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Jean Portante x Lu Min: Literary Nomads: Language, Experience and Inspiration

At 7:30 p.m. Beijing time on November 24, the 14th activity of the 5th China-EU International Literary Festival was held as scheduled. Jean Portante, a Luxembourg writer, and Lu Min, a Chinese writer, started a dialogue on the theme of ” Literary Nomads: Language, Experience and Inspiration”, with Jiao Jingshu as the moderator of the event.


Jean Portante was born in Differdange (Luxembourg) in 1950. He is of Italian origin. He lives in Paris. He has written more than forty books, novels, stories, plays, essays, translations and poetry, and has been widely translated in more than twenty countries. Many literary prizes have been awarded to him, including the Prix international de la francophonie Benjamin Fondane, the European Petrarca prize, the Rutebeuf prize, the Alain Bosquet prize, etc. In Luxembourg he was given twice the Servais Award for the best book of the year for two of his novels. In 2011 he was given in Luxembourg the National Literature Award for his entire work.


Lu Min started working at eighteen, and has been a post office clerk, a secretary, and has worked in planning, as a journalist, and as a civil servant. Lu Min started writing at the age of twenty-five and has published novels such as Multiple Love Letters, The Steering Wheel, Undeliverable Feelings, and Dinner for Six. Her short story collections and novellas include Accompany the Feast, The Song of Parting, The Viewfinder, Stirring up the Dust, and Page-Drunk. She has been awarded the Zhuang Zhongwen Literary Award, the People’s Literary Award, the Chinese Writers’ Award, the Monthly Fiction Reader Award, the Selected Fiction Award, and was honored with the Lu Xun Literary Award in 2010.


Before becoming a writer, Lu Min once worked as a journalist. She followed an interviewee on the night train from Nanjing to Beijing. On the train, she had a kind of illusion: “It seems that our whole huge earth has suddenly become as big as a fist, and the rail has become a very small thread on the fist.” People sitting on the railway are like little ants crawling across the huge earth for a long time.


That picture had a deep impression in Lu Min’s heart. She began to feel that outside of her normal career, she seemed to be full of many characteristics easy to imagine. She will find deeper points from many social appearances, think about her relationship with the world, and so on. Gradually, she finds that her current career may not be very attractive to her.


Then, she wanted more infinite and vast fate of the strangers. She felt that she should stop her 10 years of work and started writing. “I have found this love of dramatic imagination, and the greedy imagination of a vast number of people who are unfamiliar with fate, which should be said to be the case.”


From the perspective of “home” and language, Jean Portante talks about the process of becoming a writer. He confessed that he didn’t enter the literary world until he was 33 years old, which was relatively late. Before he became a writer, he thought that “there is a brewing process in his heart”. Jean’s native family was of Italian origin, and later his family moved to Luxemburg. During his childhood, he traveled between the two countries for a period of time. Later, he moved back to Luxemburg. Since then, he has two homes and two houses, which gives him a very interesting feeling: “When I am in one home, I want to be in the other home, and then go back to the other home and think of the other home.”


The reason he started writing at the age of 33, he thinks, is also inseparable from the migration before the two countries. Jean’s mother tongue is Italian, and during his ten years in Luxembourg, he gradually learned German, French and Luxemburgish. Before entering the real literary writing, he thought that he did not have a real language of his own and had not learned how to write in school.


During his time as a teacher, he wrote poems instead of correcting homework. He called the school the next day and said that he was ill. On the third day, he suddenly began to feel that his real occupation was not a teacher, but a writer. In May 1983, Jean quit his job as a teacher because he thought that writers were also “full-time jobs” and could not choose both.


He uses the whale as a metaphor for the language of writing and has mentioned the whale in his works. As we all know, a whale is a kind of mammal in the ocean, but also a kind of terrestrial animal. In the process of migrating from land to ocean, the whale is also a kind of migration process. Jean thought that, in a way, he himself was like a migrating whale, moving from one country to another. When you get to the ocean, you also need to adapt to the environment, and organs change for it.


Lu Min added that metaphorical expressions of language have a lot to do with specific times. For example, the writers of that era often used stamps and other objects as metaphors. In her own writing, she often mentions an object called Siberian cocklebur, a plant common to them when they were young, yet young people today are unlikely to be exposed to similar memories. “Metaphor has a lot to do with culture, age, your age, and your country and living habits.”


For example, to describe a person who is sentimental, she will think of Lin Daiyu; if someone is ambitious, she will think of Cao Cao. However, European or American readers usually need annotation to understand this allusion.


Jean agrees that Chinese culture and Western culture have their own characteristics, the same metaphor also has different understanding. In the Germanic language family, the moon is a “masculine” word, but in the Latin language family, the moon is feminine. Combined with the theme of today’s discussion “nomadism”, Jean emphasizes that for a long time in human history, “we are all in a state of nomadism. I think that’s why we still have a kind of nomadic literature or the source of nomadic lifestyle in our hearts.”


Lu Min, who was born in the 1970s, recalled that when she was a teenager, she felt that every road around her and every cell in the air were shouting a few big words: go to the city. “At that time, we seemed to have a wave of people from small places going to medium-sized places and medium-sized places going to big places.” In fact, from the countryside to the city is an important feature of the times in China from the 1970s to the present. Lu Min believes that this kind of geographical space migration of this generation has produced strong emotional echo in her heart and has gradually become a kind of “literary property”.


For Lu Min, migration is a kind of geographical movement of life, but she believes that for literary writing, it is also a key point of the whole country’s literary narration. And between the two, more between the individual, the era and the country, naturally formed a suitable rhythm. Therefore, for Lu Min, migration has great literary value and meaning.


In the Q&A, it was mentioned that there is a great difference between the spoken and written languages of French, but there seems to be no such great difference in Chinese. How should the two writers distinguish their own writing languages? First of all, Lu Min thinks that writers usually want to pursue their own style. For herself, she will try her best to distinguish between oral English and other writers, so as to find her own language style.


It is also mentioned that the current generation of young people are constantly using the Internet, and the network catchwords also have a greater impact on the current language. Jean thinks that the network itself is also a microcosm of society. It can reflect many phenomena and trends in society, including the way of speaking and writing. A key question is: who will complete this part of the writing? In the writer’s writing, the semantics of language may be higher and more literary. But if it’s some other occupation, such as a worker, a student or a secretary, all the different roles are closely related to the way he speaks and writes. For the network language, “there is everything in the network, both good and bad parts.”


This is the fifth edition of the China-EU International Literary Festival. 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 debates. 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.


By Xiao Yao

Translated into English by Helen Qiu