Monday, August 25, 2014

Several Theories, Four, Lots!

TLS August 15, 2014

from Michael Hofmann's review of Stephen Parker's Bertolt Brecht: A literary life:

Brecht was extremely hard-working, got up early, wrote every day, and believed writing was a function of the health he actually didn't enjoy.  
Often too, there is something to be dropped or switched. "A contract is good, you can always break it", was a piece of advice in a particular situation, but then any arrangement and any idea can be picked apart or reversed with Brecht's mental agility. "I'm continually forgetting my opnions", he wrote, as if he cared. And then, instead: "A man with one theory is lost. He need several of them, four, lots!" - which of course got him in trouble later on, when he was at the mercy if people who had precisely one theory - or rather, one certainty - and guarded its purity against whatever they saw him as advancing, avant-gardism, sectarianism, formalism, Proletkult, cosmopolitanism, you name it. Parker calls him eclectic, unsystematic and intellectually "bordering on the promiscuous". Brecht is not always on the right side of every argument, but he is always on the more thoughtful, heretical, interesting side. 
"How can a linden tree be expected to conduct a discussion with someone who reproaches it for not being an oak?" Brecht lamented that there was ideology everywhere, writes Parker; "The first thing we have to do is institute exhibitions and courses to develop taste, i.e. for the enjoyment of life", he proposes with delightful implausibility. Aesthetics before ethics, as Joseph Brodsky put it.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Amanda Lee Koe's "Ministry of Moral Panic"

There is a deftness of touch, a sureness of intent, a knowingness of accomplishment that makes it hard to believe that Ministry of Moral Panic is Amanda Lee Koe's first book of fiction. She has marked out in virgin territory a realm of her own, a kingdom of weird, non-conforming, stubborn passions in Singapore. And she has done so without resorting to the usual pieties of understanding and tolerance. She has looked directly at the contorted subject and drawn every contortion that she could see. Love between a senile Chinese high-society woman and a successful but aging Malay rocker with three wives? Read the opening story "Flamingo Valley." Art as vengeance by a Chinese Singaporean artist for unrequited love from an Iranian Muslim reporter? Read "Carousel & Fort." The manipulations of love? Read "Pawn" to find who is making use of whom, the middle-aged Chinese Singaporean office virgin or the Chinese Chinese food-stall boy. The attraction between a high-living, and dying, female globetrotter and a teenage girl trying to come into her own person? Read "Alice, You Must Be the Fulcrum of Your Own Universe." Inter-species love? Read "Siren," a fantastic tale about the one-night passion between a sailor and a mermaid, and the seductiveness of their offspring, a ladyboy with both a slit and a stick.

Perfectly capable of writing the well-crafted traditional short story, Koe experiments confidently with narrative form as well. The urban pastoral "Every Park on This Island" is written in sections headed by the names of parks in Singapore. The most powerful of these experiments is the "Fourteen Entries from the Diary of Maria Hertogh," a Dutch girl raised by a Malay Muslim family, who was forcibly reclaimed by her Dutch parents by resorting to British law, and then transplanted to The Netherlands, where she did not take root. Yes, a few of the stories are slight, not in length, but in substance. "Two Ways to Do This" does not improve even in its second variation: the experience of rape is described with great acuity, but the folkloric magical elements are unsurprising. "Laundromat" is as bland as the sociological experiment that it describes. Nevertheless, the collection is eminently readable. I should know. I read it straight through--all fourteen stories--on my flight from Singapore to New York. I had not been able to read on a plane for a while. Too uncomfortable and distracted. But these stories carried me to the end.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

