Murakami’s birthday girl

birthday girl‘The Birthday Girl’ is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Published initially in the Guardian in 2006, Haruki Murakami’s story tells of a girl who made a wish when she was twenty, working her shift in a restaurant.

I loved it when I first read this story, and to tell the truth, a few years had gone past and it has grown on me ever since. I feel that it is about what we really want to make out of life, the spontaneous choices or decisions that somehow made us. The girl refuses to reveal what she wished for. She says only time will tell whether the wish has come true. There is a deliberate contrast between her current and past life. Now a mother and housewife with a seemingly comfortable lifestyle as opposed to the poor waitress who worked her long evening shift on her 20th birthday, the girl tells her tale in an unaffected, self-absorbed tone, and there is no letting on whether she is happy or not. This is precisely the magic of the short story – the briskness of it all, the enigma, the uncertainty as to whether one has attained what one has set out to do. Tobias Hill describes it as the refusal to reveal.

The story speaks to many because it is a question on everyone’s mind: if you were to be granted a wish, what would you wish for? What do you want to do with your life? I find it irresistible, the imagery of ‘the dent’ in the front of their car – that imperfection in life that you have to put up with, that stays no matter what. I am impressed that Murakami can crystallise this idea of helplessness in life in a poetic and cinematic way. I am touched to see many readers ponder about the same puzzle in the narrative. There are various websites and dialogues on this. An example is the wiki dialogue (

Like many others, I identify with his writing a lot, and I always have the image of him writing away at the kitchen table, daily, in the wee hours after his work at the jazz bar in Tokyo. It left me such a strong impression. In spring 2008, when I was in Tokyo, I went to a bar in Ginza, where a friend used to work and manage the bar business. Many Japanese businessmen went to the bar to chill out after work. In that quaint bar there were posh leather sofa chairs and a long, elegant, dimly illuminated bar where the bartender stood and mixed drinks behind the counter. And I had imagined that it would be similar to what Murakami’s life used to be, managing the bar business, working till late, clouded in that lazy music and dim lights. If he had not become a serious writer instead. If he had not gone back home those nights to scribble down what was swimming in his head. According to what Murakami told the papers, when he was 29 he realised he could become a writer.

In the story, I think the girl wished to become a different person.

Now that Norwegian Wood is going to be out soon across London’s cinemas, I have this longing to reread all his books again. That story still kept me thinking on some nights.

Xiaolu Guo’s UFO in Her Eyes

I have enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s storytelling style: crisp, bold, full of humour.

UFO in her eyes
UFO in her eyes

The disjointed narrative and peasants-speak in UFO in Her Eyes serve a purpose. A record of a series of investigation reports centering on the appearance of a UFO above Silver Hill Village’s sky, Guo highlights the disinterested attitude of some individuals towards the UFO happening, each being too caught up with their own daily struggles. In the narrative, the mystery lies not only in the appearance of the UFO, but in the strange ways this UFO incident impact on the lives of the villagers, bringing progress and at the same time a new form of existential angst, and the nostalgia for a self-sufficient, idyllic China.

Initially celebrated as an event that brought unexpected windfall to the village, the discovery of the UFO and Kwok Yun’s rescue of the American catalysed the change of the village and soon led to problems: the uprooting of traditional values, the clearing up of farmlands for industrial and commercial developments, the rise of pollution and the artifice of technology.

Half way through the story, we catch a glimpse of the super-structure, the invisible hand in the socialist regime, shadows of doubt and hidden motives: even Chief Chang and the investigation officer are questioned and put under secret surveillance.

The characterisation in the novel, however, is slightly disappointing. There is not a conscious effort in differentiating the voices to convey different messages, and sometimes it seems that all of the characters are there simply to participate in the collective tragedy of industrialisation. There remains so much unexplored in the protagonist, Kwok Yun. In the previous Guardian book review, Maya Jaggi describes the form, hovering between novel and screenplay, as somewhat frustrating (click here), while Neel Mukherjee points out that the book is undermined by the disproportionate weighting given to the formal high jinks and the elaborate design of documents, lists, investigations etc (click here).

Moreover, while being semi-tragic and a suggestion that socialism has backfired against itself, the sexual incident between Kwok Yun and Headmaster Yee can only at best be seen as a titillating episode that distracts the reader as to what role Kwok Yun plays. Or perhaps we simply find it unsatisfying that Kwok Yun does not end up the heroine we expect her to be.

Personally, I would prefer that the ending be more ambiguous. The over-conclusive clash between socialist ideals and industrial progress, as well as the evident unhappiness of the Kwoks and the villagers, have undermined the poignancy of the plot. Compared to the refreshing dialogue and characterisation in the earlier book The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, here no real risks are taken. Perhaps this has partly to do with Guo’s identity as a writer as well as a film producer: the highly cinematic quality of the work is both its strength and weakness.

