Madeliene Thien ponders ‘faking it’ to please the literary market

Maddie‘There’s a whole world of philosophy and ideas that we simply don’t express with the American style of writing,’ says Canadian novelist Madeliene Thien in conversation with Sreedhevi Iyer, a student Thien mentored through City University Hong Kong’s unique Masters in Fine Arts program that focuses on Asian Writing in English.

Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver, Canada, in the same year that her parents migrated from Malaysia. Her first book is a collection of short stories titled Simple Recipes (2001). It received the City of Vancouver Book Award, the VanCity Book Prize and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her novel, Certainty (2006) has been translated into 16 different languages and won the Ovid Festival Prize. Her most recent book, Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into eight languages.

Madeleine, or Maddie, is a faculty member of City University Hong Kong’s Masters in Fine Arts Program specializing in Asian Writing in English. She is also a Writer-in-Residence with Canada’s Simon Fraser University.

During the 2014 Hong Kong summer writing residency at City University, Madeleine was vocal about how the students in her workshop had distinct evolutionary paths in their writing progress. She saw herself as someone facilitating originality rather than imposing her own sense of aesthetics on to her students. Her slight physique and soft-spoken voice give a deceptive sense of fragility. During this interview  she remained thoughtful and chose her words carefully, but would also suddenly burst out laughing as if she had never considered such questions.

Sree: In your two novels, Certainty and Dogs at the Perimeter, the past is not just a temporal device to inform and shape the present. It exists as a thing of its own. Things from the past don’t really have to be resolved. Could talk about how you encounter and engage with this sense of the past in your narratives?

Maddie: When I wrote Certainty, and I think this shows in the structure, I thought of the past, especially the traumatic past, as an island of memory that was not necessarily connected to the person’s present state of mind. So sometimes the past exists in and of its own right, and its not necessarily being remembered in the moment by the character. I felt that for them this was how the traumatic memory existed, like a shard of glass inside the person, like a stone, like something hard, not necessarily something that could be connected to everything else. It was like a division or separation in time and there’s a rupture. The reason that it’s a rupture is because it is disconnected from everything else. How do convey that in fiction with a character remembering? My way of trying to reflect that is through the structure of the book.

Sree: Thinking of craft in the act of storytelling, I have an anecdote I’d like to put to you from another MFA member whom you also mentored. I was in Mumbai and she very bravely articulated something that I was never able to say in Brisbane, which was that she overwrites, using very flowery language, and now that she’s in redrafting her novel she’s cutting it back. But she feels that’s hard on her, and that she’s “faking it” to please the market. This is a market that already wants her. I feel that she hit on something very relevant and very deep, probably without realising it. I was wondering what your take was on this feeling that a writer might have; that they have to fake certain things, if they are from certain places, even if they’re writing in English.

Maddie: That’s an amazing question. What propelled her to do this? Was it internal?

Sree: I think its just from talking to other MFAers, and reading their work, and reading other people’s works, and you know, she didn’t actually say ‘to write like an American’ but there was that kinda, you know, she just really feels a little intimidated.

Maddie: That’s interesting because that’s what I so loved about her work, just how mad it is. I thought what she was doing was so amazing, even bizarre, but exhilarating. Her sentences took me places that only she could have done.

It’s always good to tighten, but not too much. If you feel you’re altering your voice, its a whole other thing, but not surprising in terms of the publishing landscape. She doesn’t have to, and I think that one of the hard things that maybe we don’t teach well enough in the MFA is confidence. You’ve gotta stick to your to your vision. The best editing, for me, has never been when I feel vulnerable about the work. The best editing comes when I’m strong. I come up against the strong (internal) editor and I use that to make the writing even stronger.

(Look at Lebanese Canadian author) Rawi Hage. I mean, his sentences are mad! His sentences are insane. His sentences come from a whole other language system. And that is what makes his work so extraordinary. Because there are certain ideas that can only be expressed that way, and there’s a whole world of philosophy and ideas that we simply don’t express with the American style of writing. So I’m just mostly sad to hear that actually. She’s very brave to be able to articulate it.

