53. Self-defence class: PEN launches in Hong Kong

Stone age politics, meet advanced technology. Oh, you’ve met before? A hundred years ago? I see. And how did that go? Great.guernica_all-oldThe world is more terrifying than ever, especially to fiction writers – a particularly wimpy bunch. You could argue that Hemingway and Orwell were exceptions to the rule but it’s doubtful either would have lasted long in a Game of Thrones-type landscape. Journalists are far braver, of course; an increasing number of them giving their lives for diminishing returns in the post-truth age. Something else that contrasts the better ones with fictionheads is an impartiality when it comes to politics. Yet just as fiction writers may soon be forced to learn how to dig bomb shelters and fight hand-to-hand, so journalists are having to show their colours less discretely – especially when their freedom to report is threatened.IMG_6946.JPGWhile I’m running a course in urban sniping for short story writers next week at Fringe, PEN Hong Kong’s less melodramatic reaction to recent events is to set out a mandate of reasonable measures they can use to help protect the written word in the city. They are open to ideas, but for now these include collecting and analysing media data, maintaining a watch list, and going into schools to promote literature and freedom of expression.IMG_6947.JPGThe impressive panel unveiled at its launch on 13 November 2016 is led by Jason K. Ng, a roving, pen-wielding presence in today’s Hong Kong, and an important contributor to the forthcoming anthology Hong Kong Future Perfect. Author Mishi Saran kicks things off, saying it’s time for writers to take a stand. In a world where ‘the thugs are emboldened’, she explains, ‘I can’t just sit in my room fiddling with sentences’. Saran quotes a holocaust survivor who insists, ‘you must always take sides’, and James Baldwin who told us, ‘you have to tell the world how you want to be treated’. It’s likely that many in the audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club are wrestling with the same demons, but I suspect it’s the genuineness of Saran’s delivery as much as empathy with her situation that leads to the prolonged applause after her words.

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Copies of Afterness – an anthology from City’s U’s Creative Writing graduates – disappeared almost as quickly as the Uni axed the course

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, co-founder of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and an emerging academic, took things from high principles to grim facts as she related a personal story of self-censorship. An allegorical tale for the 2010s, it began with her reposting a captioned Facebook photo of a professor who refused to award a degree to a student who had taken a yellow umbrella on stage at his graduation ceremony. A colleague, believing she had Ho’s best interests at heart, advised her to remove the post, suspecting its lingering presence might preclude her friend from a university job extension. Ho refused to accept the idea that you ‘shouldn’t be too political in Hong Kong academia’; in fact, she believes having such conversations openly is the only way to escape a climate of paranoia and fear.img_6869Bao Pu, founder of New Century Press, picked up where he left off at the PEN America talk a week earlier (second from right above – with reappeared bookseller Lam Wing-kee, second from left). For Bao, Hong Kong’s role as a publishing safe house – where memoirs and histories can be freely written and published – provides a vital mirror to modern China. Noting that these publications are in decline, he nevertheless finds hope in recent legal victories when it comes to cross-border book seizures; the mainland’s banned book list not only needs constant updating, but its secrecy means it’s very hard to defend confiscations legally.

Ilaria Maria Zucchina has been covering Hong Kong news since the ‘90s. Like Saran, she now feels compelled to speak out, in her case having witnessed the increasing restrictions placed on journalists in Hong Kong today. No longer can she get ready access to government officials – ‘we’ll get back to you’ translates into missed deadlines, something unaffordable in the Internet age. Perhaps most surprising to me is hearing that reporters from Internet news providers such as Hong Kong Free Press are refused press cards and entry into government press conferences because they operate outside the traditional print media. Whether this is a failure to keep up with the times or something more deliberate isn’t clear, but it does Hong Kong no favours as it attempts to debate its future in a sensible way.

The event concludes to more determined applause. Not so much a call to arms as a firm and friendly reminder that writers and journalists have a responsibility to themselves and others not to turn the other cheek, and to continue to do what they do, only more so, when times are dark.

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52. We need to talk about…Uncles

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A typically dashing Uncle

What could be better than being an Uncle? Impossibly exotic bearer of unusual gifts and stories; freewheeling our way in and out of young lives minus parental baggage and devoid of black bags beneath the eyes, unless self-inflicted via some unimaginable adventures in the place where Uncles congregate to lounge, wax, sip Martinis and fly light aircraft.

Childless Uncles are a particularly funny breed in that we will never be worn down in the same way as parents. By which I don’t just mean exhausted; more that we will never be honed, shaped and crafted into different human beings in the way that parents are by their children. In our relationships we remain naturally selfish. Which is fine, so do kids. But our contrariness means we are always at as much risk of losing our beloved nieces and nephews’ attention as they are of losing ours.

A couple of examples from childhood.

