What were the inciting incidents which inspired Cry of the Rhino to become an award-winning novel? Asian Books Blog ran a 500 word article with answers and much more. I was also covered by the American author Robert Raymer in his insightful and entertaining blog, the Borneo Expat Writer. Robert and I interviewed each recently.
You can also read the article here below:
Cry of the Flying Rhino was written thirteen years ago after I made my one and only trip to Borneo with my mother. I was inspired by the dark, macabre and gothic nature of communal longhouse living and the tribal civilisation and culture which have been around for thousands of years. Two things triggered some ideas.
Firstly, during the trip, I saw a tattoo parlour called Headhunters. It piqued my interest in the traditional art and symbolism of Iban tattooing, performed manually with a hammer, steel pin and ink made from tree ash.
Secondly, long after our trip, I dreamt of a girl in a longhouse with eyes as huge as the “hollows of the benuah tree”. Those words came to me in the dream. I wrote them down. She looked sad and haunted and there was also terror in her eyes. I did not know who she was or what the dream was about but something unpleasant and unusual had happened to her and I set about finding out about the Iban culture, which I later discovered, is based on dreams. That dreams were everything, our hopes, work, happiness and luck.
In exploring the two triggers above, I found out that indigenous cultures are threatened and dying, because of loss of habitat due to logging and deforestation, and due to the conversion of the Ibans to other religions. As a result, orang asli (original people) like the Ibans are forced to leave their habitat for the city because their livelihood, dependent on being able to survive in the jungles on the fat of the land, is diminishing due to the jungles being cleared. Their way of life which is so rich in folklore, superstition and traditions will soon be lost. Ultimately the rapid destruction of the jungles will impact upon the rest of the world via climate change and so on. I also found out that children tattooed children which ensured that the art would never die. If adults were one day wiped out by an epidemic or a massacre, the surviving children would all have learned and mastered all survival and artistic skills including tattooing.
Cry of the Flying Rhino is a modern novel set in the railway town of Segamat, which has already been deforested and turned into miles of plantation, and Borneo, whose jungles are under threat. The Chinese GP, Benjie, has been forced to marry Talisa, a mysterious and tattooed teenager, and the adopted daughter of wealthy crass Scottish landowner Ian. Benjie has to discover for himself his wife’s true identity, when Minos and Watan, two Ibans who leave the jungle and appear in Segamat one day, looking for Talisa.
Cry of the Flying Rhino raises uneasy themes of identity, poverty, religion, race, greed, colonialism and post-colonial struggles, and deculturalisation because I want to convey to readers the issues and conflicts which affect Asia today using the medium of fiction. I hope the story will take them to another world.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas
Lulu Allison is a Brighton-based artist and writer. Before she started writing she had already been an established artist.
Twice the Speed of Dark
is told from the viewpoint of Caitlin, killed by violent boyfriend Ryan. Ten years on, her mother Anna is still burdened by suppressed grief. Dismayed by the indifference in the news to people who die in distant war and terror, Anna writes portraits of the victims, trying to understand the real impact of their deaths. It is only through these acts of love for strangers that she can allow herself an emotional connection to the world. Anna’s uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Ryan is released from prison. As her anger rises will Anna act on her desire for revenge, or will she find freedom at last from the terrible weight of grief? And will Caitlin reclaim herself from the brutality that killed her?
Lulu Allison’s self-discovery
unexpectedly made her transition from visual artist to a writer as an indirect result of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. It was triggered by her curiosity for why the news offered reasons to care about victims of the Boston bombing when the names of those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan were not released. Why were some victims unseen and others offered up for public grieving? Lulu began what she thought of as an art project, writing portraits of the nameless victims in the news. It became clear that writing offered a means of expression that didn’t exist in art. She expanded the portrait writing; the result was her first novel, Twice the Speed of Dark.
Art by Lulu Allison
in a gallery in Cardiff, from her pre-writing days. They are site-specific installations, newspaper and bamboo structures, part of a series called Vagabond Palaces because they are made of waste newsprint.
“I liked the idea that waste becomes something valuable because something is removed from it (the cut holes) and I thought too that it is a vagabond material, transient, overlooked.”
