Indian publishers find space for Chinese writers

February 1st, 2009 - 3:28 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Feb 1 (IANS) In the 1980s when China had just opened its doors to reforms, a mother in Nanjing asked her 16-year-old daughter, “Would you like to be a worker, if you have a chance”. A reluctant Lijia Zhang did work at a factory for a decade, but has now gone on to write a book in the alien English language that was released in India.Zhang had actually fulfilled her life’s dream in the 1990s when China joined the elite club of Asian economic dragons. She became an international journalist and moved to Britain to be with the Englishman she was madly in love with. She then busied herself in her first novel in English.

Her first book “Socialism is Great: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China”, published by Harper Collins-India, was unveiled in the capital Tuesday and at the Jaipur Literature Festival a week earlier.

It is a part of a special drive by the publishing house to encourage English language writers, who have painstakingly picked up the language, from East Asian and Southeast Asian countries and build up a cache of their books for the Indian market.

“Socialism…”, a personal memoir, chronicles Zhang’s life as a worker at a missile factory, to queuing every month to give evidence to the “period police” that she was not pregnant and organising the largest demonstration in support of the Nanjing workers at the Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“Writing for the domestic market and writing for an international audience are two different ball games. English has been my working language for the last 10 years - and has been quite a challenge to write in,” Zhang told IANS.

But the language, which is fast becoming the global lingual bridge, has freed Zhang of several inhibitions.

“What I cannot do while writing in my mother tongue Chinese, I can do in English. I can be adventurous. I can borrow from old Chinese sayings and transcribe them in English,” said Zhang, who taught herself English while working at the missile factory.

“It was not just learning English, but the whole cultural package that also planted the seed of individualism in my head,” she said.

The mother of two daughters represents a new genre of authors from Asia, who are extracting the maximum from the inherent adventurism of the English language and its flexibility to tell stories that are not only a comment on their post-reform lifestyles, credos and nations, but stretch their imaginative and creative faculties to the fullest.

The Asian themes in English language are contemporary - from Zhang’s memoir to Malaysian author of Chinese origin Tash Aw’s wacky “The Harmony Silk Factory”. It is a tale of Johnny Lim, a textile merchant, a petty crook and the inventor of the Amazing Toddy Machine and his marriage to the beautiful Snow Soong.

Tash Aw, who was born in Taipei and brought up in Malaysia, moved to Britain in his teens. He is bilingual and prefers English because it is “linguistically adventurous”.

“I need to be adventurous because I have just been able to get through the basic rules of English grammar. Sub-continental writers have wonderful use of English,” he said.

The language, Aw feels, is politically correct and neutral; in which the cadences unlike his mother tongue, do not become musical and intimate. Aw has always written in English “since he went to the University of Cambridge to study law at 18″.

English has helped writers from Asia relinquish their rights to remain an Indian, Malaysian or a Pakistani - and become part of a global pool.

But why India? Both the authors are unanimous that India has enough room - both in the market and in the psyche - to accommodate non-English writers from outside the country.

The two are now working on their subsequent books.

Zhang is writing “Lotus” (tentatively titled) about prostitution in China because the “pre-Communist tradition of men taking concubines is again making a comeback in a liberal China, where a section is now flush with money”.

Aw is penning a Bollywood-like tale “Map of the Invisible World” - a story of two brothers orphaned and separated in Indonesia in the 1960s.

“The novel zips between Indonesia and Malaysia and explores how the lives of the brothers pan out after separation. The book has its dose of sex and drugs,” he said.

In July, Harper Collins had released the Indian edition of the “Evening is the Whole Day” by Malaysian author Preeta Samarasan, who lives in France.

“We are trying to build up a cache of books of Southeast Asian (and East Asian) authors in our Indian catalogue. Indians read and we are now confident enough to take the risk,” V. Karthika, editor of Harper Collins, told IANS.

Journalist-turned-author Basharat Peer attributes the trend to the colonial education system and the desire to reach out to an audience far beyond the confines of the nation.

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