Saturday, February 28, 2009


Real millionaires next?
Well, Slumdog Millionaire has won the coveted Oscar for best picture. So will Indians who were up in arms against the negative portrayal of Mumbai relent a little if the next movie paints a rosier picture?
HOW would you like it?” demanded my Indian friend. “How would you like it if they portrayed Malaysia as a muddy backwater, full of slums and poverty? How would you like it if they portrayed Malaysians as poor, uneducated, and barbaric?”
Actually they have, I wanted to point out. Ben Stiller’s Zoolander depicts Malaysia as a Communist-style regime replete with red flag-waving masses and a Maoist prime minister in ankle-length robes; and in Entrapment, Catherine Zeta-Jones tells Sean Connery in a draughty voice as she stares at the Twin Towers, surrounded by kampung houses on stilts on the banks of a muddy, sampan-fringed river, “Isn’t it beautiful here?”
Children of the slum where Slumdog Millionaire actor Rubina Ali (who plays the youngest version of Latika) lives celebrate after the movie picked up eight awards at the recent Academy Awards.
There was a backlash then, I remember. Zoolander was banned from screening locally. Outraged Malaysians wrote letters to the newspapers on how Entraptment didn’t make sense as Sungai Melaka did not geographically connect to KLCC.
But none of the above can compare to the wrath of India following the release of best picture-winner Slumdog Millionaire, a rag-to-riches tale of an 18-year-old chaiwalla (tea server) who grew up in the Mumbai slums and enters the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.
A quick look through the Internet Movie Database, which has ‘‘free for all’’ message boards, reveals outrage: “It’s the worst piece of garbage I have ever seen!” exclaims one viewer. “I urge you – avoid this piece of sh*t at all costs!”. Another screams, “I pray to God this movie does not win the Best Picture Oscar. May Benjamin Button win instead.”
Well, Slumdog did win itself the biggie but does it deserve this vilification?
Painting the perfect picture?
Slumdog Millionaire is possibly the best Oscar contender in years: It’s a story that is uplifting in spirit, creative in execution and unflinching in its look at poverty in Mumbai.
The protagonist, Jamal Malik, grows up with his brother in the Juru slums of the city, amidst corrugated tin shed houses, mud and flies ... well, much like the slums anywhere else in Asia. Their mother is killed in a bloody demonstration against Muslims (which really took place in 1992-1993), leaving the kids to fend for themselves by stealing and sleeping under makeshift shelters.
Scores of people queue to see Mohammed Ismail, father of Slumdog’s child actor Azharuddin Ismail (who plays the youngest version of Jamal Malik), as he sits in his shanty in Mumbai. It is this image of the city’s poor that many Indians were unhappy showing the world.
Jamal and his brother are lured by gangs who prey on children, who then “train’’ them to be blind singers and prostitutes. The boys escape, together with a little girl they have befriended called Latika, and further continue their life of thievery by preying on tourists.
When Jamal enters Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and does exceptionally well, he is accused by the game show’s host of cheating (“How can an uneducated slumdog know anything?”) and is beaten and tortured by the police.
Naturally, many inferences are made:
1. Mumbai’s slums are really, really poor; 2. There is a real class divide in India, more pronounced, perhaps, than in other country. You are treated badly by many people if you are misfortunate enough to be of a lower class; 3. There is police brutality in India, involving crude electrocution torture; 4. The Indian underworld is rife with sinister gangs who have no compunctions about maiming and using children.
India, together with China, is now seen as the centre of economic growth, the heralded paradigm of the future to spearhead the world out of this global recession. Naturally, Indians are wary that Westerners would only be left with Slumdog’s vision of India – of horrific poverty, the kind that Westerners cannot comprehend, and of social practices thought to be eradicated 50 years ago.
India is trying hard to be seen as the new mecca of investment – a place where you can set up your company’s regional hub, where many workers speak English and will work for a pittance.
Indians are naturally proud of their towering new skyscrapers, their nuclear power plants, their burgeoning elite and middle class, their spawning millionaires. They want Western filmmakers to focus on this aspect of new India, not dwell on the negative.
I re-examined my friend’s question: “How would you like it if they portrayed Malaysians as poor, uneducated and barbaric?”
The truth is – I would not like it one bit. I would not like it if some Western filmmaker like Danny Boyle chose to focus on the racism and the political tension; the kampung-style slums that exist within Kuala Lumpur, peeking through the foliage of our greenery and skyscrapers. I cannot deny these things exist, but I still wouldn’t like to see it on film.
If a Western film is to be made about us – and there are so few, so every precious reel counts – I would want us to be portrayed as dynamic, up-and-coming, modern and vibrant. Yes, the negative does exist, but much like an interviewee keen on making the best of impressions on a potential hirer, I would like the world to get the best glimpse possible.
Arguments from Westerners abound on the Internet Movie Database. “You should be proud of the way India is portrayed in Slumdog,” says one. Well, that could be because, in the West, it is inferred that movies made on poverty-stricken, inter-marrying hillbillies or on crazed American serial killers offer a true look at all aspects of life – both the positive and negative. And Western audiences are mature enough to laud these movies.
Perhaps, it is suggested, we Asians lack the maturity to take a good look at ourselves?
I have come to the conclusion that perhaps, if we are given equal opportunity to show every aspect of ourselves in contemporary film – including the vigour, the robust city bustle, the towering skyscrapers and sprawling undercity tunnels, the rainforests, the kampungs, as well as the squalour, the corruption, the underbelly of society, the contempt with which we treat some of our foreign workers, the hunger for money and all its ugly implications – then yes, by all means, film us.
Write stories about us, but make them abundant and varied, and as plentiful as all the aspects of Western culture we get to see on TV and film and in books. Do not offer the world just a glimpse. Tell our story and make that many, many stories. The dark, the good, the ugly, the uplifting. And yes, by then we will be matured enough.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Building characters in an extraordinary setting

