Beanie Lei's blog, Beanie Lei's books, about Beanie Lei

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Some Thoughts on Diversity in UK Publishing

Lionel Shriver’s response to Penguin Random House’s diversity policy resulted in many, many responses, but of all the responses to Shriver, Peter Gordon’s stood out, because for someone like me who is an author as well as a reader, this passage from his response shows that Penguin Random House AND Lionel Shriver are right, and that it is precisely because of this that self-published works are the future both for authors and readers:

 A Chinese author from China in translation adds just as much diversity – arguably more – than an emigré writing in English or a second-generation British-Chinese or Chinese-American writer. From my viewpoint in Hong Kong, writing from an ethnically Asian writer in the US or Britain is not necessarily terribly Asian at all: a Chinese-American novel, for example, often has more in common with mainstream American fiction than it does with Chinese fiction written in China in Chinese.

I consider that such sentiments were written without understanding what ‘Asianness’ and ‘Chineseness’ are, and without regard to the completely different novel-writing traditions which exist in Chinese and English, but I digress. In the light of the above, the following examples must be considered to see why both Penguin Random House AND Lionel Shriver are right, and the implications for readers if a publisher or literary agent shares the same views.

Lu Xun, Albert Einstein, Sax Rohmer, Pearl S Buck, Amy Tan, Kevin Kwan, and Pingping Wong have all written 'fiction about Chinese people’. Lu Xun was ethnically Chinese, lived in China, but was multilingual; Rohmer an Irish reporter in Britain who did not speak, read, and write any Chinese, never visited China, and based his novels about Chinese people on the few he wrote about as a reporter (and yes, they were criminals, but bear in mind that he was a reporter); Einstein a German Jewish scientist who did not speak, read, and write any Chinese and visited a small Chinese city over two days; Buck a white American missionary who was born and lived in China, spoke and wrote in Chinese, and had a Chinese name; Tan an ethnic Chinese, culturally a mix of American and Chinese, who has lived all her life in the US; Wong an ethnic Chinese born and raised in London, and culturally a mix of Singaporean, British, and Chinese, while Kwan is ethnically Chinese, raised in Singapore and the US, but culturally a mix of Singaporean, American, and Chinese. 

If Gordon’s thoughts were policy, then only Lu Xun’s writing would be published, and it is solely for this reason that I, as a reader, must disagree with him. I insist on having the choice to read all of these authors' works. For publishers, the benefits should be clear: more money will change hands for works a reader likes (hello Lu Xun, Pearl S Buck, Amy Tan, Kevin Kwan, and Pingping Wong; bye-bye Albert Einstein (I'll buy his physics-based works only, very reluctantly) and Sax Rohmer).

And this leads to a more pertinent question: given the current emphasis in UK publishing on an author’s identity and background, would Einstein’s observations be more publishable than Rohmer’s, Lu’s, Tan’s, Wong’s, Buck’s, and Kwan’s, simply because Einstein was a celebrity/scientist/‘white man’/German Jew and therefore ‘more trustworthy’ or ‘more sellable’? 

Instead of addressing these issues, authors’ personal backgrounds are now used to market works, and this has led to concerns that authors of fiction are not free to write about characters and topics of a different background to the author's, but if the examples above continue to be used, the question changes. Essentially, should Einstein and Rohmer not be published because ‘Einstein’s and Rohmer’s portrayals of Chinese people were based on fiction that arose from silly, prejudiced views which can only be spotted by a small, tiny group of readers' (which is sometimes dramatically worded as 'some minorities find Einstein and Romer's portrayals of Chinese people racist')? 

I believe that the solution is simple: it is down to a reader to make a choice to accept or reject a work, AND to choose to distinguish whether a work is grounded in fact or whether it is grounded in fiction that results from prejudiced views.

Those who think that works of fiction can be used to teach others about emotions and about real peoples and cultures will find themselves sadly mistaken, because works of fiction (especially novels and novels in translation) are fiction, but emotions and real peoples and cultures are real.

