3 days to the Singapore Writers Festival

Writers of Asian heritage in Western world talk about finding individual voice

Writers of Asian heritage in the Western world say it is still hard not to be pigeonholed by race

In the world of international publishing, still dominated by British and American imprints, there still exists an expectation that writers of Asian heritage will write only on certain themes.

Acceptable and expected are stories of immigrants adjusting to the West such as the one told in Indian- American Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (2003). Also allowed are "exotic" romances set in Asia, such as Chinese-American Amy Tan's The Valley Of Amazement (2013) or Tan Twan Eng's multiple award- winning novel The Garden Of Evening Mists (2012).

So this meant that Thai-American writer Somtow Sucharitkul had to change his name to sell horror fiction to white-bread Americans in the 1980s, even though his first book was set in the United States.

Canadian writer Madeleine Thien's debut novel Certainty (2006) stood out because of an ethnic Asian character who could barely bring herself to use the word "Chinese".

And for the first book in his epic fantasy series, this year's The Grace Of Kings, Chinese-American writer Ken Liu decided not to have his photo on the cover in order to minimise reader prejudice.

Life speaks to these three authors heading here for the Singapore Writers Festival about the challenges of establishing an individual voice and identity.

•The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to www.straitstimes.com/tags/singapore-writers-festival-2015


Exploring themes of migration

Asked whether race has helped or hindered her career, Canadian writer Madeleine Thien says "helped", "hindered" and then throws her hands up and laughs.

"You can't separate it from yourself," says the writer-in-residence at the Nanyang Technological University. "I'm sure it's helped, I'm sure it's hindered. But I'm 41 now and, at a certain point, you do learn to let go."

On the one hand, she does not want to be limited by other people's expectations of her writing.

On the other, her prize-winning collection of short stories, Simple Recipes (2001), saw publication because it won the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop Emerging Writer Award.


Certainty and Dogs At The Perimeter (above) are by Madeleine Thien. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

Similarly, she was uneasy about the fact that the cover of her debut novel, Certainty (2006), where a Chinese-Canadian journalist digs as far as Borneo and Holland to uncover her parents' past, does not even feature an Asian face on one publisher's cover.

Born to Malaysian-Chinese parents who emigrated to Vancouver in the 1970s, Thien, whose partner is novelist Rawi Hage, is an immigrant success story herself. Her parents worked long hours at various jobs including retail and real estate and Thien partly put herself through her master of fine arts degree at the University of British Columbia working as a waitress at the university pub.


Certainty and Dogs At The Perimeter (above) are by Madeleine Thien. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

But her writing is about broader themes of migration and belonging.

"Based on who I am and who I look like, that sense of movement, displacement, belonging and reinvention of self is something that interests me," she says.

Her second novel, Dogs At The Perimeter (2011), features a Cambodian refugee from the genocidal and Marxist-based Khmer Rouge regime who finds her hard-won life in Canada fracturing under post-traumatic stress disorder.

Thien remembers refugees arriving in Vancouver when she was a child and, as an adult, spent long months in Cambodia, notably Phnom Penh and Kampot, writing and researching the novel.

This year, it won her the €3,000 (S$4,620) Literature Prize for female writers from emerging nations at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Also nominated were former Booker nominee NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe and Nigeria's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

  • VIEW IT / STORIES FROM ISLANDS, SONGS FROM ISLANDERS

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    ADMISSION: $20 Festival Pass from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

But the hours of researching and later talking about the genocide were so traumatic that passages in Dogs At The Perimeter take on a hallucinatory, fantasy-like quality because of what she calls "the limits of language".

"The full horror of what happened can't be spoken."

She turned to music for solace and now her next book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, features Chinese students studying Western classical music in the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and spirals forward into the Communist Party-led massacre of student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. It will be published next year by Knopf and Granta.

"Different as they are, the two books, Dogs At The Perimeter and Do Not Say We Have Nothing, are two sides of the same coin. It's about the way people got their lives turned around and turned and turned again," she says.

"I feel like I'm following a trail at the moment of political and philosophical ideas through the region."

• Certainty ($38.99) and Dogs At The Perimeter ($16.95) are available from Books Kinokuniya.


Don't call me exotic

It is not surprising that Ken Liu's debut novel is about overthrowing an empire. The fight against inequality is something he sees every day as a litigation consultant and as an Asian-American writer plus translator for other Chinese authors trying to convince readers that their stories are as universal as those written by "white male writers".

"'Universal' means 'white'. That's always rubbed me the wrong way," the 39-year-old says in a Skype chat from his home, after he and his wife Lisa Tang Liu, an artist, have put their two daughters to bed.

Liu's first novel, The Grace Of Kings, is the epic speculative fiction read of the year, winning rave reviews for its "silkpunk" style which mashes up Han dynasty legends with 19th-century steampower technology. It tells the story of a bandit and a warrior who become unlikely comrades in their fight to overthrow an empire.

Yet he does not want it to be read as "a magical China story" - which it could be, given the lack of diverse voices even in speculative fiction - so he refused to have his author photo in the book. "Just having my name out there will have people thinking of it as a magical China story, having my picture there would make it even worse. Minority authors in America are inevitably read in the context of their demography, which is limiting."


The Grace Of Kings (above) by Ken Liu has been winning rave reviews. PHOTO: LISA TANG LIU

He feels he is equally the inheritor of the storytelling tradition of Homer and Shakespeare - even the book's title comes from the play Henry V - and dislikes the "tendency among Western writers to exoticise Eastern tradition. They try to present how different they are, how exotic, how precious".