Vagabond Palace 1
Vagabond Palace 4
There are three types of art in literature:
1/ art for art’s sake
Is the purest form of art. There is no one best to represent this than Shakespeare whose literature was to entertain, and not just the esoteric few, but the masses. Shakespeare’s plays were exercises in realism. There was no intention to reform or to revolt against the evils of society or the ruling party. Yet being a true artist, his insights and portrayal of the human condition and the conflicts in his tragedies, histories or comedies are true to character and filled with empathy.
2/ art for social purposes
is for spreading or instilling social ideas. In poor countries, with corrupt, inept governments, art is used as a device through which social ideas are spread, through billboards, public art, printed material such as leaflets. Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe are of the view that society is influenced by propaganda, which is when artistic licence is taken to spread social ideas.
3/ art for morality
is the positive end of art for social purposes. Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Victor Hugo; Goethe; Cervantes; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky speak the truth through their fiction: the truth being their despair and opposition of oppression, fatalism, passivity, and submission to the societal flaws. Twice the Speed of Dark by Lulu Allison is a novel which comes into this third category as there are themes of grief, domestic violence and disorder which ultimately examine the moral and emotional conscience.
This is another example of Lou’s site-specific non-gallery based art from a series called Entropy: Value-Added.
“Again, it was thinking about value, and I loved the bombastic idea that I was adding value to decay. There is something beautiful in that for me. This is essentially street art, but I called it feral, because I felt it had escaped from the studio back into the wild. I guess it suits Anna’s interest in the accidental too.”
Entropy: Value Added
Anna, the grieving mother in Twice the Speed of Dark seeks solace in the viewing of public art at the Tate, but makes the weary re-discovery that her “passion for art has gone” and that “Twentieth-century art… looks tired, more tired than her even.” Yet she stands back, passive, she feels she has outgrown that passion and is unmoved by the passion invoked by one of the trustees, energetic Eva, of the arts organisation.
Also in the same chapter, we see from the viewpoint of the late Caitlin bonding with her mother Anna in a flashback.
“It was easy to absorb her joyfulness, and soon Dad and I were as elevated as she… Today’s happy evening was brought to you by the colour purple.”
Caitlin describes her pride for her mother being an art history lecturer, who
“spent her life looking at paintings, artworks, filling her eyes with arrangements that had been created, if not inevitably to please the eye to fill it.
“…But she did offer the chance to share in her looking. Look, Caitlin how beautiful it is! It might be a distant view… it might be something I couldn’t spot at all.”
These scenes in Chapter 4 are firstly symbolic of art which bring people, in this case, family together. It is something that grows up and grows old with us. Secondly, these scenes depict also that in literature, art becomes a habit, a theme, an inspiration both for memory and storytelling.
Lulu Allison has spent most of her life as a visual artist. She attended Central St Martin’s School of Art then spent a number of years travelling and living abroad. Amongst the bar-tending and cleaning jobs, highlights of these years include: in New Zealand, playing drums for King Loser and bass for Dimmer. In Germany, making spectacle hinges in a small factory. In Amsterdam painting a landmark mural on a four storey squat and nearly designing the new Smurfs. In Fiji and California, teaching scuba diving. After a decade of wandering, she returned to the UK, where she had two children and focused on art. She completed a fine art MA and exhibited her lens-based work and site-specific installations in group and solo shows. In 2013 what began as an art project took her into writing and she unexpectedly discovered what she should have been doing all along.Twice the Speed of Dark is her first book, published by Unbound. She is currently writing a second novel, called Wetlands.
This is a view of Bako National Park in Kuching, Borneo, home to millions of flora and fauna many of which are still undiscovered and unknown to humans. It seems the opposite of the Hong Kong in the photo below, yet both of these places are where Cry of the Flying Rhino was born.
Check out my SHOP where you can purchase SIGNED FIRST LIMITED EDITIONS of Cry of the Flying Rhino. Find out why this book won outright for the first time in 9 years of the International Proverse Prize competition.
If you missed my reading atBrixton Book Jam, The Hootananny, London SW2 1DF on Monday 3 March 2018, no worries. Watch it here now!
Cry of the Flying Rhino LIMITED EDITION, FIRST EDITION, SIGNED is now available! Find out why this book won outright for the first time in 9 years of the Proverse Prize competition. Go to my SHOP for a LIMITED EDITION, FIRST EDITION, SIGNED COPY of Cry of the Flying Rhino and other books.
