81. Inside out: writing as an expat in changing times

(NB – This is a guest post I was asked to write for innovative Hong Kong publisher Zizzle and first appeared on their Zizzling Pan blog earlier this month)
Good day sirHere are a few thoughts on writing as an expat and a little advice shared in the spirit of free expression; a freedom that – if I’ve understood it correctly – allows for occasional misunderstandings and faux-pas, and few right or wrong answers when it comes to telling your stories from wherever you happen to be in the world.

Not so long ago, expat writers’ portraits of  “exotic” (to Western eyes) places such as Hong Kong — usually expressed in the language of colonisation — provided the impressions most trusted by an international readership. Think Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, George Orwell and others. These days the reverse is true – we prefer to hear from local writers raised within and fully connected to a region’s language and culture.

But this does not mean there is no longer a place for the expat writer, provided they accept a responsibility to observe and record without prejudice while being aware that their cultural background will always influence their perceptions.

In my experience, living overseas is a double boon to any writer. First, you will find that your recollections of your home country (or wherever you lived before) will sharpen, allowing you to scratch that itch and etch out whatever stories you’ve left untold from your previous life. Second, you will discover yourself embracing a multi-armed, many-hued octopus of change that, after slapping you around for a bit, will pass you a pen and paper and tell you to get cracking on some new stuff.

peter solo 209

My first published novel – set entirely in Hong Kong

Here’s the advice bit: even if you don’t manage to learn the language or languages spoken in your new home, try to put yourself in situations wherein you have no choice but to engage with its culture.

One reason (I tell myself) I know so little Cantonese is because I took a full-time job with a local company while living in Hong Kong. Most of my Hongkongese colleagues spoke perfect English. I simply didn’t need to learn Cantonese. But I did learn much from them about what it means to be a Hongkonger and formed some lasting friendships. Studying or working overseas is a sure-fire way to avoid writing as a tourist.

Next, don’t rely on fellow expats to shed light on your host country in your native tongue. This is harder to resist than you might expect. On a recent trip to Uruguay a priority was to visit a legendary bookshop in Montevideo called Puro Verso. This is a truly beautiful place in a little-known gem of a country. And yet, instead of asking my Argentinian wife to recommend some local writers (something she has since done) I asked a member of staff whether a famous British writer, married to a Uruguayan, ever visited Puro Verso – perhaps he’d hosted an event to promote one of his notoriously scathing books on UK life and culture here? I wondered what his take on this part of Latin America might be.

Puro Verso bookshop 2

The splendid Puro Verso bookshop in Montevideo

In truth, I just wanted a break from speaking and listening to Spanish. Maybe there was someone I could speak to in English ‘round here? I’m glad I didn’t bump into my fellow expat anyway – I have a terrible track record when meeting famous authors. An embarrassing half-hour trapped in a broom cupboard with Will Self springs to mind…

Finally, as an expat writer, try not to dictate to your readers when it comes to what’s happening in your new home. The role of fiction is not to preach, or stray into the realms of dogma, any more than is the case with journalism. Works of the imagination usually carry the hallmarks of their author’s opinions, but it is important to allow your characters to act out the confrontations and contradictions that bubble through any society. Dare your readers to make up their own minds and form their own opinions based on the insights you provide.

Having said that, every writer must decide when, or whether, to snatch the baton from their characters and take a more explicit stand when it comes to highlighting injustice. Only you will know if the time is right to make your fiction issue-driven. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to add to the smorgasbord of viewpoints that unite readers around this interconnected world, wherever they happen to hail from.

Can you guess the identity of the famous British writer mentioned in the text? To win a signed copy of Hong Kong Rocks by Peter Humphreys, post his name beside the @theworddiver Instagram post designed to promote this piece. Good luck!


80. Books I intend to read in 2020

Books for 2020
First, the basics. When your partner is a constant source of knowledge and inspiration (see previous post) and has learnt Ancient Greek ‘por diversión’ (‘for sh*ts and giggles’ as we say in the UK) there’s no excuse not to make an odyssey to the university library to demand a copy of Homer’s The Iliad (in translation, please). Suspect I’ll find within it more of what I need to become a half-decent writer.