Liu was born in Lanzhou, China, and brought up by his grandmother before moving to America at age 11 to be with his parents, a computer programmer and a pharmaceutical chemist.

A Harvard Law graduate, he dreamt of being a mathematician as a child, not a writer. Then it turned out that nobody was writing the stories he wanted to read, so he started penning short fiction that appeared in famous magazines such as Analog, Asimov's and The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

His 2011 short story, The Paper Menagerie, swept the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards and - he points out - remains one of the few stories about Chinese immigrants that features someone who refuses to assimilate into American culture. Two years ago, it was featured in the National Library Board's Read! Singapore initiative to promote reading here.

This year, Liu's big win is as translator for Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem - about a secret Chinese military project which makes contact with an alien civilisation during the Cultural Revolution - which is the first translated work to win a Hugo Award for best novel.

  • BOOK IT / ASIAN SPECULATIVE FICTION: HAS OUR TIME ARRIVED?

    WHERE: The Japan Foundation Play Den, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Saturday, 2.30pm

    ADMISSION: $20 Festival Pass from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

    SHORT DOES NOT MEAN EASY

    WHERE: The Japan Foundation Play Den, The Arts House

    WHEN: Sunday, 11.30am

    ADMISSION: $20 Festival Pass

He became a translator by accident, when a writer friend asked him to correct an English translation and it turned out to be easier just to redo it. Now he is on a mission to introduce the wealth of excellent science- fiction and speculative fiction in Chinese to the English-speaking world, though it does delay his own writing by more than a year at times.

Then again, he is also a slow writer. "It took me 10 years to publish my first story, 10 years to publish my first novel," he says, laughing. "I'm not a natural at this. It's a lot of hard work."

• The Grace Of Kings ($38.52) is available at Books Kinokuniya.


Ex-monk a pioneer of graphic horror fiction

In the 1980s, Somtow Sucharitkul was told that to publish his splatterpunk horror novel about a 12- year-old rock star who is also a vampire, he had to change his name to appeal to readers across America.

"They said: 'Your name is too weird to appeal to readers in supermarkets in Georgia,'" the 62-year- old Thai-American writer says on the telephone from Bangkok, where he has been based since 2001. "They said: 'Change your name and we'll make you rich.' I did and they didn't."

Today, he is better known as S.P. Somtow, author of cult classic Vampire Junction (1984) and its sequels Valentine and Vanitas, which predicted the popularity of porcelain-faced pre-teen stars before singer Justin Bieber and a year before the better-known Anne Rice put The Vampire Lestat into a similar scenario.

Somtow has about 50 books to his credit including novella The Bird-Catcher (2002), about a serial killer in Thailand, which won a coveted World Fantasy Award.


Somtow Sucharitkul, better known as S.P. Somtow, wrote Vampire Junction (above). PHOTO: BANGKOK OPERA FOUNDATION

His 1982 short story about a young survivor of abuse, The Fallen Country, was made into an opera by Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee and premiered in Bangkok this July.

He is also a well-known composer and conductor who founded Bangkok's first international opera company in 2001, the Bangkok Opera Foundation. He often visits Singapore, as some of his students study at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

Related to the Thai royal family, Somtow was brought up overseas, studying in Holland and later Eton in England. He did a double degree in mathematics and classical music in Cambridge and returned to Bangkok ready to pull the Thai audience into the avant-garde movement.

"I was attacked by the press all the time and lost my nerve," he says, laughing.

"Blocked" and unable to compose or conduct, he moved to the United States and decided to write stories. These were mostly horror, stemming from an early love of movies such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which his mother took him to watch when he was barely eight years old. "It warped my sensibilities," he says.

Vampire Junction launched the splatterpunk movement - a trend of graphic and gory violence in horror fiction - and made "S.P. Somtow" a name to look out for. His fiction often appeared in critically acclaimed anthologies such as the Year's Best Fantasy And Horror collections edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.

Then, in 2001, the bachelor was seized by the desire to enter a monastery as all Thai men do in their youth. He never had, given his upbringing. After leaving the monastery, he was about to fly back to Los Angeles. But planes flew into the World Trade Center and he "got nervous".

  • BOOK IT / ASIAN SPECULATIVE FICTION: HAS OUR TIME ARRIVED?

    WHERE: The Japan Foundation Play Den, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Saturday, 2.30pm

    ADMISSION: $20 Festival Pass from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

    WHY MUSIC INVOKES SUCH RICH EMOTIONS

    WHERE: Chamber, The Arts House

    WHEN: Sunday, 11.30am

    ADMISSION: $20 Festival Pass

Then the Thai government commissioned him to write music in memory of those lost in 9/11. "So, after 20 years, I wrote music again. After having been really avant- garde in the 1970s, I decided to be retro and write something populist," he says, laughing.

He is a different musician these days. "When you study music in the West, you think: 'Mozart stood on the shoulders of Bach' and there's a sense that you must learn from the people behind you but not reach out to them, which is wrong.

"Being away from music for 20 years, one of the things I learnt is that the composers are not on a ladder, but sitting in a circle, equally far away or near to each other."

He is now working on a series of operas to outclass Wagner's Ring Cycle. His will focus on the 10 lives of Buddha. "Opera allows me to finally bring everything I love in one place," he says.

• Vampire Junction ($25) is available at Amazon.com.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Asian without limits'. Print Edition | Subscribe