Tag Archives: popular culture

Turning the page on the Asian mystique


Between the covers of countless books lurks a mystical creature with multiple masks. Submissive and beautiful. Cunning and domineering.  Shy virgin. Adventurous lover. She is the Asian woman. Or rather what passes for her in fiction. Sara Veal lifts the veil on the inscrutable images.

For thousands of years, ever since the West encountered the East, an exotic vision of the Asian woman has inhabited Western literature, symbolizing the allure, danger and mystery of the unknown.

“In the Western mind, the fictional image of the ‘Asian woman’ is the most imagined, misunderstood and ‘fetishized’,” says Sheridan Prasso, author of The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient (2006), adding this ultra-feminine exoticism has been juxtaposed onto the Asian male, “effectively wiping out his masculinity in Western culture”.

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10 testaments to love


Sara Veal

Romantic comedy king Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) is back with Valentine’s Day, in which several LA couples endure various romantic trials and tribulations on the big day itself.

The film is filled to the brim with romantic comedy veterans, like Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Alba, Bradley Cooper and Ashton Kutcher. It’s essentially several romantic comedies for the price of one — perfect for the YouTube generation.

By its nature, the romantic comedy is one of the most formulaic genres of film, if not the most. You want to care about the central couple, you want to be amused. You want it to be predictable, but not too predictable. Here we identify the conventions of a Hollywood romantic comedy, most of which you’ll find in spades in Valentines Day.

Meet Cute

The Meet Cute is a romantic comedy staple, often the catalyst for around 90 minutes of “will they/won’t they” wondering. In Sleepless in Seattle, Sam (Tom Hanks) and Annie (Meg Ryan) Meet Cute thanks to Sam’s son Jonah’s impassioned plea on the radio, leading Annie to write a winning letter that sets things in motion for the memorable Empire State Building actual meet-up. In Serendipity, Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) Meet Cute when they try to buy the same pair of gloves at a department store, which spurs a series of fateful near-misses.

Hate at First Sight

Even when people Meet Cute, this can still result in Hate at First Sight. But not to worry, because usually, the more hate there is to start off with, the more love we end up with later on. In The Proposal, Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) despises boss-from-hell Margaret (Sandra Bullock), but after engaging in a major Deception (see below), he sees her softer side and little love hearts start appearing around both of them. Kat (Julia Stiles) hate 10 Things about Patrick (Heath Ledger), but most of all, she hates that she doesn’t hate him at all.

Romantic Rival

What’s a prize you don’t have to fight for? The Romantic Rival is often flashier and nastier than the romantic hero/heroine, a villain that is keeping the true lovers apart, as in She’s All That and The Wedding Singer. If the Romantic Rival is actually rather nice, like Patrick Dempsey in Sweet Home Alabama or Idina Menzel in Enchanted, then he or she will be rewarded by a more suitable lover at the end of the film. There’s enough love for everyone, as long as you’re a good guy.

The Friend

Without mates, a lovesick protagonist would come across as a creepy stalker. Think Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver or Alex in Fatal Attraction. The romantic heroine’s Friend is usually kooky and/or ethnic, or a gay man. The romantic hero typically has a lothario Friend and/or a happily coupled-off Friend, situating him comfortably in the middle of the two extremes, and/or a gal pal to confide in. The Friend for both genders could also be a child wise beyond his or her years. Sometimes the Friend (when not a child) is the One in disguise, as in 13 Going on 30. The romantic hero/heroine will usually have an Epiphany (see below) that the Friend is the One once the Friend meets someone else (a Romantic Rival) or threatens to Relocate (see below).


Whether it’s a 20-something Drew Barrymore pretending to be a high-schooler as she’s Never Been Kissed, Kate Hudson deliberately acting like a crazy lady so she can lose a guy in 10 days, or Sandra Bullock lying about being engaged (a recurring pattern for her) to a comatose man (While You Were Sleeping), many romantic comedies have a deceitful conceit at their heart. If you’re feeling generous, you can think of them as “secrets”. This gives the flick a unique hook and/or powers the plot along, allowing for humorous moments — and well as a dramatic denouement when the truth finally comes out. As it always will. In Hollywood, liars — or at least liars that don’t fess up — don’t deserve true love.


This one dates all the way back to Romeo and Juliet, and often comes into play in tandem with Deception. In romantic comedies, people are always mishearing or misinterpreting things, and then acting upon them rashly, which leads to more Obstacles (see below). In The Holiday, Amanda (Cameron Diaz) thinks Graham (Jude Law) has another lover, but really he’s talking to his daughters (who also act as his Friends).


Hate at First Sight, the Romantic Rival, Deception and Miscommunication all create Obstacles, but failing those (or in addition to those), there will be another barrier entirely, usually social or supernatural. In Notting Hill, it was Anna’s (Julia Robert) super-stardom. In Just Like Heaven, it was the small matter of Elizabeth’s (Reese Witherspoon) ghostly status. In 17 Again, Zac Efron was a 30-something trapped in a 17-year-old’s body, which made the chemistry between him and his ex-wife very inappropriate (although not as awkward as his daughter trying to crack onto him). In Kate and Leopold, the titular pair are from different centuries. The list goes on — all you need to know is that if it’s True Love, it will conquer all, even time, space and relentless paparazzi.


