The Inaugural EU-China International Literary Festival
Baring Society’s Shadow and Soul: Literary Ways and Means
Beijing Bookworm, November 23, 6pm
Zhang Yueran (China), Dimitrios Stefanakis (Greece), Isabelle Wéry (Belgium)
Moderated by Tomasz Sajewicz
Article by Avtar Singh
Zhang Yueran put it very succinctly: “Fiction is the representation of the inner desires of the writer.” Both she and Dimitrios Stefanakis were emphatic in their rejection of a social, indeed political role for literature and the author.
Much of the lively discussion that followed centred on the question of whether literature and its creators need to have a broader political role. Literature cannot change the world, said Stefanakis bluntly. Indeed, it shouldn’t even aspire to. What matters is words and ideas. As he put it, “There is a conflict between reality and appearances… Society is a conventional map of human beliefs. Sometimes the fictional world is more “authentic” than the real world.”
Wéry, whose background is in theatre—she sang a brief passage from her surrealist-inspired book to applause from the audience—took a more optimistic, even “Utopian” view about the role of books in society. Her Brechtian training and experience in delivering The Vagina Monologues led her to believe that “as an artist, it is really important to have a point of view about society… I want to give an energy to the audience, to the reader.”
Zhang Yueran was more circumspect—and more articulate, given that she was speaking in her first language, Chinese, as compared to the two Europeans, who delivered their thoughts in English. While agreeing with Stefanakis that literature cannot change the world, she did say “It [literature] can be a seed. If it takes roots, it can be a beginning.”
That books and the act of writing can be the catalyst for individual change, at least, was something that the entire panel agreed on.
Zhang Yueran had a couple of great similes about being a writer in China right now. She spoke about the great changes that are happening, the huge migrations, and the different spaces people are inhabiting. The act of recording is “like a spirit… or a train. It is blurry. You must show that speed in the novel.”
Interestingly, she pointed out that she seldom thought about her reader, preferring to focus on her own inspirations. “I am more concerned with the life of each individual, what are the distortions between them.” Her focus on the individual—something she shares with other writers of her age and background—as opposed to the collective view of her parents’ generation is evidence of a further profound change in Chinese society. Perhaps this shift can be the focus of future discussion.
Elsewhere, Stefanakis was asked about his parallel life as a translator. He shrugged and said that “all translation is a counterfeit”. He backed up his provocative statement by clarifying that readers “like originality. The illusion of originality is important. It gives you something very authentic.” Clearly, though, what matters is the original itself.
The event was well-attended, with lots of back and forth in the question and answer session that followed the panel. The live translation into English and Chinese was welcome and seamlessly delivered via earpieces given free of charge to the audience. The buzz after the session when the writers came out and interacted with the audience over a drink or a cup of coffee was palpable. Many were waiting eagerly for the next session.
Q&A with Isabelle Wéry
Q Your book Marilyn Deboned has been translated into many languages. Is it available in English?
A No, not yet in English. But it is available in Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian… I’m the queen of the Balkans! It’s available in German, Georgian… Many languages.
Q Do you still see yourself as the owner of your book, or is it now, in a sense, free of you?
A I worked on my book for 12 years. The style is so bizarre… Every reader will take what they want from it. I’ve worked so much in theatre. But theatre is ephemeral. This book, it’s an object. It is a trace of my journey on this earth.
Q Would you like to add something to the discussion you just had with the other authors?
A The debate was a little too general, perhaps. There are as many ways to see writing as there are authors.