Another chapter closes in city's literary life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am

Passport delays, rock star receptions and political bashing thrown in for good measure - all in the name of books

'How can an illiterate write a book?' the immigration officer told Baby Halder as he refused to let her leave India to attend the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which ended last week. Halder, who applied for her first passport to make the trip, had fallen foul of rules against domestic helpers leaving for countries where they might seek work.

Landing in Hong Kong a day late, after fellow author Urvashi Butalia put pressure on the Ministry of Culture, Halder told her astonishing story in an emotional session at the Fringe Club. She described through Butalia how, abandoned by her mother at the age of seven and married off at 12, she lived a life of neglect and poverty.

Halder walked out on her husband with their three children after he attacked her with a rock. Boarding a train to Delhi, she eventually found work in the home of Prabodh Kumar, who coaxed her to write her story in last year's acclaimed memoir A Life Less Ordinary.

Did the book change her life? 'I'm here in front of you,' she said. 'Otherwise, how else could this have happened?' The greatest gift the book gave her was to reunite her with her estranged father.

Also arriving a day late was Amy Tan. When she finally walked on stage at Lingnan University to speak to 1,000 school students, it was to a rock star welcome.

Tan said the response to her 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club had been frightening. 'People would say to me, 'You must be very brave to reveal so much of yourself'. And then I'd feel like somebody has taken my clothes off. It's very disconcerting. You feel emotionally naked. It's been gratifying in another sense, because some people said to me, 'I didn't speak to my mother and after we read this book together we're talking'.'

Writing hadn't come easy, with Tan struggling with everything from 'how am I going to write that sentence?' to 'what will I write about?'

'I probably revise the first 100 pages of my books 100 times,' she said. 'I've often thrown away 50 pages, 100 pages, 200 pages - there have been whole books, so it's very difficult for me.'

But, she said, there were moments when it flowed. 'It flows in unpredictable ways, and it creates an emotional high that's almost higher than anything I've ever felt. So the difficulty is worth it.'

African-American writer Uzodinma Iweala had begun writing Beasts of No Nation, in which he imagines the life of a boy soldier conscripted into an army of guerrilla fighters, for his thesis, he told a gathering at the Helena May Institute. He, and others, had been surprised by its reception. 'My girlfriend says, 'You got paid for basically doing your homework',' he said.

He wrote in the first person, in broken English, because he wanted it to sound as a child would speak. He'd been encouraged by his tutor Jamaica Kincaid to 'write the way you want to write and don't worry about what anyone else has to say'.

'Interestingly, when I took the book and handed it to my grandfather [who lives in Nigeria], he read the first few pages and said, 'Well, this is great, but I don't understand why you didn't write it in proper English'.'

Yang Erche Namu has a freewheeling approach to her writing. 'For some writers it seems so painful to finish a book,' she said. 'To me, I travel, I write. Sometimes I write on napkins, sometimes on scraps of paper. In my house there's a big plastic bag. Every time I come back I put all these napkins and paper into the bag. I know in two or three months I have enough for one book and I give it to my publisher.'

Namu said she'd been surprised to find so many sad books by Chinese authors when she first visited San Francisco. 'As a buddhist we say past is past, tomorrow has not yet happened, let's enjoy life,' said the author of Leaving Mother Lake, a memoir of her life in a matriarchal society in the Himalayas. In her home town, the book had become a 'local product', she said. 'We don't have much to sell, so mushrooms are here, tea is here, ham is here, Namu's book is in the middle. Buy one pound of tea, have the book free, or buy the book, have a pound of tea free.'

Former Legco member Christine Loh Kung-wai said she'd been bitten by the writing bug after penning her recent memoir Being Here - Shaping a Preferred Future, and was working on two more books. 'One has to be finished in two weeks,' she said. 'It's called Reflection of Leadership, and it looks at leadership from assessing Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang [Yam-kuen] ... it will be a short book.'