Just when everything seems lost — or the film only has around 10 minutes left — the romantic hero/heroine (or the object of their affection) will suddenly realize something they never did before — that they’re ready to commit, that their True Love has been in front of them all along. The Epiphany either immediately dissolves whatever Obstacles kept them apart before, or gives the romantic hero/heroine the impetus to leapfrog over these into the arms of their sweetheart. This applies to pretty much every romantic comedy, ever.


To add further drama — and a time limit — to the lovers’ situation, Relocation often looms. Usually this happens just after an Epiphany, which often leads to a fraught Airport Scene (or variant thereof), as the romantic hero/heroine races to prevent the One from slipping through their fingers forever, as in The Wedding Singer. Sometimes, the supposed Relocator will reveal that they weren’t really going anywhere at all, or that they were only going there for a little while, as in Bridget Jones’ Diary, when Mark Darcy leaves after reading the infamous diary. But it will have the desired effect, which is all that matters.


Love doesn’t just conquer all, it also often changes all. At the beginning of Pretty Woman, Julia Robert’ s Vivian was a tacky prostitute and Richard Gere’s Edward was a heartless businessman. By the film’s end, Vivian has fashionable clothes and plans to go back to school, while Edward makes a fairytale-esque romantic gesture, arriving as a knight in a white limousine to sweep his lady off her feet. In 27 Dresses, thanks to Kevin (James Marsden), the uptight, always-a-bridesmaid Jane (Katherine Heigl) learns to loosen up, and in doing so, earns a 28th dress — this time for her own wedding.

Valentine’s Day is currently showing at Blitz Megaplex cinemas.

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Another year, another Disney princess


Sara Veal

The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana is notable as Disney’s first African-American princess. She’s also a timely heroine, a role model for a generation of children growing up during a global financial crisis.

Hard-working, independent and carefully saving to realize an honorable dream – owning her own restaurant – she contrasts with the film’s villain, a tricky witchdoctor willing to rack up huge debts in an attempt to accrue money and power. She also teaches a charming prince – Naveen, a spoiled playboy – that the best things in life can’t be bought, a worthy if cliched message.

Since 1937, with its first full-length feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney company has presented a succession of “princesses”, some actual royalty such as Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora, others simply admirable such as Mulan.

These princesses remain highly popular today: Disney’s official “Princess” merchandise line which encompasses nine characters – Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana – is one of the largest girls’ franchises on the planet, raking in billions of dollars annually.

Opinion remains divided over this enduring princess mania – some see it as disturbingly anti-feminist, others appreciate the wholesome contrast to their precociously sexy counterparts like the Bratz dolls.

What is conclusive, though, is that all Disney’s leading ladies are a product of their times. Here, we take a light-hearted look at Tiana’s princess predecessors, charting their evolution from passive sleeping beauties to resourceful champions.

1937: Snow White

Like The Princess and the Frog, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted amid a worldwide economic depression – The Great Depression, in fact. For the heinous crime of being beautiful, Snow White’s jealous stepmother attempts to murder her – luckily, the exquisite 14-year-old is saved repeatedly by men: a sympathetic woodsman, the seven dwarfs, a prince with apparently smelling-salts-like breath.

Inherently maternal and fond of housework, she wins over the prince in a passive fashion, first with her singing (what would prove to be a typical Disney man-catching move) and then by sleeping so beautifully. Hardly a proto-feminist, but no doubt her tale provided romantic relief from trying reality.

1950: Cinderella

Cinderella was also a victim of a wicked stepmother, with the unhappy addition of two ugly stepsisters. She’s a slave in her own home, responsible for countless chores – something 1950s American housewives could no doubt relate to – but still finds time to construct a lovely ballgown, albeit with the assistance of her little animal friends. She’s somewhat braver than Snow White – piping up to convince her stepmother that she too deserves to go to the ball – but ultimately, she’s reliant on her Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming to make her dreams come true – and she wins love with a pretty face and tiny feet.

1959: Aurora

With her looks based on Audrey Hepburn, Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora is just as naive as some of the Hollywood legend’s most iconic characters. Raised in the woods by not one, but three fairy godmothers – who hope to prevent the dreadful fate a more malicious fairy assigned her – she longs for independence but remains obedient to her caretakers’ instructions, even fleeing the delicious Prince Phillip when she realizes he’s a stranger (and she mustn’t talk to those, nor take candy from them). Sadly their over-protection can’t prevent her from pricking her finger on a poisoned spindle; fortunately Phillip is more than willing to cut a swath through a thorny forest and give her the kiss of life. Then they instantly become engaged, fulfilling their royal parents’ long-time intentions for them to marry – it seems Aurora can’t dictate her own fate after all!

1989: Ariel

Thirty years after Sleeping Beauty awoke, Disney princesses finally became more proactive, reflecting more empowered times. Ariel, aside from being The Little Mermaid, is a typical teenager – rebellious and curious about the wider world. She’s willing to disobey her father, flirt with danger and make great sacrifices for a cute boy, in her case her singing voice for a pair of legs. Interestingly, she doesn’t succeed in winning over Prince Eric properly until she regains her voice, a sign that you need more than looks to get your man. Less interestingly, in her quest for independence, she simply trades one man for another – a father for a husband.

