Nury’s journalist writing is equal parts hard hitting and humorous, a potent mix that has made him Hong Kong’s most popular and loved contemporary writers in English. CNN hailed him 'the beat reporter of the offbeat’.
In celebration of Father’s Day, Baby Hero spoke to Nury Vittachi who shares with us what fathers really want for their special day, his love-hate relationship with superheroes, and how to inspire our children to fly… all in his signature style of personal anecdotes that have us laughing out loud!
Nury began his career with the South China Morning Post in the late 1980s and has since written for the New York Times, Reader’s Digest and the Far Eastern Economic Review. He lives with his English wife and three adopted Chinese children in Hong Kong. He has written many fiction and non-fiction books for adults and children; he founded the Hong Kong Literary Festival; he champions young creative writers; and he serves as a judge for several pan-Asian literary prizes.
Your thoughts on Baby Hero?
I’m big into social justice and am always thrilled to encounter companies who realize that it’s not about making money from society, but being a part of society.
Tell us about your early influences. What was it like growing up in Sri Lanka and later in England?
Asian kid living in London enters home. His school friends shout: “Happy birthday! Surprise!”
The kid continues on his way to his room, saying: “I have homework. Enjoy the party. I’ll join you later.”
That’s a true story. That kid was me. I wasn’t being obnoxious. Asian kids are rigidly conditioned to:
b) have bad haircuts;
c) like maths; and
d) eat foods that other kids find disgusting like dried squid or char-grilled dissident.
I did all of the above religiously. My upbringing did me NO HARM AT ALL, except to turn me into the drooling, unstable, stairwell-lurker that I am today.
What inspired your early interest in writing and your journalism career?
When I was born in Sri Lanka in 1958, war broke out. I still feel guilty about it.
When I was a toddler, we had to leave the country in a hurry, encouraged by men with guns, but that time it wasn’t about me: the trouble was something my father wrote. It thought this was way cool. My parents, less so.
From then on, I wanted to write something that would make people so angry they would chase me with guns. Still working on it.
We fled to Malaysia and Singapore and then UK.
"ALL adults have a vital duty to tell young people about The Olden Days (a phrase which covers the period from the early Triassic era to about 2008)."
How and why did you make the transition to comic writing?
I decided I wanted to bring comedy to Asia. But everyone just laughed at me.
Yet life is funny. Relationships are funny. And English is funny, particularly seen from Asia. I’ll never forget trying to teach my daughter “the word 'right' has a g in the middle”.
But, seriously, I think some people are just born with a wicked sense of humor.
If they invited me on one of those radio shows where you choose your top ten music tracks, I would choose the national anthem ten times, so that everyone would have to stand up for an hour.
The fact that I would find this incredibly enjoyable is CONCLUSIVE PROOF of Original Sin and the fact that humanity is deeply evil at heart. Or at least I am.
"Like many kids in this part of the world, Jeri is puny and nerdy and is expected to study hard. Only when he has finished his school work is he allowed to do his superhero stunts."
How did Jeri Telstar – the children’s series come about? You have also become Asia’s most prominent supporter of nurturing early creative writing – what started you on that path?
I love superheroes and I hate them. They are so stupid. They always try to solve their problems by hitting people.
Even the youngest kid is smart enough to know that hitting people doesn’t solve problems but makes them worse. Thus Jeri Telstar.
Like many kids in this part of the world, Jeri is puny and nerdy and is expected to study hard. Only when he has finished his school work is he allowed to do his superhero stunts.
And like a good child, he always addresses adults as “sir” or “miss” even when they are supervillains destroying the world: “Excuse me, sir. Please do not destroy the world. Thank you.”
Commonly known fact - Reading to your children develops their love for books. How about creative writing, how can that be nurtured?
Both reading and writing are Secret Fun.
If someone makes you read something or makes you write something, you hate doing it, right? Teacher says: “Read this book, write that essay,” and your heart falls. (Same with grown-ups, when their bosses make them read and write reports.)
But if you do either of those things voluntarily, because they interest you, they are not bad activities—and if you do them enough, you discover they are amazingly good fun.
This process is a huge secret that just a few people know. People who know this are often called bookworms or nerds or brainiacs. We don’t care what you call us, we’re going to keep doing it.
Not only is it fun. But being a book person gives us amazing SUPERPOWERS. But that’s also a secret.
You were recently published in the New York Times, and have been a regular columnist for Reader’s Digest, the SCMP and the Far Eastern Economic Review – what has been the highlight of your career thus far?
I once laughed so hard I blew coffee 15 feet out of my nose. I can’t imagine doing anything that tops that achievement.
Mr. Vittachi with a postcard from daughter Kelci
Has becoming a parent changed how you approach your writing or what you write about?
For sure. For example, your narrator was inspired to create a piece of Zen wisdom the other day: A journey of a thousand miles begins with: “Where’s the @#$%ing remote?”
Nine hundred and ninety nine miles later, the answer to this question for people with children is a) in the fridge, b) in the toilet, c) in the dog, or, thanks to interstellar wormholes, d) in a galaxy, far, far away, never to be seen again.
Oh, and please excuse the “bad” language above. But I like using symbols like @#$%^&, because readers can insert the “right” type of bad word according to their personal standards.
My family members are mild religious people whose strongest curse word is “bothersome”, followed by blushes and apologies. My work friends are at the other extreme, and one former journalistic colleague surely popped out of the womb with the words: “What the @#$% just happened?”
But instead of cursing, keep calm by strengthening your inner spirit with modern day Zen sayings. When my kids were smaller, I gave them a magically powerful piece of ancient wisdom which I’d just made up: “If the name of the day of the week includes ‘day’, something WONDERFUL is going to happen.”
That helped them live charmed lives for years.
Mr. Vittachi with daughter Lexi
What is the one parenting ‘truth’ you would share with new parents?
ALL adults have a vital duty to tell young people about The Olden Days (a phrase which covers the period from the early Triassic era to about 2008). “In the past, people would go A WHOLE DAY without taking a single picture of anything,” I declared.
My Facebooking Snapchatting children were stunned. “So how did you have fun, Dad?” one asked.
“We would look at clouds and see if we could find animal shapes,” I told them. Yes, life was thrilling then. They have no idea.
But now family life is upside down! In my house, the only people who can open child-proof packaging are the children. The only people who can get past the net-nanny web filter are the children. The only people who can do online hedge-fund asset swaps that crash the Dow Jones are the children.
Mr. Vittachi with son Jem
With father’s day, let us in on the BIG secret - what do dads REALLY want for father’s Day?
A big hug accompanied by this message: “I love you Dad, and didn’t spend any of YOUR money on a tacky card or present this year.”