Jame DiBiasio is an American who has lived in Hong Kong since 1997. He is a financial journalist and editor, but also a novelist and a writer on Asian history. Crime Wave Press has published his debut novel, “Gaijin Cowgirl”, a thriller set in Japan and Thailand, and he will be reading from it at the upcoming Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay.
You’re working in a field of expertise quite different from fiction writing. Was this a recent transition or have you been writing fiction for some time?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a little kid, so the fiction definitely came before journalism. Being a reporter has been great because it gets me into the world, but I don’t write about finance in my fiction. At least, I haven’t yet. Work has enabled me to travel and interact with local people around the region, so indirectly it has contributed to my fiction.
You’ll be doing what at the festival? A talk?
Details are leaking out like clues from a murder. Something to do with a mix of readings and talking about noir and Asia with Tom Vater, one of the publishers of “Gaijin Cowgirl”. Tom, a writer and journalist as well, edited the manuscript and we’ve had an active dialogue by email but I haven’t met him in person. So I’m looking forward to that. Hans Kemp, Tom’s partner at Crime Wave Press, is also going to be in Mandalay. He’s a photographer so maybe the three of us can come up with something interesting.
Do you know who will be there this year?
A handful of international names, such as June Chang, who has recently published a revisionist biography of the Empress Cixi, and Louis de Bernieres, who gave us “Captain Correlli’s Mandolin”. There will be a good number of Burmese writers who live and work abroad, notably Thant Myint-U, who’s probably done more than anyone to introduce Western readers to recent Myanmar history. But I’m looking forward to discovering local writers, and hoping that some of their work is available in English translation. Aung San Suu Kyi will also be floating among the pagodas.
What do you hope to get out of it?
I’ve been to one or two lit gigs as an audience member, and I’ve been exposed to some huge talents, both familiar and new to me at the time. I was already a fan of David Mitchell’s work, but he is brilliant in person and listening to him speak deepened my respect for him. I hadn’t heard of Gish Jen until I attended a reading she gave, and although the subject matter wouldn’t have appealed to me, she was so funny that I became a convert. So I hope to both enjoy being exposed to potentially interesting people, as well as to perhaps create a few fans of my own. I’m also hoping there will be a lot of booze, although Mandalay is not exactly party town.
So you’ve been to Burma before?
I recently spent two weeks there travelling around with my wife. We had an absolute blast, particularly when I wore a longyi, the ubiquitous Burmese sarong. Although you see some foreigners at tourist places like Bagan wearing them, in a city like Yangon you do not. I’m quite pale as well, and will definitely not be mistaken for a local. That generated quite a lot of interest. Occasionally my longyi would begin to slip, and people would rush to help. Having anonymous men grab your falling skirt from behind, only to wrap it nice and tight for you, is not the typical Hong Kong or New York experience.
For jaded Asia hands, visiting Myanmar is like rediscovering all the cool stuff that you thought you’d find when you moved to the region. I’ve “done” Mandalay as a tourist and look forward to getting to know it in a more personal way.
Will you be coming to Thailand?
Not on this trip, other than to transit via Suvarnabhumi – not, alas, my favorite airport. But I am a regular visitor to Thailand, mostly for pleasure. I used to cover it for one of the finance magazines I work for, back in the early noughties. Good times, man. I also used some travel time there when I was researching “Gaijin Cowgirl”, notably a trip through Kanchanaburi to the Three Pagodas Pass on the Burmese border.
I’m hitting Thailand over Chinese New Year, spending a few days in Krabi. We’ll have two days in Bangkok as well. We tried to change the tickets because Suthep’s mob has a reputation for disrupting everything, including access to and from the airport. But we couldn’t get the required flights so we’re rolling the dice.
Have you been to Chiang Mai?
Twice. It’s a beautiful city. I was last there in April, so it was really hot and dusty. But that’s why the Thais invented Chang Beer, right? I hadn’t been for a long time, and enjoyed the city’s easy-going pace, mix of sights, quirky little shops and cafes, and Lanna food. Even did the Monkey Bar, although it could do with an upgrade. I also have a book out with Chiang Mai publisher Silkworm Books, and it was a treat to have lunch with the team and visit their office, which is just off Nimmanhaemin Road. It’s a lovely building and on the surface they lead an idyllic lifestyle, although they work hard and publishing’s a tough spot to be in these days. That book, if you can allow the plug, is called “The Story of Angkor” and it’s non-fiction. It’s a slim history volume for travellers who love the monuments in Siem Reap, and will be available on Kindle in February.
But you’ll be promoting the novel at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, is that right?
Yes, I’m there for “Gaijin Cowgirl” and Crime Wave Press.
What’s the gist of the book?
American Val Benson is working Tokyo nightclubs as a hostess. It’s easy money until a client with a dark past and sinister hobbies reveals a map to one of the greatest treasures lost in World War II: something stolen from Burma, as it turns out, so my trip to Mandalay has some resonance. Anyway, Val burns a path of destruction across Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand to the Burmese borderlands to get her hands on the loot before someone less deserving does.
The book’s a thriller that also explores real themes of sexual exploitation and war crimes, and makes some tenuous links among them. Having a woman as the protagonist and ‘voice’ of the novel allowed me to dive into sexual situations without falling into the trap of white heroes bonking Asian babes. Women tend to like the book as much as men. But I think the natural audience is Western or readers in sync with Western mores.
Is there something that compels people to start writing when living in Asia? Seems that way in Thailand; what is it?
Have you ever been, like, bored here? Me neither.