1991: Belle

Like Ariel, The Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle is a square peg in a round hole: a nonconformist and free thinker. She may be the most beautiful girl in the village, but she cares not one whit for looks, preferring books.

Her lack of superficiality is put to the test when she’s forced to cohabit with the Beast – to save her father – falling in love with him despite his fearsome exterior. The beauty and the Beast’s relationship is given more time to mature than in previous Disney films, with the latter having to win her over. Belle’s intelligence and willingness to fight for those she cares about make her a heroine worth emulating.

1992: Jasmine

Aladdin‘s Jasmine, a doe-eyed Arabian princess, was Disney’s first princess “of color”, and continues the free-spirited trend. She refuses to marry any of the shallow suitors on offer, running away from the palace to escape her fate and find adventure. Being unavoidably sheltered, she soon runs into problems, and is saved by the quick-thinking Aladdin, to whom she is drawn despite his poverty. In the end, she gains her longed-for volition, and naturally selects her magical-carpet-commanding “diamond in the rough”. This time, it’s the princess who whisks her lover to a better life.

1995: Pocahontas

Another ethnic leading lady, Pocahontas is the first American princess, based on the historical figure. More mature than previous heroines, Pocahontas is highly independent and attuned to nature, educating the initially arrogant John Smith about its value. If forced to engage in a fight with her fellow Disney leading ladies, she’d no doubt win hands down, displaying immense athleticism and magical, shamanic powers. Echoing Ariel and Belle, she saves her prince, at risk to herself. And in a break with tradition, there’s no happily ever after for Pocahontas and John Smith; instead of leaving with him to experience a whole new world (like Ariel would), she stays in her own, placing her people before her heart.

1998: Mulan

Pocahontas’ fiercest physical competition would be Mulan, who proves herself as a warrior, ultimately saving the whole of China through bravery and ingenuity, although she does have to resort to cross-dressing in the process. Disney’s first Asian princess promotes self-reliance, determination and is uninterested in marriage or romance.

Her attractiveness is almost a non-factor – refreshingly – and she is highly relatable for adolescent girls in her initial awkwardness and self-doubt. While she demonstrates considerable chemistry with the hunky Captain Li Shang, the film ends on her saving her country, rather than a romantic resolution.

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Write your own happy endings


Sara Veal

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series wrapped up in 2007, but for Dian, a 40-year-old housewife in Bandung, the story continues.

While her kids are at school and her husband is at the office, she finds time to craft tales about her favorite characters, sharing them with fellow Indonesian Harry Potter fans on www.fanfiction.net, the largest and most popular fan fiction online archive.

The Bandung mother of three is just one of many Indonesians involved in the genre of creative writing known as fan fiction, which involves fans of an original work – be it literature, cinema, comics or even video games – writing their own stories revolving around original characters and settings, often adding new characters and extending the author’s world.

Dian, who has been involved in fan fiction since 2001, also writes about Japanese manga series Naruto, American television series Supernatural and American animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. She enjoys that the characterization is ready-made, enabling her to focus on plotting and take a beloved tale in new directions.

“Like, if someone dies in the book, and we could write that they didn’t die, or something like that. Or, if the writer didn’t tell us about something, we could write it ourselves,” says Dian who often writes about Severus Snape, Harry’s grumpy and conflicted teacher.

Works of fan fiction are rarely professionally published, although a few highly popular fan fiction writers have attained publishing deals, such as Cassandra Clare, who wrote The Very Secret Diaries, using J.R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings characters.

Her bestselling The Mortal Instruments trilogy has attracted its own fandom, a term that refers to the subculture that gathers around a particular work.

Although fan fiction is largely associated with the Internet – and certainly exploded with its advent -the form has likely been around as long as stories have, and has much overlap with re-tellings, parody and homage.

In the 17th century, unauthorized sequels to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote appeared, to which the author fiercely responded. Earlier forms of fan fiction can be seen concerning King Arthur’s tale in the 8th century and in medieval Arabic fiction, especially in the case of Arabian Nights, which inspired and encompassed many parodies of existing tales.

Clare follows in the fantastic footsteps of Frances Hodges Burnett (The Little Princess) and E. Nesbit (The Five Children and It), who both wrote their own versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland at the turn of the 20th century.

Modern fan fiction has its roots in 1960s Star Trek fanzines, which bred many of the conventions and terminology used today, although the fast interplay of the Internet leads to many new terms.

A new fan-fiction enthusiast might feel a little lost with the jargon, but most of it is intuitive shorthand. “Slash”, for examples, refers to same-sex-relationship-focused fan fiction, linking to the slash (/) symbol between the pairs’ names (Spock/Kirk), while “fanfic” is a shortening of fan fiction, and “ship” or “shipper” is a shortening of relationship, referring to a writer’s interest in pairing characters not involved in the canonical work.

Fan fiction can arguably be used as a barometer for popular culture. Dian’s favorite Harry Potter currently has one of the most thriving fan-fiction communities in the world. A search on fanfiction.net reveals 2,700 related communities and 47,000 stories, while harrypotterfanfiction.com boasts that it hosts 60,000 stories and podcasts.

