Introduction to the Second Wave of Authors at the 4th EU-China International Literary Festival
By: Amanda Fiore
The second wave of authors for the 4th Annual EU-Literary Festival are introduced in the library of the Bookworm. The event draws a crowd of literary lovers from across Beijing and features authors from Portugal, Slovakia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Finland and Cyprus, who Peter Goff reminds us, as he introduces each one in turn, are fresh off a fourteen-hour journey.
The authors sit at the front of the room behind three round tables while attendees help themselves to appetizers and photographers roam the room, adding an appropriate air of ceremony. The importance of events like these, which bring together authors and readers from the EU and China, cannot be understated. Most of these authors have not been translated into Chinese and tell us, in the Q&A session that they have little access to modern Chinese literature in their home languages. This underscores a lack of exposure and dialogue between the EU and China which the EU Literary Festival hopes to change.
Michal Hvorecky, a Slovakian writer of fiction and non-fiction, furthers this point by entreating us to consider that translations are the best way to build understanding between cultures. Literature, and the intellectual activity of writing, is something we all have in common as human beings, and we should share our stories. Hvorecky is himself a translator (German into Slovak), and so “working with words, texts, and books” is a passion that defines his life. His recent novel, Troll, was written as a kind of science fiction, a “near future vision” about the onslaught of fake news and propaganda in Eastern Europe, but due to current events it has been read as a political and social commentary. These are the sorts of ideas and conversations that we miss out on when we don’t have access to, or place value on, translations.
Gabija Grusaite, a young writer from Lithuania with a round, pleasant face, picks up the thread of language being a political thing. She tells us that she is more a student of the world than a Lithuanian because she lived in London and Malaysia for over a decade, where she listened to the stories of her neighbors, immersing herself in the mythology of their countries. Her last novel, Cold East, features characters intended to spark conversation about the marginality of shifting identifies, and what it’s like to not belong to any one definitive place. The book is written in slang, a fact that ignited a scandal in Lithuania where there is currently a “language police” empowered to fine people for “mistakes” in word usage and pronunciation. I ask her about this after the panel dissipates, and she describes it as Lithuania’s attempt to take control of an identity they felt was threated during Soviet occupation. Grusaite welcomes the debate her work engenders, since it is just this sort of conversation about how identities are constructed and who has the right to determine and inhabit them that she is exploring.
Ana Filomena, a cheerful Portuguese historian and writer with thick grey hair that seems to lift up and fly away from her face, started writing in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was still standing. Her first book imagined its fall, and when the wall fell soon after, it was heralded as a prediction. Since then she has written 11 more books, including, “Chasing Walls,” inspired by the 25th Anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction. She tells us that “art, and especially literature, must be committed and involved in the problems of society,” and that writers should always have a purpose to what they write. Her purpose is to make this world a better place. “If I can get close to this purpose,” she says, “I will be the happiest person in the world.”
The theme of change through literature is extended by Tom Nisse, a poet from Luxembourg with gold, wire framed glasses and peppery grey hair that sits back from his face. He writes in French, and at times works as a translator (German into French). He says that poetry is born from reality, and that reality has three parts: what we remember (the past), what we experience (the present), and what we desire for the future. He explains poems as the act of translating reality into language. This language is the artwork of the poem, an artwork which transcends reality. Because it transcends reality, it is therefore able, through its impact on the receiver, to change it.
Tuutikiki Tolonen, an author of children’s books from Finland, explains that for her, the purpose of writing is not so much to change as it is to create. This comes from her personal relationship with literature, which started as a child confined by illness to hospitals, where books became a treasured escape. Now, as a writer, the stories she writes and worlds she imagines accomplish the same beautiful thing. It makes sense when she tells us “I write as much for the children as for me.”
Cyprus author, Sofronis Sofroniou, speaks with a delightful smile that animates his face. Before he started writing he was as a psychologist and a neurologist, and so it is no surprise that his work deals with “memory, memory reconstruction, death, and time.” The characters of his most recent book are living on another planet, but the novel is not a dystopian one. Instead, it considers memory from the perspective of technology, exploring what memory is and will be.
As the panel wraps up, it is hard not to reflect on the fact that each of these writers speaks a disparate mother tongue, and yet they are in China, communicating to all of us in English. As some of the authors explain to me after the event, it is easy to overlook how unbelievably lucky first language English speakers are. The market for English is so enormous that most great literature is translated into English without question. Those who write in English also have an advantage in publishing, since the audience is equally expansive. English speakers, therefore, have access to parts of the world that these authors, and events like this, help us to realize is not universally the case.
Written by: Amanda Fiore
Writer living in Beijing, China