Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Comically Candid Childhood Chronicle

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 30 November 2016

Comic and talk show host Trevor Noah's memoir about growing up in South Africa was one of two books I cracked open after a weeks-long reading drought and I was glad that it's good.

During the run-up to the 2016 US presidential elections, the host of The Daily Show, along with many others, heaped scorn on the man who, against expectations, will move into the White House in January.

Like his colleagues, Noah seemed to have a hard time digesting the outcome. "This entire result is sort of like [Donald] Trump's hair — I know it's real, but my mind can't accept it."

One can understand his apprehension over the United States' future under Trump. After all, the post-election tensions probably reminded him of what he experienced as a kid.

Noah's story begins with a piece of legislature from the apartheid era — the Immorality Act, 1927 — that criminalises interracial relations. Noah's biological parents broke that law and he was Exhibit A.

He considers himself fortunate not to have been a casualty of a system that openly discriminated against non-whites, thanks to pockets of calm within his family, society and circle of friends that allowed him to come of age during the death throes of the apartheid government and the early years of freedom.

But he also had to deal with issues such as poverty, bullying and domestic violence. The heart-rending story of his mother's own childhood and abuse at the hands of her second husband are particularly haunting.

Noah's mom, Patricia, figures prominently here. Her own story is scattered throughout the pages. Headstrong and deeply religious, she worked and paid her own way out of the slums to give herself and young Trevor a better life.

However, young Noah was precocious, albeit smart, resourceful and filial. He got into all sorts of mischief, including shoplifting and music piracy, and got locked up for "borrowing" his stepfather's car. Yet, here he is, making a name for himself in comedy and hosting a TV talk show in the States.

But what's a book about a comedian without a few laughs?

At times, you feel as if he's sitting at his desk on the set of his TV show, narrating his story. So perhaps one can be forgiven for thinking that this book was ghostwritten by a Daily Show staffer.

An anecdote that starts Chapter 3, for example, says that in South Africa, someone had been tried in court for killing people with lightning a few years ago — and attorneys are not allowed to argue that witchcraft isn't real. "No, no, no. You'll lose."

There was also his mother's fears of being poisoned by some family members. Starving, he once argued that he could pray to Jesus to detox the food they served (his mom gave him a robust religious upbringing), only to be told, "Trevor! Sun'qhela!" — something along the lines of "Don't question me!" in the Xhosa language, which everyone should save for future use.

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, because it's his story, it's his name on the cover, and it is (forgive me) unputdownable. And he wouldn't lie to us, would he?

So much of Noah's story is reminiscent of many childhoods, notably those coloured by issues of race, religion, gender and class — divisions that seem invisible to children but become more apparent later, no thanks in part to adults. Some will be able to relate to his situation at one point or another.

Hilarious and sometimes hair-raising hijinks take place between keen observations on and insights into family, society and government. The writing sounds natural, the voice — astute, witty and honest — comes through, bringing the author's world and the absurdity of apartheid into relief. (Back then, the Chinese were classified as "black" and the Japanese were "white" — for real?)

As one reads on, though, the levity lifts and it starts getting bleaker, a little angry and disquieting, especially towards the end. Parts start sounding a little too confessional for comfort. One appreciates his candour, but will he get into trouble for it?

Regardless, you feel for Noah but, most of all, you feel for his mother and the sacrifices she made. In that sense, his account of his formative years is also the tale of his mother's success in raising him and a tribute to those who helped him in life.

Thanks to them, a boy who was born a crime has grown up to be anything but.

Born A Crime
Stories From a South African Childhood

Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau (November 2016)
288 pages
ISBN: 978-0-399-59044-3

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Book Marks: Oneworld, Scams, And Don't Sell A Book Like This

"It has to be great writing, really good storytelling, a strong voice, a strong story, and something else about it that makes you think, that stays with you, that you mull over.

... If you look at [Marlon] James and [Paul] Beatty, both of them have that edginess to them that 'this is important, this is opening a world that you ought to see and that you probably aren’t aware of', and that's what makes it special for me. I'm not saying everybody buys books like that, but to me that's what makes it great – although maybe it's what makes it risky for everybody else."

Get acquainted with Oneworld, the publisher behind two Man Booker winners.

"In these days of POD (publish-on-demand) technology, the vanity presses may promise to ship the books when they are ordered, which at least relieves the author of having to warehouse the books. But the vanities still charge large amounts of money and the author is still left with an empty bank account and shattered dreams. Or worse. Some scammers take money from hopeful authors and deliver nothing at all."

Read about some red flags of publishing scams.

In The Daily Beast, Tom Leclair argues that the US National Book Award "has gone to hell":

A fiction judge in 2005, I’ve reviewed the fiction finalists the last seven years and have managed to pick four winners, but it’s tough to make a buck as a book tout. The panel of five judges changes every year, so there are always different tastes, criteria, personalities, and loyalties in play.