In Indonesia, the boy wizard’s fandom is relatively small. The most popular is Naruto, accompanied by other popular manga and anime, with Indonesian fans writing mainly in Indonesian and English.

Involvement in fan fiction seems almost inevitable for those passionate about storytelling, if only subconsciously.

Melissa Chandra, 22, a recent English graduate from Atma Jaya University, says even before she encountered fan fiction in 2003, thanks to her newly installed screen-reader – she is sight-impaired – she “used to dream about tweaking the story” she knew (at the time, The Lord of the Rings) “into a different ending or lengthening the story beyond its “official’ end”.

“I saw it just as the creative part of my mind being too mischievous. Until now, I still see it like this: The story unknowingly ‘invites’ me to play in its *sandbox’ to challenge my own creativity,” says Melissa, who participates in fandoms related to Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle, Harry Potter and Tolkien’s writings.

“The only reward from that ‘game’ is when I can pull out a story alike yet unlike its original from all the mess I have created.”

Duckie, 40, a secretary who lives in Jakarta, mainly writes Supernatural slash fanfic, and first became involved in 2002, when a friend set up a website for anime/manga Gensoumaden Saiyuki.

“She asked if I could fill in the ‘fan fiction’ section. I had no idea; I just wrote what came in my mind.”

Eve, 34, Jakarta-based freelance translator, has participated in fan fiction since the late 1990s, when she first learned how to use the Internet. While she had written her own fiction beforehand, she found in fan fiction a twin opportunity to write about her favorite characters and hone her writing skills, developing a stronger authorial voice.

“Writing fanfic helps me practice my writing, and comments from those who read my fanfics help me recognize my strengths and weaknesses,” says Eve, who is currently writing an anime/manga/wuxia fan fiction.

Duckie agrees, revealing that before writing fan fiction, she had never dared to write in English. Like Dian, she also feels relieved to bypass character building, her weakness.

“Writing fan fiction I don’t have to worry about it. The characters are there, shaped and ready. All I have to think about is what kind of situations I want to put them in,” she says.

“It’s challenging as I learned on the way that there are rules I should follow to be able to make the story interesting and bearable to read. And if you write really well, lots of fans do read the stories and appreciate them.”

Studies, such as one by Massachusetts Institute of Technology academic Sharon Cumberland (“Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture”), have repeatedly demonstrated that women dominate fan fiction.

Melissa theorizes this is because “women have more knack of creativity to see what men have not seen”.

“And, well, who have ever heard the term fan-boys?” she asks.

“Usually girls are more insecure than boys too… That is why there are many *Mary Sues’ [idealized characters standing in for the author] littering the fan-fiction world.”

Eve guesses “it’s because women are usually more willing to spend time doing their hobbies”.

“Maybe because there’s some kind of romanticism in writing fan fiction,” Duckie suggests.

Community is another important aspect of fan fiction, with fellow fans sharing stories and offering constructive criticism, on sites such as Livejournal and fanfiction.net.

Duckie describes her own community as “bat-s**t crazy” but notes her favorite fan-fiction authors include one of her closest friends and her beta reader, someone analogous to an editor for a professional author. A beta reader reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, offering suggestions for improvement, before the work is publicly shared.

Eve appreciates getting to learn how others interpret canon and having the chance to discover good writers.

Melissa describes herself as a “loner” on the sites she posts on, but adds she has a few online friends who share her addictions.

“In a way, every site is like a very large, very diverse community, because often times we recognize the authors’/reviewers and their stories and/or the style of their reviews. Almost like meeting them physically.”

Alongside their devotion to fan fiction, creating their own stories remains a priority.

Dian says writing fan fiction encourages her to write original stories, although “sometimes writing non-fan fiction also encourages me to write fan fiction”.

Eve, who recently completed a non-fan-fiction novel for National Novel Writing Month in November 2009, says she’s since been working more on original fiction, some of which is shared on her personal site athousandsakura.net.

Returning to her sandbox analogy, Melissa says that “the sandbox never grows bigger, while one’s mind does, especially when given a lot of stimuli”.

“The longer I try my hand on an original story, the cleaner it is from outside influences.”

Duckie has similar sentiments and aspirations.

“Original fiction has always been my passion,” she says. “Writing fan fiction helps my writing style and what I really want to write about.”

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Neil Gaiman: The prince of stories


Sara Veal

He’s transformed Death into a likable young woman and conjured a happy childhood for an orphan raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Unsurprisingly, Neil Gaiman is unafraid of dying.

“If my plane goes down tomorrow, I’m in great shape, I’m not going to go down going, god, wouldn’t it have been good if I’d just had cool kids, or written a good children’s book, or made a movie or something like that, because I’ve done all that stuff… I’ve had this amazing life.”

The 49-year-old British author was at the last Singapore Writers’ Festival, along with American rock star girlfriend Amanda Palmer, of Dresden Dolls’ fame, where he treated more than 1,000 fans to three Q&As and two mammoth signing sessions, and spoke with The Jakarta Post about his creative collaborations, including the project with Palmer that resulted in their romance.

With his dishevelled hair and all-black clothing, Gaiman resembles the Sandman, the graphic novel character that brought him to public consciousness, setting the stage for a career writing about myths and magic across several media: comics, novels, short stories, poems, film, music and theatre.

