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March 17, 2011

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Write your heart out

THREE-YEAR-OLD Hugo misbehaves at a suburban barbecue and gets a hard slap by an ill-tempered man named Harry, who is no relation to the boy. There's shock. Everything stops as the parents call the police to arrest Harry.

This is how Australian author Christos Tsiolkas opens his novel "The Slap," winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize. The vividly described smack and reactions by characters is spun into a nearly 500-page novel on multiculturalism in contemporary Australia. It's illustrated through a large cast of characters from the gathering and filled with detailed descriptions of their tensions, relations, marriages and families.

The novel contains so many dramatic scenes that it has been adapted into a television series that will be screened later this year.

Tsiolkas, the child of Greek immigrants, addressed the Shanghai Literary Festival, which ends Sunday, along with other up-and-coming authors whose works can be seen on the screen or stage.

Canadian Vincent Lam is a part-time writer and full-time emergency room physician, whose critically acclaimed short story collection "Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures" was made into an eight-episode TV series last year.

And American playwright Tommy Nohilly, both an ex-marine and 17-year night security guard at New York University, finally got a play produced off-Broadway, "Blood from a Stone." The story of a dysfunctional working class family starred Ethan Hawke, Gordon Clapp and Thomas Guiry when it opened in January.


A small incident in a garden inspired "The Slap," and the momentous incident that begins the novel is based on a true experience of the Melbourne-based second-generation of Greek immigrants.

He was at a picnic at his parents' place and a 3-year-old child kept misbehaving. Tsiolkas' mother went over to the child, lightly touched him and asked him to stop.

"There was no violence at all like that in the book, it was very slight," Tsiolkas recalls.

The 3-year-old turned to the author's mother and said, "Nobody has the right to put their hands on my body without my permission." Everybody was laughing.

The 45-year-old author says his mother, who emigrated from rural Greece, would herself have been slapped and punished as a girl if she even dared look at a boy, while this Australian child grew up in an entirely different environment.

In just one generation, society changed enormously.

"For a lot of the kids I grew up with in our community, there is a sense of living in two worlds, between the traditional values that your parents brought from another culture and the very different culture you are living in every day," he recalls.

In "The Slap," Tsiolkas turns the scene with the child into a violent one that affects the lives of the eight people at the picnic. Each tells about the slap from his or her own perspective.

"One of my favorite films is 'Rashomon' (set in medieval Japan in which each character relates the same rape and murder), from which I was inspired for the structure of 'The Slap'," he says.

The characters include the barbecue host Hector, cousin to the child's slapper assailant Harry; are both sons of Greek immigrants. Hector's wife Aisha, an Indian-Australian vet veterinarian, is good friends with Rosie, the obnoxious child's mother.

The novel follows Harry's arrest, the police investigation, court trial, negotiations among relatives and friends, and reveals unresolved cultural and class tensions in modern Australia.

Physician writer

For writer-and-physician Vincent Lam, there was never a choice between being a writer or a doctor. From early on, he knew he wanted to write and he needed a job.

"A lot of writers I admired had done things in the world before they started writing, such as Peter Carey or Earnest Hemingway. They had a lot of interesting experiences in addition to writing, which also helped their writings," Lam tells Shanghai Daily. "So I wanted to choose a job where I could learn about people, hence a doctor. It was a simple thought process."

Although he is a full-time emergency room physician, the 37-year-old doctor considers the schedule ideal for writing. He stays extremely focused during his shift, but when it's over, his responsibility ends and he's clear to write.

"It actually is easier to customize my time and possible to continue writing," he explains.

"Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures," which won Lam the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, is based on his experiences in medical school and emergency rooms.

Only one story, "A Long Migration," is entirely biographical, about his grandfather.

The stories follow four doctors - Fitzgerald, Ming, Chen and Sri - in their early careers from medical schools to medical practice. They work together, argue, make mistakes, learn and care for their patients. Lam projects a part of himself into each character, he says.

"They represent me at different days or moments, and I have experienced emotionally of what all of them have gone through. For example, Fitzgerald is more a passionate character and Ming is often the empirical and scientific one," he says. In the TV drama the character Chen represents the author who records their stories in his leisure time.


When 42-year-old graveyard shift guard Tommy Nohilly started the creative process of "Blood From A Stone," he had Gordon Clapp in mind to play the father.

The heavy ex-Marine worked on it between his auditions for crime film bit parts and shifts as a night guard at New York University. He later returned to college and also got a place in Columbia University's play writing program. "Blood" was his thesis play. In January, it opened off-Broadway.

Clapp, together with Ethan Hawke, Becky Ann Baker, Thomas Guiry and Natasha Lyonne took the play about a troubled working-class family to stage, under direction of Scott Elliott.

The semi-autobiographical work follows the deterioration of the dysfunctional working-class family of prodigal Travis, an ex-Marine, who tries in vain to save it.

Nohilly has also worked as waiter, bouncer and bartender, and he has been writing, poems, short stories and plays. Students at the dorm where he worked wondered at the strange guard reading Shakespeare.

"New York was quite different then. It was more artistic, with everyone coming there with a dream to be accomplished. And it was possible to make a living on the side. The whole atmosphere made you think it was possible. I never ever thought about quitting writing at all. But now, it has become more career-oriented and less fun," he says.

"I didn't have many choices of jobs, because I wanted to leave the day time for auditions, so night shift security guard was a really good choice.

"I always have the feeling that I'm writing with my back against the wall," says Nohilly. "I have to write to change my life, so it is nonsense to talk about giving up."


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