On Saturday and Sunday, I participated in two panels at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, and very much enjoyed meeting the talented writers Chiew-Siah Tei (author of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes), Neel Chowdhury (author of The Inheritors), Nam Le (author of The Boat), and Rana Dasgupta (author of Solo). I bought their books and really look forward to reading them.
One panel was titled "Dislocated Voices" and moderated by Sue Gourlay, who manages the Man Asian Literary Prize. The other was "The Year of the Short Story," moderated by Chris Wood, editor of Asia Literary Review (which published my personal essay "Lost Letters" in December 2007).
Nearly all participants in the two panels had recently had their first fiction book published, with the exception of Rana, who is enjoying his second book. Our panels were anything but dull, mainly because we argued about, instead of agreeing on, things. :-)
A question raised from the audience during the first panel discussion was whether our fiction should help push just causes in the author's native land. My viewpoint was "no," because the definition of whether a cause is just or not changes over time. If you want your fiction to have lasting life, to be read even ten, twenty, or fifty years later, you certainly should avoid carrying any immediate political agenda. I believe fiction should transcend any ideology, and it should let characters rather than the author speak. As I see it, the ultimate goal of fiction is to explore human nature. To issue the author's own political opinions, write nonfiction instead.
This discussion reminded me an old Chinese novelist, father of a writer friend. In my youth, when my first short story was published just after the end of the Cultural Revolution, there was no monetary payment, instead I got a notebook and a three-volume novel as an award. That novel was about
My "no political agenda" view, of course, is not shared by every writer; probably more would disagree than agree. A counter argument given by another panelist was the novel 1984. That novel certainly carries a strong political agenda, and it is still read by many today. (I have to say that was a very good argument.) But 1984 also makes fun of human nature, and that part really transcends the ideological message. It is an exceptional novel in that regard.
In the second penal on short story writing, the other two authors said their stories were mainly products of imagination, while mine were largely experience-based realism. Now, both imagination and "write what you know" are viable vehicles for creating fiction, and the two certainly are not exclusive. In fact, in every work of fiction, each is embedded in the other. But when I heard the strong words against "write what you know" from the younger men, I was in a teasing mood. Is it because you don't have interesting experiences that you put so much emphasis on pure imagination? I asked them. And we went on for a fun round. I must add here that the other authors are really intelligent young men, and it was exactly because of this I had fun arguing with them. Read their books and you'll see what I mean – they are very good writers. And Chris Wood, a delightful gentle Englishman, was a great moderator. I got a copy of the latest issue of his magazine, the
Much to my added delight, I was told that my book (the Hong Kong edition) sold quite well . Perhaps readers like argumentative authors. :-)
Much to my added delight, I was told that my book (the Hong Kong edition) sold quite wellfollowing the panels
. Perhaps readers like argumentative authors. :-)
During the weekend I also met my
I want to end this post by saying I had great fun in
My only regret is I missed Prof. Jeffrey Wasserstrom's session "Bloggers: Should They Be Taken Seriously?" (moderated by Rebecca MacKinnon, whose blog I love) on Monday evening. Jeff had very kindly invited me to share the stage with him, however by then my plane tickets were already arranged by the Festival. As I had to leave