He also sounds like his stories, which include Coraline, The Graveyard Book and Stardust. Not horrific and creepy, as they can be, but like the tone in which he conveys such horrors and creeps – his voice is melodic and friendly.

These soft, trans-Atlantic tones – a blend of his southern England upbringing and decades of living in America – can transform convincingly into those who feature in his anecdotes, from the nasal American accent of David Lynch (Blue Velvet) to Alan Moore’s (Watchmen) gruff Midlands brogue.

As befitting a man who has made his fortune “making things up and writing them down”, he pulls stories from thin air, like one about his Singaporean hosts’ possibly insidious motives for feeding him so well.

“There is a Singapore snack called Stuffed Author… it is produced by taking a visiting author and feeding them good things until they can eat no more, and then cutting them up into delicious slices and serving them to the people of Singapore.”

Since his first book, a 1984 Duran Duran biography, Gaiman has been prolific, winning countless literary awards.

Several of these award-winning projects have involved collaboration, his knack for creative teamwork honed during his Sandman days, with artists like Dave McKean.

“The great thing about collaborations is that they are always accidental and they’re always organic if they’re going to work,” he says, singling out Terry Pratchett (with whom he wrote Good Omens, his first fiction novel) and Palmer as his favorites.

Who Killed Amanda Palmer
consists of images of Palmer in a range of death poses, taken by photographer Kyle Cassidy, accompanied by “very short stories, at the end of which there’s always a dead Amanda Palmer”, written by Gaiman.

“Nobody had ever written to me before and said, I have lots of photos of myself dead, and in some cases naked, and would like you to write some stories to accompany them,” he says, explaining why he agreed to work with a person he had only so far met by email, through a mutual friend, musician Jason Webley.

“I thought, this is one of those projects that you do that’s definitely never going to have an impact on the rest of your life… a tiny little goofy thing that I’ll do for a few days and will be funny and fun… so I said yes,” he says smiling at the woman he describes as the “world’s coolest girlfriend”.

The couple reteamed for Gaiman’s directorial debut, Statuesque, a short, silent film about human statues – Palmer was a former human statue – that stars Bill Nighy and screened on British television in December.

Not all of his collaborations have turned out well, he notes, recounting his attempt to work with hero Lynch on a film, who wished to end their mystery film on the moon.

“And that was the moment. I said, this is not going to work… I can’t start a detective story and then end it with *we are on the moon, end of story’.”

Adaptation is also integral to Gaiman’s work. Coraline and Stardust were made into films, and he wrote the English version of Princess Mononoke and Beowulf screenplay.

The key to adaptation, he says, is to “*translate’ and not *transliterate'”. For his own work, he either selects a director he admires, as he did with Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), who will film The Graveyard Book, or allow a filmmaker to “get on with it”, as he did with Henry Selick, who made Coraline.

Despite his stratospheric success, Gaiman remains accessible for his millions of fans via the Internet, which he considers “the best communication tool that humanity has ever come up with”.

On www.neilgaiman.com, he offers insight into his daily activities and answers readers’ questions, and regularly Twitters (@neilhimself). He also used the web to promote The Graveyard Book, which he read in nine parts in as many American cities.

He recommends aspiring fantasy writers put their work on the web, as “you’re an email away from any agent in the world” and will “learn, when you see it printed… how people react to it”.

Fantasy is just one genre Gaiman has been associated with; he has also been tarred with “sci-fi” or “horror” brushes, reflecting his indefinability. He discounts the stigma others might see in genre fiction, pointing out that graphic novels with which he started have only lately become “hip and cool”.

His genre-crossing writing, noted for its unpredictability, reflects how he sees the world.

For example, short story “Snow Glass Apples” came about when he read a version of Snow White, and was struck by the peculiarity of a prince falling in love with a dead girl in a coffin, especially one with “skin as white as snow, and lips as red as blood, and hair as black as coal”.

“So suddenly I have this version of Snow White in my head in which she’s a vampire and he’s a necrophile and I think right, I’ll just tell it from the point of view of the wicked queen, and I’ll demonstrate that the big problem with history and folk tales is that they’re written by the winners, and the problem with the wicked queen was not that she was wicked, it was that she didn’t go far enough. Obviously, trying to cut out Snow White’s heart was a very sensible thing to do.”

His current project is based on Monkey: Journey to West, and will be his first nonfiction book since 1988’s Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion.

Monkey has fascinated Gaiman since childhood. His father bought a “beautiful, hardback, illustrated edition” before he was born, but could not locate it when he was ready to present it to the seven-year-old Gaiman, leading it to seem like “this glorious magical book with everything in it”.

He pitched the project to his publisher following a trip to China in 2007, after being surprised by many facets of Chinese culture, and because Monkey came up in every conversation he would have with people about China and literature.

“It’s historical, its mythic, it’s about stories, it’s got demons in it, and it also has me, doing a wonderfully inept journey to the West, and running into interesting problems, and having strange things happen to me.”

Such things include exploring a disused Monkey amusement park, which contained a Buddhist hell of people being “ripped apart and crushed”, chatting to the last of several generations of Monkey actors, and a man trying to sell him a human elbow outside a ruined temple.