Next, the flights of fancy. I was lucky enough to be in the same workshop group as author Brendan Le Grange during much of my time in Hong Kong and so have already sampled some tasty chunks of his second novel Butterfly Hill. Le Grange manages to evoke the political undercurrents and visceral nature of our former home while adding tightly-written elements of the best thrillers available. When I have to insert page-turning action into my meandering musings I think of how he might do it. I’m also looking forward to reading more of George Salis’s lyrical prose, having begun his debut novel, Sea Above, Sun Below.

I first sampled Salis’s work in Zizzle (Promiseshore), a beautifully-produced series of hardbacked compendiums designed for parents to read with their children, or teachers with their students, each dashed with magic by a guest illustrator. I’m overdue a read of Issue 2. Zizzle’s editor and creator is also a Hong Kong writer of note, Yuetting Cindy Lam. An upcoming Word Diver post on writing as an expat will be shared with the Zizzle blog, ‘Zizzling Pan’, so watch this space.
Cortazar and Tango in San Telmo.jpg
The Argentinian short story writer, Julio Cortázar, will be accompanying me on my next trip to Buenos Aires as I begin the collection named after his most famous work, Blow-Up (Pantheon). I’m also looking forward to reading Dorothy Parker for the first time, while my non-fiction reads will be Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books), having heard her interviewed on the infinitely entertaining/educational Adam Buxton podcast, and On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director (Farrah, Straus and Giroux) by Alexander Mackendrick, to ensure I’m ready to make that first film, or at least better understand those I’m watching. The introduction by Martin Scorsese is a mere 300 pages long and employs age-defying technology to spruce up some of the older words he uses.

Eoghan Walls’ poetry collection Pigeon Songs (Seren) was launched last year in Lancaster. You can see Eoghan reading ‘To Half-Inchling’ here, his unflinching wit extending deep into personal loss. ‘Pigeons do not sing’ Kei Miller forewarns us on its opening pages, but fortunately – from the poems I’ve heard him bring to life – Eoghan does.

Eoghan’s tribute to a much-underrated bird reminds me of a section in my first novel (briefly self-published) in which a lovelorn pigeon suffers a heart attack while desperately seeking his mate, plummeting to earth from the skies above Milan, and causing a car accident in which a right-wing politician suffers a foot injury that sabotages the ‘strongman’ speech he is to deliver the next day. We would surely miss these filthy flappers were they to go the way of the dodo.

More seriously, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling there is more of an obligation than ever this year for artists of all types to create work that in some way helps counter the rise in populism being stoked around the globe just now. I would love to write gentle satires for a tiny readership indefinitely but have come to accept this may not be good enough.

Political sculptor Jason de Cairnes Taylor (see The Pride of Brexit) loosely translates a Spanish poem to illustrate his compelling ethos: ‘I disdain art that doesn’t take sides till it’s soaked in blood, I disdain art conceived as a luxury, neutral for the neutrals.’

Which doesn’t have to mean embracing factionalism, at the expense of losing likely allies with whom we may not agree on every nuance of belief – or in how we use the increasingly complex terminology deployed in the language of liberation. When asked about a perceived obligation on his part to stand up for African-Americans, James Baldwin (often to be found at his desk in Europe, rather than the States) told the Paris Review, ‘Yourself and your people are indistinguishable from each other, really. In spite of the quarrels you may have. And your people are all people.’

The challenge now, as I see it, is not persuading citizens with nothing to lose to join the struggle for a fundamentally fairer, unrecognisably greener world, but persuading those with something to lose to risk everything in the name of peace, equality and human dignity. To do this we need powerful art and literature that not only exposes the creeping fascism poisoning our societies, but also demonstrates the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in, and suggests ways for people to fight back against those intent on destroying humanity for their own ends.

Hong Kong Rocks (Proverse) by Peter Humphreys is available on Amazon now and will be launched in the UK in 2020.

