Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sydney Morning Herald calls "Destination Saigon" one of the most outstanding travelogues of the year

Thanks to the wonderful Belinda Jackson for singling out Destination Saigon as one of 2010's best travelogues in last weekend's SMH Traveller. She has certainly put me in some elevated company! Here's what she has to say:

"Destination Saigon, Walter Mason (Allen & Unwin, $24.99)

Love with a Vietnamese man eventually led to a love of Vietnam - but this is no rosy affair. Inspired by several prolonged stays, including stints in rural monasteries and language studies in Ho Chi Minh City, Cabramatta local Mason is a large Caucasian man and therefore a source of wonder and affectionate groping among the dense crowds of smaller-statured Vietnamese. Perched on the back of a motorbike behind a tiny monk friend, he's also a rich source for Vietnamese humour ("Check out skinny Minnie on the back of that bike!") or the ministrations of cafe owners, who bring out extra-strong chairs when he darkens their doorsteps."

FYI, the other titles she likes are:

Is That Thing Diesel?, Paul Carter (Allen & Unwin, $24.99)

A Food Lover's Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Dee Nolan (Penguin Lantern, $100)

A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road, Christopher Aslan Alexander (Icon Books, Allen & Unwin, $22.99)

Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, Seth Stevenson (HarperCollins, $35)

Three in a Bed in the Med, Ann Rickard (Radge Publishing, $24.95)

A Moveable Feast, editor Don George (Lonely Planet, $29.99)

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple (Allen & Unwin, $35)

Letters from the Caribbean, Andrea & Ian Treleaven (New Holland, $29.95)

From Here to There: A Father and Son Roadtrip Adventure from Melbourne to London, Jon Faine & Jack Faine (ABC Books, $39.99)

That should provide you with something of a reading list for the holidays, and good to see that the most-represented publisher is my very own, Allen & Unwin.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Destination Saigon on the Beach

Summer approaches, gentle readers, and what better entertainment to take to the beach than a copy of Destination Saigon, available at all good bookstores.
My friend Leonard was convalescing recently, and he found the healing process was speeded up significantly by a constant perusal of Destination Saigon.
This wonderful photo proves it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Inner West Courier: Newtown Festival

Chance to hear writers speak volumes at Newtown Festival
Inner West Courier, 11th November 2010

STORIES from across the globe are being shared at the Newtown Festival’s Writers’ Tent this Sunday.

Presented by Newtown book store Better Read Than Dead, speakers will be discussing fiction, crime, social responsibilities, the world and politics.

Organiser Derek Dryden said they’re back for the seventh year as it’s the shop’s literary gift to the readers of Newtown.

“There’s authors to make you think, authors who will amuse you and plenty of authors who will simply entertain, but most of all it’s fun,” he said.

“It’s not the Miles Franklin or the Premier’s Literary Awards, it’s a group of authors having a fun day out at a great festival.”

Cabramatta travel writer Walter Mason will be in conversation with his publisher Maggie Hamilton at the tent about his latest book Destination Saigon.

“It’s very prestigious and it’s a tremendous privilege (to be part of the festival) as an author as Newtown is my readership,” he said.

Mason spent four months travelling from the south to the north of Vietnam to see the countryside, discover religions, and experience the culture and humanity of the people.

“I fell in love with it the first time I went there in ‘94 and have been back 11 times in 16 years,” he said.

Mason said the book is about friendships more than travelling and the experience of the people.

He said one of his favourite experiences was visiting a friend, who is a monk, who took him to stay at a temple on an ocean cliff. “Every night, with his fisherman friends, they would say a prayer for me and the people of Australia,” he said.

“I thought that was such an amazing gesture because they didn’t know me, they didn’t have too, but I felt so included.”

Mason will not only speaking about Destination Saigon, but will also be speaking about the writing process for all budding authors in the audience.

Mason said he’s looking forward to seeing the two speakers he has been placed between, Geesche Jacobsen speaking about crime and political commentator Annabel Crabb.

Mason will fly to Cambodia in a couple of weeks to start a new adventure and write his second travel book.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Vietnamese Kitsch: Lacquered Religious Pictures

When I first visited Vietnam in the mid 90s, lacquerware was just about the only handicraft item available. It was sold everywhere and lacquer factories were ubiquitous. These were Dickensian institutions, with small, thin boys, their hands and arms blackened with lacquer, toiling away in hot warehouses with sad faces. It was an old-fashioned, labour-intensive process.
Ten years later Vietnamese lacquerware became ubiquitous - not the traditional black stuff with inlaid gold and mother-of-pearl in traditional designs, but groovy rice bowls, trays and jewellery boxes. You could buy them anywhere, from Newtown to Nanjing. Indeed, even now when you go shopping for handicrafts in China a great many of the items available come from Vietnam.
Last time I was in Vietnam, however, lacquer seemed to be distinctly out of fashion. The brighly coloured, more modern items were still in evidence,but the traditional boxes and paintings had almost entirely disappeared.
What had cropped up instead were lacquered religious pictures, available very cheaply at temple and church gift shops. I bought this wonderful image of Di Lac Phat (Maitreya Buddha) at Phap Hoa Temple, and I used to hang it in my office. My friends at work called it "The Gay Buddha" - and I can kind of see what they meant.
I am a sucker for this kind of thing - I love religious imagery at the best of times - the more gaudy, the better.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nuns Chopping Firewood, Ho Chi Minh City