Writing the book, he expects, will take up most of 2010, and it “will probably be published extremely shortly after it is finished”.

While he’s satisfied with his achievements to date, he preferred writing when he was younger, because it was as if he got to “invent the wheel every time”.

“Even when I start something that I think I’ve never done before, I can perceive echoes of previous ways that I’ve done things… it’s harder for me to go this is the first time.”

Still, he’s unlikely to quit writing anytime soon.

“There are so many stories I have to tell, set all over the place, it’s just a matter of how many I can fit in, before I forget to look both ways crossing the street, or get turned into snacks by Singaporeans.”

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John Ajvide Lindqvist : Monsters, magic and Morrissey


Sara Veal

John Ajvide Lindqvist doesn’t like vampires, and hasn’t the slightest idea why the fanged ones are so in vogue.

“There’s such an immense amount of rubbish,” says the Swedish writer. “It’s so sad because when you go to the bookstore, in the horror section, half of the books are about vampires.”

Yet his own debut novel, Let the Right One In, features a romance between a vampire and a boy – and is an international bestseller that has been translated into 28 languages and adapted into a multi-award-winning film.

The 40-something novelist was speaking at the 13th Biennial Singapore Writers Festival last month, at a “Meet the Author” Q&A and to The Jakarta Post.

In person, he belies his novel’s disturbing tone that deftly mixes the socio-realistic horrors of bullying and alcoholic fathers with supernatural ones such as zombie rapists and bloodsucking children – as well as the beautiful melancholy of the film, for which he wrote the screenplay.

He punctuates his speech with lively gestures, emphatic sounds and a reverberating laugh that competes with the Hammer-horror-worthy thunderclaps outside.

When he began Let the Right One In in 2001, he had no idea vampires were going to be so popular. He simply wanted to portray his 1980s adolescence in Blackeberg, a Stockholm suburb, but with the addition of a fantastic element to see how this would affect the suburb and its inhabitants.

“I wasn’t even sure that this thing was going to be a vampire, but as it turned out, I decided I wanted my protagonist Oskar [based on himself] to befriend the monster or the horrible thing … a vampire was the most suitable monster.”

Becoming a horror writer – let alone the foremost Swedish horror writer today, dubbed his country’s Stephen King – was similarly unintentional.

Although he is a lifelong “horror aficionado”, devouring books by King, Clive Barker – his favorite – and Dean Koontz and obsessively watching horror movies (“as soon as I could sneak in . you had to be 15, but I was 13”) – his original “great purpose” in life was to be a magician.

At 18, he came second in the Nordic Card Championships, but realized he enjoyed speaking on stage more than performing tricks. He then turned to stand-up, but found he was more interested in creating new material than honing jokes, and began writing for “more famous” comedians and television.

Meanwhile, he strove to be “a Writer with a big W”, trying to write plays, novels, short stories and poetry, without much satisfaction.

Eventually, he tried his hand at horror, attempting a short story, which he says was “not really a good story” but was “quite exciting”, petrifying himself and his wife as he read it out load.

The experiment prompted him to pen Let the Right One In, an exhilarating, seven-month process.

“When I was trying to write *serious’ literature . I was like sweating over every sentence . But while writing *Let the Right One In*, it was like, I know how to do this, I know what’s going to happen, this is easy!” he says.

“Horror is the maximum open genre; you can basically write about anything … you just have to make it believable.”

Let the Right One In was initially rejected by several publishers, leading Lindqvist to shelve it and start another. It was finally published in 2004, and quickly became popular, assuring a new career.

Lindqvist’s feverish productivity seems to have found the ideal outlet. Since 2004, he’s published two more novels, Handling the Undead and Human Harbour, and completed a fourth, Little Star, in October; three more are planned, in addition to a short story collection, Paper Walls, and several screenplays.

Yet his magical and comedic past still seeps into his present.

Magicians figure in Human Harbour and a recent film script. While signing books, he performed card tricks for fans, and exudes a natural stage presence.

Comedy and horror are similar, he says, as both involve explorations of the unexpected, and his experience performing for an audience informs his writing – he is always aware of his readers.

With the horrible and the fantastic, Lindqvist prefers to part with clich*s and consider how to apply such elements to reality.

In Let the Right One In, he depicts vampirism without “sparkle”, glamour or sex appeal.

“It would be an impoverished, disgusting existence … Basically, being a child living with a terrible disease, and having to kill people in order to survive,” he says.

However, Lindqvist doesn’t discount Stephenie Meyer’s romantic creations.

“My 12-year-old son is reading *the Twilight Saga books and really likes them so I will read the first one, at least.”

In Handling the Undead, he explores the concept of peaceful zombies, monsters he prefers to vampires.

“Because that’s a staple of almost every zombie story, they’re aggressive and there tends to be a war in the end … Also, every zombie is someone’s sister, father, brother … you would have a relationship with these dead people.”

Human Harbour
features vengeful ghosts, Little Star has shape-shifting wolves and there are trolls in Paper Walls. This supernatural theme will continue for at least his next three novels, as will the Swedish setting.

His devotion to British singer Morrissey and The Smiths is another ingredient he weaves into all his stories. Let the Right One In refers to Morrissey’s song, “Let the Right One Slip In”, as well the myth of vampires needing to be invited into homes.