Oxford: a trip down memory lane

It’s a long time since I’ve gone back to Oxford. Last weekend, we took the one hour train to get there. The sceneries haven’t changed: fields, trees and the occasional cows and sheep.

The college is still protected by the same heavy wooden gate the height of two persons or more. They have a new porter now. I looked at the wooden letter shelves – the pigeonholes – and a wave of nostalgia returns, thinking that there might be a letter or two for me.

They had planted a new plant with purplish, velvety leaves around the front quad. The grass was greener than I recalled. We walked down the path in the middle. The buttery was closed on that day but I went through the swing door to see the college pub, the library, and back quads, and the beloved Helen’s Court where I used to live. There was a strange calmness about Helen’s Court that moved me, its blue doors and sash windows. The much-used wooden cart propped up at the shed – I remember how I used those tools to take my luggage to the storeroom come the term end. After putting in all the luggage to that cellar-like storage, I was usually much exhausted and longed for a good sleep.

The Kybald House on the other side of the campus was a quiet and adorable red brick building where I lived in the second year. For the whole year, I saw the late Prof Strawson, a philosopher of metaphysics – who had a room and a study there – every now and then. He always had this learned air about him, always looking rather pensive and tranquil. There was a lovely bath in Kybald House with billowing floral curtains.

Oxford was good to me but I felt it was a thing of the past now. I love its elegant and unchanged self, but having spent time in other places – Hong Kong, London, Beijing, Norfolk etc – I felt acutely the sense of unreality of the city of spires. It is a place of enlightenment and transition, but it must be somewhere that you grow out of.

I always remember Vidia Naipaul’s reading whenever Oxford springs to mind. He read from his book – Half a Life – to the college students and I remember him saying how lonely and out of place he had felt while studying there. He didn’t feel belonged. Poor Vidia. His alleged solitude made me feel curious about him. I have been reading his book Literary Occasions now, an absolute gem. Our society’s sometimes too institutionalised. One college evening when people were having fun at the college ball, when most were enchanted by the fire-eaters and mobile beauty and massage parlours and pageant shows, that was what me and my friend discussed. He did philosophy, very brainy and British, but he didn’t feel belonged. It might be a matter of personality, of place, of encounters, or simply a coincidence.

Didn’t manage to go to have the G&D ice cream on that day, but we went up to the St Michael’s tower of Anglo-Saxon times. It’s exhilarating to be up there and see all the sand-coloured colleges, narrow lanes, students and quads dwindle into manageable sizes, to grow out of that ancient, protective micro society.

st michaels church tower oxford
From St Michaels Saxon tower oxford

A marathon of rejection slips

Rejection is a common encounter for most people: your budget plan or business proposal gets abandoned by the seniors, or a designer’s brightest idea is rejected by the client after many nights of hard work, or a man of quality turned down by a girl he loves.

For a writer, rejection slips are a part of writing life. The more you write, the keener you are to submit, the more you are likely to receive rejections. I haven’t worked out yet the mathematics behind all this, but presumably it is also counter-balanced by your talent, your relationships or connections with the publishers (not many writers are that connected with the publishers), the marketability of your texts or writing style, and the moods of the editors. Often, seeing publishing from a consumer’s point of view, gives us the illusion that bestsellers are a product of creative genius (alone).

Stephanie Meyer Twilight

If we take a step back, there is a value in collecting rejection slips: it is a testament to your perseverance and passion. There is a Chinese legend about an old man who struggles to move a mountain. Despite the folly of the idea, he manages to live up to his conviction, and his passion has touched the gods.

I have always admired people who manage to get to their destinies or goals in the shortest time feasible. I once came across a boss who said to me that he could easily change the colours of all his retail stores, if he wants to, overnight. Sometimes, it’s all about speed. However, I also feel that it is not always the case nor is it in a man’s best interest that a goal be best achieved as quickly as possible. As one collects more feedback along the way, there is the chance to create and revise, to take a step back and appreciate what one has produced, to reaffirm its worth and to keep going.

Sometimes one gets a line or two of handwritten notes from the editors, pinpointing what they like or not like, or comments on the styles. These are very hard to come by and they are treasured like limited edition books or stamps. Believe me, most of the editors are kind and even though they do not accept your work, they tend to give constructive advice that goes a long way in helping you sort out your weaknesses.

While I cannot speak for others, I have benefited from the marathon of rejection slips more than going to masterclasses or going on writing ‘holidays’, because the rejection comments are much more focused and relevant to my work, and are directly from the editors and publishers themselves (or at least, their editorial interns and assistants).

Of course, there are always the sweeter moments, an acceptance here and there, somewhere far off a victory won.

