that only one Myanmar parliamentarian among many should be invited to the festival. Also, 10 other literary panel discussions – which, ostensibly, were what the festival was all about – could have been held in the time slots taken up by Daw Suu Kyi’s two appearances.

I attended the first talk, which featured Daw Suu Kyi “in conversation” with Dame Joan Bakewell.

Getting a seat in the rather small venue involved wrestling my way through an anarchic scrum of idolaters. My media pass helped me make the cut, as the National League for Democracy (NLD) security detail first allowed foreign authors to enter, followed by foreign media, followed by everyone else.

I was also lucky to be white, as the NLD’s Keepers of the Gate waved me into the room but stiff-armed the media-pass-bearing Thai journalist who had been standing next to me. He eventually made it inside, but only after submitting to the NLD’s seating hierarchy.

The “conversation” itself was rather tepid, retracing ground that has been covered hundreds of times before: How did you pass your time under house arrest? Have you read many books on politics? I thought things would heat up a bit when Ms Bakewell mentioned the “trouble in Northern Ireland” between Catholics and Protestants and asked how Buddhism applies to political life.

“Here we go! Religious conflict in Myanmar!” I thought.

“I don’t think Christians are quite Christian in political life, are they? Buddhists are not necessarily Buddhist in political life or even in their social lives,” Daw Suu Kyi responded. “There are good Buddhists and not-so-good Buddhists.”

That was about as controversial as it got.

I didn’t bother struggling my way into the “Literary Heroes and Villains” discussion that also featured Daw Suu Kyi later that same day. Instead, I remained outside and watched the event on the big video screen that had been erected near the hotel’s swimming pool.

This talk was marginally more interesting than the first, but, disappointingly, most references were to authors of ages long gone by: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot.

Participant Louis de Bernières, the author of the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), deserved hearty applause for at least bringing the discussion into the late 20th century with his mention of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Meanwhile, the welcome and informative references to Asian literature were left to the other panelists, Chinese-born British writer Jung Chang and Myanmar Book Center chair U Thaw Kaung.

For me the highlight was Sunday: The crowds were bigger than the opening day, but the shouting mobs of Daw Suu Kyi’s Saturday appearance were gone, and the attention reverted back to the participating authors and literary agents where it belonged.

Some of my favorite moments of the festival occurred during my one-on-one conversations with writers like Duncan Jepson and Michael Vatikiotis, and literary agents such as Marysia Juszczakiewicz, Kerry Glencorse and Kelly Falconer.

At a time when foreign “experts” are flooding into Myanmar to instruct local policymakers on how to behave democratically, hold a census or kick-start the economy, it was heartening to hear the degree to which these writers and agents were actually interested in literature written by Asian authors.

I didn’t get the sense that they had come to the festival with the pompous goal of “teaching” the locals about writing and publishing, but instead were here to learn about Myanmar’s literary scene and take some of that knowledge back home with them.

In the future, the Irrawaddy Literary Festival would do well to pour all of its resources into accommodating this kind of cultural exchange – in particular, giving authors who are little-known to the international community a rare chance to shine – rather than providing space to celebrity politicians who have plenty of other platforms from which they can speak.