Ahead of our rare Chinese Literature panel discussion on Wednesday 18th April at 7pm, we asked Rebecca Carter, the motivating force behind the event, to explain what lies behind this occasion . . .
Ian McEwan is a bestseller in China. But how many of us can say we know whether the Chinese have an equivalent to Ian McEwan ? Or have even read a novel translated from Chinese?
Not so many years ago, I certainly hadn’t. That changed when, as an editor at Random House, I published Ma Jian’s travelogue Red Dust, and then his novels The Noodle Maker and Beijing Coma. Other Chinese writers came my way, and they (and their translators) kindly gave me a crash course in Chinese literature. Even so, I had never been to China. It wasn’t until last year that I finally visited the country I had read so much about. I was invited by the British Council as part of a mission to get more Chinese literature translated into English.
It was a remarkable trip. I and a small group of editors from other publishing companies, big and small, visited Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai, and met a wide variety of writers. There were well known figures such a Bi Feiyu, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, and younger writers such as Xu Zechen, one of China’s rising stars. Through the sensitive translation of Eric Abrahamsen and Canaan Morse, founders of Paper Republic – a Chinese literature website – we editors were able to have proper conversations with the writers, in relaxed circumstances. (Not something that always happens in a country where officialdom is never far away.) I heard about all sorts of books from Fantasy novels (China never had Tolkien so there are very different influences) to Poetry to a whole genre of women’s fiction apparently designed to help girls get ahead in the office. I learned about how Chinese writers get published (in a range of ways from literary journals to the internet) and about the themes that currently preoccupy them.
When I heard that some of the writers I had met would be coming to the UK as part of the London Book Fair’s China Market Focus, I thought it would be exciting to bring this conversation to people who aren’t lucky enough to be financed by the British Council to go to China. And also to people outside the London Book Fair, which is largely for industry professionals. Oxford being my home, I approached Blackwell’s, who were delighted by the idea. I also teamed up with Harvey Thomlinson, an ex-Oxford resident now running a publishing company in Hong Kong called Make Do Studios. Together we put together a list of authors we would like to invite, to include writers coming from China on the British Council trip along with other writers not living in China.
One of the things that had struck me when I talked to writers in China was that they often dismissed the work of Chinese writers living outside China, on the grounds that China is changing so fast you can’t write about it if you don’t live there. This seemed an interesting subject to debate since Chinese writers living outside China tend to counter with the argument that they are able to say things about China that those inside can’t say for political reasons. And so we have Bi Feiyu and Li Er who live in China, Geling Yan who moves between Europe and China, and Ma Jian who has recently been denied a visa to return to China. For another perspective, we have Tash Aw, a Malaysian Taiwanese novelist who has been living in the UK since his teens. Harvey Thomlinson will chair the event with the help of two expert interpreters, Eric Abrahamsen of Paper Republic and Ma Jian’s translator Flora Drew. This is a rare opportunity to listen to a group of distinguished writers – who aren’t often in the same room together – talk about their books, the current fiction scene in China, the literary tradition that lies behind it and what the future might hold.
Rebecca Carter is a Literary Agent with Janklow & Nesbit UK
This panel discussion takes place at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Wednesday 18th April at 7pm.
Tickets for this event are £2 and can be obtained by telephoning or visiting the Customer Service Department, Second Floor, Blackwell Bookshop, Oxford. 01865 333623.