In many instances, having a traditional publisher behind a translation also does not guarantee quality. Having authored ‘The Prophecy’ and ‘The Vision: Part One of The Norse Myth Soap Opera Trilogy’, which are fantasy novellas based on Norse mythology, I had to do some research (because I asked too many questions) and came across a gazillion scholarly translations from Old Norse into English of a poem called ‘Voluspa’, which I eventually based all my novellas on. I have seen ‘Voluspa’ rendered as ‘The Seeress’s Prophecy’, ‘The Vision of the Volva’, as well as ‘The Sayings of the Wise Woman’, and to top this off, there is a long Voluspa  and a short Voluspa, and there are actually three versions of the long Voluspa because two original Old Norse texts were combined to create a third text! For one poem alone, information had been added, removed, or made up because of a translator’s bias towards or against people, ideas, or things in Norse mythology and culture, and if this could be done in scholarly studies (NOT retellings, which are subject to a reteller’s imagination) of Deities of ‘white’ culture, imagine the damage done to mere mortals like me who come from a culture which is seen as 'not white/of colour/BAME and therefore automatically inferior/disadvantaged/possessing an advantage of some sort which is not liked by whites'. 

The only way for us readers to get a sense of what will nourish us in mind and soul is to distinguish whether we are reading fact or fiction; to ask why we are reading (is it to learn? Or to be entertained?); visit and/or live in as many places as possible; listen to and empathise with a wide variety of people from backgrounds different to ours; and read works in the language they were written in, not works in translation.

Similar actions, I believe, will give authors an edge because it is only through a combination of experience and talent that an author can make a reader feel what his or her characters are feeling; immortality for an author beckons when a reader starts to see characters as real people. Apart from this, I think that timing and luck also help. For example, there were not many authors writing in English when ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets were published, and likewise, there were no English-language novelists around when ‘Robinson Crusoe’ appeared.

Once we get a sense of what we want to accept or reject, we as readers can then distinguish between works that we are made aware of, and decide whose works we want to keep reading and buying.
That a box-based mindset based on identity has been allowed to sink itself, tooth and claw, into the very industry where only the written word and its power to evoke should reign supreme must be balanced with considerations of whether content should be deemed to be publishable, and what content is publishable.

Solely centering discussions around identity has polarised society at large unnecessarily and detracted from the real issue of some authors and readers not actually engaging with the world anymore. As traditional publishing in the UK has failed to address this, thus leading to unsatisfactory reading experiences and missed opportunities to unearth and nurture new talent, authors and readers like me have mined the exciting, fresh, and brave new world of self-publishing and found hidden treasures and sheer, unparalled diversity in authors, readers, and books. With the advent of the internet and cheap flights, we readers must not rely on the outdated mindset of using fiction (such as novels, and especially novels in translation) and the flawed reporting of facts to learn about real peoples and cultures anymore, but actively seek to live in and be part of the changing world we all share, and to enjoy each other for who we are.

Monday, 4 June 2018

How I wrote a poem for Visual Verse, and my other writing adventures

I finally, truly understood what 'sod's law' means and had to rip up my drafts and rewrite both 'The Promise' and 'Wolf's Father' (which are Parts Two and Three of 'The Norse Myth Soap Opera Trilogy') after finding more sources of Norse myth which I hadn't known about. The good news is that I now have some new drafts, and the interesting news (as I don't think it's bad news) is that these drafts actually resemble my original ideas but with bonus material, and I found this hilarious after realising that I should have listened to my gut and stuck with my very first drafts all along.

And in other news, I accidentally stumbled across an online magazine called 'Visual Verse' while skimming through random Twitter feeds for jokes to cheer myself up for not listening to myself  (please don't ask me how Twitter works; I haven't the foggiest). Essentially, the editors of Visual Verse (@visual_verse) will unveil an unnamed picture (the artist is mentioned, however) each month on Twitter and invite people to submit a piece of writing between 50 to 500 words long in response to the picture. Submission is free, and I believe you can submit more than one piece. The catch? The piece must be written within an hour of seeing the picture.