I thought this was really interesting:

Amazing stories need great characters. And when you're writing a story set in a futuristic or fantastical world, it's more important than ever for readers to be able to relate to your characters. It's also harder than ever, because your characters' lives and experiences will be totally different than your readers'. How do you make people identify with someone who lives in the future, or on another planet? How can your main character stand out, against a bizarre and colorful backdrop? We asked six great science fiction authors for their advice.

1. Get to know them as individuals, rather than types. If your characters are cut off from all the present-day cultural references, like "lawyer who went to Harvard," then it's even more important to think of them as individuals, says Elizabeth Bear, Campbell- and Hugo-winning author of Carnival and Undertow. "Try very hard to know them as people," she urges. "That goes for any setting, past or present or future — or alternate reality."
In particular, you should think, "'This is a person who happens to have the following traits, and all that they imply,' rather than 'this is a nuclear physicist who grew up in Iowa.'"

2. Try making your characters scientists. Or at least, have them be obsessed with stuff that's relavant to your storyline, advises Kim Stanley Robinson, Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of the Mars trilogy and the Science In The Capital series. Having scientists as your characters lets you "explore the setting and the character at once." And it helps if your characters obsess about the mysteries and explanations in your story. They can also be obsessed with a planet, spaceship, new procedure or alien.

3. Base them on people you know. The most realistic characters are often based closely on your friends or people you've met, says Rudy Rucker, Philip K. Dick-winning author of the -Ware novels and Postsingular. That goes double for your aliens, A.I.s and robots, he adds. It's always better to copy your friends than to lift from "received ideas about how SF characters might behave. Who wants to see yet another a humorless talking head with a BBC accent? The absolute worst thing in Matrix III was when Keanu gets to the virtual office of the Big Computer Mind, and he meets, like, a tweedy professor with a white beard. Ugh! At the very least it should have been a fat hacker in a T-shirt, preferably high on pineal extract." Also: to make your characters stand out, try having them say quirky, unexpected things. "Forget your Star Trek memories, and remember your wild and crazy friends — the ones who say things that Make No Sense," Rucker advises.

