Nury Vittachi: "I am an Earthling"

December 2008 -

In an interview you once said you and mister Wong don’t have the same motivation. What motivates you? And him?
"Mister Wong is the dark side of the Asian personality. Unlike his Western partner, who is young, politically correct and vegetarian, he is old, sexist, racist, and likes to eat small animals, alive if possible. He thinks he is motivated by money, and he is largely right. But his own writings, chunks of which are reproduced in my books, reveal that he is in touch with deeper values. As for me, I am motivated by a desire to fix an anomaly. Most of the world’s consumers are in the east, but almost all the world’s popular culture comes from the west. A little more balance will benefit both sides. Also, because of my family situation – I am a South Asian man with a European wife, American brothers and Chinese children – I feel that destiny has given me the job of breaking down barriers using laughter and entertainment."


What's more important to you: to show the west an Asian version of reality or to show Asia her own reality?
"I don't really divide my audience into east and west. My books sell well in Europe, Asia and Australia, etc, I'm pleased to say. I believe all of us, eastern and western, will benefit from knowing more about the real Asia, which looks set to dominate certain aspects of life on Earth out of sheer numbers. I want to show Westerners that Asians are not scary and illogical and impossible to understand—and give Asians the same lesson about Westerners. The west gives the east so much – much of the world's greatest literature, music, and movies. But there are two things the east does better than the west. First, our food is way better than yours, no question about it. Second, we are better at things of the spirit – feng shui, meditation, yoga, etc."

You are considered as a 'Sri Lankan author' still you left your country as a little child. How do you see yourself?
"I am an Earthling. I was born on planet Earth and still spend most of my time here. When I am asked what race I am, I say, human. My family has been nicknamed by the Hong Kong press as 'the Benettons' because we are all different colors, like the Benetton posters."

You're one of the judges of the Australia Asia Literary Award. How important is this prize and are other book prizes for Asia?
"This is the only major book prize in Asia, worth more than US$100,000. There are other prizes, but they are much smaller. I am thrilled that the sponsors recognize the importance of literature in this way. Also, I like the fact that it is a modern prize – it is open to computer-screen books (big in China) and mobile phone stories (big in Japan)."

You give literature classes via internet and live. Did they already lead to successful books?
"Many of my writing students get jobs in creative fields. But of course, they tend to be Asian-style creative fields. Writing novels in the Western sense is simply not seen as a real profession in Asia. Some of my students write books, but more go into movies and game design."

What do you consider as characteristic for the Asian style of writing?
"This is a huge question! But to answer it briefly, Western novels (and movies) have a certain story shape which can be traced all the way back to Aristotle. They are united by the way the story grows, and by the placing of the climax, and by the moral underpinnings of the protagonist, and by other factors which they share. The typical classic Asian story is quite different. Stories often have a huge number of 'main' characters, and there are a great many self-contained episodes adding up to a single story. Also, the moral lesson of the story is often ambiguous. Asian stories often have a ‘bracelet’ structure – many separate gems which can be appreciated alone, but if you read them in the right order, you find a thread runs through them."

There are different stories going around about your participation in the Hong Kong Litfest and the Man Asia Literary Prize. What’s your story?
"It's funny. Whenever you start a creative project, business people say ‘It'll never work'. But then you press ahead, and, lo and behold, it becomes obvious that it really does work! Then suddenly the business people want to take over. This happens all the time. The two projects you mention actually turned out well. The Hong Kong Litfest had grown to a good size when business people took over and pushed me out. No problem – I immediately got lots of invitations to act as a consultant to other literary festivals all over Asia. Same with the Man Asian Literary Prize. I spent years knocking on doors to get that going, and I conceptualised the final design of the prize and gave a speech to the Man Booker board to get the money for it. As soon as they said yes, once more the business people took over and pushed me out. No problem. I was immediately invited to help with another prize, which is ten times the size. Life is too short to have regrets! I just move on to the next thing. Someone once called me a 'firestarter'. I get projects going – festivals, publishing houses, columns, writing groups, prizes, journals – and then leave them with other people, while I go to light fires in other dark spots. I quite liked that analogy, although it makes me sound a bit more dangerous than I am!"

Participation Vittachi to Winternachten:
Travellers Tales. Conversation with the Indonesian author Laksmi Pamuntjak about stereotypes about Asia in western countries and vice versa. Kleine zaal Friday 16 January 8.10 – 9.00 p.m.
Metamorphoses. Conversation with Youssouf Amine Elalamy and Gündüz Vassaf about metamorphoses in literature. Filmhuis 7, Friday 16 January 10.10 – 11.00 p.m.