Posts by Nicole Idar

Hunger and the Artist: Interviewing Windham Campbell Prizewinner Helon Habila

An interview with Nigerian author Helon Habila, winner of a 2015 Windham Campbell Prize in Fiction

The Windham Campbell Prize, launched just two years ago, has quickly become one of the most sought-after literary awards in the world, offering recipients the financial freedom to write with a $150,000 no-strings-attached grant. This year, Nigeria-born Helon Habila, author of the novels Waiting for an Angel (Norton, 2002), Measuring Time (Norton, 2007), and Oil on Water (Norton, 2010), received a Windham Campbell Prize in the Fiction category. Established by Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell, who were artists themselves, the prize recognizes writers writing in English from anywhere in the world.

Nicole Idar: The Windham Campbell Prize was inspired by Donald Windham’s own experiences as a young writer struggling to support himself, and in your own work you’ve written about young writers faced with this very struggle—Diaz, the narrator and aspiring journalist in “The Hotel Malogo,” for example. When you were first starting out as a writer, you worked as an editor for several years in Lagos. How has this struggle to balance art with financial security shaped you as a writer?

Helon Habila: Hunger, both metaphorical and literal, is always good for the artist. It sharpens your focus and drives you on. There’s a beautiful essay by Ben Okri on this subject, published in the British Council’s New Writing anthology a long time ago. It is based on his own experiences as a struggling writer in London. He describes how hunger would literally wake you up at night and drive you to the writing desk. But of course the best work on this subject for me is Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Yet, when the hunger becomes too much, it becomes a burden, not a helper. You might, for instance, find yourself writing about food for no discernible reason. I wrote my first book mostly hungry, with no computer, and by candle light because our electricity wasn’t working. This was in Lagos. I had to go to work at 7 am, and get home at around 7 pm, rest for a few hours and start writing by candle light till around 3 am. Then rest and go to work at 7 am. It was tough, but it shaped me in so many ways. I am glad that book worked out, it went on to win the Caine Prize and got me my first book deal with Penguin and Norton. It would have been devastating if it didn’t. READ MORE…

Crime on the Island: Interviewing Cheryl Tan of “Singapore Noir”

An interview with Cheryl Tan, editor of the first Singaporean crime fiction anthology published in the United States

Singapore has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates, but much like its partner in (low) crime, Iceland, it’s fertile ground for noir stories. Launched this month, ten years after the release of Brooklyn Noir, is Brooklyn-based Akashic Books’ newest title in its bestselling series of Noir anthologies, Singapore Noir, edited by the Singaporean writer Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal and author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.

Nicole Idar: Singapore is the fourth Asian city to boast an Akashic Books Noir anthology, after Delhi, Manila, and Mumbai (Seoul is forthcoming). Can you tell us how Singapore Noir came about?

Cheryl Tan: I’d long admired New York publisher Akashic Books’ award-winning Noir seriesa series of anthologies, and there are dozens by now, each one set in a country or a city. Brooklyn Noir was a personal favorite but you also have everything from Baltimore Noir to Paris Noir. Some really big names have edited these collections of dark stories set in these locales—Joyce Carol Oates edited New Jersey Noir, for example, and Dennis Lehane edited Boston Noir.

In November 2011, I was at the Miami Book Fair, speaking about A Tiger in the Kitchen, my first book. At the authors’ party, mystery writer extraordinaire S.J. Rozan introduced me to Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher. I told Johnny how much I loved his noir series but asked why there hadn’t been a Singapore Noir. He said it was because he didn’t know any Singaporean writers. And S.J. said, “Well now you do.”  


Translators’ Tools: Objects from Asymptote’s Virtual Translation Museum

The Jawi Typewriter

Arabic Typewriter

Manufactured: c. 1966

Height: 5.9 inches, width: 15 inches

On display at the Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore

Jawi, an Arabic alphabet, was the dominant form of written Malay in Malaysia and Singapore for more than 600 years, but these days it’s in danger of becoming as obsolete as the typewriter.

Though the Malaysian ministry of education attempted to revive Jawi learning in the past—in 1970, elementary schools began teaching Jawi, and soon after high schools followed suit—by 1981, when I started Standard One (Malaysian first grade), Jawi was no longer part of the national curriculum. By 2006, Malaysia’s only remaining Jawi newspaper, the Utusan Melayu, which first appeared in Singapore in 1939, had ceased publishing.

As a translator of Malay into English, I’ve long been interested in Jawi, and when I spotted what I thought was a Jawi typewriter at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) in Singapore, I was immediately curious. I wanted to know where it came from, how old it was, who had owned it, how it was used. What follows is the conversation I had with the MHC concerning its typewriter, carried out over email. Noorashikin Zulkifli, Head of Curation and Programs at the MHC, helped trace the typewriter’s origins and explained its features. Encik Syed Ali Semait, Managing Director of Singapore-based Pustaka Nasional Pte. Ltd, the publishing and typesetting company that donated the typewriter to the MHC in 2012, helped identify the typewriter’s original owner. READ MORE…

Micro-fiction by Sufian Abas

Down-to-earth magical realism from Malaysia

Anxiety over rapid urbanization takes a distinctly Malaysian turn in these stories by Sufian Abas.  READ MORE…

On the first Malay-Language Translations of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman

Amir Muhammad, founder of Buku Fixi [Fixi Books], talks with Asymptote

Buku Fixi, established in 2011, is a Petaling Jaya, Malaysia-based publisher of Malay-language novels with a focus on contemporary urban themes. Buku Fixi includes three other imprints: “Fixi Novo,” which publishes English-language books, “Fixi Retro,” which publishes out-of-print Malay titles, and “Fixi Verso,” highlighting bestsellers in translation. Buku Fixi’s founder, Amir Muhammad, also founded Matahari Books in 2007, publishes non-fiction titles in English and Malay, and is an active writer and filmmaker.

Just this month, Fixi published the first Malay translations of a Stephen King novel, JOYLAND, and a Neil Gaiman novel, THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE (translated as LAUTAN DI HUJUNG LORONG). Why do you think it’s taken so long for these bestselling authors to be translated into Malay? READ MORE…