UK £16.75 including first class postage
Rest of world £22.50 / USD29.81 / SGD40.34
“Anyone impressed, anyone imprinted upon and inspired by Lalwani, Roy, Chatterjee, Burgess, Lowry or Orwell, will be correspondingly affected by Ngeow.” – Professor Jason S. Polley, Department of English, Hong Kong Baptist University
Today’s inspo: just wanted to share these photos of the 1916 venue of the book launch and prize ceremony. This is the Blue Room where the event will be held. I am very excited to be launching my award-winning postcolonial novel Cry of the Flying Rhino here! Originally built for the protection of women’s rights,. I think it’s going to be a symbolic, meaningful and once in a lifetime experience and one that I will treasure forever or at least until I have senile dementia. The Helena May is a historic post WWI building and it is fully restored. It is built in the classical colonial villa style with the articulated frieze consisting of dentil corbelling at the cornice level and the Italianate balustrading on all levels. The entrance portico has a curved pediment and the classical entrance columns are of the Corinthian order. The windows are casement and have no articulation. On the street elevation, There are flattened arched openings on the ground and first level from which the windows are set back in a gallery-style colonnade.
During WWII (the Japanese occupation) the building was used by the Japanese forces as stables for their horses! After the war, in 1947, the Royal Air Force took over the building. Disclaimer: I wrote all this architectural analysis myself, so if there are any errors in terminology, well, tough.)
“The Helena May was founded in 1916 and named after Lady May, the wife of Sir Henry May, Governor of Hong Kong at the time. Funded largely through the generosity of two local philanthropists, Sir Ellis Kadoorie and Mr. Ho Kom Tong, CBE, it was originally established to support women living and working away from home, and contributing to the Hong Kong community. Lady May’s original vision, enshrined in the organisation’s constitution, is central to today’s community outreach programme which focuses on the needs of women and girls living in Hong Kong.”
“From the outset, The Helena May has been an organisation for women led by women. The driving force was Lady May who, as President of the Y.W.C.A and mother of four daughters, was very aware of the lack of facilities for women and girls in Hong Kong. She provided leadership and direction to The Helena May in the early years that set a strong foundation.”
I was very pleased to have applied for this course. It was just the thing I needed – the luxury of writing. I am not interested in posh hotel breaks or spa treats. What attracted me was the quality of the teaching staff. Zoe Gilbert and Lily Dunn are not only published writers, they are also lecturers. The venue is an eclectic warehouse conversion and extension in Clapton Ponds, East London. The place itself, which you enter through a subtropical courtyard garden, was quite inspiring and filled with natural light and interesting objets d’arts. There were ten people on the course all at different levels of writing. They were all women so it was like a hen weekend for women writers.
On the first day, we did a couple of word games to warm up, followed by ‘jumping straight in’. You can either use and existing idea or try out a new one using images and articles provided. I tried out a new idea. I originally chose two photos and tried to make up a story but it was already like another story. Cautious not to waste any of my 6 hours of time on that day, I decided to use the other option to generate idea – using articles from newspaper and magazines.
I found a copy of New Scientist and dropped it on the ground. On whatever page it flew open, I read the entire two pages and had found something that sparked an idea. On that day itself I wrote 3,000 words of a first draft I would never have been able to do at home.
Throughout the course we were given plenty of handouts to take away and to study. These are very useful and I will be referring to them again and again as they are very concise and well-written. There were plenty of opportunities for discussion and debate. Zoe and Lily are very encouraging and helpful. They even brought in their own work to crit, so we can learn by doing. On the Sunday morning we were given formal taught lessons in writing. This is all very precious salient stuff and I will revisit my course notes again. After lunch we worked on editing and I edited a story I wrote a few months ago but it was too long to be done at one go (5,000 words) and I also found a way of producing a climactic ending.
Lunch on both days was homemade soup. It was very tasty vegetarian soup with accompaniments of salad, bread, cheese, pickle and chutneys. It was very healthy as there was no dessert! I am a very bad cook so I have no idea what soups they were. After a few days I recovered from the intensity and hard work. I am ready to edit the story I wrote there and I cannot wait to share it once I have got it right. I would recommend this course to anybody, beginner or advanced, who is keen in an intense burst of writing, or to kickstart writing after a hiatus like myself.
Heart of Glass: Front cover done. Back blurb in progress.