This is a different game to hashtagging, and I was so intrigued that I had to give it a go, but was nearly stumped by the picture they posted for May (if you're interested, it's called 'The Child's Bath' by Mary Cassatt), but I overcame a moment of doubt I had that I could write something longer than 50 words in the time needed, and set off on my new writing adventure.

My efforts are in the photo below (spoiler: I got published :-)! By someone else who wasn't me :-)! Click this link to read my piece!); there are many other replies from others who also found inspiration, and it's fascinating to see so many different, individual responses to the same picture: 

I started by asking who the woman and little girl could be, and how they were feeling or thinking at that precise moment which was captured in the picture. In the end, I chose to write something from the little girl's viewpoint because although it was possible that the woman wasn't her mother, the little girl trusts and treasures her immensely, and I reckoned that at that age, and given the time in history this took place (ie, judging from the clothes, this would be the late 19th century or early 20th century), that particular little girl in the picture sees the woman as a maternal figure without really knowing what a mother is, or indeed if the woman is her mother or not. I didn't have much time left, and hurriedly scribbled the first line down, and decided to turn it into a rhyming poem. Everything else followed on from there, and by the time my hour was up, I had something. As it's free to submit, I thought, 'why not?' and sent my work in. The only problem was that I only had time for a first draft, and the lesson I am taking away from is that if I do choose for my future pieces to follow certain rules, I would need to write shorter pieces which I could then polish, and not to submit a first draft. 

As it's the start of June, a new picture should now be up on Visual Verse, and I'm going to have a go at that if I can find the time this week, as the deadline for submissions is mid-June. Till then, watch this space!

Sunday, 29 April 2018

My thoughts on 'The Book of Life' and 'Coco' (Doesn't contain spoilers!)

I was very lucky to have seen 'Coco' recently, and to have caught 'The Book of Life' on the telly yesterday. I had wanted to blog about 'Coco' only, but after watching 'The Book of Life', I had to write about them both.

My first impression of 'The Book of Life' was that it shared the same theme as 'Coco', and indeed, some have queried if 'Coco' is a rip-off of 'The Book of Life' (may contain spoilers), but take my word for it, my first impression was very, very wrong. Other people have compared both films extensively to explain why they are different (may contain spoilers), but to me, there is only one point to make, and that is on setting: that they are both set in Mexico is what makes them so different.

'Coco' was interesting to me because it could have been set in an East/Southeast Asian country, especially China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, or the Philippines, or a place where there are Mexican or Asian diasporas, and it would still have worked. This is because of the emphasis of 'Coco' on familial and ancestral love, and because items like the Mexican family shrine filled with photos and food can also be found in cultures from East and Southeast Asia.

'The Book of Life', however, is not like this. Given two of the main characters who are involved, this story can only function if it is set on not just any Day of the Dead, but the Mexican Day of the Dead, and because of this, it is a story that can and must only involve Mexican people/diasporas. If you were to take Mexico and Mexicans away from 'The Book of Life', it will be an entirely different film altogether.

Where 'Coco' scores points for me (purely because I have seen this in action IRL) is its subtle exploration of the power of music to evoke memories and feelings, and its use of original songs to do this. 'The Book of Life', with its completely different emphasis, uses original music extremely differently, and it is interesting to contrast how it and 'Coco' showcase how music can be used.

As a result, 'Coco' and 'The Book of Life' actually address the key topic of  'life vs living vs survival vs existence' extremely differently, and this is why I think that if you have not watched 'The Book of Life' yet, you must, must, must give it a go. Go and see it for an alternative, thought-provoking, inspiring view on the nature of life, and living life, and while 'Coco' is strong, 'The Book of Life' also has its strengths, and it is fun to watch the two, and be inspired by them in different ways.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

My new book, 'The Vision (Part One of the Norse Myth Soap Opera Trilogy)' is now out :-D !