“I need them as emotional equipment for what I’m writing … I know that this chapter should sound or have the feel as this song by Morrissey or The Smiths … it somehow sets the pace with the quote … I use it to push myself on,” he says, adding he includes quotes from his poet wife too.

A real-life encounter doesn’t appeal though.

“*A Swedish newspaper* wanted me to interview him and I said yes, because I couldn’t say no, but I didn’t really want to do it … you shouldn’t meet your idols.”

He is more interested in his upcoming interview with King. While he feels they’re very different writers, he acknowledges King has likely influenced him subconsciously, and lauds the other author’s “no-nonsense attitude towards writing”.

“He’s not a writer with a big W… *His approach is, ‘I hope you like them, I try to make them as good as I can, and make each new one better’.”

He has a similar literary approach, writing chronologically for about a year at a time, and says his strength is stubbornness.

“Stories for me are much more ways of creating bridges and pathways to images that I simply can’t let go of … this gives my stories a certain amount of intensity, because I believe so much in these images.”

Lindqvist aims for high-quality popular culture, citing Pan’s Labyrinth as the epitome. He has been hands on with adapting his novels, all of which seem destined for the screen, insisting on writing the screenplays himself.

“If someone else f***ed it up, I would hate this person for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to feel that way towards anyone,” he says.

Fifteen directors wanted to adapt Let the Right One In
. He chose Tomas Alfredson, whose film Four Shades of Brown he considers “very funny, very dark, perfect, melodramatic, wonderful, heartbreaking”.

He was moved to tears by the result – “for me the book and film feel almost exactly the same” – so he and Alfredson plan to team up again to film Human Harbour, after Kristian Petri directs Handling the Undead.

“I really want to make Swedish movies … I had to fight a lot with the Swedish production companies because they want to sell it to American production companies as there would be more money in the project,” he says.

However, he is looking forward to Hollywood’s version of Let the Right One In, renamed Let Me In, which Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves will direct.

“It can’t possibly be better because I love the Swedish version, but it will be different, and I think that’s good.”

With so many projects on the go, and his recognition on the rise, one wonders if it challenges his writing process?

“No, I don’t let this affect the way I write or what I write . the story takes me in. This problem might apply to writing a series … but I still haven’t written a series,” he says, adding the nearest thing is a 10-page epilogue to Let the Right One In, called “Let the Old Dreams Die” (the next line of the song), to be included in Little Star.

Lindqvist confesses he always wanted to be famous, although he does not aspire to being a “literary rock star” like fellow SWF attendee Neil Gaiman.

“But it would sadden me if I couldn’t at least keep this level of fame,” he says, with a twinkle.

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How to become a novelist in 30 days


Sara Veal

The next bestseller to hit Indonesian shelves might have been born last month, in a frenzied labor of love powered by caffeine and the camaraderie of fellow writers around the city and beyond.

This November was the 11th edition of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the world’s largest writing contest, founded in San Francisco by Chris Baty, in which 167, 150 professional and amateur writers attempt to complete at least 50,000 words of a novel by midnight, local time, on Nov. 30.

There are no prizes – and no one even reads your work unless you want them to; your word count is validated by scrambling counting machines on the site – only the satisfaction of having completed the challenge, although Baty said more than 30 participants last year received publishing deals.

When I first encountered NaNoWriMo on Saturday, Nov. 7, I was incredulous, and then excited. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days – or 23 in my case – was a tall order, but still within reach.

Like many, I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but have always been waiting for that perfect time to write, when I could press the pause button on life. This became one of my favorite daydreams, especially in Jakarta traffic, picturing myself in a country cottage or in a beach hut by the sea, writing all day, fuelled by cups of tea.

NaNoWriMo gave me a wakeup call. I didn’t need to wait. The goal of writing for quantity not quality freed me from perfection, and the idea of being accompanied by people all around the world was very motivating.

That first week I kicked off with gusto, deciding to spin out one of my least precious ideas – a retelling of the fairy tale Rapunzel. Every night I met my 2,174-word target, experiencing the heady whirl of charging ahead with a story.

You surprise yourself as you write – characters take shape almost of their own accord, things happen you wouldn’t expect – stories come truly alive once you allow them to live outside your head. I grandly imagined myself as Scheherazade, having to tell at least one tale (i.e., chapter) every night to stay alive, by leaving the reader wanting more.

I explored the wider NaNoWriMo community; as it’s a worldwide event, participants can affiliate with a region, an entire country or a city. I joined Indonesia and was intrigued when I clicked into the message board and saw that there were more than 200 Indonesians NaNoWriMos participating – and that they were meeting up on a Saturday (Nov. 14) for their third write-in at Cafe Gramedia in Grand Indonesia, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

I called Duckie, the write-in’s organizer, to learn more. Duckie, a full-time secretary who has participated in NaNoWriMo since 2004, winning four times, is Indonesia’s nearest thing to a “municipal liaison”; she is responsible for coordinating events, answering participants’ emails and pep talks.

