The official sponsor of this year’s Festival of Words is Thor and sure enough he delivered an absolute downpour to kick off an international programme of writers on Monday. The day started off with two events at Cappuchaino Café, Carrington Street. Owner Jay Shah moved back to the city a few years ago after a seven year exile in Blackburn and was keen to create a space for local creatives to perform music, read poetry or display art. Her ambition was to create a hub for the arts and make her living off the food and drink flogged during events. A sensible and inclusive business plan, and certainly one that bodes well with the principles of a city wide festival.
Dutchman Dr Ben Braber delivered a sell-out workshop on ‘how to use words to sell’. This was £20 a pop, a reduced rate for the festival, which explains why it was taken up so quickly. This was later followed up by Between Languages, where Sheelagh Gallagher and Deirdre O’Byrne discussed the influences of Irish language on Irish literature written in English, exploring the work of James Joyce, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Roddy Doyle and many more.
The main event of the day was Writing China, hosted at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio with Karen Ma (Excess Baggage) Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang (The Woman Who Lost China) and Will Buckingham, the East Midlands version of Alain de Botton. It was an interesting mix of writers who all have very different relationships with China.
The overall feeling was that certain texts have come to define Western interpretations of China and these generally fall into the category of dissident (The Fat Years) or exotic texts. The latter being a form of what Edward Said defined as ‘Orientalism’, a kind of entrenched structure of thought that leads to generalisations about the East, the purpose of which is to simplify the world into binary opposites of them and us, good and bad, etc.
This issue was quickly put to rest by Karen Ma, who had flown in from Beijing for the discussion. Her debut novel Excess Baggage is the story of two Chinese sisters who have grown up in very different circumstances. Zhang Peiyin is the ‘forgotten’ sister who was raised in China during the Cultural Revolution, the other grew up in Japan during the prosperous years of bubble capitalism. The two are later reunited as adults in Tokyo and a family drama ensues which has particular consequences for Zhang Peiyin as she has given up everything to move to Japan and is determined to find the love, riches and fame she feels she deserves. But sisters being sisters, things aren’t quite going to plan. Karen Ma’s inclusion in the debate enabled a more complex picture of China to develop, one where we were reminded that family problems are universal and equally as important as nationality and other forms of identity.
Will Buckingham is a philosopher and writer from Leicester who is a truly global writer. His debut novel Cargo Fever (2007) is a philosophical romp that kicks off with Indonesian stories of the orang pendek, a kind of mini tropical yeti, to explore the porous boundaries between gods, human beings, animals, and other kinds of others.His most recent novel The Descent of the Lyretakes us to the early nineteenth century Bulgarian village of Gela, which is suffering under the heavy taxation and arbitrary justice of Ottoman rule, as well as being a reinvention of the tale of Orpheus.
Buckingham attempted to visit China a few decades ago as a young student and recalled exciting offers to smuggle him in through closed borders. Since then he’s returned a few times, mastered the language, and met a few locals who claim to have been abducted by aliens, all of which will be retold in his next novel, A Book of Changes: Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, which is based on the Chinese divination manual the I Ching and sounded a little like an Eastern version of The Dice Man.
The idea for the book has been a while in the making and was inspired by an interest in Calvino’s literary experiments. Buckingham literary experiment has been to play about with the idea of the I Ching (易經) as a literature machine capable of generating stories. It’s a project that has required a lot of dedication, particularly as much of the research has had to be done in China with original texts that presumably are difficult to read or translate due to the complexity of the language and the fact that the pictorial language has changed over time. As with any good book, this is one that has far outstripped his initial intentions.
The host for the evening was Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang who studied Chinese at Oxford and shared the difficulties of publishing a book about China as a white woman with a non-exotic name. Her frustration at working with marketing departments (‘what shall we call you?’ ‘How about Rhiannon’) is one I’ve heard recounted endless times from authors and you can’t help but feel the inmates have overtaken the prison. Her novel, The Woman Who Lost China, takes us back to 1949 where the Chinese Republic is collapsing under Mao Tse Tung’s communist onslaught. In the Western media this has become the meta-narrative of Chinese culture, along with those tanks and that plaggy bag at Tiananmen Square. But as the panel rightly noted, this part of history is just a drop in the ocean for a country which has seen the philosophies of Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism, and Daoism passed from generation to generation, no matter who the governors may be.
Writing China was part of the Nottingham Festival of Words - have a look at the website to find out about more events like this going off this week.
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