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Szántó T. Gábor x Deng Yiguang: Identity, Memory and History on the Page


At 5:00 p.m. on November 22ed, 2020, the twelfth event of the 5th China-Europe International Literary Festival was held online. The Hungarian writer Szántó T. Gábor, together with the Chinese writer Deng Yiguang, had a discussion under the topic of “Identity, Memory and History on the Page”.


Writers often explore convoluted questions of identity, tap into vaults of memory, and assess history from multiple vantage points as they refine research and develop fictional worlds. To discuss how they construct their own fictional realms, we are joined today by Szántó T. Gábor from Hungary and Deng Yiguang from China. Szántó T. Gábor is a novelist, essayist, screenplay writer and editor-inchief of the Hungarian Jewish monthly Szombat. One of his short stories (1945, Homecoming) has been developed into a feature film entitled 1945 which won 20 awards across the world and has been distributed in 40 countries (available in China on Beijing eFida). Deng Yiguang, of Mongolian ethnicity, has published 10 novels. He has been widely translated and won the first Lu Xun Literature Award, among others. Moderated by Berlinka.


Deng Yiguang, a Chinese contemporary writer, has authored more than 20 novels including I Am the Sun and more than 20 novellas, such as Looking for a Place I’ve Never Been. His writing has been translated into several languages. He has won the Lu Xun Literature Award, the Feng Mu Literature Award, the Yu Dafu Literature Award, Lin Jinlan Short Story Outstanding Writer Award, People’s Literature Award, National Book Award, among others. His latest novel People or All the Soldiers has been selected into the list of the annual novel list of Harvest Literature, the annual novel list of contemporary literature, the annual novel list of the Chinese Fiction Society, and the Asia Weekly list of the world’s top ten Chinese novels. He is now living in Shenzhen.


Szántó T. Gábor is a Hungarian novelist, essayist and screenplay writer (Budapest 1966). He holds a degree in law and political science from Eötvös Loránd University Budapest and studied Aesthetics and Judaic Studies. He participated in the Iowa International Writing Program Residency in the United States (2003). Szántó is the editor-in-chief of the Hungarian Jewish monthly Szombat. His additional field of interest is researching and teaching Modern Jewish Literature. He published several novels, collections of short stories and a book of poetry. His novella (Mószer) was published in German as In Schuld verstrickt (1999) and a volume of short stories (Обратный билет – Obratnij Bilet) came out in Russian (2008). His novel Kafka’s Cats was published in Turkish (2018) and in Czech (2020). One of his short stories (1945, Homecoming) has been developed into a feature film entitled 1945 directed by Hungarian film director Ferenc Török. The film that Szántó was one of the screenwriter of won 20 international awards and has been sold into 40 countries. His book 1945 és más történetek (1945 and Other Stories) is a collection of short stories (2017) which contains the short story that served as the basis of the film. This volume will soon come out in Italian and Chinese (2021). The title story was also translated into English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, Slovak and Slovenian. His recent novel is Európa szimfónia (Europe Symphony, Scolar Publishing House, 2019). M&M Film has reserved the rights to make a film of this novel.


Since both of the writers learned well on identity, memory and history, they started a conversation around this topic. At the beginning of the conversation, the moderator Berlinka asked Szántó, “the book 1945 is about the Jewish survived from the Second World War, and in the story, it involves the processing of memories. How did you express the tension between one person trying to recall his memories while the other sparing no effort erasing it?” Szántó answered, “in 1945, some Jewish was not belong to the village, so for the local people, they thought they were foreigners. The lack of understanding became the estrangement between each other, which was the dramatic origin of the book. Then the estrangement became the misunderstandings, the memory of the history that they used to collaborate with the Nazis to confiscate the Jewish people made them feel guilty. So when the Jewish people backed to the village after the war, they had the inner complex. The story have two narrative threads, one is for the Jewish people, while the other is for the villager.”


Then, Berlinka asked, “Deng Yiguang used to write a series of novels about people’s life in Shenzhen, combing its past history and present condition. Interestingly, people in this new migrant city rarely talk about the history, and even resist to talk about it. So how did you deal with the history of Shenzhen and the recognition of people in Shenzhen to this history?”


Deng Yiguang said, “Shenzhen is a city of immigrants. I used to use 8 years to observe and write about the life and psychology of immigrants in Shenzhen.” When talking about the issues of Shenzhen, Deng Yiguang thought it was important to talk about its history. First, he cited Aristotle’s views on the relationship between the city and citizens. The reason why he raised such view now in 21 century was that most of citizens live in Shenzhen, a modern city, are in loneliness because they have to face with the living problems and they do not have time to think about other things. Besides, Shenzhen is managed with big data, and everyone is actually being digitized. People’s fate cannot be determined by the city spirit and be concluded by simple urban and rural experience. It seems that people’s physical life is becoming better and better, but they face with a loss in spirit. And what the literature faces with is such complex absurdity.


Deng Yiguang also pointed out, “Identity is a kind of self-inquiry, a pursuit of people’s survival situation. Literature focuses on the facts, and the writers have the responsibilities to pay attention to the hidden word under the mainstream discourse.


The two writers also shared their opinions on how to deal with the minority identity. Szántó said, “My works always focus on the minority, especially a very small number of social groups, like the relationship within a small village, a family or a school. History can be reflected in the minority and I want wo show such relationship to reflect some history issues. When I write about the minority, I find that a lot of problems are similar. It is from the inequality of the power, and also from the misunderstandings and justice between person and person.” Szántó used his work Kafka’s Cats and Europa Symphony as examples. Besides, Szántó emphasized, “the definition of minority is based on strength versus weakness, and they are on the weaker side.”


Deng Yiguang thought that the definition of the minority was worth thinking. What kind of groups can be called the minority? These questions should be clarified. The key problem is that “what makes the minority a small group?”


In the Q&A session, on reader asked the two writers, “how did you deal with the relationship between the historical facts and writing?” Szántó said, “we have to seriously regard the historical facts and respect history memories. If there is need to change the fact, it is necessary to add annotation to tell readers they are imaginary. At the same time, literature is the art of fiction, the processing and re-creation of the facts. If a writer create a fiction, he should respect the history, but not necessarily adhere to copying historical facts.” Deng Yiguang said, “literature is too find the value and authenticity of human beings, and actually the authenticity of human beings is beyond the historical representation.” He also emphasized that literature writing and history books writing was different at the same time.


The China-Europe International Literary Festival has been held for the past 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.


An the end of the conversation, both of the writers extended their warm greetings to each other, and expressed their great pleasure to attend the literary festival. They believed although the pandemic was a huge problem people faced with, but it made people get closer to each other to think about how to deal with it together.


By Zong Cheng

Translated into English by Sarah Sa