Sree: There’s a kind of originality and innovation that comes from being confident of your background and employing that in your craft?

Maddie: Yeah, I’d say distorting the language is really important. Breaking the language, pushing the language, making English own its colonial history. (She laughs.)

Sree: I’d like you to talk about certain things you’ve mentioned in public—namely the fundraiser for Rice Paper (a magazine of Asian Canadian Arts and Culture), and also an article you wrote called ‘On Transparency’ in National Post. ‘On Transparency’ was about the arbitrariness of literary prize juries and how it impacts literary discourse. At the fundraiser for Rice Paper you spoke about critics just not having the depth of knowledge to critique non-Western hyphenated writers, and that – and I love this, “an anomaly becomes structure when it happens too often.” Could elaborate on the lack of depth of the critics?

Maddie: I had like three minutes to speak and so I just spoke, without realising it would be recorded in any way whatsoever. Rice Paper was a way to expand the way we think about literature, to make space, at a really basic level for more than the centre. The closing down and amalgamation of newspapers has led to so much less space for reviews and essays. The review culture has shrunk so much and its very difficult to find people to review unless they’re willing to do it for (only) a $100 – which means that the whole literary discourse is centering on people who are young and trying to break into the publishing world. They are working on novels—which is great. It’s just that, it has become too much of the same, the same background and experience critiquing the wider literary culture, so we’ve a big problem.

I used to feel frustrated and sad by the misreadings of works by writers of colour, and that they don’t even know that they don’t know. They (the young critics) make such sweeping generalisations about a place, and what they think the literary culture is, when they possibly have not a single book about Vietnam, or whatever it is, you know, about Lebanon, about China, even. Most people (reviewing books) have not read a single novel set in China, and yet when they sit down to write that review there’s no conception that they are out of their depth. It’s the falseness of the authority that now, instead of making me sad, makes me angry.

I try to be vocal about it. But you have to choose your moment, to say what needs to be said, and I think the other end of that is that if you’re not happy with the literary culture then you better start doing some of the work, so…

Sree: Ah, so that’s where you’re…

Maddie: So I’ve been doing a lot more reviewing, in the past year and a half, so that’s been a big thing, and I feel that because I teach and make a certain income from my books, I can afford to take the time to do the review, and earn a small amount of money. It’s been very good for my writing, I think. But I don’t know if it would’ve been that way 15 years ago. I think it was right for me to focus on honing the craft of fiction, but right now I feel this muscle wants to be stretched.

sreedheviiyerSreedhevi Iyer is an Indian-Malaysian-Australian writer who graduated among the first-cohort students at City University Hong Kong’s Masters in Fine Arts in Asian Writing in English. Her fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in the USA and she has been published in Drunken Boat and Mascara Literary Review. One of her non-fiction pieces appeared in Hotel Amerika and Two Thirds North. Sree’s MPhil at the University of Queensland centered on the deterritorialisation of home in postcolonial literature. She currently teaches Creative Writing at City University Hong Kong, where she is doing her PhD in English.



Pangeran Siahaan.  Photographed by Hosea Aryo Bimo W.N. 


At this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in early October, Emma Harrison Clark grabbed the chance to ask Pangeran Siahaan , part whizz-kid, part renegade about his writing, politics and what drives him to speak out so passionately.

Pangeran Siahaan was quiet as a kid. Though he was quick witted, his mouth literally couldn’t keep up with his brain. A speech impediment stopped him speaking his mind until the last year of high school.

Then speak he did.

At the age of 27 years old, he is now a writer and TV presenter with one foot in the passionate world of football, and the other firmly planted in the political arena of Indonesia’s future.

Pangeran grew up in Jakarta where football became his obsession and inspiration and, eventually, a springboard for his early career as a football commentator, journalist, blogger and editor.

