The Festival's Current Reads

November 2023 FEATURE
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By The GTLF Team.

AS A TEAM breathes literature, we are always that eats and on the hunt for good books and writers.

On any good day, you will find members of the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) team looking up book reviews, articles or roundups of the latest book releases to feed our ever-curious minds. In fact, our festival manager was known to receive book parcels every other week before Book Depository ceased operations. We hear she might have already found an alternative to our beloved online bookstore, but that is a story for another day.

In conjunction with GTLF happening this month, we want to share our current reads and recommendations. With a team so diverse, there is something for everyone—from poetry and translation to politics and history.

Pauline Fan, Festival Director

Underfoot by Niillas Holmberg

…Time to return to the feet. Underfoot there’s a drum skin carved with human letters…

Niillas Holmberg’s Underfoot is more than a book of poetry. It is a journey into the topography of language, memory and symbolism of the Sámi indigenous people.

Originally written in Holmberg’s mother tongue of Northern Sámi, an indigenous language spoken by 20,000 people in Finland, Norway and Sweden, the book was nominated for the prestigious Nordic Council of Literature Prize in 2020.

Deftly translated by Johanna Domokos and Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, the text is presented against black, white and grey illustrations by Sámi artist, Inga-Wiktoria Påve. Underfoot is an evocative visual-verbal experience, at once earthy and esoteric. I found myself longing to listen to these poems read aloud in their original language.

Drawing on his people’s joik chants, Holmberg renews ancient oral traditions with contemporary sensibility. In Underfoot, Holmberg invites the reader to walk with him through his landscape to rediscover our primordial connection with the earth that lies under our feet. As the poet himself once said, “In spite of centuries of colonisation in Sámiland, many of us still speak the language of Earth.”

Swarna Rajagopal, Festival Manager

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

The last book I read was Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. I found it fascinating to explore an often condemned yet enigmatic character in Chinese history. The writer’s research not only sheds light on Cixi’s rise to power but also examines her complex flaws.

Having been a fan of Chinese palace dramas since childhood, this book has reignited my inherent attraction to Chinese history. It was a good reminder that the dramatic portrayals we often see on our screens only scratch the surface of the actual historical narratives. If you are interested in politics and history, read this book. Jung Chang informs, entertains and offers readers an intense and varied perspective on a crucial period in Chinese history.

Adriana Nordin Manan, Festival Curator

Anam by André Dao

I recently caught André Dao in conversation about his debut novel, Anam. Combining fiction and essay, it traces Dao’s grandfather’s story, moving to 1930s Hanoi and traversing the world from Saigon to Paris, Melbourne, and then Cambridge. Anam is a tale of a grandson seeking to understand his family history and the multiple histories he continues to reckon with in the present. Anam won the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.

I have a copy waiting to be read and look forward to savouring the writing and themes I find personally resonant.

Florence Kuek, Festival Curator

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-yi

During a recent book fair at KLCC, by a stroke of luck, I chanced upon Wu Ming-yi’s The Stolen Bicycle. First published in 2015, this novel is found in Chinese and English.

Wu’s protagonist attempts to unravel the mystery of his missing father and the stolen bicycle. In his journey, he gets acquainted with the account of the invading Ginrin butai bicycle infantry in Malaya during World War II and the remarkable feats of fearless ones who fought to protect the sovereignty of the land.

The jungle stories of the elephant tamers, the matriarch cow-elephant, the butterfly handicraft and the butterfly hunter are grim but compelling, intertwined with the theme of death and accentuated by nagging fear. The depiction of human specimens stored in liquid tanks and their remnants slaughtered mercilessly like fish will make the most indifferent of readers ponder the meaning of life and the futility of human existence during the era.

Even simplistic lines posed by the characters, such as those relating to the dissonance of personality to the loosening of “some screws”, evoke raw pain. These heavy themes notwithstanding, Wu Ming-yi’s The Stolen Bicycle is a good read for readers seeking wartime memories and narratives grappling with survivor’s guilt.

M.Navin, Festival Curator

Cheenaletchumi (சீன லட்சுமி) by Latha

I recently read Cheenaletchumi (சீன லட்சுமி), a collection of short stories by Latha, a Singaporean author. Like her previous collection Naan Kolai Seyyum Penngal (நான் கொலை செய்யும் பெண்கள்), this collection delves into the lives of everyday Singaporean women and their various life experiences—the colourful, the mundane and everything in between.

The subtly told stories stunningly reveal how contemporary women’s identities are cleaved apart by age, time, class and society’s demands. The characters search, create, rip apart and rebuild themselves in a never-ending cycle. Cheenaletchumi is a must-read as it offers an intimate look into Singapore’s different eras, landscapes, histories, cultures and people with its unpretentious and elegant storytelling. One of the best Tamil short story collections in 2022, Cheenaletchumi brings the reader towards their truth.