I found this beautiful old photo that I took back in 1996.
I don't remember where this particular nunnery was, but it was somewhere in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City. It was in a side street, and by chance I was riding past in a cyclo and I got the driver to stop so I could check out the temple. When I peered in through the closed gate I saw the nuns hard at work chopping firewood. One of them let me in to the courtyard, and they all giggled as I photographed them at their hard, hot work. One of the sisters put on a proper outer robe and took me into the prayer hall so I could pay my respects to the Buddha.
In Destination Saigon I write about this industriousness much in evidence in nunneries in Vietnam. Traditionally, women's communities have attracted less lay support than men's, and so the nuns have always relied on some form of industry to keep their temples going. The chopping and selling of firewood is quite unusual work - though I do know of a men's community in Phu Nhuan who have a full-scale lumberyard in operation! Nunneries more typically manufacture incense, produce vegetarian delicacies for re-sale, make rosaries, sew religious clothing, produce and copy Buddhist CDs and DVDs and operate vegetarian restaurants. Ironically, this has seen women's communities grow prosperous, particularly in the bigger cities.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tinh Xa Ngoc Huong - Hue

One of my favourite places in Hue is the sleepy and little-visited monastery in the Old City called Tinh Xa Ngoc Huong.

It is situated on an island, and legend has it that this was once the site of the emperor's library. I'm not sure how it came to be held by the Tang Gia Khat Si, the indigenous mendicant Buddhist order, but they still have it, and the only way to get to it is via a long, narrow cement bridge over a lake. The monastery sits all on its own on the little island in the middle, quite decrepit and rarely attended.

It's a glorious little piece of old Vietnam.
I have something of an histoire with the temple. Back in 1996 I was a devout young Buddhist travelling Vietnam in the company of an eccentric Australian-Vietnamese monk who had recently ordained in the order. You must understand that the Khat Si, the indigenous Buddhist order, is still very much a religious minority in Vietnam, and is looked down upon by those who are part of the more established Mahayana mainstream. The little monastery in Hue represented at that time the order's northernmost outpost, and I'm sorry to report it wasn't doing well. It was run by an exceedingly curmudgeonly old monk who terrorised the younger monks, the temple staff and any lay-person brave enough to visit.
I had been instructed to go to the temple and stay for a while, and as soon as I arrived the old monk turned me into his personal ATM and part-time slave. I had to take him to the dentist (and pay for it), go shopping at the market for better quality food than they were used to (the temple was terribly poor), hang around all day for prayer sessions (which were often cancelled because they were all so lazy), and fend off the troops of beggars who would come scooting over the footbridge when they heard there was a foreigner there.
On days when the old monk's teeth were hurting (and he did suffer terribly, the poor old fellow) a big roll of razor wire would be tossed across the footbridge and nobody would be allowed in or out. We would skulk quietly around the damp, filthy temple and wait for the mealtimes. The temple employed a single servant, a rough-voiced, sullen midget whose gender was completely impossible to guess. After a couple of weeks I still had no idea. This poor person was screamed at, berated and occasionally hit by the old monk in his fury at various incomprehensible offences.
Apart from beggars, no-one at all came for prayer services. The good Buddhists of Hue were largely orthodox in their observance, and had no interest in the strange little cult occupying such a picturesque location. Oddly, an order of nuns belonging to the same sect lived a block away, and the good sisters kept a ship-shape temple. They made incense which they sold all over the country, and their prayer hall was gleaming and constantly being renovated and enlarged. Ours was literally rotting away, and parts were quite dangerous. The monks refused to engage in any type of commerce because the strict rules of the Order forbade it. So they festered in the most miserable poverty, relying on the kindness of the nuns who would advance them money occasionally.
When I was last in Hue I visited the Tinh Xa once again, and was surprised to see that a number of changes had been made. The place was looking positively respectable. The old footbridge had been replaced with a much wider and sturdier model.

The buildings had all been re-rendered and freshly painted.

Still, the whole place was locked up, and the only monk I saw was someone I didn't recognise.
I thought of dropping by the monks' quarters and asking after the old man, but I was with friends, and they were spooked by the place. "Why on earth would you want to come visiting a damp old dump like this?" asked my Vietnamese friend, clearly unimpressed by the romantic surroundings.
The prayer hall was locked, so I stood outside and peered in at the statue of the Patriarch and said a quick, perfunctory prayer. I remembered the old monk's teeth, the poor midget who cooked the dreadful meals, and the lines of sad beggars and neer-do-wells who would visit me day after day with their sad stories.
I blessed them all, and I went back to my hotel.


