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Ivana Šojat x Zhu Wenying: The Power of Literature: Building Bridges Across the Globe


At 7:30 p.m. on November 20th, 2020, the ninth event of the 5th China-Europe International Literary Festival was hold online. The Croatian writer Ivana Šojat, together with the Chinese writer Zhu Wenying, had a discussion under the topic of “The Power of Literature: Building Bridges Across the Globe”.


Literature is celebrated for its ability to capture imaginations, transport readers, instil empathy and cast light upon the dark. To discuss their own award-winning creative work, and the bridge-building capacity of great writing, we are joined today by prolific Croatian novelist, poet, essayist and literary translator Ivana Sojat, and Zhu Wenying, a Suzhou-based novelist and short story writer, and ardent promoter of cross-cultural literary exchanges. The discussion was moderated by Dave Haysom.


Ivana Šojat was born in Osijek in 1971. She spent several years in Belgium, where she obtained a university degree in French language and literature. She is a novelist, a poet, an essayist and a literary translator. Her works include collections of poetry Hiperbole (Hyperboles, 2000), Uznesenja (Ascensions, 2003), Utvare (Phantoms, 2005) and Sofija plaštevima mete samoću (Sofija Sweeps Up Loneliness With Her Capes, 2009), collections of short stories Kao pas (Like a Dog, 2006), Mjesečari (Sleepwalkers, 2008), Ruke Azazelove (Azazel’s Hands, 2011) and Emet i druge priče (Emet and Other Stories), novels Šamšiel (Shamshiel, 2002), Unterstadt (2009), Ničiji sinovi (Nobody’s Sons, 2012), Jom Kipur (Yom Kippur, 2014), Ljudi ne znaju šutjeti (People Don’t Know How to Keep Their Mouth Shut, 2016) and Ezan (The Adhan, 2018). For her novel Unterstadt (2009) she received Vladimir Nazor literary award, Ksaver Šandor Gjalski literary award for the best novel, Fran Galović award, Josip Kozarac and Ivan Kozarac awards for the book of the year.


Zhu Wenying is a writer who was born in Shanghai; but, since 1978 she has lived and worked in Suzhou. Since 1997, she has published several novels including: Aunt Lily’s Small South; Madam Dai and Blue; High Heels; and Watery Marriage; and many novellas including: Prosperity; A Floating Life; Double Pupils; Havana; Staring at Marina; Intoxicated Spring Night; and many essays. Some of her works have been translated into English, French, Japanese, Russian, German, and Korean. In China, she has been awarded many different literature prizes. Her works are unique amongst her peers and have been praised by Chinese critics as “regaining new extensions on the splendid, ancient, and delicate cultural atmosphere of South China.” Alongside her literature work, she has also been involved in the fields of art curatorship and criticism in recent years. She has participated in various International literary festivals and International literary exchanges. She continues to explore the literary world and literary cross-cultural exchange activities. She hopes to open up more International literary exchange between the countries of the world and foster a greater understanding of both local and global cultural spheres.


At the beginning of the conversation, both of the writers talked about their recent reading experiences and feelings. Šojat said, “I am a literary translator, and this work opens a door in front of me to other cultues. The books of different culture make me know the different world. I am very glad that this year I have translated Soul Mountain written by Gao Xingjian from French to Germen. Those experiences of translation make me know more about diversification and inclusiveness, which is commendable in such environment with extreme rhetoric and endless dispute.”


Zhu Wenying mentioned her recent re-reading of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg, and she appreciated the deep philosophical and speculative nature of German literature. She said, “every time I go to Europe, I will visit local churches there. I think the structure of the long novels written by Thomas Mann is close to the solemnity inside a Gothic church. After a few years’ writing, I prefer such serious, complicated and allegorical works.”


“There are many minority languages in the world whose literature needs to be seen by wider ranges of audience,” Šojat continued, “and for me, my translation is to lead those excellent works of literature to a wider world.” She cited her translation experiences, and pointed out that if we wanted to translate the work well, we should walk into the work itself first to get familiar with it. Zhu Wenying added, “A good work is worth being translated and transmitted to many different countries.” When talking about the relationship between writing and translating, Šojat thought translating could help her writing, making her more sensitive to the words and better understand differences between cultural contexts.


When asked about her recent work, Šojat mentioned that she was working on a book about family and historical memory, especially about the family life and the trauma memory. While Zhu Wenying was writing a long novel about the clash of Eastern and Western cultures, which was inspired by her thoughts during the pandemic. It would be an allegorical novel, expressing Zhu’s thoughts to the communication between people from different cultural background.


When talking about the pandemic happened this year, both of the writers said that this was a serious topic which was hard to be avoided and required serious thinking. Šojat shared her feelings of working at home during the pandemic period, “Actually for me, the pandemic did not affect my mental health because I am not a sociable person, and I prefer quietly reading at home. But recently I have wrote a novel about the pandemic.”


Zhu Wenying asked Šojat a question, “Šojat mentioned tat she had attended a war, and I want to know more about this experience because a writer who had experienced a war is unique, and I am curious whether this war has influenced her writings. “ Šojat answered, “in 1991, Croatia was involved in a war in which I fought as a woman warrior. This experience made me more peace-loving, life-loving and pursued me to be a tougher person.”


During the Q&A session, a reader asked, “is there anything should be paid attention to when translating a literary work?” Šojat answered, “a good translator should know the writer well, know his thinking method and background. Before translating a work, I will search for some information first. Finding a suitable tone is especially important.” Another reader asked, “How can we know Croatia and its culture better?” Šojat replied, “The best way is to stay in Croatia for a while. Besides, reading some books about the country is also a good way.”


The China-Europe International Literary Festival has been held for 4 years. Every year, the Chinese writers, together with the writers from Europe, discussed a variety of topics on life and society. Once more, in the 5th China-Europe International Literary Festival, excellent Chinese writers and 27 European writers will continue the literary conversation between China and Europe.


At the end of the conversation, both of the writers expressed their gratitude to the literary festival, and they wished both of them could create better literature works in the future and hoped human beings could soon overcome the difficulties brought by the pandemic.


By Zong Cheng

Translated into English by Sarah Sa