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November 22, 2009

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Tapping into the lives of migrants

COLM Toibin is a multi-award winning author and journalist from Enniscorthy, Ireland. He has written 20 works of fiction and non-fiction exploring Irish society, living abroad, and identity, amongst other themes.

He was in Shanghai recently for the Chinese publication of his latest acclaimed novel "Brooklyn" about an Irish woman emigrating to America.

He was also one of the judges of the Man Asian Literary Prize which aims to "bring exciting new Asian authors to the attention of the world literary community."

Q: How did the book "Brooklyn" come about?

A: In my small town everybody talked about each other's stories. I overheard this story back in 1967 as a conversation between a house guest and my mother. I was a child then, but it always stayed in my mind and became a short story first 30 years later, and now this novel -- so you should never let children listen in on adult conversations!

Q: Why do you think "Brooklyn" will appeal to Chinese audiences?

A: Immigration is happening on a massive scale in China. It is also happening in India, and before that in the United States. It's really the big story of the last 50 years. It's the process of being separated from your original place, and the place where your parents and grandfathers are from.

Q: There are many foreign expats in China. What is the book's take on the expat experience?

A: I think every expat can relate to homesickness. It's funny but you may feel excited about a new place but suddenly a taste, a smell or letter will remind you of home. Also expats and immigrants are alone. In the book the protagonist Eilis overcomes homesickness because she has no choice -- if she loses her job she's out on the street. Expats learn to be very resilient.

Q: Why does living abroad feature so much in your works?

A: At age 20 I went to live in Barcelona from Ireland -- it was an enormous cultural and geographical change. It's fascinating and shocked me into writing. Living abroad gives people dual personalities, it makes you alone. Novels are uniquely suited to exploring that gap. Writers are always looking for what's missing, that's why they often deal with losers and loners. Masters of the universe are for cartoonists.

Q: Another theme you go back to is personal freedom versus family duty. Why is that interesting to you?

A: I grew up in a very conservative country with a lot of rules, rules we didn't even realize existed until they disappeared one by one. I'm interested in the power of silence, and people keeping their opinions to themselves. It makes a very rich internal life which no one else can know -- but the novel can explore.

Q: How does the Man Asia Literary Prize work?

A: I'm one of three judges from all over the world -- the other two are American of Asian heritage, and an Indian living abroad. The winner, Chinese writer Su Tong for his novel "The Boat to Redemption," was announced this week. We are independent judges without any commercial interest in the books which help readers choose amongst the countless books out there.

Q: What are you looking for in the winning entry?

A: It's simply what the book does to me -- it's a conversation and in many ways the book chooses me. I really can't put any criteria into words. I can't reveal too much, but the process is no different if I'm judging a book in Asia or in the West. There's really more differences between rich and poor nowadays than East and West.


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