Wena Poon Talks Bull!

July 20, 2010

Source: Salt Publishing

On 12 July 2010, writer Wena Poon launched her new novel Alex y Robert at the London Literature Festival. Just this week, she heard that the book would be serialised by London BBC Radio for its programme Books at Bedtime. Poon is a Singapore-born American author whose works include Lions in Winter (2007), The Proper Care of Foxes (2009), and The Biophilia Omnibus (2009). Winner of the 2010 Willesden Herald Prize, she has also been nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award twice and shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize and the Malaysia Readers’ Choice Awards.

Gweek Culture is honoured to be the selected first stop of Poon’s virtual book tour outside of London and to carry the first interview on Alex y Robert anywhere in the world! Alex y Robert is a story of the grandchildren of two famous Spanish matadors who had died in the same year of 1959. Alejandra is a young American woman who seeks to become a matador while Roberto is a star Spanish bullfighter she recruits to help her. Part-travel adventure and part-cultural critique, Alex y Robert is a witty modern fable of man’s complex relationship with animals and a tale of a new generation’s take on an ancient and controversial spectacle.

GWEEK: So Wena, who was your inspiration for Alex y Robert?

POON: I was inspired by the spirit and gusto of the teenage girl and boy matadors in Spain and France today. They’re called novilleros, they’re the ones who haven’t yet made it to professional matador status. Many of these kids are from working class backgrounds, not very highly educated – success in the bullring is their one shot at fame and fortune, and sometimes they pay for it with their life and limb. It’s a bit like boxing or wrestling.

I went to Spain and interviewed some young bullfighters, including a really cute little 10 year old bullfighter-in-training. He’s in one of my Alex y Robert YouTube videos, you can see him here: Wena Poon in Spain, Talking about her Novel: Alex y Robert.

The bullfighters I met have probably never spoken to an Asian person before. I can tell from their faces that they probably all thought I was insane, asking them all these weird questions (“how do you wash your suit once it gets blood on it? Can it be dry-cleaned?”). I want to know the smallest details so that my story is authentic. Luckily, I am also a freelance journalist so I can be very, as we say in Mandarin, hou lianpi (thick-skinned).

GWEEK: How is your interest in bullfighting different from Ernest Hemingway’s?

POON: I think Hemingway is so passé! Can you believe even today there are hoards of American college kids who descend upon Spain and bullfights clutching his novels? His depiction of Spain is 60, 70 years old. Imagine an American tourist coming to Singapore today, expecting us to be like the Singapore from a 1940s novel. This kind of attitude drives the Spanish insane. As Singaporeans, we can probably sympathise because the Western media does that to us sometimes.

The more I read Hemingway’s books as background research for Alex y Robert, the more I asked myself, “Why is he so unappealing to me as a modern young woman? Can I write about bullfighting, but in a way that makes sense to myself and young people my generation?”

To me as an artist, there is no point spending so much time doing something that has already been done. So I give you 21st-century bullfighting, as it exists now. In one scene, I give you a Twitter feed of all the young fans shouting, gossiping, telling you what is happening. It’s like you’re really there!

I talked about this during my London Literature Festival book launch, and the LitFest bloggers did a report called Wena Poon: Chinese People in Strange Places. I love it! By the way, some Singaporeans and Malaysians studying in London, who had read Lions in Winter, came to the London launch, so cool! Thanks for your support you guys!

Source: Wena Poon

GWEEK: Exactly what do you have against bulls?

POON: Nothing! I am an animal lover, a Buddhist and born in the year of the Ox, so embarking on this book is quite traumatic for me. But I overcame my cultural prejudices to understand the theory and practice of Spanish bullfighting. It is more complicated than it appears. I still don’t understand most of it despite a year’s worth of field research. Some of the bullfighting manuals are so technical, full of complicated, mysterious diagrams, that they remind me of those lost, mythical swordfighting manuals that swordsmen search for in wuxia xiaoshuo.

GWEEK: But what does bull-fighting represent for it to be such a central subject matter? What does it mean to your characters?

