Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cormac McCarthy: On the road to hell

Cormac McCarthy, the author of The Road and No Country for Old Men, on the human race's future, life and writing in general:

If you think about some of the things that are being talked about by thoughtful, intelligent scientists, you realize that in 100 years the human race won't even be recognizable. We may indeed be part machine and we may have computers implanted. It's more than theoretically possible to implant a chip in the brain that would contain all the information in all the libraries in the world. As people who have talked about this say, it's just a matter of figuring out the wiring. Now there's a problem you can take to bed with you at night.

People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Moby-Dick," go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

Your future gets shorter and you recognize that. In recent years, I have had no desire to do anything but work and be with [son] John. I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That's heaven. That's gold and anything else is just a waste of time.

I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

I don't think goodness is something that you learn. If you're left adrift in the world to learn goodness from it, you would be in trouble. But people tell me from time to time that my son John is just a wonderful kid. I tell people that he is so morally superior to me that I feel foolish correcting him about things, but I've got to do something--I'm his father. There's not much you can do to try to make a child into something that he's not. But whatever he is, you can sure destroy it. Just be mean and cruel and you can destroy the best person.

Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don't have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything. It's not a good arrangement. If I were God, I wouldn't have done it that way. Things I've written about are no longer of any interest to me, but they were certainly of interest before I wrote about them. So there's something about writing about it that flattens them. You've used them up. I tell people I've never read one of my books, and that's true. They think I'm pulling their leg.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Theatre review: Sofaman

Sofaman is a collaboration between Singapore’s The Necessary Stage and The KnAM Theatre from Russia. This intercultural, multilingsofaman_smallual collaboration incorporating soundscape and multimedia focuses on the fundamental questions of today’s postmodern life: what are people looking for? Is the material progress made under the canopy of the globalised and capitalist marketplace that the world has become—billions of consumers, cogs in the wheel of capitalism—enough to satisfy our human yearnings?

The play involves a storyteller and the characters of his stories. The storyteller is the title character who sits on a wheel-chair like contraption and wears a white oversized headgear with a little light in it. He tells stories to a man with a suitcase. In turn, the man with a suitcase exchanges stories with him. But the play comes to life through the stories of the sofaman and the characters that dwell in his stories.

As the play progresses, a Singaporean woman and a Russian man fall in love but they quarrel about where to settle down. Their expectations from life are different, as different as summer and winter (snow). A Western woman develops a bond with a Malay Singaporean who has speech difficulties. Crossing barriers of language, they touch each others’ souls, give comfort to each other. How does it happen? Why does it happen? That is what the play seems to make us to think about.

The play’s characters, set in a mall (or a marketplace), remind us of our disjointed, cold urban lives. Their lives—full of chores, some travel but no family bonds—remind us of the perils of urbanization and how it can create vacuum in our souls. At the same time, the man from Russia, who presumably comes from a less urbanized setting, is consumed with the warmth and opportunities in a new, hyper-urbanized location (read Singapore). It is the juxtapositions of these two worlds—and the conflicting expectations of its inhabitants—that form the core of this drama. The play successfully brings forth the idea that love and rootedness, no matter how much progress we achieve in terms of materialism, will remain the eternal magnets for human souls.

In a way, the play recognizes the ills of life under capitalism. As German economist Sombart observed in the 19th century, even though capitalism enhances productivity and creates a higher material standard of living, it also cause loss in quality of life, robbing people of inner peace, of their relationship to each other and to nature and of the faith of their father. The play might not advocate people to overthrow the capitalist system but in a way it does question the illusions it perpetuates. It portrays the waking of workers (characters) from “thingafication” or “reification” (a construct by 20th century Hungarian philosopher and economist Georg Kukacs), “the inability to see that the human relations created by capitalism were the results of particular historical conditions that could be changed by human will.”

In well over 80 minutes, the play takes us through a surfeit of images and sounds and emotional landscapes of different shades. The audio-visual work is brilliant in the production. But this sometimes takes away from the emotional impact of the story as it interrupts our continuous dream.

This is a complex production and directors Alvin Tan and Tatiana Frolova and writer Haresh Sharma deserve full credit for weaving this intricacy in a presentable, less abstract avatar. In the cast, Siti Khalijah is outstanding but other actors such as Elena Bessonova, Dmitry Bochanov, Vladimir Dmitriev, Julius Foo and Jean Ng shine too. And the cameo by Charlie Chaplin is certainly a casting coup!