Tinh Xa Ngoc Huong
Le Van Huu St
Old City, Hue, Vietnam

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Inspired Living stand at the Sydney Mind Body Spirit Festival

A lot of people don't realise that Destination Saigon comes out under the Inspired Living imprint at Allen & Unwin.
Inspired Living is the MBS imprint that is the brainchild of my publisher and friend Maggie Hamilton - a wonderful woman and successful author in her own right.
This year Inspired Living has its own stand at the Sydney Mind Body Spirit Festival, and I was their first author of the rank, manning the stall, handing out pamphlets, signing books and providing a splash of D-List celebrity. I'm so proud to be associated with such a remarkable list of Australian authors, all of them inspiring people doing amazing work.

The Allen and Unwin team manning the stall.

Maggie Hamilton and I.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Shrine to the Monastic Ancestors - Phap Bao Temple - Sydney

In most Vietnamese Buddhist temples there is a shrine to the monastic ancestors. Normally situated directly behind the main shrine, or in an ante-chamber, these are shrines dedicated to the elder monks and nuns whose lineage the temple monks now represent. Commonly, most of these shrines will contain an image of Bodhidharma, who most Vietnamese Mahayana monks consider their common ancestor. It is also not uncommon to find a photograph of the revered Vietnamese Buddhist Martyr Thich Quang Duc, whose example continues to inspire the Buddhist clergy across every shade of the political spectrum.

These are some images from the Shrine to Monastic Ancestors at Phap Bao Temple near Cabramatta. To find this shrine you have to duck beneath the large statue of the Buddha in the main hall.
The photographs, paintings and calligraphed names of the Patriarchs are quite touching, and I often wonder if anyone at the temple really knows who they all are. I suppose someone must know, in order to have been able to assemble the shrine in the first place.
When a monk joins the religious life he leaves his birth family and joins instead the new family of the Buddha. He abandons all of his old names and takes on the name "Thich" - the first part of Sakyamuni Buddha's name in Vietnamese. And, just as he would have offered prayers and memorials to an ancestor shrine at a private home (and just about every home has one in Vietnam), so he switches his affiliation to this new set of mysterious ancestors, the men (or women, if it is a nun) who represent that particular Buddhist lineage.
It is a rich and fascinating area, and one which I'd like to study more, though I always find it awkward to ask specific questions about the people on the shrines - it seems kind of crass.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Books About Vietnamese Buddhism

There is remarkably little in English about Vietnamese Buddhism.
Of course, I am excepting here the vast body of work of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has almost single-handedly introduced Vietnam's distinct version of Mahayana Buddhism to the world. But so much of his writing is about Buddhist doctrine and practice, and is intentionally not culturally focused. For a real insight into Vietnamese Buddhist culture I recommend his book Zen Keys, which goes into some detail about his training as a monk in Vietnam, and is a great read.
But the historical and cultural aspects of Vietnamese Buddhism are still largely unadressed in English, and were my Vietnamese language skills better I would like to do some academic work in this area. Indeed, the whole reason I went to learn Vietnamese in 1999 was so that I might be able to do exactly this kind of work. But I am by nature a lazy man, and so I never really acquired the necessary skills. I guess it's never too late.
Anyway, I have on my desk two books that I will be reading this month that are absolutely fascinating, and very helpful to me as a lover of Vietnam and an amateur scholar of Vietnamese religion and culture.

Buddhism in Vietnam: Past and Present by Bhikkhuni Tri Hai - this book was presented to me back in the 90s by the author herself. It is really just a pamphlet, photocopied and bound and distributed among the elder nun's friends and students. Bhikkhuni Tri Hai was Vietnam's most respected female Buddhist monastic, and lived on the grounds of Van Hanh Buddhist University, until her tragic death in a car accident some years ago. I was lucky enough to know her, and she was charming, wise and incredibly inspiring. In fact, I have read this little book many times, and drew on it's information extensively when writing my own book, Destination Saigon. Elder Nun Tri Hai's view of Buddhism was eccentric and modern, and I find this book constantly challenging (in a good way) and a fascinating angle on the meanings of Buddhism and Buddhist monasticism in particular.

Buddhism in Vietnam by Minh Chi et al - A wonderfully shoddy paperback produced by the The Gioi government publishing house in Hanoi, this little book is deathly dull, but an excellent source of nuts and bolts information. It is easily available in bookshops in Vietnam that cater to foreigners, but be warned, it is not the kind of thing you'd read for pleasure. Indeed, even reading it purely for information can be a struggle, so woefully has it been translated. Nonetheless, it is the most thorough-going history of Buddhism in Vietnam, and all the names, dates and places are there. I have never actually read it cover to cover - I doubt it is possible.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Kwan Yin Lotus, Mingyue Buddhist Temple, Bonnyrigg

You know I am fascinated by the miscellaneous things that get left at Buddhist temples - statues, books, CDs etc. Many of these items are associated with the worship of Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy - she is easily the most popular figure of devotion in Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhism.
Last week when I was at Mingyue Buddhist Temple in Bonnyrigg I saw this beautiful origami lotus made from gold paper featuring images of Kwan Yin.
I've never come across one of these before - I'm assuming they are made for offering on shrines, though this one was plonked unceremoniously on top of the free books shelf in the main hall. I desperately wanted to have it, but I was too shy to ask, considering it was the only one there.
But isn't it pretty?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Books at Buddhist Temples