A Great Uncle I loved dearly was a fan of all things practical. I vividly recall the day when midway through an age-inappropriate anecdote about steam power or cuckoo clocks or traction engines, which his captive audience may or may not have heard before, I asserted my teenage right to get up off the sofa and leave the room. Despite being in thrall to the impetuousness I was trialling so defiantly, I couldn’t help notice his face fall as I left him in the company of my loyal but uncomprehending younger brother.

What he must have thought of me doesn’t matter here. I never sensed anything but the same warm and generous acceptance of my brattishness whenever he came to other family parties in the years that followed. What I fear now is that after this innocuous-seeming incident he began to examine his own life in more detail and thereafter suspected himself of having become the archetypical boring relation – the unspoken fear of all in our position. Looking back, I realise he was simply being an Uncle: strange, independent and ultimately dispensable; something now he’s gone I ache to remedy.

Another Uncle, much closer to my age, was a pop star in the ‘80s and gloried in the hard work and rewards that came with that profession. His home was usually LA but when he was in England we were guaranteed a visit. The thrill of stealing cigarettes from the packs he’d carelessly leave at my parents’ house is one hard to match to this day. That he noticed us at all was beyond our wildest dreams. We didn’t just hang onto his every word, as kids we breathed in his magical scent – of leather, tobacco, expensive aftershave. Every promise of the unknown world lingered long after his BMW had departed our suburban stasis.

My Uncle became a parent too but, before we got to know her, the distant presence of a vivacious Californian cousin seemed like yet another example of his shameless dream weaving. His fame made him available, his relative proximity made him ours.

As you can imagine, this led to difficulties beyond geography when it came to our adult relationship. In my twenties and thirties I could never see him as anything other than a superstar, and once I developed ambitions of my own I found it hard not to consider him a rival. When his reaction to my artistic efforts was encouraging but lukewarm, I took more offence than was warranted, displaying an arrogance I hoped would impress him more than my talent, or lack of, could.

Now older and wiser, I realize he was simply being an Uncle: aloof, distracted, infused with otherness, but ultimately just a man, just an Uncle. It’s a relationship I wish to restore and nurture. Perhaps now I’m an Uncle too I’ll be given that chance.

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Me & My Uncle – a gift in vinyl from Hong Kong mates

51. Memorable Times I’ve Been Sworn At In Public

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Leaving the ferry late the other night, nursing a can of almost-drunk Kirin in my paw and heading for home, I was surprised to witness a youth sprinting ahead of me instead of veering towards our incongruous McDonald’s or one of the island’s nocturnal food stands (cheesy fish balls anyone?) What he did next almost shocked me. He spun round on his heels and gave me the finger, repeatedly and determinedly, before disappearing into the shadows.

Why was I only almost shocked? This is Hong Kong. Getting abuse on the street is as rare as thousand-year-old hen’s teeth. I guess the reason I wasn’t entirely surprised by the abuse is because I have a long and varied history of being sworn at in public that crosses continents and defies (so far as I’m aware) personal motivation on behalf of the cursers, which suggests that at certain times or in particular circumstances I am representative of something far more provocative than I perceive myself to be.

Take the case of the elderly football fan who approached me in Krakow as we relieved ourselves behind a stand during a tense Wisła Kraków match. Keep in mind that at the local derby between Wisła and KS Cracovia it’s not unknown for rival fans to battle with swords and axes. But what threat did he see in me? Perhaps the shadow of a British hooligan he’d grappled with in the ‘80s at this ground or another? On this occasion he shuffled up to me so gingerly that I offered my hand as much to support him as allow him the honour of greeting a guest new to his land. While his English mustn’t have been exercised very often, he spoke clearly and carefully to make sure I wouldn’t miss a word.

‘You…are….a…hideous…piece…of…sh*t.’

I smiled. He smiled. We zipped up our flies.

On the same European trip there was the punk in Berlin. Taking photos in the deserted streets around the neighbourhood I found myself in, I was feeling good about the city – not to mention life and all the opportunities it provides. All until, crouching down to snap some or other piece of street architecture, my lens focused on a huge pair of black bovver boots protruding from the cobbles. At the summit of this immovable object was a Mohican; at the midriff a middle finger that was telling me exactly where to go more succinctly and effectively than most Tourist Information Centres I’ve visited.

I smiled. Moved on my way. Quickly.

Next there was Washington DC. Walking not far off U-Street, near Busboys and Poets (the kind of aspirational, all-purpose, all-welcome venue you find in areas undergoing gentrification), an old African-American guy confronted me on the street: ‘Kiss my black ass you gay f*ck’, he said – delivering a mixed message that I’d no intention of picking apart for his benefit or mine. Perhaps if I’d been close enough to him to smell the booze on his breath I might have nudged him closer towards the gutter, but as he was pretty much there already I just kept walking.