Performed in English, Russian and Mandarin
Get your tickets at

5 - 7 Nov & 11 - 14 Nov 2009, 8pm
7 - 8 Nov & 14 - 15 Nov 2009, 3pm

The Necessary Stage Black Box
#B1-02 Marine Parade Community Building

$27 | $22*

More here

Thursday, November 05, 2009

P. N. Balji: On journalism, journalists and Sri Lanka

Journalism today is under attack everywhere, both in physical and ethical senses. Newspapers are dying in the developed countries. The internet model is still being figured out. Journalists are being fired as newspapers fold up city after city. From the readers' perspective, corporate-controlled media carries less and less credibility.

In the developing countries, the situation is different. The media is struggling between censorship and greed. In India, where the media sprawl is stupendous, there are reports of unethical practices (News for sale: How media is squandering its credibility). In Sri Lanka, both the profession and the professionals are feeling the squeeze.

Veteran Singapore journalist and editor P N Balji shares his views on journalism in the context of the situation in Sri Lanka in this interview with a Sri Lankan paper. His remarks on journalism and his advice to journalists are pure wisdom--something all journalists and editors anywhere in the world should read and keep in mind:

I recommend objective activism. By that I mean present as many sides as possible. And let the readers decide. Media can never give the truth. It can only give some truths. Make sure you give every shade of opinion on a subject. Don’t rush into print with unconfirmed stories. Check and double check. Make corrections the next day if there are inaccuracies.

If you don’t have the passion for the profession, please don’t get into it. With the world becoming more complex and major shifts taking place, we need journalists who can slice and dice the issues and say with confidence and some certainty what it all means to your reader.


Monday, November 02, 2009

‘I would rather settle for a mediocre novel…’: Voices from chaos

The Singapore Writers Festival 2009 came to a close on Sunday (1 Nov). Between the opening (23 Oct) and closing of the festival, scores of writers from across the world held forth on literature and writing. The star of the festival was clearly the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman who attracted long queues for autographs. His session was held exclusively in Victoria Theatre and all the tickets were pre-booked. I don’t read fantasy fiction so this did not mean a thing to me. But Singapore’s young readers found an idol in him, this cannot be denied.

Honestly, I did not get to meet all the writers—it was not possible for me. Therefore, I focused on only those writers who interested me. In this post, I am not going to talk about individual sessions. I will freely refer to writers or themes that seem most relevant to my interests or sensibilities.

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Undercover’. Of course, this theme lends itself to myriad semantic possibilities. But personally speaking, ‘Chaos’ would have been a better choice. Indeed ‘Chaos’ was one of the themes of a discussion that included writers from the sub-continent, namely, novelists Mohammad Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes), Elmo Jayawardena (Sam’s Story), Shashi Warrier (Hangman’s Journal) and Ahmede Hussain (Editor, The New Anthem). The discussion was moderated by the Hong Kong-based Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, the articulate and charismatic author of The Long Walk Home.

Except for Captain Elmo, all these writers were new to me. I had exchanged emails with Hussain before but that was like two years ago. I had met Hanif several years ago when he was with the BBC’s London office. I tried to remind him of our meeting that he vaguely seemed to remember. Or was he being polite? I don’t know. Anyway, I did not want to press on it as it was a brief professional encounter. I was glad I could meet him again, that too in a new avatar, I told him.

Throughout the festival, I was looking for one word or one term that could summarize the essence, the zeitgeist of our times. I looked at the books that were there on display in the Arts House bookstore. I tried to listen to the questions that people posed to their favourite writers. What was the gist, what was the spirit, I tried to figure out.

Looking at the titles on display, one of the themes that strongly emerges is that of political power, violence and tyranny. While Elmo’s Sam’s Story (republished in India by Penguin) deals with the futility of ethnic conflict and war, Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes deals with the life of a dictator and state repression. Manreet focuses on the violence in Punjab in The Long Walk Home and Warrier’s recent books study the human condition in the Indo-Pak conflict zone, Kashmir. Hussain, in his first anthology of short stories from many new and well-known sub-continental writers, collects voices that again raise issues of conflicts and fundamentalism of all stripes, among other themes.