He began writing for Super Soccer, feeding the Indonesian public’s daily hunger for football stories with interviews and opinion pieces that quickly showcased both his ability to write, and his love of the game.

He continued to freelance blog and report for various publications and came into his own in 2010, as the Chief Creative Writer for Provocative Proactive. It was an explosive entry into both television and politics and the show ran for 18 months on Metro TV, becoming notorious for its risqué critiques and fearless crusades to voice opinions.

People started to take notice of Pangeran’s satirical views. With a large and growing list of publications under his belt, he established himself not only as an expert in the football genre—his new book, The Big Pang Theory, will be out before the end of this year—but also, in the past 18 months, Pangaraan’s new role as an editor and writer for Ayo Vote has caught the public’s eye.

Ayo Vote is an initiative he co-founded to encourage and educate young non-voters in the 2014 legislative and presidential election. Ayo Vote is a non-partisan movement – but not affiliated with any political parties – Pangaraan is forthcoming with his own political opinions.

Indonesia’s recent elections, both legislative and presidential, were a healthy indicator, he believes, of how far Indonesia has grown as a democratic nation.

‘We just held the third-largest democratic election in the world without any significant trouble. We are, dare I say, the most democratic country in the region,’ he said.

‘Those who think that we were better off pre-1998 are either deluded, or directly took benefit from the ruling New Order administration.”

Like the many who voted for ‘Jokowi’ (the nickname of Indonesia’s President, Joko Widodo), Pangeran has high expectations and he, together with his colleagues in Ayo Vote will be watching closely. As the next generation of Indonesia, their future may well depend on it.

Pangeran was open about his political concerns, among them a new law to abolish direct election, requiring the election instead of regional leaders.

‘It’s only been 10 years since the people were granted constitutional rights to vote their regional leaders in and now that’s been removed,’ he said. ‘If people are deemed incapable to elect their governors and mayors, what will stop the same parliament deeming people incapable of directly electing their president?’

Pangeran is an admirer of Indonesia’s founding fathers, especially those overlooked in history. He names Tan Malaka and Amir Sjarifuddin. ‘They’re my heroes and I draw inspiration from them. For some people, being in politics is a personal opportunity. As a citizen of this country, I see it as a moral obligation.’

Pangeran’s sessions at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival were sold out. His contagious energy roused the crowd to wolf whistle and cheer more than once. He was funny and charismatic and … the perfect young politician.

‘The role of the writer in modern politics is to be the voice of conscience, the vanguard of the people. Writers are always able to capture the dynamics within society and put themselves in a good position to provide reflection for the government and people alike.’

Whether Pangeraan ends up speaking for Indonesia, or following his passion to write, this guy is one to keep an eye on.


Krishna Udayasankar spoke to Emma Harrison Clark at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival about her retelling of the great epics.

Krishna Udayasankar. Photographed by Hosea Aryo Bimo W.N.

Krishna Udayasankar, poet, editor and fantasy fiction writer, is best known for her mytho-historical series, The Aryavarta Chronicles (Hachette 2012, 2013).  The Chronicles are peopled with once divine characters who have problems like the rest of us. Krishna, a graduate of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, has layered their world with political and social nuance.

By using great epics from the past, Krishna has been able to make more sense of the present, shedding light on how those myths have shaped Indian cultural and moral society. She also wanted to recover kernels of fact that are often cast aside as stories are filtered and retold through history.

‘I wanted to explore the scriptures and the epics as tales of humanity, not divinity; as something that could have been history and not some improbable fantasy-tale that defied all logic and science,’ she said.

To do this she gave some of the previously one-dimensional characters new and current perspectives.

In one instance she retells the most infamous act of violence against women in Indo-Asian myth, and by doing so, takes a step towards reclaiming history.

‘There was no way I could dismiss the character (Panchali)’s kindness, her intelligence and her sense of justice and humanity to reduce her to the single dimension of honour outraged, which is how more canonical versions of the myth go,’ she said. ‘To say that a great war was fought to avenge a queen is a disservice to these times, and equally to people of ages past.”
Krishna, like all good writers, seeks to understand the human condition.