4. Give them a thought-out world. The more carefully thought out the world you're placing your characters into, the more we'll be able to believe that they live there, says Tobias Buckell, author of Sly Mongoose. And that also makes it easier to "contrast them against this imaginary place."
Figure out what they love, and what they fear. Try to find what drives your characters, including what they want and need, Bear urges. And understand what traumatizes them. "I tell people I like to know what they'd want on their tombstone: that seems to give me a really good handle on who they are."
She adds:
Characters we can relate to have fears and damage, but moreover, for me they have to be devoted to something — an ideal, a person, whatever. Even villains become much more sympathetic when we're introduced to whatever it is that they love.
Kage Baker, author of the Company novels, agrees: "It isn't the way a person relates to his hovercar that makes him memorable; it's what's going on in his heart." No matter what planet or time you're living in, there will be "certain constants in human existence: struggle against poverty, rebellion against authority, love and desire, loneliness, curiosity. Any reader can relate to those." Make sure your character has loves and hatreds that readers can see themselves in, and the rest will take care of itself.

5. Don't aim for larger-than-life — and overshoot. One pitfall with science fiction characters is that authors sometimes make their characters "bigger than life, or archetypal" to let them compete with the big, brash colorful worlds they live in. A common mistake is veering past archetypal, all the way into "over the top, or maybe somewhat cliche." If you do try for archetypal characters, think of the classics from all genres, like Sherlock Holmes' quirky genius or Captain Ahab's drive.

6. Don't obsess too much about setting and toys. If you spend pages and pages on dense descriptions of your settings and how exactly your hovercar works, you're distracting the reader from your characters, says Baker.
It's enough to say "He climbed into his hovercar" and your reader will get the idea. You don't need to give a geography lesson: "They were sitting in the courtyard drinking fire-palm wine" or "She trudged back from the well, balancing her water jar" or "They looked out across the desert and saw the yellow mountains of Califia before them" all give brief, intense impressions of a place, without stopping the narrative in its tracks or drawing focus from the main character.
Find out who's hurting. If your story involves a new situation or technological breakthrough, figure out who suffers as a result — maybe that should be your main character, says Robinson, quoting from Damon Knight (who was quoting James Blish in turn.)

7. Keep your characters grounded. The stranger the setting, the more ordinary your characters should be, says Terry Bisson, Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of Bears Discover Fire. "For example, in my most recent story, the narrator 'had a job and an apartment, but that was all.' The story wasn't about the setting but about the character."
Your characters should be "totally convinced they live in the present, rather than the future. Because, of course, it IS the present to them," says David J. Williams, author of The Mirrored Heavens. Make sure your world, and your characters, both have a believable past, that anchors their present. "As Gibson said, the future's already here, it's just unevenly distributed. Same is true for the past: it's always with us, but sometimes beneath the surface. How one handles that is the key to character."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Myanmar experience

Count your blessings
Cyclone-ravaged Myanmar changed our writer’s perception of life. She compares and contrasts life in Myanmar with Malaysia.

I take my life for granted. I do, I really do, and this is not meant to be another mouthpiece about how great it is to be Malaysian.
But we have been bitching recently about how hard our lives are without joyrides from Kuala Lumpur to Kajang in our 3,000cc four-wheel drives and European holidays that I thought I’d do a reality check.
It struck home when I visited Myanmar. Life in pre-cyclone Myanmar was tough by Malaysian standards; life post-cyclone is even harder. In Yangon, collapsed roofs and grates of government buildings remained unrepaired. Fences were smashed by trees. Pavements had holes as big as rain puddles.
“When are they going to be repaired?” I asked a Myanmarese friend.
“When the government has money,” she says, “which is not likely to be anytime soon.”