One of my more esoteric interests is in the literature left for free distribution at Buddhist temples. So great is this interest that I very nearly did my Honours Thesis on it - until common sense intervened.
At almost every Buddhist temple you will find a crowded, untidy shelf or two of free literature. The distribution of religious literature and images is a very old part of Buddhist culture. To print such material and distribute it is seen as one of the best ways of cultivating good karma.
In Thailand families will frequently print a religious book in memory of a recently deceased relative and distribute the book at the funeral, and then at temples afterwards. If you've travelled to Hong Kong or Taiwan you will know that these free books and pictures are seen everywhere. Indeed, the epicentre of freely distributed Buddhist material seems to be Taiwan, and it is the source of most free Buddhist material that you come across in Australia.
As well as books you also encounter small laminated cards featuring images of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and, less frequently, famous monks.

These days, too, it is common to see audio CDs and DVDs of chanting, Buddhist music and recorded Dharma talks.

Obviously this kind of media is much cheaper to produce than bound books, and it is also more accessible for older people, the less literate, or those who aren't inclined to read much.
Interestingly, the material left at temples is frequently non-exclusive, and not necessarily Buddhist. I came across this pamphlet dedicacted to the worship of the folk-God Guan Di, and a lot of the other material available is produced by Buddhist sects who aren't necessarily in philosophical agreement with the individual temple.

On occasion I even come across Christian literature, left there by hopeful missionaries!
Some temples even distribute small machines that contain a digital recording of a Buddhist chant.

You can switch these on and leave them going all day, thereby having your prayers said for you. The ones on offer at this temple chant Amitabha Buddha's, Kwan Yin's and Sakyamuni's name. In Vietnamese or Chinese - your choice!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tay Ninh - 1994

I love this pic of me taken outside the Tay Ninh Cao Dai Cathedral in 1994.
I am young, moderately beautiful (hey, somebody's gotta sing my praises) and quite fit.
I had been desperate to visit Tay Ninh, having just read The Quiet American and already being fascinated by the religion of Cao Dai. I had to agitate quite a bit - my partner's family were hesitant to go all that way to see something they viewed as of no possible interest to a sophisticated foreigner.
Eventually my mother-in-law relented and hired a car, and we drove out.
My partner's father, a staunch fundamentalist Christian, refused to enter the place, convinced it was a haunt of the devil. My mother-in-law timidly peeped her head into the cathedral, but when she saw the viewing balconies that ran high up along the walls she declared the entire thing a death trap. She beseeched me not to go up there - she was certain she could see those balconies swaying.
But of course I clambered up, and stayed for the duration of the midday prayers. I had no way of knowing that in the future I would do this many, many times, and would come to know the quaint little city of Tay Ninh like the back of my hand.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Townsville Bulletin Feature, 28th Aug 2010

Townsville Bulletin Weekend extra feature on Walter Mason and his book, Destination Saigon, today.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Refectory, Benedictine Monastery, Thu Duc

For those of you who didn't go to a boarding school and don't spend much time in monasteries, a refectory is a large communal dining hall.

This is the refectory at the Benedicitine monastery in Thu Duc, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City

I frequent this particular monastery, and when I share the monks’ lunch in the refectory, they go to hunt down a truly massive mahogany chair, intended for the hallowed buttocks of visiting Bishops.
They kindly drag it into the communal eating hall for my benefit, so I don't have to sit on the precarious plastic chairs you can see in this picture.

The monks' meals are simple, but because we eat in silence I always take especial notice of what we are eating. Indeed, if I arrive early enough I am often invited into the kitchen to watch the monks prepare the meals. It is always soup, a simple salad (no dressing) and a plain stir-fry, frequently vegetarian. It is served up with low-grade rice. On some special days bananas are served, but generally fruit is forbidden.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dymocks, Melbourne CBD

Destination Saigon on display at Dymocks, Melbourne CBD... hurry only two copies left!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Walter Mason casts his vote for Sydney's Best Pho

Fairfield Advance, Wednesday, 11th August 2010.
To vote for Sydney's Best Pho restaurant visit

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tips for the First Time Author #2 - Thank People

Corny huh?

