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Jozef Banáš x Chen Xiwo: Local Stories, Global Writers

At 7:30 p.m. Beijing time on Friday, December 4, 2020, the 23rd literary dialogue was held at the 5th China-EU International Literary Festival. The Slovak writer Jozef Banáš talked with Chinese writer Chen Xiwo. They have talked about ” Local Stories, Global Writers” to discuss how to create stories inspired by local events and how to make narratives transcend boundaries, texts and language.


Jozef Banas has been one of Slovakia’s most successful authors of the last decade. He is the recipient of many literary awards, both domestic and international. His books have been translated into fourteen languages and he has presented them in twenty countries. He has published five movie scripts, three theatre comedies, thirteen books in Slovakia and twenty-three books abroad. He has previously worked in foreign trade, diplomacy and politics. His works include the #1 bestselling novels Code 9 and its sequel Code 1 about the life of Jesus in India. His documentary novel Jubilation Zone has been very widely translated. Another of his documentary novels, Stop Dubcek! The Story of a Man who Defied Power, tells the life story of Alexander Dubček and his pivotal role in the Prague Spring of 1968.


Chen Xiwo is a writer with a PhD in comparative literature. He has published several novels such as Irritation. His books have been translated into English, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and many other languages.


At the beginning of the dialogue, the host first invited the two writers to briefly talk about the reasons and process of their respective creation. Joseph believes that, unlike China, it is easier to be a good writer in a small country like Slovakia. He wanted to be a writer when he was very young, but he didn’t start writing novels until he was in his fifties, which was 14 years ago. “Why write? Because no one wants to listen to me, I have to write them down.” He said with a smile.


Chen Xiwo, on the other hand, said that he was disappointed with the world recently and didn’t concentrate on creating too much. He once hoped to “save his life” through writing, but unfortunately, writing is a double-edged sword. Even if he hopes to gaze at the world through writing, as Nietzsche said, “when you gaze at the abyss, the abyss is staring at you”, Chen Xiwo said, “I am in the state of being gazed at by the abyss.”


Joseph expressed his understanding of Chen Xiwo and mentioned the concept of “half cup of water”, which means that everyone has different optimism and pessimism about life. As a writer, “we all hope to make the world better. The world is like the human body, which is composed of millions of cells. Now, through writing, we are still trying to promote the development of the world in a better direction.”


Chen Xiwo still put forward different views. He thinks that the nature of literature is dark, extreme and irrational, and its logic and realistic logic cannot be confused. Chen Xiwo often says to young writers, “don’t let the darkness of literature move into life.”. At one time, he also had hope for life, but in recent years, he gradually felt that real life was darker than literature, so he lost hope for the world step by step.


When the host talks about the audience of writing, Chen Xiwo compares the relationship between the author and the reader to that of lovers. “If the reader thinks that the author has written well, we can approach each other and fall in love, but if there is no feeling, it will be irrelevant.” Joseph fully agreed with this, “I just want to show my inner feelings completely because of my inner drive.”


Then, the topic comes to “how does a country’s literature go to the world?” Chen Xiwo, starting from the writers he appreciates, said that the good writers in his mind have tension and depth, such as Shakespeare, Lev Tolstoy, Kafka, etc. But then he asked a question: can Chinese writers write like these writers? “It seems that Chinese writers have always appeared in the world, but we should think about whether this kind of going out is to spread stories through thinking, thinking, or telling Chinese stories?”


“Some novels tell stories, but these novels can’t be satisfied with telling stories.” Chen Xiwo stressed that it is right to understand Chinese literature through literature, but it is not right to understand Chinese society and folk customs through literature. “Literature is literature, not providing materials similar to sociology and journalism.” The Western masters he mentioned just now do not want to understand the social situation at that time, but to read a unique spiritual core.


Joseph frankly said that in his creation, he mainly focused on two topics: one is history, the other is concrete and vivid individual stories. In a small country like Slovakia, he will choose the starting point of some small people and choose more interesting stories to elaborate, so as to attract readers and win the hearts of the people.


The host mentioned that in a special year, the whole world is facing a long term epidemic, and in a sense, the distance between global writers has become smaller. Joseph said that one of the goals of literature is to create more common sense of literature, and every writer is working hard for it. However, every writer creates according to his own national tradition and culture. It is gratifying that through creation, we can make different writers and cultures understand each other and enhance communication.


Chen Xiwo mentioned that the reality and social environment of different countries are different, so their creation environment and conditions are also very different. For example, this year, he wrote a book on epidemic situation, but no publisher has been found. Chen Xiwo sighed and summed up: “there are two kinds of problems in the world: world problems and China problems; there are two kinds of literature in the world: World Literature and Chinese literature.”


At the same time, he also stressed that writers should first take root in their familiar soil, but literary works should not be confined to political works, they should transcend politics.


In the Q&A, some readers asked how they viewed the translation of their works? Joseph said that his book had been published and promoted in more than 20 countries. When he communicated with readers, he found that most of the readers did not understand the social culture and history of Slovakia. However, when he communicated with some European writers, he found that many European readers knew a lot about some things in his works.


Chen Xiwo, on the other hand, believes that the western world is naturally quite different from China. When Irritationn was translated into French, his translator made countless overseas calls to confirm many details with him, in order to avoid misunderstanding.


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 event, the two writers expressed their thanks to the organizers of the China-EU International Literary Festival and wished that this literary journey could go further and further and help more readers appreciate the beauty of words.


By Xiao Yao

Translated into English by Helen Qiu