Tag Archives: books actually

On Bookstores: “Memory of Trees”

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My first paid job was at an independent bookstore in Kuala Lumpur’s fashionable Telawi neighbourhood. It was the summer before I turned 16. I had just finished school, and under circumstances I can only explain as a combustion of family dysfunction and personal callowness, neither plans nor ambitions existed regarding my future. I spent just over a month at that job. I could not get the hang of the cash register, and the entire situation – circumstantially and emotionally – was a little bizarre, but those weeks turned out to be pivotal. The seeming lack of direction in my life was a blessing in disguise; heading nowhere, I fell heart-first into the artistic subculture where my career began, thanks to friends made at the time.

I spent that month reading, reading, reading. I read Nabokov. I read Kundera. I read Kerouac. I read the classics so I could avoid them later. I read all the dead white men I would spend the next several years uninterested in, because after that first job at Silverfish Books, I found and fell into a compulsive affair with Payless – a chain that stocked books sourced from secondhand stores in the United States. I read Cisneros. I read Rich. I read Anzaldua. I read Marmon Silko. I read the obscure and under-rated. I would never complete a tertiary education. These books, bought cheap and in bulk, were my teachers. They taught me not just how to write from the borderlands, but also how to thrive in a certain kind of world as a certain kind of woman.

Five years into living in Chennai, I take the news that Landmark is phasing out its books section with sadness. Their annual sales used to put me into raptures. Of course, like so many other readers, I am complicit in their failure. When Flipkart and the even more steeply-discounted Homeshop18 came on the scene brandishing cut-rate prices and the magic mantra “cash on delivery”, I made the switch. (Psst – there’s even one terribly useful website, www.indiabookstore.net, that pulls up the all the listings from a range of digital stores).

Yet I hope that what is, effectively, the end of the beloved retailer as we know it will lead to the sprouting of secondhand bookstores. We won’t stop buying books, but we will certainly run out of shelf space. Pre-owned books come with many perks. In London a few months ago, I visited the iconic Skoob (its offshoot in Kuala Lumpur was another playground of my teens) and ticked a couple of titles off my wishlist. They were in great condition, and significantly cheaper even in the Queen’s currency than new copies bought in India. Out of print books abound in such shops. In the past, although it’s no longer an interest of mine, I’ve also found books inscribed by the author.

I still pay it forward, though. Whenever I come across shelves of free books or book swaps in cafes and other places, I press a lipstick print on the title page of my own little paperback and leave it for whoever is meant to find it. I may be a cheapo when it comes to purchasing, but I do believe in giving my own work away often. As off-putting as I found the staff of Paris’ famed Shakespeare & Company when I visited this summer, I blew a kiss to the ghosts of Hemingway, Nin and Ginsberg and left some copies there too. [Later, I learnt that the establishment that now operates under this name isn’t actually the one Hemingway – whom in rather trite fashion I was reading at the time – frequented, but you know what they (meaning I) say. You can’t unkiss a kiss.]

So no, I don’t like bookstores, however iconic they may be, which are burdened by their legacies. I do like ones that strive to mean something in the present moment, like Singapore’s Books Actually – which publishes chapbooks, organizes readings and has a friendly resident cat. There, I’ve never left books for free, because they care enough about indie authors to actually stock them.

I recently came across this word: tsundoku. A web meme defines it as follows: “buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands”. I remain old-fashioned: because I need to see the spines of books and touch their pages, I cannot convert to a more efficient electronic device.

I am comforted by the presence of books as much as by their contents. I don’t go to libraries because I am selfish, slow and scattered. But I do go to bookstores because they soothe me. I think it’s because they carry, tangibly, the memory of trees. To step into a bookstore is to step into a forest of stories. We lose our forests to far worse things than literature.

An edited version appeared in Kindle Magazine.

The Venus Flytrap: Earthbound

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This is how it happens. I’m on transit in Singapore for a day. It’s too early in the morning for the part of Chinatown I’m in, but by luck, Kenny Leck appears just as I arrive at his bookshop, which supports my work. We talk business while the resident kitten pounces on me and gnaws at my handbag, and then I ask Kenny what I can do in the area. I have two hours to spare. That’s when he tells me about the firewalking.

The Ubud Writers’ Festival 2008 is over, and I am returning from a blissful week in Bali. Still, it hadn’t happened yet. I had sat beside a delightful and drunk Vikram Seth at dinner, made friends with the charmingly debonair Alberto Ruy Sánchez (who never failed to greet me with two firm kisses at every opportunity), and traded glamorous gossip with one of Asia’s foremost arts journalists in an airport lounge. I had left my lipstick prints and autographs on dozens of books and brochures, was confronted by the happy emergency of the festival’s bookshop selling out my book even before my first panel appearance, and had a session discussing sexuality in India land me an improbable but sincere invitation to perform at a Tam-brahm wedding. Readings, panels, a shoot for a documentary, a handful of print and radio interviews, and the more fulfilling private conversations with individual fans. All that. But not that.

