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Assessing the World Through a Prism of Light

The Inaugural EU-China International Literary Festival

Assessing the World Through a Prism of Light—What do Authors do to Avoid Being Pigeonholed?

The Bookworm, November 23, 6pm

A Yi ( China), Wen Zhen(China), Jasna Horvat (Croatia), Guy Helminger (Luxembourg)

Article by Poornima Weerasekara


Writers are always trying not to fall into the trap of being “categorized,” and engage in genre-bending and genre-blending to provoke and challenge readers.

But is it possible to escape from being pigeonholed into one genre?

For Chinese policeman-turned-novelist who writes under the penname A Yi, it has been both a blessing and a curse to be branded as a “crime-thriller writer.”

“Although the English translation my novel was titled ‘A Perfect Crime,’ and marketed as a crime thriller, I didn’t intend it to be that way,” said A Yi, speaking at a panel organized by the first-ever China-Eu Literary festival in Beijing on Nov. 23. “But we have to make an allowance for what the publishers want because they know what sells.”

“For me writing about crime is just a tool to expose the hidden inner being… When I was working as a policeman, most people who came to us would swear or behave in extreme ways that they wouldn’t do in normal life. For me, this is their true nature. And crime is a form of provocation that releases your hidden demons,” he added.

Yi says he draws inspiration from works like “Crime and Punishment” or “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky, where crime or other actions aren’t premeditated or have a precise motive. “I am more interested in spontaneous behavior, that single moment when one is out of control.”

And this attempt to explore the depths of the inner mind isn’t limited to one genre.

Guy Helminger, a poet, playwrite and novelist from Luxembourg, says he has also been hunting for the inner ghost in his works in multiple genres.

“It’s the robe of civilization that keeps people away from murder but sometimes they overreact. At times, when what’s inside comes out and betrays you, that’s when the real drama happens.”

“For example, a murder without reason, or doing a horrible thing without a reason, makes us realize that there is a sea of madness in all of us that doesn’t (usually) come out,” he said.

Other authors try to escape being labeled as being from a certain place, or of a certain tradition by adopting a form that can deliver different levels of meaning to diverse groups of readers.

For example, Croatian author, culture theorist and professor of economics Jasna Horvat, draws her inspiration from a French-literary movement known as the Oulipo writers, which brought together mathematicians and novelists that sought to “free literature by tightening its rules.”

Horvat says that when she starts to write, she first finds a theme and then sets strict rules for her structure, which allows her to “organize the book as a chess board on which the readers can play.”

“The story is the most basic or fundamental level of a creative work. Some readers would enjoy the plot and that’s enough for them,” she said. But intelligent readers can also gradually peel off the different layers of meaning embedded into the narrative, as they progress and unravel “the rules of the game they are playing,” she added.

“These other levels are heavier, but not everyone can discover them,” according to Horvat, whose latest book “Vilikon” tells the story of the author eavesdropping on a conversation between Marco Polo and the great Kublai Khan.