On electricity

I never realised how much we take electricity for granted. At home, whenever there is an outage, we’re on our phones immediately to Tenaga Nasional, screaming murder.
While visiting a shop in Yangon, the overhead fluorescent light suddenly dimmed. It sputtered, went dark completely, then came on again.
“Electrical outage?” I said knowingly.
“It’s our generator,” the shop owner informed me. “It’s been giving problems of late.”
“Why do you have generators?” I asked.
“Because in Myanmar, electricity is erratic. Not all areas have electricity and most of us have to pay for our own generators. There’s enough electricity to go round during the monsoon when the rivers swell and there is plenty of water to turn the hydroelectric turbines, but during the dry season, there isn’t enough power to go round. Even water is erratic. During the cyclone, there was no electricity and water for days. We had to depend on well water.”
“When looking for an apartment or house,” my friend chimed in, “we always try to seek a location where there’s water and electricity. You have to pay more for those apartments.”
The good thing about those apartments is that they are not costly by Malaysian standards. An average apartment in a good area costs around US$20,000-US$40,000 (RM64,600-RM129,200). But most people don’t earn that kind of money.
The government sector doles out a measly pay, as little as under US$3 (RM10) a month, although they don’t tax you. The private sector pays better, though you’d have to pay significant taxes.
There are no bank loans in Myanmar. Everything is paid by cash. To pay for an apartment, most sellers prefer to see money on the table — take it or leave it.

The kyat

The highest denomination of Myanmar currency is 1,000 Kyat, roughly equivalent to US$ 0.85 (RM3), though the rate fluctuates daily.
To get around the city, you’d have to have plenty of banknotes. The price of meals is roughly the equivalent of what you’d get in Malaysia — a bowl of curry noodles costs around US$1.20 (RM4), depending on its size. But if you contrast that to what the average Myanmar citizen gets, it’s a wonder anyone gets to eat out.
But most Myanmar people don’t go out much at all.
“It’s a habit from our curfew days,” said my friend. “You go to work and hurry home before it gets dark.”
Though homeless, this Myanmarese boy manages a smile. - AP
No expense, however, is spared for the temples — the ones I’ve seen in Yangon and Mandalay have Buddha statues and pagodas adorned with gold leaf.
You can buy four tiny wafer-thin ones for 1,500 kyat. Devotees stick these gold leaves onto statues. Collection boxes are rife everywhere, especially temples — Myanmar is a country of charity.
“And no wonder,” remarked an acquaintance, “if our government is not going to help us, who can we depend on but each other?”
But do not begrudge the temples and monks their relative wealth. The monks are everywhere, helping the needy. Foreigners are not allowed into the Irrawady Delta, the hardest cyclone-hit, but the Myanmarese showed me video clips. The monks are there, tending to the sick, swathing bandages over leg ulcers as big as saucers.
When my Myanmar friends asked me what I thought of Yangon and Mandalay, I told them truthfully both were beautiful cities, and the palaces and pagodas were splendid in the clean, relatively haze-free air. In fact, Yangon reminded me a lot of Penang and Ipoh.
The streets are broad, the houses colonial; there are plenty of umbrella trees providing much-needed shade. But that’s where similarities end. In Myanmar, the cars are sparser and there are few traffic jams. The roads and pavements are bumpy and broken; I have to watch where I tread every step of the way.
“There is no maintenance whatsoever,” my friend declared. “There simply isn’t enough money.”
Nor is a car easy to own. A normal sedan is costlier here than in Malaysia.
“If you want a Honda Accord, you’ll have to fork out US$70,000 (RM226,000) for it. On top of that, you have to pay US$80,000 (RM258,000) for a new car licence.”
That is why most citizens drive ancient, sputtering cars.
The concept of car maintenance is virtually unknown.
“When your car breaks down, then only will you repair it,” said my friend.


