Nury Vittachi fills Matt Fleming in on his new books, his ability to court controversy and why Asians do have a sense of humour
Some call him a firestarter. Others call him Hong Kong’s most successful English language author. Most call him a very funny comedian and talented writer. But Nury Vittachi calls himself ‘the man who proves that it is possible to do creative things in Hong Kong and win global audiences for them’. The 53-year-old is always unabashed, often controversial and, most of all, celebrated for his literary appeal.
Ahead of two new offerings being published this year – one for kids, one for big kids – Vittachi admits he often courts controversy. He’s been involved in many of the major lit fests in the city but he always seems to fall out with someone. “Someone once described me as a firestarter,” he admits. “I founded or co-founded the Asia Literary Review, the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. I have the sheer willpower – or pigheadedness – to turn dreams into realities. Then other people offer to help and eventually take over. Some do it nicely, some do it nastily. The nasty ones just make me laugh! I have no interest in office politics and sitting on committees, so I have no problem with this. But I have good relationships with the current organisers of those fests – and wish them well.”
Vittachi, whose Chinese name is Samjam (poetically meaning ‘third bus stop’), was born in Sri Lanka in 1958 and his family, after being targeted in riots, fled the country in the 60s. The writer then lived as a nomad across the world before settling in Hong Kong in 1987. His first major novel, The Feng Shui Detective (2000), was a polyglot comedy-crime novel set in Singapore and was published around the globe in multiple languages by major publishers. To date, he’s penned more than 30 books.
In 2008, Vittachi began an online diary as ‘mrjam.org’ and started making live appearances as a comedian. “Both activities were disastrous,” he claims. “My audiences were made of religious police, hardline communists, Hindu nationalists. They wanted to lynch me. Then a miracle happened. By the end of that year, my impossible audiences and I had fallen in love with each other. Communist officials sent me communist jokes. Imams sent me jokes which were certified to have been written by the Prophet Mohammed himself. Newspapers and magazines in 10 countries started printing Mr Jam posts, giving me a-million-plus readers.”
Vittachi, whose grandfather was bizarrely standing next to Mahatma Gandhi when the great man was assassinated, says his popularity was ‘an astonishing turnaround’ and ‘revealed that Asians do have a sense of humour’. The inside story of that discovery, called The Curious Diary of Mr Jam, will be published in September. The book’s strapline is: “He tried to bring comedy to Asia but everyone just laughed at him.” Poignant. And very Vittachi.
So what’s next for the enigmatic author? A series called Magic Mirror, for kids, he says. “I’m really excited to be working with a Chinese co-author, Luther Tsai, writing a book series which retells stories from Asian history in a fun way for children. At the moment, we’re writing about Anqi Sheng, a magician said to be 1,000 years old, advisor to China’s first emperor. Alchemists created a potion to enable the emperor, who happens to be a mass murderer, to live forever. And this is a true story!”
So, Vittachi’s got the whole world in his hands. The chief judge of both the Scholastic Asian Book Awards and this spring’s Hong Kong Young Writers Awards says: “I feel the people of Asia don’t have their fair share of the world stage. My mission is to do the groundwork so that writers here can reach the top.” And we certainly wish you luck.
The Curious Diary of Mr Jam published by Blacksmith Books, hits the shelves in September, priced $119. The Visionary Voyage, the first volume in the Magic Mirror series published by Scholastic, is out before Christmas, priced $59.