Archive for October, 2012

Ubud encounters: Louise Doughty lets fly

October 7, 2012

Besides meeting authors you idolize, one of the great pleasures of coming to an event like the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, is discovering authors you don’t know but should.

Louise Doughty is the author of six novels that tackle head-on vast emotional, political, social and historical ground. Her most recent novel, Whatever You Love, deals with the death of a child, bringing the mother into direct contact and conflict with Europe’s burgeoning immigration controversy. Whatever You Love was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize.

Doughty’s first three novels – Crazy Paving, Dance With Me, and Honey-Dew – put different twists on contemporary Britain, from the supernatural to dating to murder in a proper village.

Two of Doughty’s later novels, Fires in the Dark and Stone Cradle, deal with the Romany experience in Europe, a part of Doughty’s own heritage.

I sat up and noticed when Doughty, also a playwright and critic, spoke about the reaction in some quarters to Fires in the Dark, which takes place during World War II in Central Europe, a period when Nazis murdered up to 500,000 Romany. “A lot of people said to me that they would never read a book that dealt with the Holocaust, as if that somehow made them morally superior.”

After visiting Cambodia’s genocide sites this year, I realized firsthand the importance, and the difficulty, of engaging these extraordinary instances of human brutality. We have a great debt to people who force us to confront what we’d rather avoid. We owe something special to artists like Louise Doughty that find new ways to help keep these issues in front of us, on the page and in person.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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Ubud encounters: Jeffrey Eugenides ‘Greeks it up’

October 6, 2012

It’s not all Greek to award-winner American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides. At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Eugenides explained that he’s not as Hellenic as his name, Greek characters and sometimes Homeric writings might suggest.

“My father’s family was from Asia Minor, but my mother is a Kentucky hillbilly,” Eugenides, who teaches writing at Princeton, said. “On Sundays, the house would fill with Greek immigrants, the men debating in the living room, the women cooking in the kitchen in this strange language I didn’t understand.”

For the plot of his Pulitzer Prize novel Middlesex, Eugenides needed to depict his characters in the Aegean in the 1920s, which opened the door for him to learn about his Greek heritage.

“I had to Greek it up, become more Greek to write the book,” he said.

Noting that sometimes it’s easier to write about completely imagined characters than those based on people he knows, Eugenides “tried to write about Smyrna in Asia Minor in the 1920s from my imagination, and I was stuck.” In his interview with Singapore writer Deepika Shetty, Eugenides recalled he was at the renowned writers colony Yaddo, going to his quarters there, when “at the top of the stairs, on a table was a book called Smyrna 1922. I read that and from it learned that to write about Asia Minor at that time, I had to do more research to understand the place.”
In addition to Middlesex, Eugenides is the author of the novels The Virgin Suicides, which became a movie starring Kirsten Dunst, Kathleen Turner and James Woods; and The Marriage Plot, for which Eugenides is currently writing the screenplay.

“I want to change the material, I don’t want to be completely loyal to book,” he said. Acknowledging that authors are chronically disappointed with films made of their works, Eugenides added, “I’m ready to disappoint myself.”

During the five years Eugenides lived in Berlin, “I came home one night around 3am, not necessarily sober, and The Virgin Suicides was on TV, dubbed in German,” he said. “That’s the right way to watch movies of your books.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: start the day with Lemn Sissay

October 5, 2012

Enjoying a panel at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali on writing across platforms with British poet and playwright Lemn Sissay.

His published work includes the poetry collections Morning Breaks in the Elevator and Rebel Without Applause; the poem Stoned On War; and the children’s poetry collection Emperor’s Watchmaker.

An official poet of the 2012 London Olympics, Sissay said that every morning he tries to send an original Tweet describing the morning.

“You know, the morning has been described for eons, every which way,” Sissay, a BBC host with an accent that makes him sound like a Beatle, says. “There I am every day, trying to find a new way to describe it.

“Some days, I fail miserably.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Neal Hall, surgeon-poet, moves many

October 4, 2012

Just heard Neal Hall, MD read his poem 9/11, 24/7 at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.

The powerful work, from Hall’s Nigger for Life, states that for black Americans, it’s been 400 years of round the clock disaster on American soil. The poem knocks you down and then picks up you to knock you over again and again.

Hall says he began writing poetry in his mid-30s after he realized that “everything I’d been taught was a lie.” Even though he followed the mantra of education as a way to advance, attending Cornell and Harvard and becoming an ophthalmic surgeon, he realized, “I would always be judged by the color of my skin. Everything I did would be diminished because of that.”

But when asked about his message for white Americans, Hall cut off the moderator. “It’s not about black or white,” the surgeon-poet explained. “I can only express the feelings from my perspective, based on my black experience. But take out the black and it’s the same message. It’s about human freedom.”

Right on, doc. And write on, please.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Justin Torres gets angry, Neal Hall moves

October 4, 2012

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, I ran into a couple of Americans and found out we share school ties.

Justin Torres, author of the novel We the Animals, teaches at Stanford’s creative program, where I studied a few decades ago. Torres was part of a fantastic panel entitled Through the Glass Darkly, exploring the distance between writer and writing.

Torres mentioned during the panel that when he writes, the overriding emotion is anger. “But as I explore the situation,” he said, “I find out that I have developed some empathy” for whatever it was that prompted the anger.”

We talked about the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction. “Fiction is about asking questions and leading to even bigger questions,” Torres said. “At least when it’s going right.”

I also met Neal Hall, MD, ophthalmologist and poet. His website is www.surgeonpoet.com, and he won first in poetry at the New York Book Festival this year. Hall will be talking about his book Nigger for Life later during the festival.

Hall and I discovered that we were both in school during the same years, and that I likely saw him play football for Cornell, where he also earned All America honors in track. But our conversation drifted to his choice to settle in Philadelphia. He said he wishes he’d stayed in Boston – he did his surgical training at Harvard. “I love the architecture, the history, and the way you can go out the street and be entertained around Cambridge,” he said.

Of course, I would suggest that city between Boston and Philadelphia that starts with New and doesn’t end with ark. Or its Far East Side incarnation that I call home: Hong Kong.

Later this afternoon, I’m looking forward to the launch of Diana Darling’s thoroughly adult Balinese fairy tale The Painted Alphabet. She’s a wonderful writer and an even better human being. It will be a pleasure to see her on such a happy occasion.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Living the naughty expat dream in Ubud

October 3, 2012

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival kicked off Tuesday. This year’s ninth edition promises to be another winner. Highlights for me include Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, The Marriage Plot) and Sheng Keyi (Northern Girls), who I’m due to interview for Asia Times. But the real joy of these festivals is discovering writers you didn’t know. I’ll try to send impressions via Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Update, October 14, 2012:
At the request of the family of my friend Brian Aldinger, the recently deceased co-founder of Naughty Nuri’s in Bali, I’ve deleted the rest of this blog entry.

Rest in peace, buddy.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.


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