We immediately bonded over an appreciation for handsome brothers in Supernatural, about whom she was writing a fan-fiction Nano-novel. She told me about some other participants – two, Sylvia L’Namira and Dee, had already had their edited 2008 Nano-novels published and Rey, 21, who was blind, and had won last year, using a special Braille keyboard.

At Cafe Gramedia, I found my first two fellow NaNoWrimos – Hning and Eve – easily, beckoned by opened laptops and netbooks.

Hning, 28, a holistic blogger and first-time NaNoWriMo, said she was attracted by the challenge NaNoWriMo posed.

“I think Chris Baty chose November deliberately, because it’s the busiest month for many people.”

Eve, 34, a translator, and two-time NaNoWriMo winner, was writing a wuxia (ancient Chinese martial arts genre) novel. She said NaNoWriMo helped her to write “as opposed to thinking about writing and brainstorming.”

As we chatted more than wrote, Hning cracking many jokes, Henny arrived. The 26-year-old educator had wanted to write a story for a long time, but wasn’t sure how to, so had come to see others at work.

“My goal is to write one sentence before the session’s up,” she said.

Duckie arrived, followed by editor Dee, 30, who discussed her Indonesian-language novel about children who solve mysteries.

“It took about three months to edit – I ended up using a third of what I had written during NaNoWriMo,” she said, adding her current Nano-novel, Misteri Brownies yang Terluka, would also be edited for publication.

As we took in hot drinks and snacks, I realized the write-ins weren’t really about writing – I only managed 1,000 words during the four hours – but about meeting others who loved storytelling. We discussed our favorite novels and how we managed to fit Nano-ing into our schedules. Dee gave me the prototype NaNoWriMo 2009 pin she had made. Henny more than achieved her modest goal; she filled several pages by the time the session ended.

During my second week, I lost momentum – the daily 2,174 words, especially when I fell behind, began to feel strenuous on top of obligations.

A pep talk email from novelist Tamora Pierce, saying “at this moment in time the writing is decidedly starting to suck” and “you’re thinking you have no talent” felt too close to the mark.

The fourth write-in was at Brew & Co in Cilandak Town Square, on Saturday, Nov. 21. This time I met Rauf and Sylvia.

Rauf, an aspiring fantasy writer and ardent book lover, said while he’d always wanted to write a novel, he previously felt “why bother, it’s stupid, no one will ever want to read it.”

“Trying to finish a novel in only 30 days, I thought, will neutralize that voice in my head, that doubt, that self-consciousness,” he said.

Sylvia, 34, a librarian and a writer whose 2008 Nano-novel was published as Mi Familia, was writing about middle-school kids at an international school, the first volume of what would hopefully eventually be published as a six-volume series.

“I create the characters, the plot, and play the scenes around in my head during my motorbike trip from home to office and vice versa,” she said, explaining how she fit writing into her daily life.

I proved far less adept than Sylvia at managing my time in my third and final week, writing only 1,500 words, bringing my total to 15,000. I was swamped with assignments and increasingly hesitant of wasting time on bad writing.

Following the abysmal tone set by the week, at the final write-in, held in the food court at Plaza Semanggi on Saturday, Nov. 28, I was unable to find the NaNoWriMos among the masses. I later learned they had been hard to spot because no one had their laptops out – everyone except Dee had already made the 50,000 words.

So, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009, when 32,173 people around the world woke up as Nano-novelists, I was still only myself, a wishful writer with fragments of stories littering my notebooks, hard drive and mind.

The NaNoWriMo website revealed the Indonesian region collectively achieved 1,274,499 words, and while official stats remain unavailable, the message board shows at least 15 people affiliated with Indonesia were winning 2010 Nano-novelists, including all those I had met at the write-ins, all of whom shared their reflections with candor.

“After reaching 50k, the editor in me is like, *Dee, what are you doing? You want ME to edit that?'” Dee wrote.

Hning found the final leg a breeze. “After 48,000 words, those last 2,000, I wanted to enjoy every bit of it. I played solitaire between paragraphs.”

The Thank God It’s Over event at Pondok Indah Mall II, on Saturday, Dec. 5, was sadly accidentally cancelled due to Duckie needing to go out of town, so it was just me and Eve. I had just missed Emily, the youngest Indonesian NaNoWrimo at 13. Still, we enjoyed eking out NaNoWriMo for a little bit longer.

“Writing is a lonely activity, so it was nice to have for one month, other people who were doing the same thing,” Eve said, adding her Nano-win was down to “perseverance” and “lots of coffee”.

On the message boards, I “met” a few more NaNoWrimos, who shared their secrets of success.

Ivanna, a part-time writer, web designer and Nano-veteran based in France, attributed net-free environments and the white noise in cafes for her win.

“I’m kind of having WriMo withdrawal symptoms right now,” said M. Adzania, 29, who said she was aided by long-abandoned plots, which unexpectedly found their way into her stories as she began writing.

Emily credited “staying up late at night” and “a thankful lack of homework during the first two weeks”.

Despite this year’s failure, I intend to participate in 2010. Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I met fascinating people and fleshed out a story I now intend to finish. It taught me that no matter how busy your life is, if you want to write fiction, the key is to simply do it regularly – and not to edit too much as you go.

And as Rauf said, “The main lesson is how nothing, and I mean nothing, beats good writing days. On good writing days, nothing else matters.”

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