But the fact is that creative types can often become so absorbed in their work that they forget the people who helped them in all kinds of ways. In fact, artists and writers are, in the popular mind at least, among the most selfish and needy people imaginable. Prove the stereotypes wrong by being generous, gracious and grateful. These are more than just personal virtues - they also help speed the creative process, and help you to realise your creative goals (including that of being published).
I had the great good fortune to become an author after years of working in the book industry, where I saw first-hand what monsters authors can be (see my earlier post about things authors do to piss off booksellers). There's just no excuse for this - invariably the biggest egos and most unrealistic demands emerge from the smallest talents. It is also, in the end, incredibly counter-productive. Your publisher has a lot of authors to deal with, so does your publicist and sales team. Booksellers have thousands of other books they can recommend to people, or put in their front windows. Why would they go the extra mile for someone who they know only as an ungrateful whiner?
In a terrific little book called Guerilla Networking, authors Jay Conrad Levinson and Monroe Mann devote a whole chapter to the persuasive power of gratitude. As they say, "in this day and age, even just sending a quick ten-second text message would be more appreciation than most people receive in an entire year." Sadly, that's all too true. We live in a society where we are encouraged to complain, to find fault and to insist on our rights. We seem to have forgotten how to thank the people who have helped us and recognised our uniqueness.
I really believe that authors have an especial need for support and help. We tend to be sensitive, and we tend to soak up information around us, always looking for leads, always looking for information. When was the last time you thanked someone for recommending a movie, a book, a website that proved invaluable to your project?
And as authors, we have the wonderful privilege of an acknowledgements section at the beginning of our books, in which we can thank publicly and for all time those who have worked hard for our success. This is an incredible gift - use it wisely and generously.
Who do we have to thank? Partners, family, friends, people who have encouraged our dreams, teachers and spiritual guides. On the professional front we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our publishers, editors, booksellers, publicists, sales and marketing people, reviewers and journalists, designers, readers, librarians, fellow authors... Seek out every opportunity to thank these people in public and in private - you'd be amazed how few bother.
And how do we thank them?
  1. I am a huge fan of the letter and card, but sms messages, emails and phone calls will do just as well. Drop by with small gifts (don't expect to see busy people in person - leave the gift with reception and they will receive the most wonderful surprise when they emerge from a dull meeting) - a bookselling friend of mine was recently over the moon because a customer who had won a prize in her store dropped by with a jar of home-made jam as thanks, something which had never happened before. How simple it is to make someone happy by acknowledging their kindness and generosity.
  2. When you do events, talks and readings, mention people by name - people are always thrilled by this. Of course, you need to do this briefly and sparingly, as you have to consider the rest of your audience.
  3. In this age of social media, it is easy to thank people by helping them to spread their message. Promote the books of author friends. Promote the events of bookstores that have supported you. Be active in their Facebook groups, tweet and re-tweet them, post pics on your blog. And how about some publisher loyalty? Take an active interest in the list of your publishing house and promote other books and authors who are part of your stable.
  4. Go to their events. It is only since I have become an author myself that I have realised how important events are to those organising them and appearing at them. Believe me, your presence is noted and remembered forever after. It is worth making the effort.
Oh, and after all this thanking and acknowledging, a final piece of advice: don't ever expect anything back. I know people who do a single good deed for someone and then fume and fret until it is returned. That way lies heartache and besides shows a distinct lack of generosity. Be fulsome and carefree in your gratitude, and know that even if it is not acknowledged (and some people feel very shy about doing that kind of thing) it is noticed and appreciated at the most profound level.
I'll leave the final word to the legendary Dale Carnegie: Always be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tips for the First Time Author #1 - Blog

Recently I have begun to teach some creative writing classes and I am also writing a monthly column on getting published for a small community magazine . This means that I am regularly asked questions about how to succeed as an author, or how to promote a book once it's written and published. I have also begun to receive really lovely emails from my readers, many of whom have their own writing ambitions and have asked quite specific questions. So I'd like to share with you some of the techniques for making your first book a success.

Number one in importance is: Blogging!

I understand that many established authors are not interested in blogging, or don't have the time. But for any new writer (particularly one who is not yet published!) blogging has become absolutely essential. If you haven't yet published it is an opportunity to collect a substantial body of work that publishers, agents and magazine editors can refer to and so discover for themselves what a literary genius you are. If you have been lucky enough to be published, it provides a way for you to build on what you have written, provide extra content for your readers and keep yourself in the public mind.

No matter where you are in the writing process, it is essential that you start blogging NOW - and keep at it regularly (once a week as a minimum). I am perplexed when I see some people advising not to start your blog until you are published. That is just bizarre. In my own experience, my profile as a blogger was one of the main reasons a publishing house decided to take me on.

There's nothing like a blog for turning you into a legend in your own lunch time, and it's amazing how impressive it can seem to those who are less technically savvy (and yes, that includes many editors, publishers and other industry people). And a blog gives you the perfect opportunity to cross-promote on Facebook and Twitter, making it seem as though you are incredibly prolific, busy and important. And that is exactly what any publishing house is looking for in an author.

Some people express a fear that the things they blog will be plagiarised. Yes, it's a risk, but you should be so lucky. Your major struggle will almost certainly not be being copied, but being noticed in the first place.

In her wonderful book The Frugal Book Promoter, author Carolyn Howard-Johnson also explains the importance of getting a good URL early on. Yes, it's most important to get started NOW, so sign up with Blogger or one of the others - it's easy to route teh blog you've started to your own URL later. But really, one of the first things you should be doing is buying the domain names for your own name (if still possible) and your next book's title (once you know for sure). This is inexpensive and easy.