And if you think that this principle of rejection or managing rejection only applies to writers, you are quite mistaken. I have found a site (click here) which summarises the unpredictability in life and points out the ultimate value in hard work, especially in consistently hard work, no matter which field you are in. In an article published by New York Times in 2007, we can see that even literary heavyweights such as George Orwell, Nabokov and Kerouac had been repeatedly rejected: so why not you and me?

Remember, it took Edison 1,000 unsuccessful attempts before he came up with the perfect light bulb that brightens up our world.

The Guardian and me

I am having fun with my Guardian style book, which is a precious gift from someone.

A few of the entries are particularly inspiring, in some cases amusing ideologies.

Oxford comma

A comma before the final “and” in lists: straightforward ones (he had ham, eggs and chips) do not need one, but sometimes it can help the reader (he had cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea), and sometimes it is essential. Compare

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

Very: usually very redundant

Walkman: Walkmans, not Walkmen


Yo-yo Ma: cellist

Haagen-Daaz: American ice-cream; despite appearances, the name was made up to give a European cachet to a product emanating from the Bronx in New York City

Public schools are actually private schools, so that is what we should call them

Chicken tikka masala: Britain’s favourite dish, note that there is also an Italian dish called chicken marsala

Cummings, EE: US poet who, despite what many people think, used capitals in his signature

Frankenstein: the monster’s creator, not the monster

And I am tempted to add a few of my own riddles:

Tube: characterised by weekend engineering works. If you want to know what’s slow, try taking the green line

Red tape: something you come across when you apply for things

First class: a slightly more spacious seat for a much more expensive fare. Gives you better drinks and food, a slightly bigger TV, and better access to the loo.

Marks and Spencer: known for good quality underwear and a great food hall. Appealing to middle-class moms

Volcanic ash cloud: an unpredictable cloud that paralyses air traffic. What people associates with Iceland

iPad: a gadget for people who haven’t had enough of the computer screen (yet).

Bigoted: for usage, google search for Gordon Brown

Coffee break reading

I was rereading my automatic writing the other day and quite enjoyed it. Just a snippet to share here:

Nothing kills boredom this spectacular air conditioned smart suit finger drumming existence everyone waiting for a holiday amusing to have even a useless chat with colleagues and to spend some time alone in front of a photocopy machine knowing this is not just all in your head it is in everybodys everybodys just they are mum about it mum and dad don’t like that don’t you ever say you are bored it is a discipline life is a discipline a pattern a rigorous training a practice makes perfect but how can you ever sustain? No one can tell you that and you cannot blame them they have families they have what we call burdens they have promotions to care for and if you stay put long enough and pleasant and helpful to everyone you get to win the promotion like a lottery so you take another fair-trade caffeine dose and make the best of your situation and think of family of love of honour and possibly an apartment somewhere in the distance you scrabble for words you spell like the others you achieve and excel and manipulate your own thinking you are getting perfect you are making the world your oyster and the world smiles at your success approves of it yes approve and you think of mom and dad that is it you sail the world you watch a film all cowboys and rebels and machine guns and flashy cars and merry nights women with long legs you don’t have any of it you are surprised that you need something to relive you live in your measured ways you meet your partner after work they call everyone partners nowadays no love anymore no lover no boyfriend no girlfriend all obliterated all are social and virtual pals whom you don’t meet you chat you message you text you don’t like to see them in real life because you don’t like travelling by tube so smelly the sofa seats you wonder when they are last washed and so it’s just the screen you’re with day in day out the sun doesn’t get into the laptop you interact with yourself all that joy all that solitary entertainment and they sell computers like mad or ipad and ithis ithat you can choose laptop netbook webcam broadband anything can mobile anything can surf anything can skype anything just blog blog about it blog until you belch and regurgitate other people’s words copying is not a sin there is no plaigiarism anymore there’s nothing unhealthy about staying up for the night at all and you need is a dongle that sounds like a dolphin to me a swimming dophin but the London zoo tonight is already closed no one sees any animals no one pays for that kind of entertainment they pay for apps the little cute candy icons and you stare out of the office window looking at what you are doing from Monday to Friday and maybe some weekends as well all that talk about work life balance life work balance they give you a blackberry and call that a holiday and call it power and you cannot kill this shiny animal that beeps and beeps in your car in your shower in your kitchen when you talk to your partner no he is not my business partner just my partner oh this life this fantastic multimedia virtual game where everyone lives far away from everyone else and this is called space this is called privacy this is called seamless connectivity and we like the way we communicate or not communicate I remember with some fondness the way we used to go to the grad bar and shoot darts the musty smell the wet coasters used and reused and we reycle other poets world and dream of getting published and in the evenings we like to go out sometimes we print out all the dining vouchers and go for the high street the big chains the glossy stuff you can buy from the stores the sale is always on the sale that they mark up prices and mark them down and everyone wears the same copied from the same London fashion week which is all very exciting all that glitzy buzz skinny underdressed women doing stiletto walks on the platform blinded by camera flashes and if you are lucky enough you get to work for free where they call it an intern you call it free work and to pour coffee for everyone and to dress well and to smile and if you are lucky you get to stay like the sugary apprenticeship you can choose to work in fashion business which must be fun all those nice perks and handbags and this season must haves so you can even skip sleeping all the parties and gigs and cosmetics so different from the same old office where even gossips are the same and the secretaries the drab clothes the stale smell of papers and useless power points talk talk talk about teamwork oh rebranding oh streamlining and downsizing everything minus the profits and empowering about raising sales targets all that self-raising flour happening and then the next morning there is the sad news you read about Alexander mcqueen

