Good Reading : August 2010
38 goodreading ı AUGUST 2010 Everything about books www.goodreadingmagazine.com ONLINE word of mouth up close Kuata, the small coastal village in Malaysia where Shamini Flint grew up, didn't have a bookshop 30 years ago. So the avid young reader had to raid the bookshelves of relatives and friends for literary sustenance. And once a year, her father, who served in the airforce, brought back a suitcase-full of books from the iconic London bookstore, Foyles. Shamini tells me a little more about her childhood, noting that she and her brother were the only ethnically Indian children in their village. 'I don't remember being overly bothered by it,' she muses. 'Maybe I struggled to make friends, but that might have been me, right?' She considers it for another brief moment, then adds, 'But now I do look back and wonder if it was one of the reasons I was a bit isolated and read a lot.' Shamini is talking to me by phone, sneaking away from her daughter's soccer game to have our interview. Her daughter, Sasha, is eight years old now, and is the principal reason Shamini started to write for a living. She'd been working as a corporate lawyer, living comfortably in Singapore, when she had her first child, and her life changed. 'I'm not actually a failed lawyer,' she points out to me. 'I'm a failed stay-at-home mum.' She found that she 'didn't take to' full-time motherhood, and yearned for other things to do. 'You have a child and suddenly you look at the world differently. I was always interested in human rights and those kind of issues, but I also discovered poverty issues and climate issues suddenly came to the forefront of my mind ... My life is full of these enthusiastic but failed efforts to improve the world,' she adds with a dry laugh. She imported fair-trade coffee and wrote a book about trying to effect global change at a personal level (How to Win a Nobel Prize: A stay at home mum's guide). Although these two projects weren't entirely successful, she soon had an idea that was. Her daughter, Sasha, didn't have many books about, in Shamini's words, 'other children of colour'. She saw the gap in Sasha's bookshelves reflected a gap in the market, and self-published a series of books about a little girl called Sasha who learns all about the countries of Asia around her. It was soon after this success that she had the idea to write a different kind of book, for a different kind of audience. 'I see Inspector Singh as an overweight, lazy, tired sort of person who'd much rather relax, avoid his wife and have a beer than do anything else,' says Shamini. 'But occasionally he feels compelled by the situation in front of him, compelled to try and correct injustice in front of him, so he overcomes his reluctance to get involved.' There are, so far, three books involving criminal mysteries that Inspector Singh is called upon to solve. They are: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Mystery, A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul and The Singapore School of Villainy. Although they have the look and feel of light-hearted pulp fiction novels, and are written with a good dose of humour and a light touch, each book deals with important current affairs of Asia. In the first book it was the role of the Syariah courts in family law cases as well as illegal logging, in the second it was the ter rorist cells in Indonesia and in the most recent it is the Singaporean drug and homosexuality laws. Her next book will be set in Cambodia and will be centred around the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal. 'They are very sensitive issues,' admits Shamini. 'But, in these countries, when something is sensitive the view of the authorities is that you shouldn't talk about it, you shouldn't air it ... On my good days I think I'm taking part in the process of modernising on a small scale in stories by being ready to discuss them. On bad days I give myself a good kicking because I certainly don't sell enough books to make it worth the sort of risk I'm taking. I'm kind of torn between wanting to do it and being a little bit afraid.'Which sounds a little bit like the good Inspector himself. 'He comes from a very organised and restricted society. There's only two things you can do: you either confor m, or you sit on the corner and smoke cigarettes and look bored and make rude remarks about people. And that was my dad. So in a sense, he is that person. In Indian families you're either in or you're out: Singh is out.' But Shamini now sees the funny side of her extended family. 'They used to annoy me enormously because they're so narrow culturally and dogmatic and stubborn about their values and what they expect their children to do ... but now I'm a writer, it's all grist for the mill. I'm like, "please, more, more!"' Just what the fans of Inspector Singh are thinking. Just as well there's over 40 Asian countries left for Singh to solve mysteries in. The Singapore School of Villainy by Shamini Flint is published by Piatkus, rrp $22.99. a woman of ideas Meet SHAMINI FLINT: lawyer, stay-at-home mum and writer trying to change the world one brilliant idea at a time, as she tells SARAH MINNS.