An impressive line up of European and Chinese literati gathered tonight to launch the inaugural China- EU Literary Festival.
Article by Andy Killeen
The event was opened by the European Union’s Ambassador to China, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut. It brings together writers from eight European countries and six prominent Chinese writers, who were each asked to introduce themselves and their writing in one minute.
The writers responded with a mixture of insight and self-deprecating humor.
“A whole minute to define my work is a little bit too much,” said poet, playwright and novelist Guy Helminger, “so I’m going to tell you a different story.” He amusingly described his struggles to get people in Beijing to accept that his homeland Luxembourg is a real country. However, he added, “in Europe not many people know anything about contemporary Chinese literature. That’s why I’m glad that festivals like this exist.”
Marius Burokas, a Lithuanian poet, said: “It’s a very hard question for poets to answer. Because most poets don’t know what the hell they’re writing about.”
Paolo Colagrande, a novelist and editor from Italy, expressed his gratitude to the European organization which had brought him here. “Considering,” he added drily, “that in Italy they are all writers. We have just a few readers. So it’s a great honor to have been chosen.”
Austrian novelist Richard Obermayr talked about writing as “an exercise of postponing decisions, postponing jumping to conclusions.” He talked about the frantic pace of modern life, and declared a hope that “in literature, you might find yourself slowing down a little.”
Dimitrios Stefanakis compared the deep-rooted culture of his native Greece with China, another home to an ancient civilization. “As a Mediterranean writer,” he said, “I mostly make use of three elements: the light, the sea, and memory.”
Zhu Wenying, the Shanghai novelist, talked about “the necessity for cultural communication.”
“What we see about human nature is out of our imaginations,” she said, “sometimes correct, sometimes not.
“What 20 years of writing has taught me,” she said, “is that through two or three sentences, I will know whether someone will be my friend and how close we will be.”
Jasna Horvat, from Croatia, is a true polymath, a writer of fiction for children and adults, a maker of myths and a literary experimenter, a cultural commentator and a Professor of Economics. She talked about the history of the Silk Road; “we were connected a long time ago,” she said, “and now we are here to build new, literary connections between Europe and China.”
A Yi describes his crime writing as “filled with death and dilemmas.” He talked about his former career as a policeman in Jiangxi province, before he discovered writing: “I felt I had found the profession of my life,” he said. “I sat up all night writing while my relatives were playing Mahjong.”
He acknowledged too the importance of the Bookworm to his career.
“My books have been translated into a lot of languages. It all started with the Bookworm. Now my books are the fastest translated of many contemporary Chinese writers.”
Novelist Lu Min also talked about the transformative power of writing, described how it turns life “from a piece of paper to the thickness of a book.”
Zuzana Kepplová, an editor and writer from Slovakia, said: “To be honest I never dreamed of coming to China. Reality was faster than my dreams. And that’s a characteristic of China, that reality is faster than dreams.”
The first question from the audience came from a competition winner. She asked whether it’s true that fiction, and particularly the novel, has the highest status among the literary arts.
Lu Min turned the question round, and asked why so many people still love reading novels. She said that the Chinese for novel, 小说 (xiăoshuō) means “small story”, but in a few pages fiction can show “the breadth and depth of humanity.”
Guy Helminger said he used “different genres for different purposes.” Plays are good for political subjects, he said, but he argued too for the importance of poetry. “We all the time want meaning, information,” he said. Fiction gives us that, but “poetry is the opposite. It opens a little space… allows a glimpse of light, of eternity.”
Isabella Wéry, a novelist, actress and singer from Belgium, agreed that theater was a good place for politics. “I write novels,” she said, “when I want to whisper a story in the ear of the listener.”
A Yi had the last word though, when he said that “the novel, like all literature, provides a temptation or pleasure, which far exceeds ordinary things like TV, opera, film, food, or life.”
Judging from their opening sallies, the discussions with and between these writers over the next two days promise to be both entertaining and enlightening.