I enjoyed the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature so much last year I decided I was definitely going to go again this year, especially when I found out Tan Twan Eng was going to be coming to Dubai. He has become one of my favourite authors – I read The Gift of Rain in 2007 and was so disappointed when I found out it was the only thing he’d written. His second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, was published in 2012 and I managed to read it just before the Literature Festival.
I booked my tickets in January and waited. I booked tickets for five different events taking place on the Friday. It meant I would be there from 10am to 7.30pm but I didn’t care. I had originally booked tickets for four sessions but when I realised I had a gap between 12.30pm and 5pm I decided to book something for the afternoon too.
The first session was at 10am and it was called ‘Intoxicating Prose from East & West’. The author panel consisted of Tan Twan Eng (The Gift of Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists), Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis) and Sjon (The Blue Fox). The moderator was Rosie Goldsmith. The first two rows were reserved for ‘Festival Friends’ (I think I might become one) and so I found a seat in the third row with a pretty good view of Tan.
And a minute later, he moved. As he didn’t have his own mic, he had to sit next to the moderator in order to share hers.
Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian writer – but Japan and Japanese culture feature heavily in both his novels. Rosie asked him whether he’d been to Japan – he hasn’t. He said he became interested in Japan when he was 16 years old. He was being bullied at school and was looking for a martial art to help him defend himself. He eventually chose Aikido because it doesn’t use any kicking movements (he said he was too fat to kick). For the next 12 years he became obsessed with Japanese culture as understanding it is necessary to progress in Aikido. When asked whether English is his first language he said it must be because he writes in English and dreams in English. He was a lawyer before he became a writer, and he studied in the UK. He also speaks Malay, Cantonese, a bit of Mandarin, and some Afrikaans (enough to know when he’s being sworn at). Rosie asked him if he spoke Japanese? He said he only knew Aikido-related words such as ‘Duck!’, ‘Stop!’, ‘Enough!’ and ‘I’m sorry’. He’s a very witty man – I could have listened to him for another hour. He said he would have to start writing about places other than Malaysia but I wanted to tell him that even if his next ten novels were set in Malaysia I’d still read them (and I did tell him this later on when he signed my books).
I have to admit I’d never heard of the other two authors but was glad to have heard them speak. I definitely want to read Narcopolis. Jeet Thayil’s novel is about Bombay in the 1970s, and takes place in the lowest class of society: opium smokers, drug users, pimps, prostitutes, and so on. He said he was tired about all Indian novels being about mangoes and monsoons and saris, loving grandparents and loved grandchildren. He said you no longer see these things in everyday India, that it’s a country of horrors. You see one horror after another on a daily basis and he wanted to convey that. When asked how he researched his novel, he replied that he used to be a part of this ‘lowest of the low’ in society. He was very open and honest about his past. He was asked how the book was received in India? ‘Viciously,’ was the word he used. Indian reviewers tore him and his book to shreds. When he attended the Jaipur Literature Festival he needed security. He believed it was because modern India doesn’t want to be reminded that such things are still taking place in the country. Interestingly (or typically), he said it all changed until his book started receiving rave reviews from the UK and the US. He said the Indian press then changed its tune about his novel overnight. Jeet mentioned that 50 pages of his novel take place in China but he hasn’t been there either!
Sjon is an Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist. His novel, The Blue Fox, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2005 and has just been published in Arabic. It tells the tale of a priest, a naturalist and a young woman with Down’s syndrome. Did you know that even today fetuses with Down’s syndrome are routinely aborted in Iceland? Isn’t that terrible? The audience was shocked when they learned that.
After the discussion about their work, each author read aloud from their books. Tan went first with the following passage:
In the last four days the words have refused to come to me when I call for them and I can only stare at the paper. When they do leak from my pen, I am unable to make sense of them. Only when I work at night am I untroubled by spells of word-blindness. So I go on, writing as much as I can before I fall asleep.
Since midnight I have been sitting at the desk, working over the pages in which I had set down the events in the internment camp, making changes to my choice of words and the structure of my sentences. I am wearing my cardigan, but the study is cold, and my fingers hurt.
I get up from my chair and walk around the room, massaging my neck. My body is sore, but it is a wonderful kind of soreness, resulting from hard, physical work. I have started practising kyudo again. After a few sessions I can feel the old lessons I have learned returning to me.
Going back to my desk, I turn a few pages and read over what I have written. Even monkeys fall from trees. Yes, I am quite certain that was what Fumio said to me, before he cut my fingers off.
Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.
There are moments when, remember what happened, I am unable to continue writing. What troubles me more than anything, however, are the instances when I cannot recall with certainty what has taken place. I have spent most of my life trying to forget, now all I want to is to remember. I cannot remember what my sister looked like; I do not even have a picture of her. And my conversation with Aritomo by Usugumo Pond, on that night of the meteor shower… did it take place on the day of Templer’s visit or did it occur on a different evening entirely? Time is eating away my memory. Time, and this illness, this trespasser in my brain.