79. Books I can remember reading in 2019

Having failed to get these recollections online before the end of 2019, I’m relieved to have managed it before the end of the world. Writing/creating as an internal/cathartic process, as opposed to an external/commercial or political activity, was a topic I found myself discussing regularly last year. Fortunately for readers, writing appears to have offered solace, for a while at least, to Virginia Woolf. My wife – a firm advocate of therapeutic creativity, though an educational whirlwind when it comes to politics – introduced me to her work in 2019.
Some books of 2019I read Orlando (Penguin Modern Classics) and Mrs Dalloway (Wordsworth Classics), finding, as many have before me, Woolf’s taking of liberties with narrative and language regularly rewarding and occasionally frustrating. She is a much funnier writer than I’d anticipated, but in Orlando warns us that ‘brilliant wit can be tedious beyond description’ and, in fact, it is her breathtaking description of icebergs (upon which doomed citizens sit calmly, scream loudly; or play piano) racing along the just-thawed Thames in that book, and her unflinching compassion for Septimus Smith, PTSD-suffering WWI veteran in Mrs Dalloway, that will stay with me longest.

Perhaps not uncoincidentally, Kate Atkinson’s steely female ARP warden in Life after Life (Black Swan) is named Woolf. I must confess to finding Atkinson’s descriptions of the blitz, and its aftermath, the most affecting part of a hefty book with a concept I could never fully buy into.
The Dark Stuff.jpgFormerly of the NME and The Face, Nick Kent’s irreverent, podcast-length features on rock n’ rollers in The Dark Stuff (Faber and Faber) are a reminder that you’ve been reading too many cosy accounts of well-adjusted musos in the Sunday papers (or however you get your news).

No one, whether the household name in question, significant other or hanger-on, is let off the hook in Kent’s in-depth investigations into the souls of some of the twentieth century’s heftiest icons. He sticks with the story, in the case of Brian Wilson returning to interview him over the decades; finding the songwriter never quite recovered from Eugene Landy, the cuckoo-like psychologist who appears to have nested successfully between Wilson’s ears, but capable of some form of closure as, in time with the Pacific waves lapping nearby, he tells Kent, ‘I know I’ll always have a spiritual power in this world.’

On drugs, especially his piece on Syd Barrett, I found Kent’s conclusions interesting, wondering if he tended to blame formative incidents for subsequent mental breakdowns as a way of maintaining that his contemporaneous rock n’ roll lifestyle was causing no permanent damage. Pure speculation on my part. In any case, his musings on this and other matters pop, rock and life stray far from the official line and I was grateful for that.

Sticking with music, We Were Strangers (Cōnfingō) is a beautifully produced and impressively varied collection of stories inspired by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures LP. While Nicholas Royle stays on-topic with impressive dedication – using only words from song lyrics employed in the album as his anxious narrator struggles to express their fears in ‘Disorder’ – Zoe Lambert writes movingly on the epilepsy that plagued Ian Curtis in ‘She’s Lost Control’, and David Gaffney hilariously in ‘Insight’, a deadpan tale of what might happen were you to buy the lead singer’s old house in Macclesfield…then be asked to sell his garage by a ‘big fella with crooked teeth’.
Vintage CheeverI also swooned over John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ in his Collected Stories (Vintage Classics) – you may recall an old TV ad for jeans stealing the concept of a trespasser helping himself to a cheeky length in pool after pool as sun-kissed neighbours look on. Like so much else I read this year, it reminded me how far I still have to go to achieve what I want in my work.

Pretending to write in Aigburth

A young Word Diver struggles to finish one of his unfinished novels

Since I began travelling to Argentina frequently a couple of years ago, Jorge Lois Borges has become a regular read. The brief, faux-historical tales in his A Universal History of Iniquity (Penguin Classics) have been a key influence on my new collection of short stories, Folk Tales for Adult Kids, which I hope to publish in 2020.

Something else that I hope sees the light of day is a TV adaptation of Maria Roberts’s short story The Heatwave, a timely tale of suffering and solidarity set on a Manchester housing estate. I read Maria’s screenplay this year, having heard her read the original short story, published by Comma, at a literary event way back.