Some people say they don't know what to blog about - they are afraid of losing privacy or, worse, appearing egotistical. If those are genuine concerns, then may I respectfully suggest that you are in the wrong game. The age of the shy and retiring writer has long gone - J. D. Salinger would never make it in the 21st century, for better or for worse. Yes, you will lose some privacy, but only as much as you choose to sacrifice. And yes, some people will accuse you of being egotistical. Such critics are normally distinguished by their complete lack of success in the world. Bless them and move on.

More and more publishers are expecting their authors to blog and to maintain a presence on social media. And the fact is that surprisingly few do it. If you get started now, and do it well, you place yourself in a privileged - and even cherished - minority.

The Breaker of Furniture

You can see by this photograph that I am a big man.

So when I'm in Vietnam, I’m a great breaker of furniture.

At almost all restaurants the only furniture available is the flimsy plastic stools designed to hold the weight of the slender Vietnamese. The stools are probably designed to withstand a load of 50 kilos or so. I am a couple of kilos more ;-)

At restaurants where I am known, the owners make a great charade of stacking 3 or 4 stools one on top of the other in order to take my weight. It is humiliating, certainly, but it seems to be an effective solution to the problem of shattered seats - and shattered pride.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Across Asia karaoke is ubiquitous. Vietnam is not immune to the great attractions of communal singing, and those who have read Destination Saigon will know that I too have been known to succumb to its lure.
Back in my undergrad days, while doing Asian studies, I actually spent quite a bit of time looking at the academic study of karaoke (confined, for the most part, to Japan and Korea), and so I find it not only socially attractive, but intellectually fascinating.
This is a pic of my good friend Thien, who is in fact an industry insider. He is head waiter at a karaoke palace in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City, and was always packed full of good karaoke gossip whenever we met. The things that go on in karaoke bars in Vietnam would make your hair curl.
He would also book a room for us on a slow afternoon and invite the entire waiting staff to join us for an afternoon's revel (beer paid for by me, naturally).
My advice to anyone planning to spend any time in Asia is to work out a karaoke repertoire now - you will almost certainly be called upon to sing in public. Best to be prepared.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Di Da Phat

The name you will hear most consistently if you spend any time in Vietnamese Buddhist temples is that of Amitabha Buddha - or A Di Da Phat in Vietnamese.
The vast bulk of Vietnamese Buddhists practise a basic form of Pure Land Buddhism, and for the most part the monks advocate recitation of Amitabha's name as the most effective form of religious practice for lay-people. This is what all of those wrist malas and long prayer beads are for.
Within the temple, Amitabha's name is also a kind of shorthand replacement for everything. When you say hello, you say A Di Da Phat, when you say goodbye, when you want to attract someone's attention and when you express surprise. Once I was at temple when one of the large vases that are found in the main prayer hall tumbled over and smashed, and a number of monks looked up and exclaimed, as one, A Di Da Phat!
The true form of Buddha recitation is, of course, Nam Mo A Di Da Phat. This is enunciated clearly during communal temple worship, but at other times it is shortened to Mo Phat, and this is in fact the standard greeting amongst Buddhists, both monastics and laity.
Despite his name being constantly on everyone's lips, statues of Amitabha Buddha are not normally very prominent at temples. It is rare to have him as the main object of devotion in the prayer hall, and he is rarely seen on other shrines. Normally there is a printed image of him on the wall in the monks' offices, or a small statue on a shelf somewhere. People seem to set much greater store on statues of Kwan Yin and Sakyamuni Buddha.
One place where an image of Amitabha does become important is at people's death beds, which is why monks always have a small-ish statue of him to hand to take to hospitals and houses of the faithful, should the need arise. It is thought that if the dying person lays eyes upon an image of Amitabha, they will be reborn in his paradise.
The image with this post is from a very unusual Amitabha tower at Hien Nam Pagoda in Quy Nhon. This is the only construction of its kind I have seen in Vietnam, an 8-storied pagoda with large statues of Amitabha looking out over the four directions on each storey. It is quite beautiful, and was designed by the Abbott himself.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Red River

Strange to be reviewing a Chinese film here?
Not when it's a fascinating - and exceedingly quirky - movie about illegal Vietnamese workers in a Chinese border town. I found Red River quite an insightful, though naturally melodramatic, look at the fascinating dynamics at work in these border areas.
Set in 1997, it is the story of a mentally disabled Vietnamese girl who is smuggled into China by her aunt and set to work at a massage parlour. Tao is an eternal innocent, and is protected by her aunt by being put to work as a cleaner. Nonetheless, she captures the eye of local Vietnamese crime boss Sha Ba.
The movie shies away from any commentary on the sex industry, though Tao, the innocent young Vietnamese girl, is bought and sold several times by improbably respectful men. These elisions aside, it is a fascinating commentary on the experiences of poor rural Vietnamese girls and the struggles they face. The film's setting in 1997 is exactly right, as rural poverty in Vietnam was then still quite stark, and China was only just beginning to prosper.
The film's blurb attempts to cast it as some kind of post-colonial love story, but ironically it is much more a commentary on China's neo-colonialism, and the difficult financial realities that confront women across South-East Asia.
It is silly in parts, but also frequently touching, and ultimately quite complex - and hence realistic. Well worth watching, though it is no masterpiece. And why on earth couldn't they find a Vietnamese actress to play the lead role?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Macau - Inspirations Along the Way #5

One of the pics I kept on the wall above my computer as I was writing Destination Saigon was of the ruins of St. Pauls in Macau.