Of all these vaguely threatening but still incredibly minor incidents (when compared to the abuse others face on streets around the world on a daily basis) the one in DC was probably the most understandable – once you got past the racism and homophobia. The city was changing while remaining largely segregated. And a social group that appeared to be benefitting infinitely more than older, poorly educated black men was privileged white dudes my age. However, as with the Polish football fan and German punk, I couldn’t imagine any extended dialogue designed to placate him ending with anything other than a bottle of strong, sticky spirits being smashed over my head.

Safe to say I didn’t feel as uncomfortable during this latest incident in Hong Kong. I taught English on this island a few years ago. It’s not out of the question that I forced the finger-waggling kid to read a poem aloud in class. Something to do with the sea no doubt. I’ll let this one go, as I’ve let the other incidents go. Every now and then you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. What can you do? You just have to hold your hands up, accept the finger, and move on.

50. Future Perfect: anthology-editing pointers

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What a thrill to have co-edited the latest Hong Kong Writers Circle (HKWC) anthology, themed Hong Kong Future Perfect, with Elizabeth Solomon. As a result of our labours, twenty-one surprising and subversive stories about the city can be yours on or soon after the 15 December 2016 launch date.

So what lessons did I learn from the experience? Here are a few pointers to others looking to edit their own fiction anthology.

1. Being on the other side of the process is always an eye-opener
Editors are no more the writer’s enemy than literary agents (whatever rants I may have posted recently). As someone used to being asked to change my semi-precious words by often-unseen editors, I recognise the frustration writers feel at being ‘misunderstood’.

However, editors need to stand firm when they need to: they appreciate the overall vision of the book/magazine/online publication more than the talent, who have already been assured by acceptance that their piece is loved.

2. Consistency is key
Consult your style guide. If you don’t have one, write one before the submissions start to arrive. The HKWC style guide is our bedrock, and has been passed from editor to editor; which doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked occasionally. Yet the relief of knowing that, for example, ‘realize’ will be ‘realise’, and ‘OK’, ‘okay’, gives you more time to concentrate on the creative side of your work – aka the fun bit.

3. Know your limits
In a self-publishing age, it’s important to realise that you can’t do everything yourself. An editor or editing team is unlikely to have the talent to design a professional-standard cover or typeset the manuscript in its final form. Get help, which means paying for help when necessary.

4. Get a second opinion
HKWC anthologies rarely operate with a single editor. In general, an editing team is established long before the theme is dreamt up and submissions received. There is no ideal number, a lot depends on personality, but a small team of two or three – each with specific roles and responsibilities – is preferable to a committee.

5. Use Word tools
Upon opening a submission click Tools -> Track changes -> Highlight changes and tick all the boxes before you engage with the text. This feature shows the writer exactly how you’ve nuked the nuance from their piece and allows them to ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ your changes when they take a look at your edit.

[Remember to keep a separate draft of every story at each stage of the process so you can cross-reference changes and see which of those rejections you might have to ‘unreject’ for the sake of the story/anthology.]

To give general or specific feedback use Insert -> New comment. Bar typos or grammatical boobs, it’s better to suggest before you change. Use comments to ask questions or offer alternative words or sentence rewrites in parenthesis.

6. Manage expectations
After accepting a story and relaying the good news, tell writers when you will be in touch with your initial edits. On sending them, be clear what you want. Unless you want a complete rewrite (unlikely) stress that only the indicated parts of the text need changing, otherwise you may find yourself with a whole heap of fresh editing to undertake.

Keep the writer in the loop throughout the second edit and beyond. As the initial buzz of acceptance wears off, the inevitable anxiety and self-doubt can take over so make sure you let writers know they are part of something special and are being listened to and kept in the loop.

7. Let it flow
When deciding on the order of stories in your collection try to keep the reader guessing about what’s coming next without confusing them unnecessarily. There is no perfect formula for deciding on story sequence (as I’m sure readers of Hong Kong Future Perfect will soon be telling me) but just as there should be a rhythm and flow to individual pieces, so the collection itself should be marching to the beat of its own drum.

As with so much of editing, consistency is key. Don’t attempt ‘top load’ your collection with the ‘best’ stories – presuming you even know which these are. Instead take the reader on a journey that will be interesting from start to finish.

Fortunately for us, Hong Kong Future Perfect has a reassuringly strong line-up of authors – an array of fresh, fragrant and occasionally fruity writers willing and able to forgive the editors for playing hard and fast with their own guidelines on occasion.

It also engages with the most predictable yet intriguing theme possible at this juncture in the city’s history: the future of Hong Kong.

Just as we hope to see Hong Kong thrive in the years ahead, so we need its literary voices to continue to be heard. If you would like to help guarantee the future survival of the Hong Kong Writers Circle, please volunteer to take a role on the committee in 2017. Email hello@hkwriterscircle.com for more information.