‘Looking at these characters from a human perspective requires a degree of pseudo-philosophy,’ she said. ‘In that sense, I guess all writers share a certain religion – we all are trying to make sense of the world through our writing.’

When we met at this year’s Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, Krishna was expressive and graceful. She featured in a session called ‘Myths of our Making’ as part of the festival’s main programme. She also ran a children’s writing workshop at Bali’s incredible cat shelter, Villa Kitty.

She credits her ‘fur kids’—two Siberian Huskies—for changing the way she writes and looks at the world.

‘Whatever kindness, courage or other epic qualities the characters in my books show, they get not from me, but from my fur-kids and their kin,’ she said.

‘It would have been impossible for me to write my novels the way I have without the dogs. I used to be a very cynical person, but then I discovered hope. After all, if these gorgeous creatures can love us flawed human beings, despite all the cruelties we inflict on them, there must be hope—for us… for the world. That hope is what the characters in epic stories often fight for.’

Krishna’s training as a lawyer, coupled with her experience in strategic management at Nanyang Business School in Singapore, helped her plan and structure social and political complexities to portray the stories in contemporary times. But she says her training did not sway the decisions she made about which character voices told the story.

‘I think the story, any story, has a life of its own,’ she said. ‘It can’t be moulded to suit an author’s background or inclination.’

Another aspect of her writing has bloomed in recent years with her first book of poetry, Objects of Affection, published by Math Paper press in 2013. This is a series of poems written from the perspective of inanimate objects. She found her own poetry pretentious and self-righteous until she discovered the freedom of changing the narrator’s point of view.

‘When I took on the role of observer rather than participant, it brought to the fore many nuances and details that I know I’d have missed otherwise,’ she said.

Krishna is working now on a ‘mytho-historical’ manuscript about Singapore’s origin. She has also just finished book three of the chronicles, Kurukshetra, which will be in stores this year. Fans of the epic series can be assured that The Aryavarta Chronicles live on as she recently inked the deal on book four in the series.

‘The thought of potentially saying goodbye to my beloved characters was heartbreaking,’ she said.


uwrf_poster2014The author, Emma Harrison Clark, was asked to write this piece for LEAP+ by the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. We thank the Festival and Emma.



Chuah Guat Eng, photographed by Hosea Aryo Bimo W.N.

Chuah Guat Eng, the first Malaysian woman to publish an English-language novel, spoke at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival to freelance writer Emma Harrison Clark about Malaysian literature, self publishing, and the expansion of consciousness.

How do we know what we know? It’s a question that has occupied Chuah Guat Eng since the age of nine years old.

Back then, she wondered if others saw the same colour green in the grass that she did. Nowadays, Guat (as she likes to be called) knows that this early question was part of her ongoing quest to discover, in her words, ‘how our physical senses, our minds and the way we use language influence the way we construct our concepts of self, reality and truth.’

Growing up in Rembau, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, Guat explored concepts that have engaged the minds of Mahayana philosophers since the time of Guatama Buddha and, in more recent times, by cognitive scientists in the West.

In the 50 years since then, she hasn’t stopped exploring. Scholars of Malaysian and Post Colonial Literature across the globe have studied her wide range of fictional and academic writing. Guat seems able to hold many versions of reality, without favouring one truth over another.

She loves the way that Indian epics and ancient Buddhist narratives do more than just entertain their readers. As she says, these ancient stories also ‘guide readers to an understanding of the constructed natures of our concepts of reality.’ They can leave readers with moments of clarity and realisation before challenging those realisations with the next story in the chain.

Despite her passion for Eastern thought, the structure of Guat’s second novel, Days of Change, was influenced largely by Western psychological perspectives. The narrative, she says, ‘depends to a great extent on contemporary findings about the way memory works and how human beings sometimes create their realities based on false memories.’