It might seem an unlikely inspiration when writing a book about Vietnam, but Macau is one of my favourite places in the world, and whenever I think about it I become excited, literary and ever-so-romantic.

It is just one of those places. For centuries it's been a retreat for criminals, vagabonds, dissidents and every sort of neer-do-well. It has always played host to gangsters, pirates and every shade of underworld figure imaginable. It is, quite possibly, the most enchanting and fascinating island in the world, and I can never get enough of it.
I really hope to write a book about Macau one day, and I certainly plan on spending more time there in the coming years.
And no, I am not a gambler - I only ever set foot in the casinos to enjoy the outrageous buffets or admire the ultra-kitsch decors and architecture. But mostly I love the old Macau, the crowded, cobbled streets filled with churches, temples, restaurants and curio shops.

Just walking down a Macau street makes me happy, and makes me thankful that I live in such an incredible world filled with so much diversity and mystery.

It may take me a few years, but some day soon I am going to hole myself up in a little Macau hostelry and write the definitive book on the island.

Until then I will let my memories of the place inspire me in all of my creative efforts.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Baron Corvo - Inspirations Along the Way #4

Having learned of my obsession, as a young man, with Gabriele d'Annunzio, my best friend at the time - an especially literary type - asked me casually if I was also a fan of Baron Corvo. I confessed that I had never heard of him, and she said "Oh, but you must read The Quest for Corvo - you will love it!" And so began my love affair with the wonderfully eccentric Baron Corvo and his crazy writings.
Of course, part of any love for Corvo normally rests with A. J. A. Symons' enthralling literary detective story The Quest for Corvo. I don't think there has ever been another book like it, and I think it is essential reading for all wannabe writers. Symons documents a literary obsession in a way that is hilarious, compelling and quite unique. In some ways he's a better author than Corvo ever was, but he only wrote one book of substance (this one), and it is so entirely convincing that most readers transfer their affection entirely to the book's subject, Baron Corvo.
Corvo was a distinctly mad English Catholic, a disgraced priest who lived a singularly destructive lifestyle that described an almost perfect downward spiral. He died penniless and half-starved in Venice, where he lived on the streets and earned his living as a procurer of young men for wealthy British homosexuals on holiday. His journals describe his tortured and entirely insane expatriate existence, surviving on one stale bread-roll a day and seducing gondoliers at night.
Baron Corvo (his title was highly suspect, by the way) wrote an eccentric masterpiece called Hadrian the Seventh, a neurotic revenge-fantasy in which a misunderstood English priest is, against all odds, declared the next Pope, and goes about restructuring the Holy City, the papacy and the Church. It is similar in many ways to Huysmans' A Rebours, or De Quincey at his best, and Corvo (real name Frederick Rolfe - he liked to shorten the Frederick to "Fr." so people might mistake him for a priest) had an impeccable eye for style and detail. The book is unique in that it lampoons, slanders and vilifies almost everyone that Corvo had ever met in his adult life, barely making any effort to disguise his victims.
He also wrote a fascinating - though really peculiar - psycho-sexual love story set in Venice called The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, a kind of dark version of Pygmalion which was again highly autobiographical, though the beloved object was morphed into a, much less scandalous, androgynous young girl.
Corvo is another obvious object of literary cultishness - he was so even in the days when Symons wrote his book. His books are still quite obscure and difficult to get, though well worth the expense. Interestingly he was an associate of the Bensons, who I mentioned in my previous post.
What's so attractive about Corvo is the great pathos of his life story. He lived and died for his art, performing quite self-consciously as "an author," writing in public in an enormous ledger with an immensely heavy silver pen. He was a born outcast, and was constitutionally incapable of getting along with anyone - his biography is a long list of obsession, conflict and rejection. He is a quixotic, romantic figure, not at all admirable, but so terrifically devoted to the idea of being a writer that he was willing to die for it. How can you not be inspired by someone like that?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