POON: Bullfighting is about a lot of things, but the most interesting thing to me as an artist is that it’s about spectacle and death. People say it’s cruel and primitive because it’s about torturing and killing bulls, but actually it’s much worse. To me, bullfighting is also about human sacrifice. Greek mythology and the Bible are full of stories of human sacrifices, it’s very disturbing but also very poignant. Witch trials throughout Europe are also a form of human sacrifice. I’m interested in the dark side of human character.

In the bullfight, the bull and the man are both being sacrificed by spectators, which represent their community and family. The man usually triumphs. My theory is that the bullfighter is, among many other symbols, our replacement Christ. We messed up and executed Jesus Christ by mistake, so we’re trying to have a second go at it by recreating and worshipping our hero-philosopher-warrior-king and sending him to face the archetypal Beast. He usually wins, so we scream and cheer in admiration and we love him completely like little children. Sometimes he gets gored and dies, and we are bereft and lost, like orphans.

Death from a goring by bull’s horn is very symbolic, it’s like Christ being crucified, or Saint Sebastian being pierced by arrows. Bullfighters are very, very Catholic. Roberto, the matador in the novel, wears saints charms around his wrist – they really do in real life. In every bullring there is a chapel in which they pray before they go into the ring. There is a Spanish phrase called “being in the chapel”, it’s a bit like our Mandarin idiom lingshi bao fuojiao (hugging Buddha’s leg at the last minute), it means praying hard before a big test.

For Alex, bullfighting is her way of overcoming her existentialist horror at being orphaned, because her parents died in a horrible car crash. For Roberto, bullfighting is purely for the sake of pleasing his parents, and living up to the hopes of his hometown. I hope all this makes sense. I’m in Scotland and just had haggis with whisky sauce, and a glass of wine, and doing this interview, so I’m a bit woozy.

Source: Wena Poon

GWEEK: I’m going to ask you about “perception problems”. What are the challenges of writing between cultures? How do you aim to overcome them?

POON: I was commissioned to write this Spanish novel but I couldn’t speak Spanish. I spoke French but that does not help. I also felt very self-conscious – perhaps unnecessarily so – about going to Spain and interviewing Spanish people, through friends who translated – about their ancient customs. Very kaypoh, you know. I often dislike foreigners barging into my own culture and trying to demystify us, so I was so embarrassed that I might be perceived to be doing the same thing.

I think half of them got what I was trying to do – dispelling stereotypes about bullfighting – but the other half, because of the language barrier, probably assumed I was just another loser Hemingway wannabe and that I’d never understand them or their customs. I felt very bad that they never got to know what my artistic intentions were. They would never read Alex y Robert, either, unless it is translated into Spanish.

We are all human beings, but sometimes the ethnic chasms that divide us seem insurmountable. Alex y Robert, and a lot of my other fiction books, is about the pity of this condition, and my hope that occasionally we can transcend these limitations.

GWEEK: I can’t find this @#$!%% book. Where can Singaporeans and Malaysians get this book now?

POON: Three ways:

1. The easiest way is to buy online with a credit card. Visit the Salt Publishing webpage, you can read the first 25 pages for free, listen to me reading a chapter, and watch a funny video. Try before you buy! You can then click on the UK bookstore on this link, which will ship worldwide. A 20% discount off cover price is offered when you buy direct from Salt Publishing.

2. You can also ask your local bookstore (like BooksActually or Kinokuniya) to order copies of the book by citing this ISBN number: 9781844717699. Salt’s distributors are worldwide and will send to any bookstore.

3. On 18 November 2010, I will be reading at Singapore’s BooksActually, and they will have limited copies available for sale, if you can wait that long.

I am always happy to meet readers and sign books, so sign up on my Facebook Fan Page and I’ll announce whenever I am reading in any city in the world. Thanks for your support! For critics reviews, podcasts, photos, YouTube videos, and links to Facebook Fan Page, go to my website.

GWEEK: Wena, thanks for being so generous with your time and thoughts. I wish you the very best in your creative pursuits! Don’t you dare stop writing!

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3 Responses to “Wena Poon Talks Bull!”

  1. Rui Says:

    hey, there’s this great book by AL Kennedy, ‘On Bullfighting’. anyone here read it?

  2. Gweek Says:

    Nobody’s here.

  3. Wena Says:

    Yes I did. She has heard of my novel. I acknowledge her “On Bullfighting” in my novel because I read it for research. It’s a good book.


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