There was pin-drop silence as he was reading and nobody spoke when he had finished. That’s when I realised that most of the audience, including me, and the moderator, and even Tan himself were in tears.
Jeet went next with the opening lines of his novel. He said the first six and a half pages consisted of one sentence, but I think he read just the first page and a half.
Sjon went last with a passage from his book.
After they had finished reading, Rosie asked them what they were working on. Jeet said he was writing a novel called Mangoes, Monsoons and Saris: An Indian Story. Of course, everyone laughed. Tan said he was working on a novel set in China, and it would be called Marcopolis. I’m pretty sure he was joking about his title too.
After the session the authors were signing copies of their books in the main foyer. I told Tan I loved his work as he was signing my books.
He asked me whether I lived in Dubai and I told him I’d moved from London just over a year ago. He looked at me incredulously: Why?? ‘The weather,’ I said, although that’s not strictly true – it’s the short answer I give people.
My next session was at 11.30 and was called ‘Making it into Print’ with two authors, Kate Lord Brown and Kathy Shalhoub. It was interesting as Kathy’s book came about because she had been writing a blog about being an expat. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know already though (keep practising, know your characters better than your friends, experiment and have fun, and so on).
I had some free time between 12.30pm and 3pm so I walked over to Festival City Centre and walked around for a while. I’d have stayed at the InterContinental but it was just so crowded I needed some space. I went back to the InterCon at 1.30pm and it had quietened down a bit as some of the afternoon sessions had already started. I wandered around the Dubai Doors exhibit for a few minutes.
I bought a coffee, found a quiet spot at the end of a corridor, sat on the floor and read my book.
The 3pm session I attended was an hour with Tony Buzan called ‘Maps, Minds & Unlocking Creativity’. He talked about the use of colour when making notes and that the brain pays more attention when it looks at several colours rather than just one monotone colour. Colour is used to: discriminate, differentiate, categorise, reinvigorate the memory, focus the mind, improve the memory, highlight important things, stimulate the imagination. He told us that one brain cell is more powerful than a computer… Something Tony Buzan said really made me laugh. He said that when he was a boy growing up in Kent he was only allowed to write in one colour at school. Not blue ink, not black ink, but blue-black ink. And I remembered when I first went to boarding and we had to have a Parker pen and blue-black ink. Schools really do suck all the creativity out of you, don’t they?
Anyway, we were all given a piece of paper and a coloured pen. We had to write an introduction about ourselves and then introduce ourselves to the person sitting next to us. My introduction is pretty much what it says on my blog: Ex-Londoner now living in Dubai, and so on, except I added I’d been born to Indian parents and spent my childhood in Nigeria. The guy sitting next to me introduced himself first (Canadian-Lebanese), worked in finance, father of two, husband of one. I then read out what I’d written. ‘Nigeria?’ he asked. ‘I grew up in Lagos!’ What are the odds? He used to live in Apapa and went to the Lebanese School. What a small world. He introduced me to his wife who was sitting on his other side.
Our next exercise was to think of all the possible uses of a paper clip other than clipping paper together. I came up with toothpick (gross, I know), picking locks, resetting watches, hairclip. We then had to come up with the most creative things that we couldn’t use a toothpick for (e.g. breathing, food, making a spaceship, the list was endless). We then had to argue that we could in fact use a toothpick for breathing, food and making a spaceship. It was an entertaining session, and the way people’s minds work so differently is unbelievable.
I had an hour free after that session so I went outside and read my book – it wasn’t too hot and there was a nice breeze coming in from the creek.
At 5pm I went to the Ben Okri session called ‘Wild and A Time for New Dreams‘. Wild is his latest collection of poetry and A Time for New Dreams is his latest collection of essays. Rosie Goldsmith was interviewing him.
I wish I could have memorised every word that he said during that hour. He talked about his family, growing up in Nigeria, his writing. He’s fascinating to listen to – and he has so much to say. The woman sitting in front of me recorded the whole thing and I’m hoping she puts it up on YouTube.
The last session I went to was ‘Stranger than Fiction: Jeffrey Archer In Conversation with Anthony Horowitz’. The queue to get into the room snaked all the way down the corridor and by the time I got to the front of the queue I was nowhere near the front. And then, one of the volunteers said there was a seat for one person in the sixth row. Amazing! I suppose that’s one of the perks of doing things on your own.
It was a very entertaining hour. Jeffrey Archer talked about how he got started with his writing, the success of Kane & Abel, what he wants to do next (‘I’ve applied to be the next Pope’). He captivated the audience with one story after the other. I haven’t read anything by him in about 15 years but I’m now tempted to pick up the first of The Clifton Chronicles and see what it’s all about. He got a standing ovation at the end of the session.
It was a brilliant (but exhausting) day and I’m already looking forward to next year!