Ubudwriters – In Conversation with Chris Wood, Editor of Asia Literary Review By Uma Anyar

“We want to offer a glimpse of Asia through writing, the best of both established names and a new generation of writers.” Chris Wood

Time magazine has praised Asia Literary Review [ALR] as a strong new international publication dedicated to Asia. Filipino author, Miguel Syjuco said, “It has opened up a channel, like the Panama Canal” for writers. During the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, I had the pleasure of talking with Chris Wood and learning more about ALR and the state of the Asian publishing scene. Listen in.

What is the most important aspect of any writers’ festival for you as editor of ALR?

I see festivals as a platform from which to attract Asian writers to our pages. I try to get the word out that there is a publication in Asia that is devoted to writing from the region and allows Asian writers to be read in English and provides those writers with an international readership. We publish a wide range of genres; including poetry, short fiction, memoir, reportage and even photography, documentary photography. We sponsor a number of writer’s festival including the Hong Kong festival where ALR is based, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Japura and Ubud.

What is different about ALR from other literary magazines?

The whole idea behind ALR is that it be an eclectic collection of writings from a very diverse region. There isn’t anything in the region that is on the scale that ALR is on. It grew out of a small literary journal called Dim Sum incepted by Nuri Vittachi. In the beginning it was a small local Hong Kong journal. Then Nuri became involved with Ilyas Khan, a Hong Kong supporter of the arts, and it was Ilyas who had the vision to create an international showcase for writers from the Asian region. He is friends with a number of well known writers such as Gore Vidal as well as a great collector. He has one of the best early collections of Henry James in the world. Ilya Khan decided it was time to rename the journal to Asia Literary Review, hire a full time editor and staff and make it an internationally distributed publication.

How did you become ALR editor?

From 2005 to 2007, I was the literary editor of the South China Moon Morning Post, the biggest newspaper, in English, in the region. This position brought me much closer to Asian writing than when I was a journalist in London. As literary editor I learned a lot about Asian writing and connected with many writers. During this period several of the big publishing houses, Random House and Penguin Books opened offices in Beijing and Pan Macmillan set up shop in Hong Kong. They came to Asia hoping to tap into the China market, but expanded their interests to include Taiwan and Korea, which have very vibrant literary scenes. Before this it was impossible to find an international publisher in Asia. But, now an infrastructure is developing for Asian writing in English. The time seemed right to create a magazine in English. So, from humble beginning and in just two years you now can buy ALR in Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, United States, China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and India. At the moment we have a readership of about 16,000 and we publish quarterly.

What is Asian writing?

The answer is to that question is a series of questions. How should we define Asian literature? Is all literature written in Asia, Asian? How do you define Asia? Do you stop at Constantinople or Australia? Where does Southeast Asia fit in? ALR is a project setting out to try and understand what Asian writing is in a global economic world. It publishes translations and our editors’ work with writers to produce the best possible writing. The magazine has struck a cord. We run translated stories from Malaysia, Indonesia and China. Millions of Asian and especially Chinese students study outside China and read in English. There is a yearning to read stories, set in their own cities; they want their experiences reflected back but in English.

Is there a distinct Asian voice you can identify?

The great diversity of experiences and the numerous languages in the region make it almost impossible to define Asian literature or identify a specific Asian voice. This is another reason ALR insists on being eclectic and inclusive.

Online literary magazines have become very popular. Will electronic media replace books altogether and what do you think is the best way to publish?

We now have a website and I am very happy with it. But, let me back up and recount some history. The initial idea for ALR was always that it would be a print journal. Actually, there was a certain amount of resistance to the idea that there should be a website because it was felt that good literature is best served in a print format. I guess this comes from the novel itself and how people like to read long involved stories. Personally, I think literature belongs in books.

This is a very important point, but I’m afraid that all the other concerns, paper costs, ecological issues, and distribution costs will over ride choice of reading styles. Do you agree?

The publishing format question is a major concern in the newspaper and journalism world. They are all gravelling with how they can reinvent themselves in the new media world? Because much of what they produce can be read in sound – bites, blogs, etc – but longer more intricate and richer writing just doesn’t lend itself to the computer screen format. There is something endlessly romantic in reading a real book. It feels more personal, more intimate. I can’t imagine a world in which literature is read solely on line. It doesn’t work as well for a reader who wants to engage with literature and a writer’s voice. There is a great fear in the publishing world. They are not ready to leave the book behind. If it could be replaced satisfactorily everyone would be happy.

But www.asialiteraryreview.com already exists.

Yes, and if you subscribe to the website you will be getting the printed journal as well, because we believe, it is the best way for a reader to encounter the printed word.