Her decision to self-publish followed her experience with first novel, Echoes of Silence (1994).

‘The international publishers I approached liked the part in my novel set in colonial times, but had no use for the parts set in contemporary Malaysia,’ she said.

‘To be accepted by them, I would have had to rewrite the novel to suit the tastes and interests of UK and US readers. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do; I was writing about contemporary Malaysian issues for Malaysian readers.’

She also found that local publishers were not interested in publishing local novels in English.

‘With my background in advertising, I was somewhat horrified by the low production and editing standards of the novels that had been published in the past,’ she said. ‘I felt I could do a better job of choosing the right kind of paper, font, binding, and of editing, proofreading and so on.’

Echoes of Silence was a gritty murder mystery, but the story was grounded in social and cultural commentary. Violence in the novel was based on inter-ethnic riots in May 1969.

‘The fact that the truth has never been told, and no one ever brought to justice is from my perspective, a more destructive form of violence than any other,’ Guat said.

During the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, one of the topics Guat spoke about in her sessions was the portrayal of Malaysian women in contemporary literature. Her views are pragmatic.

‘There’s quite a bit of stereotyping,’ she said. ‘This is especially marked in novels set in the historical past by ethnic Chinese authors: where characters like the beautiful, fragile, wealthy young heroine, the wicked mother-in-law or first wife, the downtrodden bondmaid or concubine, and the good-hearted servant appear regularly.’

‘On the whole, the portrayals of women by women – especially our Malays and South Asian novelists – are more believable.’

‘Wisdom, for me, means the understanding that every individual has his or her own concept of truth, his or her own story to tell; and we must somehow make space in our hearts and minds for all these concepts and stories without, however, getting caught up in them.’

Chuah Guat Eng’s books can be found HERE .  She also writes a blog.

uwrf_poster2014Chuah Guat Eng was one of the guest speakers at the 2014 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali. We thank everyone at the URWF for their enthusiasm for LEAP+.


The celebrated Indian poet, Jayanta Mahapatra, talked to Vinita Agrawal about the land, language and rituals that inspire him.


Poet Jayanta Mahapatra

Poet Jayanta Mahapatra

Jayanta Mahapatra was born in Cuttack, India in 1928. He worked as a professor of Physics and started writing poetry when he was in his forties. He has written 27 volumes of poetry, 20 in English and seven in his native language, Oriya. His poetry titles include Relationship, Rain of Rites, Bare Face, Land and Shadow Space. 
 He was conferred with the Padma Shri in 2009 by the President of India – the fourth highest civilian award in the nation and a Sahitya Akademi award in 1981- the highest award for Literature in the country for his long poem Relationship. He has also received the Jacob Glatstein award, conferred by Poetry magazine, Chicago; the Allen Tate Poetry Prize for 2009 from The Sewanee Review, the SAARC Literary Award, New Delhi, 2009 and he was recommended for the Nobel prize in literature in 1994.
 Besides poetry, he has experimented with myriad forms of prose. His published books include Green Gardener, an anthology of short stories, and Door Of Paper: Essay and Memoirs. He is also a distinguished editor and for many years published a literary magazine, Chandrabhaga.
 Now 86, he lives in the same 80 year old house in which he has resided most of his life, often settling into an armchair on the verandah that faces his little courtyard with its myriad trees, watching the Sunbirds and Taylor birds hopping in their branches.
Your poetry is renowned for being silent, subtle and intense and distinctly rooted in your land. Critics say you have ‘purified the dialect of a tribe’. How would you respond to that?

JM: I have lived in Cuttack all my life and the land here has spoken to me through its dialect, culture, rites and rituals. All these are reflected in what I write. I cannot write beyond what I do not know, beyond what I have not lived:

And the town of Cuttack where I was born,

Its lanes scarred by ruts from whose clay

The goddesses take their sacred shapes.

