Other People's Stories

Knowledge, authority and racism

I’m ashamed to say I know very little about the history of chemical warfare in Southeast Asia, but I was deeply saddened when I read about American radio show Radiolab’s treatment of two Hmong interviewees in a segment about Yellow Rain, a type of chemical which was used in attacks in the 1970s against people living in Laos.

Published author and professor Kao Kalia Yang, who agreed to be a translator for her uncle Eng Yang in the interview, writes about her experience in Hyphen Magazine:

The Science of Racism: Radiolab’s Treatment of Hmong Experience

I wouldn’t read it if you weren’t in a good place mentally. It is very depressing, but it also says a lot about whose words and experiences are respected, and whose are discarded — whose stories get to be heard, and who gets to tell their stories and be believed.

Books, Other People's Stories

Reflections on an ereaderless summer + Kobo Glo review

I bought a Kobo Glo! It’s the most cunning little thing. My Kindle broke down around midsummer, about 1.5 years after my sister had bought it for me as a gift, just as I was absorbed in Ramesh Menon’s retelling of the Mahabharata (Volume 1 and Volume 2). I can’t speak to how well Menon’s book works as a retelling, but it’s very entertaining as a second encounter with the stories. (My first was The Palace of Illusions — also very good.) A lot of fun, and a great price point — I’d recommend them.

What I wouldn’t recommend is being interrupted in the middle of Bheeshma’s adventures in an underwater kingdom by your Kindle freezing up. I restarted it. It kept freezing. I charged it all night. Five minutes after I turned it back on, it froze. I backed up all my books and reset the Kindle to factory settings. Freeze-o-rama.

Since you only get a 1-year warranty and they don’t fix Kindles for you, all Amazon could do was offer me a discount on my next Kindle. Yeah, I don’t think so.

I went back to dead tree books for a while. It does affect your reading experience when you’re doing most of your reading on an ereader, instead of going to bookshops and browsing. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed the opportunities browsing gives you for encounters with things you wouldn’t have known to look for. I don’t look for bestsellers or award winners when I look for books to read — I look for things that are harder to define. Truth, humour, new perspectives.

I wouldn’t have found Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible clicking around in the Amazon Kindle store, but when I found it while poking through a secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I knew it was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to read. But I wouldn’t have known how to look for it, because I hadn’t known it was what I wanted. You don’t know what you’re missing, sort of thing.

What is good about having an ereader again is being able to find things when you know what you’re looking for. I’d read a brief interview with mystery writer Attica Locke about her second novel The Cutting Season, set on a plantation house in the modern day, and thought: that sounds interesting; I should follow up on that. I wasn’t able to find it in my nearest brick-and-mortar bookshop, but I did download a preview on my Kobo and was impressed. Tevere’s recent review of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down reminded me that I’d bookmarked it to buy ages ago, and I’ve downloaded a preview of that. I’d probably struggle to find it my local W. H. Smith.

So I do want the easy access to a larger selection that an ereader gives me. It was terrifically dreary going into a W. H. Smith on my lunch break recently to get reading material for an upcoming holiday — all those rows of celebrity autobiographies and 50 Shades of Grey knockoffs. (Not that I object to celebrity autobiographies or erotica in themselves. I just wanted to read something different. I did manage to dig out some interesting reading — a Lindqvist horror novel which is all about how awful it can be to be a teenage girl, wickedly funny Pakistani chicklit, and finally Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, which I bought to make up numbers for the 3 for 2 offer, and which is notable for being fairly readable despite my disagreeing with everything in and about it, from the cover with Benedict Cumberbatch’s face to the repellent worldview.)

But at the same time being deprived of access to ebooks has been a salutary reminder of how important it is to give myself the chance to stumble on books. I think it’s really important to put yourself in the way of finding obscure, interesting books, because the books that are easy to find are always the ones that tell you what you already know. You need to know what it is you’re missing, what voices have been drowned out that you need to hear.

I was going to do a Kobo Glo review, but I seem to have got sidetracked! OK, OK.

Review of the Kobo Glo

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Business of Writing, Writing, Writing Process

On writing for publication, and just plain writing

I’m trying to get back on the writing-for-publication bandwagon (not to mention the just-plain-writing bandwagon). Since mid-2010 I’ve tried to write something every day — even if it’s just a sentence; even if it’s just a terrible sentence — because I knew productivity was the main thing for me. I do measure my writing achievements in word count, and I try to focus on that. The other sorts of rewards or recognitions of progress — sales, feedback, award nominations — are too much out of my control, and to be honest they are too random. All you can do is keep plodding on.

The daily writing habit has fallen by the wayside this year, twice — once when I had three months off my job and was travelling and having a generally lovely time, and more recently as I got closer to my wedding(s). I did have my wedding blog writing gig to keep me honest, but I don’t really count non-fiction writing since it’s less difficult for me than fiction.

Vengeance for falling off the bandwagon has been swift. It’s been kind of a hard year for me in terms of writing confidence. One always has wobbles, but I’ve only sold one thing this year (not counting Jade Yeo, since that’s self-published) and only completed two stories. Admittedly one of these stories was a novel, but it was a really bad novel!

I’m now working on an outline for a new novel and am going to go through my submissions log and edit and submit, self-publish or kill the various stories that have been hanging around waiting for something to be done with them. I’ve also been planning to query publishers in Asia — preferably Malaysia or Singapore — about whether they’d be interested in putting out a collection of my short stories, so I ought to go through my contracts and put together a query. (I know short story collections don’t sell all that well and lots of publishers won’t take them from anyone as obscure as me, but I think the scene is a little different locally since we don’t at the moment have as many novelists as short story writers. At any rate, one can but try!)

I’m trying to remind myself of something I’ve talked about before and do basically believe in, which is the importance of failure. I’m not going to write good stories all the time because most people don’t — and even if they do, I’m not one of those people. I’m not going to be able to sell all of my stories because most people don’t — and again, even if they do, see previous statement. People who succeed are people who fail more than other people. (There’s a lot of “people”s in that sentence, aren’t there? Bit cheeky me trying to pass myself off as a writer.)

That’s a thought about writing for publication — and also about external success generally. The other thought I had recently is more about writing in itself. I’ve been thinking about how, in writing stories, you need to focus on the concrete, the particular. Stories shouldn’t be about the abstract because then they become manifestos, cartoons. I do strongly believe in stories having meaning, but not in their having particular messages, because if you wanted to be preached at you would read a self-help book or a sermon. Also shaping a story around one message limits it — any good story should be able to have lots of different meanings in it, so that you can draw out a different moral (or state of confusion, depending on what the story is like!) every time.

I don’t mean to decry cartoons; sometimes that’s what you want. But you should be aware that they are nothing more than that. One of the things I look for in my reading material is truth — and truth can come in many forms and be told in many ways, but the truth adheres most strongly (and most interestingly) to the concrete and the specific, to the details as you live them.

In my head all this links to writing about different cultures — the pitfalls thereof, and why I’m both more forgiving and unforgiving about people writing the Other than others. But perhaps that’s for another post!

Rather dull all this navel-gazing, but I am a believer in writers writing about their struggles — provided they don’t moan too much, which maybe I am! It’s a thin line: you don’t want to whinge and be a bore, but I know I’ve been comforted by reading frank accounts of self-doubt etc. in writers I admire. Anyway, let’s keep trying our best!