So, some of you may know I am currently in Beijing as the very lucky recipient of an Asialink residency, and some of you may not know this at all. I arrived in this huge, wonderful city almost two weeks ago, and I’ll be here for three months. I had the good fortune to land in Beijing right as the Bookworm Literary Festival started. The Bookworm is a great bookshop/lending library/cafe/literary institution/expat hub in the Chaoyang district that reminds me very much of my former workplace in Melbourne, so it’s been a comforting place to go. Walking up to the Bookworm at night you can see the welcoming red glow of lanterns, and you know what will be waiting up there for you is a glass of wine and hundreds of books, and people who love books.
Every year the Bookworms organises a festival with local and international authors and speakers. The program this year is wonderful – there’s not only novel writers, but journalists, academics, agents, poets, economists, and illustrators on the bill. The panels are thoughtfully composed and the topics discussed are eclectic. Having been to more than a few festivals in my time, I have to say that the Bookworm festival is extraordinarily well-programmed, with the result that there have been many entertaining, imaginative and surprising exchanges so far. The atmosphere is attentive, but casual and friendly. And there have been no weirdo audience questions in the sessions I’ve attended so far! In fact, the audience questions have been very thoughtful and free from the grandstanding or veiled lectures that you sometimes see at these events.
I’ve attended three very different sessions so far. The first was the opening night (and sold-out) event with Lionel Shriver. Lionel was an extremely engaging speaker. She weighed all her words carefully, was honest and extremely giving. She never shied away from giving personal details or strong opinions in order to answer the question properly. The amount of laughter she drew from the audience demonstrates how little we’re used to people who speak plainly and without artifice. It was really interesting to hear her talk about the relationship between personal happiness and career success (she basically sees little relationship between the two), and how obsessed she gets with immersing herself in various interests to write a particular book. She spoke more than once about hunger being a good thing in life, and satiation dangerous. One comment she made that stayed with me, was that she greatly admires people who have not achieved their ambitions and have had to learn to be happy with their Plan Bs for life, and that these people may in fact be more spiritually developed than those who’ve had their desires fulfilled. Plenty of food for thought there!
The next session I attended was an author that I haven’t read – Chinese crime fiction writer and legal academic He Jiahong. Professor He is an extremely accomplished and well-regarded lawyer who has worked a lot in the areas of wrongful conviction and anti-corruption law. And somehow, amongst all these accomplishments, he’s managed to find the time to write four crime fiction novels featuring the character Hong Jun. After hearing him speak I will definitely be following by reading his first novel to be translated into English, Hanging Devils.
He Jiahong spoke very candidly about his experiences working in the States for many years, then returning to a much different legal system in China. He suggested that when he’s unsuccessful in pushing through legal reforms in his professional capacity, he simply writes a novel that indicates why these reforms would be beneficial! It was great to hear him speak of heavy-hitting legal situations in one breath, and then talk of his love for Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie in the next. He spoke most passionately and engagingly however, when talking about how he fell in love with his wife, and how we transformed his life in order to win her family’s approval.
And finally, last night I couldn’t go past the morbidity of Grim Reapers with Keith Gray and Paul Murray talking about their books Ostrich Boys and Skippy Dies respectively. Keith Gray made a point of mentioning how it was the first time he’d been included on a regular mainstream panel with an adult fiction author, rather than being segregated in YA-only sessions. It was a good point to make, and one other festival organisers could take heed of. Another example of the clever programming was having agent and YA author Seth Fishman moderate the session, adding extra depth to the discussions. Both authors read extracts from their books, and it was quite moving to hear Paul Murray read in his own rolling, idiosyncratic way. I felt that I was hearing his words with their most true meaning.
These three men had a far-ranging discussion of death in literature, its position in a novel’s timeline, its potential functions in a narrative, and why they chose it as a driving force in their books. As a terminally morbid person myself, it was great to hear these writers defend the need for death narratives that ring true.
So, that’s my first round-up. There will be more to come, with one more week of the festival, including events for Australian Writers Week. Tomorrow I’ll be participating in the festival myself, as part of the NYTC BLF Literary Caravan, in a Chinese language session with author Lu Nei. There will be a bilingual moderator, and I will have a translator sitting next to me. As it will be my first translated event, I’m a little nervous I’ll get tongue-tied! Having already attended a bilingual International Women’s Day breakfast, and a bilingual yoga class, I’m looking forward to seeing more of how two languages can work in concert.