There are no motorcycles in Yangon. A top Junta general’s car got hit by a motorbike, the story goes, and he outlawed motorbikes in Yangon from then on. Public transport is extremely bad — buses are frequently late, dusty and dirty.
Tuk-tuks ply the road, ferrying passengers in the dust; sometimes as many as 20 people cling on to an open tuk-tuk meant for 10.
How is it, if one earns as little as US$3 a month, that one survives at all?
“Government servants take on extra jobs after hours,” my friend said. “It’s common to work two or even three jobs just to make enough to feed your family.”
Corruption in the government is rife; most do it just to survive. There is not enough government money to go around because of the economic sanctions placed on the Junta by lofty countries.
When there are sanctions, it is the average citizen who suffers.
I commented on how nice and polite most Myanmar workers were.
“They have to be,” my friend said. “They’re afraid of being sent back to Myanmar, so they’re always on their best behaviour and try to make themselves as ‘untroublesome’ as possible.”
In the end, the average Myanmar citizen still survives.
“We do not need much to be happy,” someone told me. “We are content with what we have and do not ask for much. And we are still happier than what most people in some so-called richer countries are.”

Friday, July 11, 2008

Galaxie review

My editor Nitha kindly sent this copy because as usual I missed it as I was not in the country.

GALAXIE MAY 15-31, 2008

For a brief moment when I got this book, I thought Dark City 2 was a collection of horror stories. So it was an unexpected treat to find it was anything but and so much more. This collection combines stories that are decidedly macabre (Till Death), suspenseful (Strong Chemistry), fiendish (Death Dealer) and most of all disturbing. The stories contain many surprises and twists. What's really cool about Dark City 2 is how familiar Malaysian scenes are ordinary things are creepily skewed. One peculiar story about a vengeful Hawker Man will ensure the next time you pass one i a dark alley, you'll make a hasty retreat. Reading Dark City 2 is like spinning a wheel of good fortune in that you're never sure what's coming next. You could be reading about a Good Nurse who goes beyond the call of duty for a modest extra income one minute and a photgrapher (open Shutter) who captures the unexpected the next. Even the easiest reads like All in a Day's Work and Dad have perplexing plot twists. So go ahead and take a walk on the dark side...if you dare. Geraldine Jeremiah

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chick lit

Haven't blogged in a long time, I know - too much travelling, too tired. Doing this right now in Schilpol Airport while waiting for my connection to Spain. This article is published in the Star today and involved me interviewing Cecelia Ahern's publishers. Dunno if the sidebar showed up.

Happy lite lit


In place of our monthly focus on literary titles, we turn our attention to what is, according to our writer, a sorely misunderstood genre: chick lit. Trashy and vapid? No, no, no, insists the passionate fan.

