Posts by Charlie Ng

Dispatch from PEN Hong Kong: In Conversation with Jason Y. Ng

Hopelessness is not constructive—it plays into the hands of the oppressor.

PEN Hong Kong was officially re-launched on 13 November, as Asymptote noted recently. Originally established in the 1980s by expatriate writers in Hong Kong, the organisation later became inactive as key members left the city. A group of professionals working in the field of the written word revived the organisation in September in response to the increasingly hostile environment for free expression in Hong Kong.

Numerous incidents have indicated that freedom of speech in Hong Kong is declining after the handover. PEN America released two reports on the issue, in 2015 and 2016, to explore the deterioration of press freedoms and free expression in the city, as reflected in the increasing economic and political pressures targeted at pro-democracy mass media. The appalling abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese authorities that was exposed earlier this year drew further attention to the issue. Self-censorship is also aggravating publishers, media, bookshops, and even academia. PEN Hong Kong’s members take up the mission of celebrating and promoting free, creative expression to guard against political suppression and censorship by uniting advocates who believe in the power of words in Hong Kong and China.

Asymptote’s Hong Kong Editor-at-Large recently interviewed PEN Hong Kong’s President, Jason Y. Ng, who tells us about the establishment of the organisation, its recent activities, future goals, and challenges.

Charlie Ng (CN): Defending freedom of speech in Hong Kong is definitely urgent and necessary in today’s political climate. Could you please introduce the current network of PEN Hong Kong members to us? What is your vision for developing that network in order to achieve the missions of the organisation?

Jason Y. Ng (JN): We’re very fortunate to have a number of prominent authors, academics, and journalists serving on our executive committee. They also represent a good balance between local Chinese writers and expatriates working and living in Hong Kong.

We encourage anyone interested in PEN Hong Kong to check out their bios at our website and to find out how to join us. An organization is only as good as its members, and we’re eager to recruit members of the literary community who are committed to promoting literature – in both Chinese and English – and defending free expression in Hong Kong.

CN: Would you like to tell us about PEN Hong Kong’s participation in the 82th PEN Congress?

JN: We sent three delegates – award-winning poet Nicholas Wong, seasoned journalist Kris Cheng, and human rights advocate Patrick Poon – to the Galicia Congress this past October. All three are founding members of PEN Hong Kong. They participated in several panel discussions, announcing the revival of our chapter and giving updates on the freedom of expression situation in Hong Kong. We were heartened to see that there was a lot of interest among the global audiences in the missing booksellers controversy and Beijing’s tightening grip on civil liberties in Hong Kong.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from South Africa, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Singapore

Catch up with latest book festivals, translation awards, and advances in the fight against free speech restrictions with the Asymptote team this week. Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong Charlie Ng reports on the a new PEN branch, while Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek sends us the scoop on graffiti-poetry and more from Singapore. Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs knows the best new publications coming out of South Africa and Nigeria and takes us along on the lit festival circuit. 

Editor-at-Large Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan calls in the news from Hong Kong:

PEN Hong Kong was re-established this September. The official launch of the organisation was held on 13 November to introduce its mission, work, and founding members to the community of writers, journalists, translators, publishers, and those interested in writing or concerned with free expression in Hong Kong. The re-launch at this timely moment is aimed at addressing the restraints on freedom of speech in Hong Kong in face of tightening political control from the Chinese Government, seen in such incidents as the disappearance of five members of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold publications critical of Chinese leaders. Additionally, Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law has led to the disqualification of two newly elected pro-democratic Legislative Councillors.

Besides featuring the launch of PEN Hong Kong, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this year put together a broad range of activities for all literary lovers. Hong Kong-born, Chinese-British poet and winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize Sarah Howe read from her poetry collection Loop of Jade and gave a lecture at the University of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, renowned Chinese Misty poet Bei Dao also gave a poetry reading in the Festival. The two panels, ‘Lost and Found in Translation I and II‘, shed light on the significance of translation for poetry, fiction, and cultural exchange.

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Nicholas Wong talks love, the body, desire, and post-colonialism

No one can ever demolish heteronormativity, but there’s no need to reaffirm and reinforce it.