Some delays in August because I was torn between two cover options both of which I liked. Now we’re done being torn. Very exciting. Clue: 1980s! Yes! In sports news, Cry of the Flying Rhino: Hong Kong – the prize giving ceremony and launch is now only 4 weeks away!
I have been living in Hong Kong time and refuelling on carbs, waking at 2 or 3 am to do live edits and emails in order to not lose a day each time an email comes from the publishers. The 4 rounds of edits are done now. I’ve designed the cover, prepared a Sino-Malay glossary, a map of South East Asia (aside: after Illustrator crashed at 5 am, had to have a go in Photoshop). You don’t realise what goes on backstage. Months and months of prep, and before that, years and years of writing.
Forget the lip gloss. This is the harsh terrain of pre-press. I climb a small mountain every day.
Before you say Mazel Tov, this book has some history because it was written 12 years ago, been through 14 drafts, and “many” rejections and you know why? It is a bit controversial. Not very, just a bit. Many, many times I wanted to delete it from my hard drive and throw the damn thing away. What saved me from doing it was the voice over my shoulder. Cry raises uneasy themes like race, religion, class struggle, colonisation, diversity, poverty, capitalism, exploitation. All my pet topics, all-in-one. They are under-represented in English fiction, especially by non-English writers for whom English is a second language. The themes in Heart of Glass are: imprisonment, greed, displacement, cultural identity. I only speak the truth, dressed up in fiction. I express myself best through music and fiction.
Some inciting images. These fascinating images sparked off a million ideas before one or two story threads led to writing Cry. I first saw this image of girls tattooing girls and also a photo of this sign on my one trip to Borneo:
I am thrilled that the judges of the prize can see the truth and my point. That is actually the real prize for me, not the prize itself. There’s a door I’ve opened. Through Heart of Glass, I have gained your support and my voice may at last be heard. The next update on Heart of Glass will be very soon. As usual your comments are welcome.
1/ Someone once said “Writing is Showbusiness for the Shy”.
Event/talk/gig tours to promote one’s paperbacks is quite a nice thing to do if you are a) young or b) young at heart or c) have tons of time and money or d) all of the above ideally. As I am having a déjà vu, this method is not commercially viable, sustainable or cost-efficient for me.
2/ Lessons from Satsuma:
In the good old days of the 90s and 00s, I was gigging with my band Satsuma and in those days people actually bought CDs. I know. At times we played to 5 people and at times 500. You would still put your 110% into it like every gig is your last ever gig. You could sell between 0 to 40 CDs per gig. If you don’t lose money per gig, you’re laughing.
Actual sales, new and old fans, actual gigs, photos shoots, stylists, cover design, interviews, excitement, adrenalin. Remember this is the only thing that the audience sees and wants to see.
4/ Lows (time, energy and costs):
Travel, the hours and hours in the rehearsal rooms, recording your EP, five hour sound checks, the travel time and journeys through every kind of weather, loading and unloading at all hours of night or day, flat tyres at 1 am in the icy rain. Nothing is quick, even when I was driving the van, which saves time and money for everybody else. All of this takes an astronomical amount of time and energy, which I no longer have due to having young children and two jobs and a few time-frittering hobbies.
5/ Sour grapes:
The only worse thing than being a complete non-success is a tiny bit of success because that lured us into the belief that there was hope in any of it and therefore more and more time, money and energy should be recycled and ploughed back into gigging and promotion. At some point the balance must have tipped because I was unable to write any more songs. You can burn out from promotion and marketing (and this is before social media). There is no end to it. As someone from the late Slacker generation which is of course in itself a total farce, I may still uphold an optimistic yet cynical view of promotion because I am still constantly figuring out what to do by doing.
6/ Lessons from Hong Kong:
“Yeah, whatever.” Said the Slacker. Despite being on the Unbound and the HK publisher’s conveyor belts, I cannot figure it out. There is no right or wrong. The HK guys say a different thing altogether from Unbound forum. Their view in one line: Forget social media. Stick to word of mouth. Have more parties, sell more books. If books don’t sell, write more books, have more parties. Wanna be a writer? Write more books. Wanna sell books? Write more books. Wanna win a prize? Write more books.
7/ Lessons from crowdfunding:
The Unbound publishing model works for the author because through crowdfunding an author already has shifted between 190 to 300 books. That is more books than you will sell at any gig!