THERE are plenty of misconceptions about chick lit, such as that it’s “fluffy, trashy, shallow, mind-numbing, formulaic” and “something only a vapid woman can enjoy”. (Oh dear, that just about confirms my husband’s suspicions about me.)
Chick lit, for those of you who haven’t tuned into the world since 1992, is fiction written by women for women.
These books differ from other women’s books by almost always being humorous, appearing in bright, fluffy covers, usually featuring funny, fluffy caricatures, and being written, almost uniformly, in an extremely personal style, as though the reader is a gnat hovering around the female protagonist’s flat, eavesdropping on her conversations and life.
Chick lit is believed to have originated in the mid-1990s with Adele Lang’s Confession of a Sociopathic Social Climber. That kind of intimate, “I’m confiding in you, dear reader” sort of writing skyrocketed in popularity with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary – and, with money to be made, everyone started jumping on board, of course.
Chick lit was also originally written for single working women in their 20s or 30s, but has since expanded into sub-genres that include mum lit (featuring the perils of young mums and mums-to-be), glamour lit (of glamorous social climbers and heiresses), mystery lit (think Desperate Housewives), wedding lit (self-explanatory) and fantasy lit (where something otherworldly happens to the protagonist, such as tripping into a different world – Cecelia Ahern’s There’s No Place Like Here – or different time zone – Sophie Kinsella’s Remember Me?)
There’s another burgeoning sub-genre called multi-cultural lit that can be further divided into Indian, Latina and other Asian. In these books, perky ethnic women try to carve out a life for themselves in a Western land, such as in books written by Nisha Minhas on Indian women living in Britain who are choked by cultural traditions and yet still manage to land spectacularly gorgeous Caucasian men. (Who are also very good in bed and initially have white girlfriends whom they will dump for said ethnic heroine.)
Phew, bet you never knew this was such a complicated genre, right?
What makes chick lit so enduringly popular is that there’s something for Everywoman to identify with. Chick lit heroines (tick characteristics you see in yourself):
1. Are usually single (even if you’re married now, you have once been single and kind of desperate, right?).
2. Are usually stuck in a job she doesn’t want to be in.
3. Are usually stuck with a boss she doesn’t want to be with.
4. Are usually fairly attractive but not stunningly so, and usually possessed of physical attributes she hates and totally wants to change (being overweight, snaggle haired, button nosed).
5. Have a gaggle of roommates/girlfriends/gay guy friends who are extremely supportive, promiscuous, and chatty.
Chick lit is also not exclusively romance, although a guy seems to trip into 99% of it since we women can’t seem to exist without men (I’m rolling my eyes, here).
Male love interests in chick lit are also attractive but the majority are also not panty-meltingly, heart-stoppingly so. If there are any superlatively handsome male characters, they usually turn out to be cads.
Chick lit protagonists also have a lot of other stuff going on in their lives, such as juggling careers, dealing with bad habits like being a chocoholic or a shopaholic, balancing their bankbooks, cooking bad food, and basically going through the exhaustive process of finding themselves. It’s Sex and the City, only with a lot less sex.
In other words, the writers of chick lit seem to be saying – to me, anyway – “This is you. You can totally see yourself in this. We are writing you for you.” (And also to make a lot of money.)
Chick lit stories end well, usually with the heroine getting the job of her dreams and landing her true love, a fact that also contributes to the genre’s appeal.
At the end of the day, when you pick up chick lit, you want a happy, humorous story you can laugh over and see yourself in (with chagrin), you want to find solutions to trials and tribulations you yourself have been through, and you want to know that if a fictitious someone else can have a happy ending, you can have it too.
And that’s all we really want in our lives, happy endings.

And these are a few Q and As from Penguin which I did an email interview.

1. What do you look for in the writing when you decide to publish something in the genre of chick lit?

We look for lots of things but most importantly it is making a connection in a fun way with the reader using the themes of love romance
and fidelity in relationships. The tone should be light and highly readable and a touch of devil may care mischief always goes down a treat.

2. On average, how much does a chick lit title sell?

Our bestselling authors sell over 100 000 copies

3. What is your biggest chick lit title? How many copies has it sold?

The answer is SUDDENLY SINGLE which has done 320k since 1999. Best since then is YOURS FAITHFULLY at 272k. Jill Mansell is usually at about the 200k level.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I'm still extremely low-lit, I've discovered. It took me ages to finish this book with the deceptive chick/guy-lit cover, which turned out to actually be lit in disguise.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Oh Malaysia, I love you

That's why when I voted in my old school, Sri Aman, I went in with a vision of you in my mind. I went in visualising:

- a Malaysia where no corruption exists, where my hard-earned money going into considerable taxes would fuel a world where open tenders are declared, the best man gets the contract based on merit and funds are well spent on education, health and good transportation for the masses

- a Malaysia where there will be a minimum wage so that the hardcore poor will forever be eradicated

- a Malaysia where scholarships and promotions are awarded on how well you do, not who you know

- a Malaysia where the colour of your skin is no longer of consequence

- a Malaysia which can compete in the world economy, where investors are not given the runaround of endless red tape

- a Malaysia that is safe, where we can go about our business without physical threat to our safety, where the police exists to serve us, the people, and are given a minimum wage to exist so they will no longer feel the need to take bribes

- a Malaysia that is tolerant to newcomers from other Asian and African countries, who might one day be Malaysians too, where citizens do not feel the need to treat other people from less fortunate nations as though they are pariahs

Malaysia, I voted for you.