As well as hitting the Spanish books, lessons and excellent Duolingo podcast series, I will be finishing reading (in translation, sadly) Juan Rulfo’s novella Pedro Páramo (Serpent’s Tail) and Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (also Serpent’s Tail) this year – the former a classic ghost story drawing on Mexico’s Day of the Dead traditions, the latter a galloping, non-fiction horror detailing the ways the region has been ruthlessly gutted by Western governments for centuries; a grim process of arch-cynicism that shows no sign of stopping as we slash and burn our way into the 2020s.

I’ll post a preview of what else I’ll be reading in 2020 soon. This is likely to include several books I’ve been intending to read for years (they sit beside the books I’ve been intending to write for years). Some may never get opened. In the words of Saki, whose tales I enjoyed for the first time in 2019, ‘The young have aspirations that never come to pass; the old have reminiscences of what never happened. It’s only the middle-aged who are really conscious of their limitations.’

Hong Kong Rocks (Proverse) by Peter Humphreys is available on Amazon now and will be launched in the UK in 2020.

76. Hong Kong Rocks

Gillian_Hong Kong Rocks cover Revised.jpgSo what was The Islands of Hong Kong has become Hong Kong Rocks (working with a publisher, learning to share decisions and make compromises has been educational) and a relatively calm 2018 in Hong Kong has been replaced by a nightmarish 2019. Against this backdrop, the novel I completed over a year ago is launched today (21 November 2019) at Proverse’s autumn reception in my former home city.

While happy to be introducing Hong Kong Rocks to an unsuspecting readership, now is not the time to promote a satirical, thought-provoking, but ultimately comedic thriller in a Hong Kong experiencing violent unrest on an unprecedented scale.

Instead I will concentrate on a UK launch in early 2020, appreciative of Proverse’s international reach, and hoping it won’t be too long before the journalistic voices narrating the unfolding history of Hong Kong can be joined by the storytellers essential to long-term healing, understanding and diversion.

As can be seen on social media, a number of gifted Hong Kong writers (such as poet/PEN Hong Kong president Tammy Lai-Ming Ho) have proved themselves capable of fulfilling  both roles at this testing time. My thoughts are with them.

I will doubtless write more about Hong Kong Rocks soon, perhaps with reference to the lengthy editing process (a necessary evil but not one you’d want to get chatting to at a party) or my fledgling attempts to market the book. In the meantime, here’s the blurb:

Nick Powell, arriving in Hong Kong with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Lennox, finds himself drawn into the political machinations affecting the city as the Occupy movement of 2014 takes root.  A fatal accident exposes the factions vying for control of the SAR and gives Nick the second chance desired by many Hong Kong expats. Will he make the most of the opportunity, or find himself on the wrong side of history?  Shifting between a variety of unique voices, Hong Kong Rocks (a Hong Kong Proverse Prize finalist) is part thriller, part creative exploration of the challenges facing a special administrative region punching above its weight.

Order Hong Kong Rocks from Amazon 
Order Hong Kong Rocks through Proverse, Hong Kong 
Look out for details of the UK launch here and on Instagram (@theworddiver)
And if you have any Rocks-related enquires, feel free to email me at humphreyspeter@rocketmail.com

75. Over the Border

Over the border
The sun shines
But it is not real
The work continues
But it has no substance
The clouds move
Or appear to anyway
But none of it is real
Over the border
It is real
It is so real it tears
Your body from soul
We play our songs
And drink our drinks
Waking up to find
The sun shines
But it is not real
Over the border
It is real

Illustration ©Ana Rebolledo

69. Zizzle – a literary magazine for young minds (Issue #1)

Zizzle 1_mag and bookmarksThis gorgeous hardback magazine is infused with generosity – not only do the creators of Zizzle compensate authors for their time and effort (unlike too many other publications) but their readers are treated to lush, varicoloured pages boasting dream-like images amongst 10 stories for youngsters, and those tasked with reading to or with them.