... Corruption can also enter in. The year I was a judge, one colleague tried to give the award to a family friend. Another judge supported the writer with whom she shared an agent.

"Indian historical crime fiction has come of age!" someone enthuses. All fine and dandy, until near the end...

"My own humble attempt at creating an authentic Indian historical detective series hits the shelves this very month with A Very Pukka Murder, published in India by Harper Collins and in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press."

I think there should be rules against writing pieces like this.


  • "Rumours of a literary uprising in Singapore are true", writes Darryl Whetter for Singapore's Straits Times. Perhaps, but there are some things to note before diving into the city-state's literary scene.
  • "...despite the increasing realisation that digital and print can easily coexist in the market, the question of whether the ebook will 'kill' the print book continues to surface." When it comes to discussing whether print books will die, is one's aversion to change a factor?
  • "Many young people here know about the Dragon Ball, but nothing about this novel," says a designer of Eva Luedi Kong's German version of Journey to the West.
  • "Though he shared select passages with friends and failed to burn it before his death in 1798, there is no evidence to suggest that [Giacomo Girolamo Casanova] ever intended the work to be published. Indeed, more than its explicit content, it’s the work’s length and the level of quotidian detail clotting its pages that made it unpublishable."
  • "Racism in literature manifests itself in myriad ways: characters whose personalities are reduced to their accents, cultural dress or foods; brown or black characters “rescued” by white saviors; the “surprising” friendship between a white character and a character of color; or, a white character’s journey to a “foreign” or “third world” country in search of enlightenment. These narratives ... exist mainly to service and conform to the white gaze. And yet they are rarely deemed problematic in book reviews. The reason why has everything to do with who is writing those reviews."
  • "...comic cookbooks can do something for home cooks, too — make recipes less daunting and easier to follow. Cookbooks are still in demand, but many — with their overly aspirational food photography — wind up as coffee-table books for the kitchen."
  • The sun rises again! Amir Muhammad's dormant non-ficiton imprint Matahari Books appears to have been reactivated. It is releasing a new title and is calling for submissions.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Book Marks: Indonesia at Frankfurt, Aspirational Bookshelves

This piece on Indonesia's success at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair pretty much makes the case for continued government support for future appearances there, considered to be one of the world's major book fairs.

But I wonder if this is accurate:

Indonesia's success, he said, also made neighboring countries envious — since, unlike Indonesia, they do not have big-name writers.

"We have a long list of world class and award-winning writers — from Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Andrea Hirata, Ayu Utami to Laksmi Pamuntjak and Eka Kurniawan," [literary agency director Thomas Nung Atasana] said.

"They probably have lots of money and support from their governments, but do not have strong content like ours."


"Is there something just a little bit gauche about displaying books in one's home that one isn't actually reading, and has no intention of reading?" someone asks in Slate. "I have no intention of consuming The Bront√ęs at Haworth or The Woman's Day Book of American Needlework cover to cover, but nor are they fraudulent representations of my interests. Is it acceptable to treat books as decor, a representation of one’s aesthetic aspirations rather than one's intellectual biography?"

Apparently, to the last question, yes. "Books have always played both roles. They are not just stories and information, they are badges of identity and, yes, ornamentation. A book on a shelf faces inward and outward at the same time."

Then it also has to be asked: "Are book collectors real readers, or just cultural snobs?" Or is it just a really bad case of tsundoku?

"His book clout is all the more impressive when you consider that he neither writes his own books nor does he likely read the ones by others that he helps turn into bestsellers with his tweets. ...But since when has Trump needed practical knowledge of an industry before getting into it? One of his greatest strengths is his unabashed, unashamed, total pimpage, and he's brought it to the publishing industry in full force."

Of course, the article is talking about Trump's "startling" ability to sell the books he's pimped, including The Art of the Deal and the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly's The Conservative Case for Trump.

With regards to the latter:

...The Conservative Case for Trump ... was published on September 2, 2016, literally the day after she died at age 92. Trump, who spoke at Schlafly's funeral, tweeted on the book's publication day: "As a tribute to the late, great Phyllis Schlafly, I hope everybody can go out and get her latest book, THE CONSERVATIVE CASE FOR TRUMP." Schlafly's book has sold nearly 500 percent more copies than her previous tome, Who Killed the American Family?

Perhaps this is what Trump wanted from his presidential run.