For instance, in 1999, when the missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burned alive in my state by fundamentalists, it disturbed me greatly and I had to release that in a poem – Uneven Mercies. Fifty years after my country’s independence, I once met an old woman in the remote mountain region of Orissa. She confessed that she hadn’t had rice for a month! What doe one do then? Sit back and feel sorry? Pick up a pen and write a poem that nobody ever reads? Life us full of struggle and pain. Full of injustice. And somewhere it makes me restless. This is reflected in my poetry.

You titled one of your collections Land. Would you say that the anthology sums up all the give and take between you and your soil?

JM: Land is collection of poems that is honestly rooted in my geography. It deals with its illnesses, terrors, glories and sacredness. Most of all it deals with its burden of history. In that sense, it is a signature book on the soil that fills my poet heart. I cannot disown my heritage. To write anything else would be like turning my back on who I am.

In one of your poems, A Monsoon Day Fable, you once wrote – ‘…even my wife does not look as though she belongs to me…’ You’ve written extensively on loneliness, alienation and emptiness. Have you now come to terms with loneliness at last?

JM: Well…there is a hollowness in the heart that nothing can fill. No awards, no amount of success can fill it. I had a lonely childhood. I was bullied in school. My relationship with my mother was strained, at best. She didn’t understand me. She was suspicious of me. She took away my precious personal diaries which I used to write as a teenager and that wounded me a lot. The truth is, I ran away from home to Mumbai. My father came looking for me and took me back otherwise my life story would have been vastly different from what it is now. Bits of my childhood persist even today. Maybe sometimes this feeling of emptiness is soothed by people around you, whom you hold dear… but no, it doesn’t ever really go away. It has never left me.

Which poets have influenced you the most?

JM:  When I began writing, I knew nothing about poetry. I was not even familiar with the great Indian poet and Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. Over a period of time, critics said my work was akin to T.S. Eliot. I suppose they had a point. But I really did not know what to do. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by others who were influenced by Eliot! But if I were to name one, then I’d say I’ve admired Pablo Neruda greatly. These days I enjoy reading the works of Federico Garcia Lorea, Salvatore Quasimodo, Alan Ginsberg and Robert Bly. In fiction I appreciate Marquez, J.R. Tolkien, Umberto Ecco and Somerset Maugham.

How do you craft a poem and what does a poem actually do?

JM: A poem should touch the reader and it should flow. That’s all a poem is supposed to do. When I begin a poem, I don’t know how it will turn out, which way it will go. I consider a poem good if it brings a shock of recognition in the person reading it. A successful poem shows you aspects of life you’ve always known, in a new light. To me a good poem is one that ‘explodes’ in the end and by so doing it lingers in the reader’s mind. I used to write mostly in the early hours of morning – in the quiet hours of pre-dawn when all around me was quiet and my thoughts were alive. That said, the craft of writing a poem is an individual thing. The poem should reflect the poet’s personality and individuality.

Though you started writing poems rather late in life, you have an enviable volume of work behind you. Do you write poetry these days?

JM: Yes I do. But the pace is slower now. I write when the mood strikes me. Maybe once in a week…But most of the time, I wish to get away from writing. I am, quite frankly, waiting for death. All I want is to die peacefully in my sleep. I also wish to donate my body organs before I go. If they’re still of any use, that is…
Despite all the glorious awards against your name and despite the literary festivals frantically seeking you out for their events, you seem to be living almost like a recluse. Is that a deliberate choice?

JM: My heart is weary and I have lost my enthusiasm for life. After my wife passed away seven years ago, my loneliness is more pronounced. I miss her very much and feel her presence everywhere, especially in this house. My son lives abroad. I converse with him over the phone. He visits me sometimes. Then there are writers and interviewers who drop in now and then. But on the whole life is at a low ebb now. Besides, I’m an old man and have many health problems. You’ll always catch me popping pills. But I like my days – dull as they are.

Tell me something that you’ve never revealed in any interview before.

JM: I use leaves as bookmarks and collect a pebble from every new place I visit. So that way, I have quite a collection of leaves and pebbles!