I have some rather exciting news: my newest book, 'The Vision: Part One of the Norse Myth Soap Opera Trilogy' is now out on Amazon Kindle! Here's what the cover looks like:

And here's the blurb:

'The Norse Myth Soap Opera Trilogy' consists of three novellas about the Norse Gods and Goddesses and Norse mythology in a style which owes much to gossip, British soap operas, and Chinese mythological novels, yet is rooted in what has been recorded in Old Norse sources. The result is a retelling with a fresh, alternative perspective on the Norse myths. 'The Vision', which is Part One of the Trilogy, introduces the main players in the myths and the worlds they live in.'

It has taken me six years to write 'The Vision'. This is because I have been busy with other things, and busy figuring out what certain Old Norse words and phrases mean.

The cover has taken me forever to design as finding the right tree was quite tough! A lot of people around me thought I was losing it when they saw me staring at trees and photographing them, especially since the rough weather has meant that many trees have remained bare. But I had an idea for the cover from the very start, and knew that no matter what, I had to take the right photograph at the right angle for the cover I had in mind. I feel that this cover ties 'The Norse Myth Soap Opera Trilogy' to 'The Prophecy', yet allows 'The Prophecy' to either be a stand-alone book or the fourth book in the Trilogy.

I plan to release Parts Two and Three to tbe Trilogy ('The Promise' and 'Wolf's Father') in 2018, so watch this space!

I have updated my blog so that my page with a list of my books is now up - do take a look!

Thank you to all my IRL, Twitter and Google+ friends and family for waiting so patiently! :-)

Monday, 2 April 2018

What I have been up to, or, this is not an advertisement for Smule

It has been a while since I had the time to blog something, and now I know why: it's Smule's fault!

Sorry if you know what Smule is, but if you don't, it's a karaoke app. When I told my friends about it, they were stunned. 'But you don't do karaoke,' they said. 'We don't do karaoke.' I know my friends don't do karaoke, but with my family, it's another story. We're singing all the time - in the bathroom, when we're watching telly, when we're eating, when we're reading... I thought this was something everyone else does, but apparently not.

I discovered Smule a few months ago, around the New Year, and quite a bit of the time I would have used for writing was taken up by singing. The beauty of Smule is that there are many rearrangements of the same song to choose to sing to, and you can choose to sing on your own or with a partner and to record your singing once you've finished. There is also the option to post each recording you've made on your profile page. I normally only do this for songs which I think I've sung reasonably and tolerably well.

Thanks to Smule, I have become very aware of my voice and how to use it (trust me, listening to a recording is much more useful than listening to yourself singing live), and fingers crossed that with continued practice, I can move away from the strangled cat/duck on helium vocals to something resembling a voice, and perhaps move on to posting my own original songs on Soundcloud and Youtube; after all, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

So here's to karaoke apps, and here's to singing!

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Happy Birthday, One and All!

You might be wondering whether I'm wishing you a Happy Birthday, and whether it's my birthday, and in a sense, the answer to both questions is 'Yes'.
It's the seventh day of the Chinese New Year today, and I came across this article in the Guardian about Chinese New Year customs. It has provoked some backlash amongst some, in that their customs were described in the article as being 'antiquated', but as I am not Cantonese myself, I can see what the writer was trying (and failing) to get across: that the 'Chinese New Year customs' most Brits are familiar with, down to the use of 'kung hei fatt choi' to wish someone a Happy New Year, are actually Cantonese customs, and that the customs of the Chinese vary from place to place.

One of the peculiarities of the place where my ancestors came from is their celebration of the seventh day of the Chinese New Year as 'Renri' -  人日 - 'Creation of Humanity Day'. The story goes that the Goddess Nuwa 女娲 came across the Earth, which was uninhabited, and decided to make figurines to amuse herself. On the first day, she made chickens, the second dogs, the third pigs, sheep and goats on the fourth, cattle on the fifth, horses the sixth, and humans on the seventh.