  • "Queerness has always existed between the lines in novels about teenagers," writes Mitchell Sunderland in Broadly. Now, it seems that queerness is now stepping out of those lines and into the forefront. That's gotta be good, right?
  • "It's hard to hide the stretch marks in a book this pregnant with meaning, which is why I wish [the author Daniel] Menaker had strained far less to trace the word origins undergirding his 'meaningful mistakes.' ' Who knew that a book with typos and malapropisms can be interesting? I'd pity the editors, though.
  • The kind of subjects in these digital novels this guy writes sound like the light novels or cellphone novels in Japan, some of which are being adapted into animated features or games. Haughtiness aside, the bits about hard work, franchising and staying true to your vision are pertinent.
  • For evangelical cartoonist Jack Chick, "the Devil was literally everywhere." "Women, witches, gays and lesbians, teachers, Dungeons and Dragons players, atheists, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, and worst-of-all, Catholics (just to name a few)...".
  • "Books were also magically portable. I could drop them into a bag and take them back to the Ministry and they would still work even when I was there. In their pages I could sneak out into the world but still remain in the sure circle of my higher calling." How Flannery O'Connor's books led a man out of a religious commune and back into the world.
  • In Rwanda, writers and publishers are cultivating reading habits among children, particularly where local languages are concerned. Some of the obstacles to that goal sound familiar and seem to be facing other publishing circles in Africa.
  • LitReactor lists top ten ways writers annoy their Twitter followers. That's nine ways too many.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Opacity And Remoteness Of Academic Texts

"The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn't a new one — and it isn't limited to government agencies, of course", writes Victoria Clayton in The Atlantic. "The problem of needlessly complex writing — sometimes referred to as an 'opaque writing style' — has been explored in fields ranging from law to science. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition."

Indeed, but why?

[Steven] Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to "brain training": the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise.

I believed for a long time that academics wrote that way because elitism - writing for their peers and seniors instead of the public in a tone one can use to dry laundry. I'm not the only one who feels like this. In The Conversation, an article on "redetermining paradigmatic norms" in academic writing states that:

The complex work of academics and their unwillingness to write for a more lay audience is unsurprising to some commentators. Journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times writes that the academic industry "glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience", while philosophy professor Terrance Macmullan argues that "most intellectuals simply don’t bother trying to engage the public."

The same article, by Siobhan Lyons, a tutor in Media and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University, also claims that a 2013 writing guide issued by the University of Technology in Sydney advised, among other things, that academic essays be "written using more complex grammar, vocabulary, and structures."

I also believe that this obtuseness is why people no longer trust the experts in matters such as climate change, finance and vaccines.

But textbook publishers might have also been taking advantage of this "brain training" to price their books sky-high, implying that certain types of knowledge must commensurate with the amount of time and effort taken to compile it. Which makes sense.

However, with online storage capacities growing, textbook prices (and tuition fees) rocketing, and attention spans shrinking, is it still viable to be so opaque when recording and conveying knowledge? The widespread TL;DR syndrome among us might also be a sign that it's time to change the way we record, teach and learn.

An expert's value in his field depends not only in his ability to absorb and retain information, but to apply it to his field and further develop it - and get others to take up his work as well, picking up where he left off.

Distilling opaquely written knowledge to more plebeian levels will go a long way towards that, but other things must also be considered - passion, interest and the ability to use that knowledge - before one argues that such a move would cheapen the value of these compiled texts.

I doubt it would. As Ms Lyons stated:

...complexity shouldn’t be confused for intellect. Writing in a more straight-forward way does not necessarily mean compromising on quality; as George Orwell outlined in his essay Politics and the English Language: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

Regardless of how it is recorded, knowledge is valuable. Someone has to go out there to get it, make sense of it all, and put it down in letters, numbers and symbols. All that work is what people are paying for.

Like how some nutrients from our food need to be reduced to simpler forms for better absorption, making the language more layman-like doesn't lower its value, but makes it more easily understood. How is that bad?

Taking the stuffy prof out of the pages might be tough, as not every text may survive the process. Ms Lyons noted in her piece that...

...not all academic work is designed to be written for a general audience, which is why academia is distinguished from other kinds of writing, such as journalism. Each industry has its own specific lingo, from medicine to law, complete with its own buzz words and terminology.

Considering the amount of material already out there, it's probably too late to have it all reworded for the masses. But maybe we can start with what is being written right now. Which brings us back to the issue of accessibility and money.

With academic texts so inaccessible, even for those willing to pay, a black market in academic papers seems to be thriving. Also looming large is the threat of book piracy.

Compensating academics and the publishing ecosystem fairly would also go a long way in encouraging their work and enhancing its quality, which also wards off tendencies to rely on essay mills and those who peddle dodgy material. You can't talk about ethics and integrity if you're worried about income.

A pay-walled, well-maintained online alternative to shelves of bulky books heavy enough for weight training can be attractive to those who require regular access. Digitisation has its own issues, and some publishers are understandably reluctant to do business in countries where fraud is rife.

But with places such as Southeast Asia, India and the Far East hosting many voracious consumers of digital content (and students desperate for reference material to help them get top grades), an ethically administered digital textbook library or store makes more sense.

All the better if that material was written plainly (or in a stylishly academic manner), so that we can spend time using that knowledge instead of figuring out "what did this writer mean by that?"