Writers are not supposed to offer solutions. They are supposed to ask questions, pose moral dilemmas. This is what these writers have done with their novels—I have not read all of them but that is the sense I get (I have read Elmo’s great novel and have reviewed it here; I have also read Hanif’s novel and it is marvelously funny and biting). Still, emerging from the sub-continental chaos and America’s war on terror, there isn’t a single theory or philosophy or vision that can inspire us to a new future. From these books, from the discussions that these books spawned, the absurdity of violence is evident. But where is the hero or the protagonist that can show ‘us’ in our complete nakedness? We can laugh at General Zia’s antics but what about our passive collusion in this chaos? Where is the rebellion? Where is the man or woman who refuses to go along with the side of cruelty?

The most dangerous place on earth

During Hanif’s session, most people were curious about the daily life in Pakistan. How quotidian was it? Hanif satisfied people’s queries with his quintessential humor. People in Karachi still went out for dinner with family and friends, he said. Their discussion would range from fashion shows to the next possible bomb blast. He said that the 24 hour news cycle had made the things worse. Journalists are excited when there are terrible stories to tell but they feel crestfallen when it is quiet for a few days. Hanif, who lived in London for about a decade, now permanently lives in Karachi. I wish for more peace, more normality, he said.

Hanif said that he was suspicious of lists such as the top 10 most dangerous places in the world and the top 10 most beautiful people in the world. These lists keep changing, he said.

Should writers become activists, I asked the ‘Chaos’ panel. I had Arundhati Roy in mind when I asked this question. I don’t feel any moral responsibility, said Hussain. ‘I see, I don’t touch,’ is his motto. Hanif said that writers are generally self-centered people who care more about a turn of phrase than an actual cause. But I do what I can, he said. Warrier was also of the same opinion. It was only Captain Elmo who said that he was actively engaged in charity work in Sri Lanka.

Someone from the audience asked if chaos was necessary for creativity. This question came in various forms in different fora: Singapore, despite being an advanced country with all kinds of material comforts, does not produce much literature, whereas the sub-continent, despite the chaos and fracas, creates world-class literature. Why is that so? According to Warrier, the problem is essentially arithmetical. India alone has more than a billion people while Singapore has about 5 million people. So, a billion people naturally produce more writers. Also, there are many regional languages in India which support the culture of reading and writing. Print runs of vernacular titles go in the range of 20,000 to 200,000 whereas novels in English become best-sellers when they sell more than 5,000 copies.

According to Hanif, chaos does not necessarily help create great literature. The Swedes still manage to get out some decent novels, he said. Prosperity is good for writers, Hanif said. I would rather settle for a mediocre novel in a less chaotic situation than a great novel in a chaotic and violent set up, he said. One could understand where Hanif was coming from. Father of an 11-year old son, the safety and security of his family must be most prominent for him. I found both Hanif and Hussain ruthlessly honest—only Hanif is more humorous and Hussain a bit more philosophical.

On and off stage, Elmo voiced his concern about the difficulties that first time writers face in finding publishers. A first time writer’s failure (in getting published) discourages many other would-be writers, he argued. He also lamented about the greed of publishers who sold books with marked up prices, taking them farther from the reach of ordinary readers. He wants the gram sellers in Sri Lanka to become book-sellers!

I also had an opportunity to listen to Qiu Xiaolong (Death of a Red Heroine) and Naldo Rei, East Timorese resistance fighter. Both talked about political repression and violence. Xiaolong’s father suffered during the Chinese cultural revolution and his brother never recovered from it. What if I was in his place, wondered Xialong. He also mentioned the censorship in China that he faced while getting his books translated for the mainland.

Naldo is a different case. He was a freedom fighter and a torture victim during the occupation of East Timor. He was imprisoned when he was 9. Later he became a student leader and learnt English in Australia. His poetry now inspires thousands of his countrymen.

Though my interactions with the writers were personally enlightening, I came home depressed because I have a feeling that the chaos would not end anytime soon. Did people between the two Great Wars feel the same? Only, we don’t have the Camus and Sartres of our age to explain the chaos to us. The world is becoming more violent and life more absurd by the day and there are no heroes to look up to in the post-modern anarchy. It is a difficult challenge for any writer to make sense of the world that we live in. I only wish more power to the pen of writers like Hanif, Manreet, Elmo and Warrier and Ahmede!