Writing and research

Went to a free talk by Hanif Kureishi, author of The Buddha of Suburbia, The Black Album, Intimacy, Love in a Blue Time, The Body, Gabriel’s Gift, Midnight All Day, Something to Tell You and now the latest released The Collected Stories, at Foyles bookstore. It was a full house event.

Hanif kureishi collected stories

I read his first book Intimacy during university and it was one of the books that influenced me most. I was so taken aback by the rebellious voice. I found it thrilling to read. Reading is not a sedate or escapist activity, it is rebellious and highly uplifting.

Kureishi points out the need for research. Then there is also writing about families and love which need lesser research because all the time you live your life, you have been researching on these themes. Finding out more about your partner, your family members, your children. He said his kids said to him one day: “Dad, the problem with you is that you do not realise how much we hate you.” He has a brilliant way of capturing the readers and the audience.

He said we are all inspired by the way we love and hate our partners, and that those hours you spent in the kitchen arguing with your wife are real-life research. He points out that there must be a certain degree of understanding before you can write confidently about the subject. Fantasy is fine, but you do have to feel that you have the depth of insights and freshness of perspective before you can dive in. He said there are subjects that he cannot imagine writing, because of that reason.

Unsurprisingly he was also asked if he felt the need to disguise characters in his writings, since they might have to do with his closest people. He said that writing is not so much to expose other people’s stories but to make a good story. The judgment lies in what makes a good story. He tends to be more general in the use of other people’s story. I think it is an important area to think about for those being writers. Inevitably your knowledge about yourself and your close ones inform your way of thinking and creativity, but as Kureishi mentioned, there is no necessity to expose other people. The point is to project a voice of your own.

I find it curious the way writers connect. I see myself as a Chinese writer, and we are so different in terms of background, nationality, knowledge, career, language…yet when he spoke, I found no difficulty appreciating what he thinks.

To write or not to write

The Guardian Review last week featured an interview of popular authors on their personal dos and donts in writing. It’s amazing to know that, despite all talks about craftsmanship and narratives and structures and talents, the overriding principle is still one’s drive and perseverance. Perseverance in all things prevail.

I have extracted a few rules from the article which I really liked:

Margaret Atwood:

  • Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  • Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

Roddy Doyle

  • Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.
  • Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.
  • Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones.
  • Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.”  But then get back to work.

Helen Dunmore

  • Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.

Geoff Dyer

  • Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.
  • Do it every day. Make it a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.
  • But writing is all about perseverance. You’ve got to stick to it.

Anne Enright

  • The first 12 years are the worst.
  • The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
  • Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
  • Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
  • Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.
  • Try to be accurate about stuff.
  • Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

Richard Ford

  • Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
  • Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.
  • Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.

Jonathan Franzen

  • It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

Neil Gaiman

  • Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  • Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing.

PD James

  • Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
  • Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
  • Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

I love Anne Enright’s comments on a writer’s journey. The beginning is always hard. But once you get yourself started it is just a matter of continuing with it and sticking to your plans. It may not change you completely, you may not be terribly good at it, but certainly if you try hard and regularly enough, the whole experience changes you, the way you approach things, the way you develop your own perspective. People say writing is a therapy. It isn’t just a therapy, it is much more than that. It is a real test of perseverance. No one finds it natural to sit down in front of his/her desk for so long. It is not pleasant to ‘work’ like this, but there is a nourishing joy about being able to improve your writing by actually writing more and more: and sometimes I think it doesn’t matter what it is about – for me it can be editing a recipe, translating press releases, editing a newsletter or writing a feature article on a sports day, a food review, an insurance policy, anything that you can use summon your creative resources and turn it into your own story, something that you can claim as your own. That’s the real joy. This is not a satisfaction that money or status can bring.

As I see it, the dilemma of a writer is that there is always a fine difference between self-preserving confidence and destructive arrogance. You need a great deal of confidence to egg yourself on, to believe in your own product, even before you can actually conceive it. However being too smug about it will stifle your style.