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Bi Feiyu x Colm Toibin: how can I be home in the magnetic field of literature?

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At Beijing time 12:00 on Saturday, November 14, 2020, the second event of the Fifth China-EU International Literary Festival officially began. The participants included Chinese writer Bi Feiyu and Irish writer Colm Tóibín. Bi Feiyu is a contemporary Chinese writer. His representative works include The Moon Opera, Plain, Massage etc. He was the winner of the first Lu Xun Literature Prize for Short Stories, the third Lu Xun Literary Award and the eighth Mao Dun Prize.


Colm Tóibín, known as the language master of English literature, is a famous Irish writer and literary critic born in the 1950s. His works mainly describe the Irish society, the life of the expatriates and the identity of the individual.


This dialogue is based on the theme of ” A Sense of Home”. The year 2020 is a special year. For many people, the epidemic situation trapped people at home. To some extent, home brings more and more in-depth thinking to people.


The two writers started with “what is home” as the starting point. Colm Tóibín first proposed that in ancient times, home was one of the oldest themes in literature, and also an indispensable part. In the process of thinking about home, we need to use home to fill in the emptiness and personal feelings.


Bi Feiyu first refuted a point raised at the beginning of the meeting, that he did not think the thoughts of “home” for a male writer were not delicate enough. On the contrary, Bi Feiyu stressed that “home” is an excellent topic for novel writers. “No matter what kind of works I write, everyone has a potential identity. It is easy to misunderstand it as a social identity but in fact, it is a natural and original nature, such as paternity, motherhood, lover, etc. These things often become an important starting point for a writer to feel the world.”


Colm Tóibín left home to live in boarding school since he was 15. In the process of independent adaptation and overcoming difficulties, he gradually began to have different ideas about “home”. When he came home again after a long time, he would suddenly find that the family in actual world and the family in memory feels different for himself.


He believes that “escape” is always one of the eternal themes of home. He recalled that more than 180 years ago in Ireland, people were constantly leaving their families in the form of immigration and relocation, but “the concept of ‘home’ is still deep in our minds.” For example, he is now in Los Angeles and can’t go home because of the epidemic, but he still feels that his home is with him.


Compared with anthropologists and historians, writers pay more attention to personal life when they pay attention to “home”. For example, in the past few decades, the two countries have experienced some changes, people’s memory will change, many people left home, many people also come back, the form of “home” is constantly flowing, but the essence of the connotation is connected.


Therefore, Colm Tóibín thinks that the memory represented by home is not only a landmark, but also a memory of an era and a collective. He referred to his work Brooklyn, in which he tried to imagine how his aunt would continue her life after immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, in order to achieve a broader thinking. “In Ireland, political life is not only about the state, but also about the fate of the individual and the micro face of the family.” However, in the modern society shaped by modern science and technology, people’s thinking about “home” still exists and carries some kind of ancient belief.


Bi Feiyu pointed out that in the past few hundred years, westerners discussed the relationship between man and God in their literary works. It was not until the 18th century in England that the element of “family” really appeared in the novels. For a long time, when we talk about culture, it is easy to associate it with the grand ideas of the country and the nation, but in fact, “family” is the smallest unit of “culture”. To some extent, the themes described by a writer may be centered on the two themes of “leaving the family” and “returning to the family”.


Additionally, for a writer, “he is either a rebel of his family, or a runaway, a betrayer.” Bi Feiyu believes that from the first day of writing, he defined himself as a rebel. “A man at home is like a fish in the water which is free. Once he gets out of the water, he may soon find that he has been sinking and lacks some buoyancy. So how can he find the organic interaction and good integration with the surrounding environment? ”


Colm Tóibín agreed. He believes that violence, resistance, so-called PUA and other dark elements may appear in the family, and one of the tasks of the writers is to reconstruct the stereotype of “home”. “The family is not perfect and happy as people imagine. We need to find the cracks in the glass and conduct dramatic investigation and treatment.” His new book House of Names breaks the seemingly warm family to explore the hidden fragments behind the loyalty, protection and love between mother and son.


He takes Shakespeare’s plays as an example. Shakespeare always presents the rebellion of a member of the family at the beginning. This dramatic force will urge people to imagine what will happen next. In the promotion of this imagination, a person may find something quite different and unexpected from his familiar family.


However, “if we consider the concept of home from the perspective of women, it may be another story.” Women play the role of tolerance in the long history, and another important task of the writers is to express the feelings they have been enduring and unable to express for women, such as Ibsen’s Nora left.


Although he is an Irish writer, Colm Tóibín has been living in a “cosmopolitan” life for many years. His feelings for home are complex and profound. In contrast, Bi Feiyu’s connection with his family is relatively stable. He lived in a fixed area since childhood, and never seemed to be far away from home.


“Frankly speaking, ” Bi Feiyu said, he has “no so much love for his hometown”. But after he turned 50, he began to feel a strange and old feeling growing in his heart. For example, when he heard the local voice outside, or suddenly heard some elements about his hometown in other places, he began to feel a kind of bitter pain – for the reason that he lost the cognitive ability of his hometown, but at the same time, he was emotionally inseparable.


Therefore, Bi Feiyu especially wants to invite friends to his hometown to get along with his current friends and hometown, so as to help him rethink an answer: how can I establish contact with my hometown again? In this regard, Colm Tóibín agreed that “over the age of 50, some emotions, experiences and memories in life will become particularly vivid, and the memories when young will become particularly powerful and vivid.”


Bi added that this year’s epidemic has increased the concentration among family members, which varies from individual to individual, and may become closer or looser. The changes and accidents of these times make the writer more aware of the need to pay attention to the “home” which is closely related to us at this moment.


In the Q&A section, some readers ask whether a person must be connected with his home in order to survive in the world.


Bi Feiyu believes that all the secret essence of life is “relationship”. The basic mode, emotion mode, thinking mode and expression mode of a person in this world must start from his family. He stressed that it is highly undesirable to mechanically oppose the family model and the world model. If one leaves the family, there is no way to find an appropriate model to talk to the world and express the world.


Colm Tóibín added that he thought everyone’s first home was their own bedroom, and even now, he often woke up the first time in the morning thinking, “if only I’m in my bedroom at home!” There I don’t have to face the trivia of life and don’t have to write or work. For home, everyone should still retain the most primitive warmth.


The China-EU International Literary Festival has been held for four times. During the annual exchanges, Chinese and European writers have conducted in-depth exchanges and discussions on various aspects of life and society, presenting a series of high-quality ideological collisions. At the 5th China-EU International Literary Festival, many outstanding Chinese writers and writers from 27 European Union member states will continue the literary dialogue between China and Europe.


At the end of the conversation, the two writers put forward some suggestions on literary creation. They both agree that the theme of writing should be what you fear the most. For example, if a person is afraid of poverty, you should write about a person who is destitute. If he is afraid of being lovelorn, he should write about a person who is hurt by love. For those who have passion and desire for writing, what you may need to do now is to go out of the house and take a walk outside.


By Xiao Yao

Translated into English by Helen Qiu