At the 28th Lambda Literary Awards earlier this year, Nicholas Wong walked away with a top-place finish in the Gay Poetry category of this important international LGBT literary prize. Born and educated in Hong Kong, Wong chose to write poetry in English—a second language he would rather consider “alternative native.” The innovative space between linguistic familiarity and alienation is Wong’s poetic playground, and the award-winning collection Crevasse, slim as it is, touches upon a wide range of topics from love, the body, and desire to post-colonialism, identity, and the social implications of writing about selfhood. Asymptote’s Hong Kong Editor-at-Large, Charlie Ng, conversed with the poet over email about themes in Crevasse, the significance of the Hong Kong context, translation, what’s next, and more.

Charlie Ng (CN): Crevasse begins with a quotation from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. The philosopher sees the body as expression and vice versa; together they form the horizon connecting the self to the world. Your poetry explores much about embodiment and language.

(For example: 

“Use a pen to write on the body,/then use the body to unbind/the heart. Roll the heart over a few pages of grammar”—“Trio With Hsia Yü”

 “The porn star died the day the Yew dropped,/lots of iku/kimochi/kinky chin chin and noun-and-verb confusion between his legs.”—“Star Gazing”

“Body as a verb     in/-transitive in/transit     from one/arm to an/other”—“Light Deposit”) 

How do you understand the relationship between language and the body? How would you describe the interplay of the two in your poetry?

Nicholas Wong (NW): Some poems in Crevasse are concerned with what the body (hence desire and sexuality) means to me both as a gay man and a gay poet. Hasn’t the body become a new language for most gay men? Look at the boom of gym culture, especially in Asia, in the past few years. A new sense of the aesthetics of the body and the way it is presented has been taking shape on different social apps. And if we do speak more with the body (parts) than we do verbally, how are we going to translate this transition into creative language? What does the body require to be “embodied?” The body is always the most immediate plane of loneliness—at least this was what I believed in when I was putting poems together for Crevasse. Among the examples you cited, I particularly like the poem “Star Gazing,” which was written to pay tribute to the late Japanese porn star Masaki Goh. I wanted to know how old he was when he passed, but the Internet had no information about it. It was very sad. His body has been fantasized, filmed and desired, but there was no official source that confirmed its origin. This trouble always opens up a creative realm. 

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Spotlight on Asymptote’s Partner: Hong Kong’s Fleurs des Lettres

Testimonials from Asymptote's global literary partnership in Hong Kong, with journal "Fleurs des Lettres"

One thing that Asymptote certainly delivers is fresh literature. That is, we don’t just sit back and wait for submissions to ping! in our inbox, and make do with whatever we get. In fact, submissions—which we do take seriously, with five dedicated slushpile readers sifting through works that come in over the transom throughout the year—probably make up less than 20% of our published content, if we go by wordcount. Some sections, such as Drama, Interviews, Visual, Criticism, Writers on Writers are heavily commissioned/solicited sections. These need very resourceful/persistent section editors, who can convert the most tenuous of leads into actual contributions. An entire blog post or probably even a book could be written about how we wooed author X or publisher Y or translator Z or guest artist A to come on board.

Even with very resourceful section editors, however, given our mission of diversity, no one editor can cover his or her section for too long and still do his or her job well. That’s where our supporting cast comes in:  we have a jet-setting commissioning editor who is able to network on our behalf at writers’ festivals, we have contributing editors to pitch and contribute content, and as mentioned previously, we have an assistant editor researching hitherto unpublished languages, as well as editors-at-large with their fingers on the pulse of their regions’  literary scenes. Today we’ll talk about one facet of editorial work undertaken by editors-at-large that few of our readers may be privy to: journal partnerships.

It makes sense to partner with journals because as the first gatekeepers of literature everywhere, journals publish the freshest and most cutting-edge literature being produced in its region. As for how the partnership works: we take an article or a set of articles from a foreign language (i.e. non English-language) print journal and translate it into English to present in our quarterly issues. In return, the foreign language print journal then takes an article that we have published and commissions a translation of that article to be presented in its pages. All rights are cleared with the author of the article before proceeding. This is a model that stimulates the transmission of literature (in both languages) and benefits magazines, readers, authors, and translators alike.

A list of our journal partners to date can be found on our map here—two more slated for 2015 are Steaua in Romania and Writer in Thailand—but today we’ll only feature testimonials that shed light on one journal partner, the very stylish 《字花》from Hong Kong (also Fleurs des Lettres).

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief

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