At 7:30 p.m. on November 17th, 2020, the sixth event of the 5th China-Europe International Literary Festival was held online. The Austrian writer Teresa Präauer, together with the Chinese writer Sheng Keyi, had a discussion under the topic of “Art, Images, Language – Potent Prose and Visualisation”.
Teresa Präauer (fiction writer, essayist visual artist) is the author of the novels Oh Schimmi, Johnny und Jean, and Für den Herrscher aus Űbersee (For the Emperor from Overseas), which received the aspekte prize for the best German-language prose debut of 2012.
Sheng Keyi is a contemporary Chinese novelist and artist. Her novels include Northern Girls, Death Fugue, Wild Fruit, Morality Eulogy and so on. Her works have been translated into more than ten languages, such as English, French, Italian, Russian, Swedish, Czech, Japanese, Korean etc., and published abroad. Her writing style and expressions are appreciated by the literary critics as bold and experimental.
Since both of them are writers and visual artists, the conversation started from their writing and painting experience.
Sheng Keyi recalled that being a writer was not her childhood dream. When she was young, she had almost no idea about what a “writer” entailed. Eventually, because of a simple and pure love for writing, she became a writer. She grew up in a poor village, lonely and wild, and there were not enough books to read. As a result, in her childhood, she was sad and silent; in her youth, she was still “muddled”, “like a sleepwalker” and didn’t know the goal and direction of her life.
However, Sheng Keyi believed that her loneliness and confusion was a kind of preparation for becoming a writer. Many of her works mentioned the fate and struggle of females, which might be inspired by her teenage life memories.
Sheng Keyi started publishing essays when she was 20 years old, but she was still confused until she began to write novels. “I found and recognize myself in writing. Continuous writing will not only create works but also create myself and even the whole world.” So she is grateful to be a writer, and the road she is on is endless. The world is full of possibilities.
Teresa and Sheng Keyi have many similarities: Teresa was an art student, who had little to do with the identity of “writer” in early years. For about 10 years after her graduation, Teresa had been doing things related to arts. However, after participating in some art festivals, she began to notice that she did not agree with some artistic literary criticism. Gradually, she started writing some criticism herself, and over time, art faded out of her life and writing took over.
When her first written work was published, Teresa was almost 33 years old. Occasionally, she said, she opened a big door on her life journey and entered another new world.
As a writer, she had to meet with such topics as “loneliness” and she said, “first, we should have the ability to accept the loneliness.” For a writer, keeping themselves lonely is an important ability, “even a superpower”. When she was in Europe, she spent most of her time travelling and reading alone, but occasionally she needed to deliver speeches in public. She thought it was important for a writer to “be part of the crowds while staying away from them”.
During the creation, images will appear in Teresa’s brain earlier than words, such as scenes in the library, the rubbish on the road. And then those images will turn into words.
Sheng Keyi admitted that when she was writing novels, she would grab all kinds of inspirations from daily life, like beautiful words in daily reading, or short news in a newspaper. Those inspirations would prompt her to create a new story. And short stories needs such “inspirations” and occasionality.
However, long novels are more complicated, which needs a long-time for the preparation, accumulation and fermentation on their themes and structures. It needs a process from self-doubt to internal authentication, from full of weaknesses to powerful illustrations. Such process cannot be an overnight work. During the creation period, you should gradually grow up and live with those characters, which is a like a marathon that needs full mental, physical and psychological preparations.
Sheng Keyi regarded painting as her hobby. She started painting in 2013, but her focus was still on writing. She modestly said she still “lacked experience”, but she believed when starting painting, it was important to add one’s emotions to the work.
Then, the moderators invited both writers to talk about their daily writing routines. Teresa said she stayed mostly at home but sometimes went to the library or café, not only for writing but also reading or chatting with friends, which might bring her a lot of inspiration. Besides, surfing the Internet and watching TV were “guilty pleasures” which she could add into her novels.
Of course, reading accumulation is essential. From 2012, Teresa has been travelling a lot, and she “yearned for a quiet life”. This year, because of the pandemic, she was forced into an extraordinary tranquility, so she hoped that the pandemic would end as soon as possible and the world would regain its beauty and prosperity.
Sheng Keyi has an ordered life. In summer, she get up at 6 a.m. After the morning running and breakfast, she will write until 11 a.m. While in the afternoon, she reads books and takes some sports activities. In winter, she keeps the habit of doing yoga because “yoga can not only help shaping the body but also relax our cervical spine, which benefits all long-term desk workers”.
Teresa presented a set of works – retro-style illustrations created during the pandemic period – that would be released in the spring of 2021. Those creations were inspired by an activity about Christmas presents in a bookstore in Germany, and her illustrations also became a part of those presents. And then, she presented an excerpt from the novel Glück ist eine Bohne (Happiness is a bean) which was finished in February.
Sheng Keyi also showed readers a set of works painted last summer. On the painting was a girl wearing a costume. Sheng Keyi said that she loved opera very much. Through this painting, she explained her emotions – nostalgia, and she was in memory of her childhood. For example, once she went back to her hometown, she found it was completely changed and she missed the things passed away, so she wanted to reserve them in paintings. It was also the first time for Sheng Keyi to share an excerpt of the work which she had been dealing with to readers. It was a diary of a nurse in a mental hospital.
The moderator also asked Sheng Keyi about her explanations on “some writers are like soldiers while some are like doctors”. For the former metaphor, Sheng used the former president of Czech Vaclav Havel as an example. Havel was a writer who constantly struggled with his writings. He was always in prison before his death, but he still expressed his opinions through writings, which exerted a great influence on Chinese liberal intellectuals and to the literary world. The Polish poet Herbert Zbigniew, who participated in the general social movement, was another example. He used to said, “I can suffer any difficulty and fight for a better moral order.” Others, like Solzhenitsyn, known as the “conscience of Russia” and Lu Xun from China were also typical examples whose warnings still inspire the deaf to this day.
“But more writers are like doctors, dissecting life, cleaning its wounds and looking for the ills of the society.” Sheng Keyi said, “languages cannot be the tool of resistance, but languages can keep the words pure.” What she can do is to maintain the purity of words and insist on the nature of the literature.
Teresa spoke of Kafka’s metaphor of the circus and the acrobat: an actor who seems to be in the spotlight, but he may not even know what he is doing. Teresa believes writers sometimes share the similar experience – we seem to write for the public but sometimes we will lose ourselves in writings.
Finally, Sheng Keyi mentioned, “a writer is contradictory. Sometimes, you must stay away from the outside world, but you also have to blend into the world.” But some writers are different. They only need a library.
A reader asked the two writers whether translations would restrict the spread of literatures. Sheng Keyi said, “in addition to trust, there is nothing left.” If we don’t trust the translator, but still looking forward to its publishing, it is absolutely a contradiction. But after she learned English, she felt that the more you know about a language, more difficult you would feel the translation is. So now she is more tolerant to the translations, except some obvious mistakes or some key information which cannot be changed. In her opinion, if the translation has an obvious mistake, clear and natural semantics will become stiff, which will be difficult for readers to understand, and that will make authors sad.
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 the writers from 27 European countries will continue the literary conversation between China and Europe.
At the end of the event, both of the writers showed their satisfaction to the conversation, and extended their greetings to each other. They also expressed their expectations for the world bac to normal as soon as possible after the pandemic, and they hoped writers could shoulder their own responsibilities.
By Xiao Yao
Translated into English by Sarah Sa