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Striking the Right Chord: Finding the Narrative Voice

The Inaugural EU-China International Literary Festival
Striking the Right Chord: Finding the Narrative Voice
San Lian Bookstore, November 23, 7:30pm
Sheng Keyi (China), Richard Obermayr (Austria), Isabelle Wery (Belgium)

Article By Deva Eveland

The narrative style of an individual writer is perhaps what makes the novel such a compelling medium. It is what allows us to get lost in a book, completely enthralled by the unique voice being whispered into our ear. The habits, memories, and inspirations that a writer brings are crucial in shaping the reader’s experience.
Isabelle Wery grew up on a French farm, observing the drama of animal birth, life, and death, a phenomena she describes as almost Shakespearean.
“There is a kind of intense contact with life,” Wery observed. Humans and animals lived together under the same roof, dealing with sickness, nature and the seasons together.
Sheng Keyi agreed that a writer’s childhood is very important. Her first novel, Northern Girls, was inspired by her own hometown in China. Like Wery, rural life was a part of her upbringing.
Richard Obermayr also draws from childhood memory as he writes. Growing up, there was a photograph in his house of a grandfather he had never met. The image of this forgotten man, who had been a French prisoner of war, and who no one talked about, was made more mysterious because Obermayr strongly resembled him. Obermayr constructed his first novel by inventing a series of background stories for the arcane photograph to present to his mother.
Obermayr also takes inspiration from the mundane aspects of daily life.
“The miracle is not that we can fly through the air in airplanes,” he insisted, “but that we can walk on the earth.”
Both Sheng Keyi and Isabelle Wery are motivated by the struggle for women’s equality. Sheng’s next novel will be concerned with the political institutions governing surrogate mothers in China. Wary mentioned that her Catholic upbringing gave her a difficult relation with her body, which she worked through as an actress in The Vagina Monologues.
“Theater is a strong place to talk about the body because it is a living art, Wery observed.
Wery’s background as an actress influences her writing process as well as her ideas. She writes in the first person in order to give her bodily energy to the character. Sheng Keyi also described the writer’s voice in very tangible terms, saying that she imagined African drums as she wrote Northern Girls, which allowed her to write a tragic story with humorous and witty language. Sheng also described how the quality of a writer’s voice might be like the flowing of water, the hustle and bustle of streets, or the sound of footsteps on a snowy evening.
The personality of this voice can be very intense. Wery begins a novel being haunted by a small voice, and letting this inner character build, speaking to her day and night until she is ready to pick up the pen.
The novel Obermayr is currently working on also started as a disembodied voice in his head. It began as a male, which was too close to his own, hindering his imagination. He realized the voice speaking to him “out of the fog of things” had to be female.
As idiosyncratic as these approaches seem, Obermayr doesn’t believe one has to be born with a special gift for writing. He illustrated his point with a short allegory.
“In the field of beekeeping, until the 20th Century it was thought that the queen bee had a special disposition. This was natural for people who lived under a monarchy. But in fact, scientists have since discovered that any bee which is nurtured can become the queen.”


Three Questions for Sheng Keyi

Q I see that you’ve written 7 or 8 books but I only knew about “Northern Girls” and “Death Fugue.” Are more of your books being translated into English?

A Yes, next year with Penguin Random House. Also Swedish, French and Russian.

Q You mentioned to Isabelle Wery that you’re going to her native Belgium next year. What takes you there?

A I’m going for a book talk next year, as some of my work will be coming out in French.

Q What’s the first book you remember reading?

A I think it would be traditional Chinese literature, like Guwen Guanzhi (古文觀止)。Reading the classics influenced my ability to use language.