WHEN acclaimed Malaysian author Tash Aw talked about his most recent novel, "Five Star Billionaire," at this year's Shanghai International Literary Festival, it was a homecoming of sorts.
The novel set in Shanghai is a tale of five Malaysian expats - some successful, some poor - carving out lives in a modernizing city. It was written after Aw won the inaugural M Literary Residency prize in 2009.
"I knew I wanted to set a novel here but I wouldn't have dared to write about Shanghai if I hadn't lived here," he says. "I was writing an urban novel, so having all the things that directly inspired the novel at my doorstep was very helpful. It's great that it's given the residency a good start."
Published this year to considerable acclaim, "Five Star Billionaire" is the first work to spring from the M Literary Residency. The program was started by Shanghai International Literary Festival founder Michelle Garnault and acclaimed Indian author Pankaj Mishra. They shared frustration over how China and India were typically written about.
"We both felt that the places we lived in were misunderstood," says Garnault, operator of M on the Bund. "The only way that would change is if people came and actually spent some time to at least understand the complexity."
Writers apply for a three-month residency in either Shanghai or at Sangham House, a rural artistic retreat outside of Bangalore, India. Airfare, accommodation and food are covered, so writers can work on their projects. They received a US$1,000 stipend.
Applications for the 2013 M Literary Residency are being accepted until June 1; winners will be announced in early October. Applications require a 1,000-word synopsis of a proposed writing project and a 2,500-word writing sample.
"It doesn't matter if it's poetry, non-fiction or fiction, it just has to be some serious writing," Garnault says.
Since the 2009 launch, the number of applications has nearly doubled, with 95 received last year.
The two residencies provide different experiences. At Sangham House, winners are part of an artistic community where collaboration is encouraged. It differs from the Shanghai residency at Embankment House on Suzhou Road N., which Garnault describes as "an urban experience."
"It's not a foreigner experience which, I think, is much better."
According to Aw, it's the urban setting that makes the Shanghai residence special. "Most writers tend to associate residencies with very rural institutions, so the dynamic of having it in a city where you have lots of distractions is very interesting," he says. "You're forced to reassess how you think and how you work. You're forced every day to decide whether to stay in or go out. Having that possibility of being able to go out helped me, in fact, to be more creative."
His sentiments are shared by American Rachel DeWoskin, the 2010 M writer in residence. Now based in Beijing, the Michigan-raised writer recently made Newsday's Top 10 Books with her 2011 novel "Big Girl Small." During her residency, she worked on a China-based screenplay and began a novel set in historic Embankment House. The building was constructed in 1932 by the Sassoon family and was once the city's largest apartment house.
"I walked the streets, explored everywhere from parks, ferries and tourist sights to narrow old-school alleys and 'second wife' villages out by the airport. I talked to everyone who was willing about everything from Tang poetry to kept women to Weibo. I found the city exhilarating and the residency productive and fulfilling," she says.
While Aw and DeWoskin were established writers before winning the residency, unpublished writers such as Chidelia Edochie have also been awarded the residency. Last year the Guangzhou-based writer worked on a novel about a Nigerian American family who moved to China following the 2008 economic meltdown.
"On one level these residencies and awards are a kind of validation," says Edochie, from the US state of Indiana. "Someone read my work out of a pile of other applicants and preferred mine over everyone else's. It's a shocking realization for an artist."
Choosing a winner is one of the most difficult parts of the process for Garnault. Applications are cleaned up to provide anonymity and a team of 20 spends the summer whittling down submissions. Garnault reads all submissions and praises some of the omissions, including stories by a gay Chinese American about being the end of a male line that goes back 650 years. She raves about a recent submission by an American poet, who didn't win a residency.
Choosing a winner
Last year's M Residency winners were Glenn Diaz, who will go to Sangham House later this year, and Madeline Thien.
"It helps if your project can tangibly benefit from the location of your choice," explains Diaz who is working on a story revolving around call centers in the Philippines. "The sample I gave came from the project that I intend to pursue."
Projects related to countries tend to standout. Thien, a Canadian, is working on a novel about students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music during the 1960s. Karen Jennings, a 2010 winner, wrote about the world's sand industry and benefited from Sangham House's proximity to big sand mines near Bangalore.
"The quality of submissions has really grown," Garnault says.
While the program doesn't require that works be completed, Garnault, Mishra and others are hopeful that "Five Star Billionaire" is just the first of many to be produced.
There's been some suggestion of extending a residency to Beijing and Garnault welcomes the idea. "Ask us anything you like," the Australian native says. "It would be great for more residencies to open up."
With two months left for submissions for next year's residency, Garnault encourages high-quality submissions from everyone, particularly local writers. "I would love to send a Chinese writer to India and an Indian writer to China," she says.