It just hadn’t happened. I hadn’t been stopped in my tracks by the egomaniacal euphoria that is supposed to overcome an author upon the publication of her first book. My ambivalence was disappointing.

I seek out the temple Kenny has pointed me toward. It’s unabashedly touristy, with a mini-arena set up around the pit and coupons on sale for photographers. I am waved through in spite of my conspicuous DSLR. The actual firewalking has just ended, and a priest turns a hose on full force across the coals, rousing billows of steam.

Sometime during the processions – figures of Draupadi, Arjuna and Aravan’s head among them – it starts to rain, and I discover that I am tearing up. Something I have been holding within me for weeks is coming loose. I’m sure nobody cares – in a corner, four people try to hold down the wild, vibrating body of a woman in possession. There are chants and drumming. What happens in this temple, commercial as it is, is electrifying.

When I have had enough, I will lay my head on the ground outside the pit and weep into the earth. I have spent my week in paradise in muted fear: someone I love is seriously ill. Somewhere in the genes we share are the traditions of firewalking and Draupadi worship, traditions I have never witnessed till now. My book is beside me, and I know now it is mine. This is what I have been waiting for: a moment when there is no disconnect between the life I have known and the one I am consolidating. Affirmation that no matter how far I dare to test the tethers to my roots, all things move in circles.

Accomplishment doesn’t taste like the otherworldly thing I expected. Perhaps the most enduring success is not that which catapults a person into an unfamiliar stratosphere, but one that brings her back to herself, that gathers up all the rudiments of her life and binds them to her like a talisman for the length of the journey that is yet to come. I understand why I cried into the hot ground beside the coal pit: what was meant for me was not elevation, but that which, necessarily, must keep me earthbound.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival

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I’m leaving tonight for for a week in Bali (and yes, on work!), to attend the Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival 2008.

Other than general official engagements and anything that happens impromptu, my readings and panels, in case you’re there, are as follows:

Thursday 16 Oct: Performance Poetry Extravaganza, 19.30-21.30 at Warung Opera

Top performers and comedians from Australia, India and the Philippines present a riotous medley of rhythm, sound and song. Lexical dexterity will be at work in this high-energy, cross-cultural celebration of the literary spoken word. Tug Dumbly, Sharanya Manivannan, Edwina Blush. MC: Benito di Fonzo.

Saturday 18 Oct: Mindscapes, 15.45-17.00 at Indus

Novelist Charlotte Bacon tells us what happens “when geography rubs up against people’s emotional states.” Matthew Condon’s novel The Trout Opera was inspired by the stark beauty of Australia’s Snowy Mountains. Carrie Tiffany, an environmental journalist, explores agricultural issues and the lives of rural people in her fiction. Poet Sharanya Manivannan believes in the magical quality of water and coasts. These writers get together to consider the way exposure to different geographies shapes human experience and action. Moderator: Poonam Sagar.

Saturday 18 October: Wine Tasting, 18.30-20.30 at Casa Luna

According to Persian mythology it was a woman who first discovered wine. For that we are thankful! Join us as award-winning Indonesian wine writer Yohan Handoyo leads us through a menu of full-bodied wines matched with some of our most sparkling Festival writers and accompanied by tasty tapas in this celebration of wine, women and words. Featuring: Peter Zilahy, Tishani Doshi, Sharanya Manivannan, Dino Umahu. Cost: Rp. 650,000 | AUD $82.

Sunday 19 October: Poetry of the Body 15.30-17.00 at HSBC Lounge

Whereas poet and dancer Tishani Doshi sees the body as the place “where the spiritual and the sensual combine”, Sharanya Manivannan has a fascination with the ancient Tamil concept of a potentially malevolent force that exists in women’s bodies. These two Indian poets will discuss poetry, women, dance and the body along with readings of their work. This session will be followed by a 30-minute documentary film on Indian dance featuring Tishani Doshi and her teacher Chandralekha, legendary dancer from South India. Moderator: Debra Yatim.

I was really looking forward to another panel on sacred geography, but it was cancelled as the other writer is not able to participate in the festival this year.

On another note, Books Actually in Singapore will stock limited copies of Witchcraft from next week.

I’m told that the website from which you can order the book will probably go up while I’m away. More info will be available soon. Hold your horses please! Will let you know when I know. Ditto about launches, etc. And lastly, remember the Exec Assistant? Yeah, she’s out of the picture. Irresponsible would be an understatement. So for any enquiries relating to publicity, interviews and events, please contact either sharanya dot manivannan at gmail dot com or bullfighterbooks at gmail dot com.

Okay, I’m off to island-hop and shoe-shop… I mean, work. :) See you after the 20th.