In Memory of Bob Hart, gentleman-poet

I learned, with great sadness, from Eric Norris and a FB post by Jane Omerod that Bob Hart passed away on the morning of August 13, Saturday. I met Bob Hart at a Pink Pony reading at Cornelia Street Cafe, NY, in 2005. Or rather, it'd be more accurate to say that I heard him first. The mellifluous voice at the mic was strikingly different from anything that had gone before, and It made me sit up and take note. You know the sensation when you know you are hearing poetry, and not prose? Bob Hart never read any prose; he is, was, all poetry. The writing was lyrical, exploratory, musical and witty. It was inspired by the greats like Shakespeare and Donne. I got to know the man a little better when I edited and published his second book, Lightly in the Good of Day. When I asked to see his poems, he gave me a cardboard box filled with tissue-thin sheets of paper, covered with his slanty handwriting in blue or black ink. Over a decade of writing. He dated his poems, and the revisions, and so I could see that he wrote almost every day for long stretches of time. He was ever so gracious when I approached him with suggestions for edits. Some he accepted calmly, others he rejected firmly. We would meet in a cafe in Hell's Kitchen to go over the poems. Bob did not do email; he had no Internet at home. Our conversations hewed pretty closely to the poems but he would tell me, once in a while, about his belief and involvement in Christian Science. I must admit I listened with only half an ear, ignorant and dismissive of what I had always taken to be a Christian cult. But now I see how vital were his Christian Science beliefs to his poetry. As his editor, I regret not giving his religion its due in a critical preface for his book. I was guilty of condescension. Indeed it is easy to underestimate Bob Hart. He was so modest, soft-spoken and self-effacing. He was always quick to give credit to others. One of my most vivid memories of Bob was how he leapt forward at the end of a Pink Pony reading to praise and thank a reader whose work he particularly liked. He was a generous man, and gave as much of himself as we could find room in ourselves to receive. One of my favorite Bob Hart poems:


WATERY WITHIN THIS GRAVELED WORLD

Watery within this graveled world,
translucent almost,
thinner than the air,
we move as rarer than our monuments
which we can occupy or not
however crude or well we shaped them;
feeling frail amid solidity
and pinned down by the names which,
large enough to run in an environment,
are points too dot-ephemeral
to pin the powered nowhereness
our talent operates from,
we agree, like entities leaped out from story pages,
to sit, assuming body styles,
disrobed from our invisibility,
with lightnings folded like mosquito's wings
polite in company.

by Bob Hart

Friday, August 15, 2014

Reading at Booktique

Waiting for a friend, I walked into The Cathay, in Singapore, and stumbled upon Booktique, the pop-up bookstore owned and run by the inimitable Anthony Koh Waugh, who promptly invited me to read at the closing party of his present shop. So I did last night, and sold six more copies of my Pillow Book. Zed Yeo read next from his collection of hybrid writing, Unapologetically Insane Tales, the first Singapore book to be produced through crowdfunding. Zed was a very engaging storyteller. It was fun to see shoppers popping into the shop to hear me and Zed read, and to speak with many writers unfamiliar to me. Anthony is a great supporter of writers. After a well-deserved break, he will set up shop in another location. Do watch out for the next iteration of Booktique, the writers' bookshop.






Launch of Japanese/English Edition of "The Pillow Book" in Singapore

Thanks, everyone, for coming out to the book launch on Wednesday. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces, and quite a few new ones too. Thank you, William Phuan and Aliah Ali from The Arts House, for hosting the event in such a professional and helpful manner. Thank you, my publishers Matthew Chozick, Keisuke Tsubono and Midori Ohmuro, for flying all the way from Tokyo to lend a touch of glamor to the event. Thank you, Keisuke, for reading so beautifully in Japanese. Thank you, Chong Li-Chuan, for your musical piece, which touches the surface and sounds the depths, an aim shared by my little book. Thank you, my parents Robert Koh and Susan Cheong, for coming to the event, and for getting the Bengawan Solo kueh-kueh (they were much heavier than we expected). Thank you, my love Guy Humphrey, for your support and encouragement. You always step in when help is needed. I read this extract last night for us. Happy birthday, dear.

If the tree were blooming, a close examination would show that it puts out two kinds of flowers, bigger pinks with nine pistils, and smaller whites with single pistils. The explanation for this miracle is that the camellia is not one tree but two. Growing at first side by side, they became so entwined through the years that they are now indistinguishable from each other. Voluptuaries of the sun and rain, they have fused into one in their joint pursuit of essential needs, outliving the generations of monks that tended them, displaying every year the hue of youth.










Sunday, August 03, 2014

Book Launch in Tokyo

Of all the readings that I've done, yesterday's book launch at Tokyo's Editory stands out for its combination of charm, warmth and sincerity. It was a special delight to meet Mariko Hirasawa, who illustrated my Pillow Book. Mariko, thank you for expressing so well the feelings that you received from the work. You spoke with wonderful animation during the interview. Matthew Chozick, a writer cannot ask for a better publisher. You are always so respectful and enthusiastic. Midori, you touched me when you remembered "Kimiko" from the book, having read the collection three times. Keisuke, I look forward to reading again with you at the launch in Singapore on August 13, and in New York in November. Thank you for introducing me to your loved ones and friends. I am honored to call you my friends.





You can purchase the book here.