If some of the language in the more advanced stories could potentially flummox work-ragged adults, then this is representative of a calculated risk taken by Hong Kong publisher Yuetting Cindy Lam and Lesley Dahl, the magazine’s North American editor. In their introduction they emphasise the importance of a good story over any attempt to tailor it to a precise age group. This seems both brave and sensible. Many of us advanced quickly through middle-grade fiction and beyond, ignoring any advice on age range offered on covers. Others will have dwelt longer on books designed for readers younger than their years. No big deal.

And yet, to an editor of school textbooks, used to a more formalised approach to language introduction, I did have some concerns when bumping into words and expressions like ‘diminuendo’ and ‘vein-riddled’ in George Salis’ atmospheric ‘The Lightning Conductor’ (which memorably describes goosebumps as ‘skin braille’). Never fear – help is at hard. Zizzle may blur the line between child and adult reading, but it’s not looking to lose anyone along the way. A bookmark can be peeled from the front cover to mark the particular progress of each reading team; the stories are short, and all are helpfully categorised into three difficulty levels – ‘Easy’, ‘Less Easy’ and ‘Not Easy’.

In my role as uncle, I would happily dip into the magazine with my niece and nephews, and suspect each would get something different from it. While I might savour the delicious satire in Ryan Thorpe’s ‘The Border Crossing’, a tale in which a mouse ‘trying to look casual’ heads a line of animals attempting to navigate a border point, my older nephew may prefer to wallow in its more comedic elements. I don’t think the message would be lost either way.

Myth, magic and mystery – as you might expect – bag conspicuous roles in the Zizzle cavalcade. ‘One Wish’ by Jennifer Moore offers a new take on the perils of unchecked desire, while ‘How the Moon Scared the Giant’ by Lenore Weiss casts its light on lonely despotism. Other stories, such as ‘The Road to Valhalla’ by Blake Johnson and ‘Ruby Vidalia’ by Karen Rigby tell of lifelong love affairs with books.

Personally, I like the way these more recognisable narratives are complemented by several abstract visions contemplating loss, or offering similarly melancholy glimpses into adult life – and how you might temporarily escape it. ‘Scarves’ by Cheryl Pappas is especially striking, as a young girl leaves a smiling picnic to create a shrine of discarded animal bones.
Zizzle 2_Andy Wai Kit illustrationAndy Wai Kit, a Malaysian-born animator in the games industry, provides the sweeping visuals that are a highlight of Zizzle’s debut – certainly his work contains more whimsy and humanity than I recall in the computer games I played as a kid, which, despite the momentary relapse offered by Zizzle, I have to concede was a while ago now.

Promishore have produced an exceptionally high-quality product with this first edition of Zizzle; so much so that the international price of US$21 does not seem overly steep. This isn’t a magazine destined to end up in the recycling; it’s a publication to treasure or share, depending on how generous you’re feeling.

68. International Proverse Prize: Islands on the horizon

Islands_Macau ferry.JPGThe Islands of Hong Kong has reached the semi-final stage of the International Proverse Prize, as announced at Proverse’s autumn reception in Hong Kong on 15 November 2018.

Here’s the semi-final line-up:

Lilla Csorgo
Daniel J. Hamilton
Peter Humphreys
Sheng-Wei Wang

Sadly I couldn’t make it to the reception. I’ve spent too much of this year bouncing around the planet’s darkening skies to justify another flight. To find that the story has travelled well is enough; when I sent the manuscript, as per instructions, to a Hotel Coma in Andorra I thought I might be inadvertently taking part in a new Wes Anderson movie.

Islands – a darkly comic literary thriller preoccupied with identity and the meaning of home – represents both a love letter and fond farewell to the place I called home for six years, so to have been shortlisted for the prize is extra-special. Win, lose or draw I’ll let you now how to get hold of a copy of the book as soon as it’s available.

32. Dolphins, drones and…dogs

It’s bad enough being a toxic bachelor but in the next couple of years there is almost certain to be a rubbish incinerator located not far from this beautiful island, as reported in the latest edition to Cheung Chau’s print media (pictured). I guess I better enjoy the natural world alongside my preternaturally single status while I can?