She initially crafted humans by hand from loess, and instead of the body of a snake (which she had), she gave humans two legs. Her creations, happy to be alive scampered about joyfully, and she got excited and made more by taking two pieces of rope together and splashing mud about; the splutters turned into more humans. Apparently, this is the reason why social classes exist, with the descendants of the handcrafted humans lording it over the descendants of the splutter-derived humans.

Another peculiarity in my family is that Renri is only celebrated through retelling this story on this day, and no more, because of modernisation and because the family converted to Christianity a while back. In other families, Renri is celebrated with feasts and other customs such as mountain-climbing and making offerings to Nuwa.

I shall leave you with a picture, which I remember seeing as a child, of Nuwa, and her brother and husband Fuxi, the creator of marriage, surrounded by stars. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Academic Debate in the UK: An Open Letter to Prof Mary Beard and Dr Priyamvada Gopal

Dear Prof Beard and Dr Gopal

I have just spent the evening looking through your tweets, and would like to make some observations, not in criticism of you as people, but as a casual observer of the Twitter maelstrom you are caught up in, and because I respect you both very much. My main concerns are that you are failing to listen to each other, and that what is going on between you is being played out everywhere in the UK, with the result being that debate and discussion is stifled.

Before I continue, I will say, Prof Beard, that although I respect you for your achievements and accomplishments, what has disappointed me most about this whole sorry affair has been your actions to date. I did not like your words and your views, which have been countered and refuted by Dr Gopal's excellent blogpost (and about your blogpost, all I will say is that the phrase 'comparing apples with oranges' immediately sprang to mind when you drew an analogy between intense, external pressures playing their part in influencing the behaviours of aid workers following a destructive natural disaster versus those of French citizens in a man-made world war; surely what happened at the Fukushima Power Plant following the giant 2011 tsunami in Japan would have been a better comparison), but I will defend your right to say them etc... No, it was that video and photo of you crying that really disappointed me, for they reminded me of all those mainly Victorian, man-made comments about us women being inferior because we are allegedly prone to hysteria, histrionics, and being emotional at the expense of being analytical and rational. That you did not have even one sentence to answer Dr Gopal's blogpost was a true shock, and a letdown; I truly, truly, truly expected better from you than your tears.

That is not to say that I agree entirely with your views, Dr Gopal. Although you were right to call out the pro-colonialist nuances in Prof Beard's words and the destructive effect they have, and that yes, they do reflect a racist worldview, any further deconstruction of Prof Beard's blogpost should only have been on the horrendously complex language that was used, together with the fallacy of comparing apples with oranges. Sorry if you think that I am telling you off and telling you, a professor of English, how and what to write, but please hear me out: as a British-born Chinese, I have been 'the only Chinese in the [insert place here]' practically all my life, with non-Chinese people around me who didn't hurt others or even flies, but said the nastiest things about 'them over there' without pausing to think. Their words are the products of what they were fed literally and metaphorically when they were growing up, but their words do not reflect their character. When appallingly disagreeable and/or racist words and views are aired, then yes, it should definitely be up to people like you and me who can see things with a fresh pair of eyes to point out what is disagreeable and/or racist, as well as alternatives and why such alternatives are equally, if not more valid, whilst dispassionately disentangling opinions and words from racism and discrimination that is acted upon (for example, see the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Mi Gao Huang Chen, and the admitted institutionalised failings of the police in the aftermath of these murders).

This whole debate began as a discussion of factors which could influence the behaviour of Western aid workers who are put under pressure, but it became overtaken by an even more important Twitter discussion about influences, whether conscious or not, and most especially about race, race relations, and discussions about race, and perceptions about other races, having a part in decision-making. I think both topics need further discussion, and where better than to start than to have you both, Prof Beard and Dr Gopal, in a room filled with real flowers, pretty tablecloths, fluffy tea cosies, hen-shaped egg holders, tea, coffee, and cake, LOTS of cake, and a video camera present so that your chat can be streamed live, or broadcast afterwards? As this is really important, on no account should this discussion be in private, and I personally think the more informal, the better. After all, isn't this the perfect chance for us ladies to show everyone what we are capable of when we work together?

Best wishes
B x