E. F. Benson - Inspirations Along the Way #3

I have to admit that it was reading the letters of Nancy Mitford that made me aware of the novels of E. F. Benson. Mitford, Waugh, Lord Berners and many others among the Smart Young Things were in love with Benson's series of Lucia novels, though by then they were long out of print and difficult to get hold of. The socialites even went as far as to take out classified ads in magazines and newspapers saying "We will pay anything for Lucia novels." Mitford again and again claimed they were her favourite books, and she admitted they were a major influence on her own comic novels.
When I started searching for E. F. Benson he was, once more, an obscure and largely forgotten figure. The novels were all out of print, but I managed to find in the library an old hardcover of Mapp & Lucia, and a love affair began.
Benson is one of those writers who seems to attract a cult each generation, and I am happy to note that all of the Lucia novels are in print at the moment. But I still remember the fun of searching for second-hand copies of the books over a number of years, and occasionaly stumbling upon another Bensonophile, even, very rarely, the occasional person who'd gone to the great fuss and expense of joining the Benson Society in the UK.
E. F. Benson was an Edwardian writer who came from one of those extraordinary families that could only ever emerge in England. His father had been Queen Victoria's Archbishop of Canterbury, and all of the Benson sons became writers of repute. His older brother A. C. Benson was a bestselling diarist, whose yearly collections of essays and observations had an enormous audience in Edwardian England. His younger brother rather scandalously fell into the arms of the Roman Church, and became famous as Monsignor R. H. Benson, a prolific writer on matters Catholic (some of his ghastly devotional novels are still in print).
What is really fascinating is that every single member of the family was homosexual (except the father), which must have made for very interesting family dinners.
E. F. Benson's legendary Lucia novels are camp comic masterpieces, set among the overly-genteel but constantly impoverished upper-middle-classes in small-town Southern England. The heroine of the novels is the insufferable Lucia, a monstrously vain and pretentious middle-aged beauty who reigns as the queen of provincial society. Her nemesis is the plump and jealous Miss Mapp, a miserly and mean-spirited gossip who always fails to defeat the blithely abominbable Lucia. The other great character of the novels is Georgie, a prissy and difficult little queen who is mothered by the sundry widows and spinsters who populate Benson's world. Some have suggested that he is the first open and comfortable homosexual in the English novel, and I can't help but wonder if he isn't a version of Benson himself.
The Lucia novels are laugh-out-loud funny, and in many ways terrifically modern. They are beautifully written and conceived, and as a chronicler of a particular moment in English history, Benson cannot be beaten. He also wote a number of memoirs and biographies, all of which are equally as beautifully written. Like his brothers, Benson was unstoppably prolific in his writing, and much of his other fiction (and yes, I do own almost all of it) is unreadable now.
But the Lucia novels remain brilliant, and whenever I am feeling blue I know I can pick any of them up and lose myself instantly in their bizarrely complex and utterly charming worlds.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nancy Mitford: Inspirations Along the Way #2

Another of the authors whose picture I kept in front of me while I was writing was the stylish and funny Nancy Mitford. I am of the eccentric opinion that Mitford was one of the truly great writers of the 20th Century, and her deceptively slight and silly romantic comedies are in fact brilliantly and carefully crafted. Certainly they are among the easiest reads I have ever encountered, and I think that an easy read is indicative of a really great author.
I first encountered Mitford's work in the early 80s when I saw the BBC adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate. I would only have been 13 or so, but I was instantly taken with the light-hearted campery and easy glamour of it all. Naturally I was unnaturally interested in Cedric, the queer anti-hero of the piece. I sought the books out in my local library, and so began a lifelong love affair with the whole Mitford family.
While Love in Cold Climate remains Mitford's great classic (in part, I think, because of its wonderful title), I do think that The Pursuit of Love (woeful title!) is the superior book. It is also the most obviously autobiographical.
Nancy was the most self-consciously literary of the Mitford sisters. She made great efforts to educate herself, and was conscious all her life of the gaps in her education - gaps that were common to aristocratic women of her era. She was much engaged with questions of grammar and syntax, and would often correspond with Evelyn Waugh about them. She also read furiously, no just funny cult-novels like E. F. Benson's Lucia books, but more weighty stuff, like Proust (in French, what's more!).
Her books are notable for their open discussion of homosexuality, which was still unusual in the early 50s and 60s when she was writing. Her biography of Frederick the Great stands, I think, as one of the truly great queer biographies.
I can honestly say I love every single one of Nancy Mitford's books, and I admire her writing style immensely. Definitely my greatest literary heroine.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

ABC Radio Townsville Interview, Michael Clarke

Listen to Walter's interview with ABC Radio Townsville breakfast announcer, Michael Clarke this week (Tue 15th June).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Temple Bells of Sydney

Those who have been to my talks or my meditation classes would know that I have a thing for temple bells.
Indeed, there is a passage in Destination Saigon in which I talk about that most exquisite Vietnamese pasttime - listening to the afternoon bell in the temple garden.
I thought I would document some of the bells in the temples in my neighbourhood.
Unfortunately local councils in Australia are not so keen on the exquisite sound of the temple bell, and they are only allowed to be sounded at certain times - hence the stern note on this bell at Minh Quang temple.

Thien An temple has an embarrassment of bells, it would seem.
One stands forlornly in an ante-room of the main prayer hall, seemingly neglected.

One has its own groovy little shelter in the temple garden.

And there's even a miniature one attached to the eaves outside the kitchen.

At the Mingyue Chinese temple there is a gorgeous specimen in the main prayer hall, suspended in its own custom-built red frame.

Related Posts with Thumbnails