Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Literary Weekend in Hong Kong

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 China's rural communization in the 1950s. The novelist, and his main characters, wholeheartedly believed in the communization movement. He was a well-known author and the book was well-written. I remember a reading of the novel in a funny local dialect that was broadcast by radio stations all over Sichuan province. People loved it, and the novel became very popular for a while. I loved it too, not just because the author's daughter, a young writer like me at the time, had become my friend, but also because his writing was witty and fun to read, his characters vivid. It was only years later that we learned what disaster the communization movement had brought on Chinese farmers. Now no one reads that novel any more. It can no longer even be found in libraries. The novelist stopped writing novels. Instead he spends all his time researching the ancient Chinese classic A Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦).

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 Asia Literary Review, and both the format and content look very attractive.

Much to my added delight, I was told that my book (the Hong Kong edition) sold quite well following the panels. Perhaps readers like argumentative authors. :-)

During the weekend I also met my Hong Kong publisher, who has a fascinating personal history. When he was young, he traveled from England along the Silk Road to Xinjiang, China, and ran out of money. He didn't have any means to make a living there; in the course of searching for a job he accidentally landed in Hong Kong, and has stayed there ever since. I will not leak all his secretes in the hope that one day he will write them down himself. His publishing house, Blacksmith Books, is doing quite well now, and he is planning to open an office in London soon.

I want to end this post by saying I had great fun in Hong Kong. Two decades ago when I moved to the United States from China, I had a short stay in Hong Kong for the first time. I didn't like it very much then, probably because it was so different from the inland cities in China. But this time I truly enjoyed it. It completely made up for the 26 hours of flying from Boston.

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 Hong Kong Monday morning, I missed the great opportunity to meet in person two people I admire. I hope their session went well last night.


Jeff Wasserstrom said...

Hi Xujun--Greetings from the SFO airport where I'm en route home from my own HK Lit Festival time. The session with Rebecca MacKinnon (someone whose blog I also love) went very well (good attendance, interesting questions, etc.). Would have been even better if you had been on stage with us to share a third perspective. And I heard very good things about your session--the disagreement among authors was noted as something that added to its interest. The Shanghai "sister" festival to the HK one, by the way, has some live blog posts up on the web, courtesy of City Weekend magazine. These give a sense of what writers who participated in that event, including some of the authors who were part of your session in Hong Kong (and yours truly), had to say when in Shanghai. Here's the link if you or any of your readers are interested: http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/shanghai/articles/blogs-shanghai/silf/

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Jeff! So pleased to see you here. I'm glad your session went well. Will you blog about it on the China Beat? And sounds like you had a great time in Shanghai as well. The SILF's live blogging is remarkable - thanks for the link.

By the way, I've received "China in 2008" and am reading it. It's an impressive anthology!