Dilettantes of Asian literature attended the recent pan Asian Fiction event held recently as part of the Asian Literature Festival. Curator Adrienne Loftus Parkins commenting on the festival said “The 2014 Festival was host to some of the best discussions we`ve had in the history of the Festival.Over the two weeks of the festival, we visited 17 Asian countries, explored British Asian humour, discussed Changing Sexual Mores, engaged in political and social discussions of North Korea and profiled two outstanding novelists making their UK debuts, Omar Shahid Hamid from Pakistan and Tew Bunnag from Thailand, as well as Prajwal Parajuly`s first novel. Overall, the theme of Changing Asian Values as discussed in most of our events stimulated understanding of the issues in developing Asian societies.”
It was a wonderful opportunity to get a sneak preview of novels from three established novelists, including authors Romesh Gunesekera (Noontide Toll), Roopa Farooki (THE GOOD CHILDREN) and also Xia Guo (I am China) and deliver an under the hood look at just what was involved in the mechanics of writing a novel. Interviewer Paul Blezard proved to be something of a Michelin trained chef who sliced and diced the respective authors` novels and gave us an insight into the germ of the novel`s idea and delivered a personal vision of the author behind the book. Rather then simply give us a dry academic review, he treated the audience to an intimate portrayal of the author and how their experiences shaped their own writing. It was refreshing to see an interviewer far from simply being obsequious, actually challenging the authors to give us a glimpse into the creative process, their own personal makeup and how it informs their writing.
Author Roopa Farooki was born in Lahore, Pakistan and brought up in London. She graduated from Oxford and worked in advertising before turning to write fiction. Bitter Sweets, her first novel, was nominated for the Orange Award for New Writers 2007. He other works include, The Way Things Look to Me, Half Life and The Flying Man. Interviewer Paul Blezard spoke to her about her novel THE GOOD CHILDREN set in 1940s Lahore. It involves two brothers and their two younger sisters who are brought up to be ‘good children’, who do what they’re told. Beaten and browbeaten by their manipulative mother, to study, honour and obey.THE GOOD CHILDREN is the universal story of discipline and disobedience, punishment and the pursuit of passion and how the “game-changing generations” break with the ties that have previously bound them across generations.The novel has been described as “a landmark epic of the South Asian immigrant experience.”
According to Farooki, international fiction is far from just a category.”we are keen to put them [Asian literature novels] on the syallabus.. What`s different, whats exotic.Its about what we share as our world becomes a smaller place, I think its input through literature is what is common between us… so we take Asian literature as a microcosm of that…. We write about universal themes.Its not about putting it in a box.Its about opening it out and understanding about who we are and what we share” According to author Romesh Gunesekera it is about focussing on the writing.”It`s the idea of national literature.. Its more interesting to look at its genre. It`s not bound by nationalities ..its not bound by genre.” Is the term Asian literature a misnomer asked interviewer Paul Blezard. Author Xiau Gua seemed to chime with Romesh`s comments “As a good novelist you go beyond that.”
Roopa Farooki was asked just what were the seeds for the novel ? “I was literally writing a story and another thing comes to me. do good children do what we are told and that was the seed for the novel. Children are manipulated over the generations about being good to authority [there are also] game changing generations, what do you do when you break rules, what do you do loose? How do they stand up and say no rather then yes.” Just what was she like as a child? “I hope I was a good child.I was super academic. And what about her children ? Are they rule breakers ? “I think my children are good but they break out [from the norms].I admire the rule breakers and the game changers.”
I saw undeniable political parables, whether intentionally or unintentionally, considering the backdrop to the novel. There were the rule breakers and game-changers set within Pakistan`s own political scene. 1940`s Lahore was a time of dramatic political change where you had the creation of The Lahore Resolution which was a formal political statement adopted by the All-India Muslim League called for the creation of ‘independent states’ for Muslims in north-western and eastern British India.
The constituent units of these states were to be
autonomous and sovereign.The resolution was presented by A. K. Fazlul Huq, the Premier of Bengal. It was later interpreted as a demand for a separate and single Muslim state, called Pakistan. Interviewer Paul Blezard then spoke to author Romesh Gunesekera. 1992 saw his first collection of stories, Monkfish Moon, which was one of the first titles in Granta’s venture into book publishing and shortlisted for several prizes and named a New York Times Notable Book for 1993. His widely acclaimed first novel, Reef, was published in 1994 and was short-listed as a finalist for the Booker Prize, as well as for the Guardian Fiction Prize. He is certainly no stranger to receiving accolades, having received the inaugural BBC Asia Award for Achievement in Writing in 1998.
Blezard asked just how did the novel take flight “I started out to wanting to write a short story or a couple of short stories but then one just went onto another and I just liked the company of this guy [Vansantha].It became Vasantha`s story as well.” Does he have a responsibility in how he portrays Sri Lanka in his writing? “As a writer, when you open the book,you don’t want to close it. So my responsibility is to do with language, the place or politics and the two come together acutely [in the new book] Do you consider yourself a writer or a storyteller? asked Paul Blezard “Hopefully I`m a writer who tells stories. Stories have come back into novels due to Asian writers..The story is important to me.” Gunesekera reveals the wonderfully paradoxical nature of the reader`s experience. He commented “You want a novel where the story will want you to turn the pages but the writing will want you stay on the pages.” One could ask that in times gone-by successive generations were bestowed with knowledge through the storytelling of their elders. Yet as the world lives and immerses itself in the digital age has the art of story telling died? It is definitely a question that has you chewing the colloquial fat over.
Next in the literary line up was author Xia Guo. With a number of capstones to her name, Xiaolu Guo is both writer and film-maker. She has published seven works of poignant and witty fiction, including ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ which was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2007, and ‘Lovers in the Age of Indifference’. She was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2013. Her film ‘She, A Chinese’ won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno film festival 2010 and her ‘UFO in her Eyes’ is a compelling and funny satire on contemporary Chinese consumerism.
What was the germ of the novel? “It was an enclosed story and I am always interested in the dislocation of the individual. Iona [female protagonist] is living another space and time even though she is living in London.” What was it like to find out you had won the Granta award? asked Paul Blezard.”I was not familiar with Granta. What is this Granta ? and I was then told that it was a big thing. Far from someone who yearns for literary recognition, she reveals herself to be a very different kind of literary animal. She commented “I had no ambition to be someone on a social list but [had] a big ambition as a writer, as intellectual as a thinker.”