Incinerator news

Fortunately, it seems for now at least dolphins are willing to come and fish, in some numbers, off Cheung Chau. I’m no scientist so can only speculate that the trawling ban around Hong Kong, combined with unusually clear waters, tempted them towards the southwestern shores of Cheung Chau over Chinese New Year for a rare visit.

south by southwest

These weren’t the blighted pink variety of which we hear so much – and see so little – around Lantau (a memorable dolphin-spotting trip some years back ended in my ex-wife and I pleading with a floating plastic bag, disguised as a sentient mammal, to transmogrify and forgive us our human sins) but big, muscly, grey-backed things, powering themselves through the water as a handful of tourists and scattering of insouciant fishermen looked on.

Adding to the experience, the two rare beasts I call my parents were beside me, all signs being that the island’s spookily good behaviour (too cold for snakes yet a tree-climbing lizard obliged us by munching on a fat fly in clear view) would continue for the duration of their visit.

Which made the next episode all the stranger. Not used to seeing dolphins whilst I’m floundering around the island, I’m even less used to seeing drones, but the delicate-looking dervishes are as identifiable as they will soon be omniscient, and I had no doubt what type of creature was welcoming us to a usually isolated beach near our viewpoint, a camera slung under its exoskeleton.

While most Hong Kong couples settle for walking, or wheeling, a beloved pooch around at weekends, here we came across a man in his mid-20s taking his drone for an airborne stroll. Unable to fuss over the thing, or adjust its tartan onesie, his partner – sporting impenetrable shades – appeared less than thrilled with her suitor’s devotion to it. Or at least to the giant remote control he was clasping. Because despite the pilot’s concentration it wasn’t completely clear who was master and who was mastered as the mechanical menace hovered around the edges of our photos and videos, emitting a kind of embarrassed whirr as its altitude fluctuated. Perhaps the youngsters looked embarrassed too. The sunglasses, and lack of opportunity to pet their…pet robbed us of any chance to exchange niceties, despite the mutual view of ancient coastline.

Just then a scraggly pack of the island’s much-maligned wild dogs appeared on a rocky outcrop high above us and began to howl, though whether in an effort to reclaim this ownerless territory from man or machine I can’t be sure. Either way, I’ve never been quite so happy to see them.

To find out more about the threat posed to Hong Kong’s islands by the proposed waste incinerator you can visit:

Living Islands Movement

Time Out article, July 2014

23. Rat-tle my timbers: it’s a snake!

While my first SNAKE ENCOUNTER (I can sense the view count soaring already) was not as petrifying as that involving a metre-long cobra recently trapped in a Sai Kung doorway like a passive-aggressive draft excluder, the beast was still long enough (1.25m) to make me think twice about skirting round it (I won’t specify its exact location as it might risk scaring potential guests away). Eventually its dopey countenance and small head gave me the confidence to make the leap. As in most snake encounters (I suspect) ABSOLUTELY NOTHING BAD HAPPENED yet to say my heart rate didn’t increase would be a fib.

Employing the principle that the best antidote to such a meeting is often a refined dose of venom, I found myself watching Vice News’ Snake Island documentary soon after my SNAKE ENCOUNTER. And yes, it did make me feel better. In fact, watching a fresh-faced, youthful journalist with his whole life ahead of him camping on an atoll packed with squirming serpents is guaranteed to make you feel better about pretty much anything. Try it.

Exhaustive Word Diving™ research suggests my laissez-faire intruder (small head, brown features) was probably a RAT SNAKE, unlikely to lash out unless threatened (I took this to mean intellectually: fortunately I was struck dumb).

Ratty ratty rat snake

Discovering that my ‘lone wolf’ was actually a ‘rat’ inevitably led to a degree of disappointment. Not only is the name a bit, well…ratty…but there’s actually far more frogs in our well-maintained, if tendril-heavy, Ballardian enclave than rats (so far as I can tell). My Polish neighbour told me coolly that the last time he saw a snake here it appeared to be unsuccessfully trying to wrest back control of its own head from the still-jumping frog it had just eaten. The adrenalin fully worn off, I reached the conclusion that my encounter wasn’t so remarkable after all. Maybe I, and my future guests, should be grateful for that?