The Inaugural EU-China International Literary Festival
Beijing Bookworm, November 22, 8pm
Zhu Wenying (China), Stanley Chan (China), Richard Obermayr (Austria) Zuzana Kepplova (Slovakia)
Moderated by Alec Ash
Article by Deva Eveland
This panel brought together a group of international authors, each with their own idiosyncratic writerly obsessions. Richard Obermayr, from Austria, is fascinated with the construction of memory. Zuzana Kepplova writes about emigration and immigration in her native Slovakia. Zhu Wenying’s concerns are deeply personal. For her, literature is about finding the “morbid” side of oneself that we hide from society. The other Chinese panelist, Stanley Chan, is a science fiction writer who contemplates how technology is changing the very experience of being human.
It is perhaps unavoidable in the framing of such an event that we tend to view each writer as the embodiment of a national literature. The expectation that they will be a sort of diplomat for their cultural heritage only increases if they are from a place whose literature we don’t know. However, all of the writers on stage at Delving Deep seemed rather skeptical about playing such a role.
Zuzana Kepplova, as an observer of Eastern European diasporas, was the most critical of yoking literature to the needs of country. Kepplova explained that while writers have been complicit in the construction of unhealthy nationalisms, they also have the power to deconstruct those same problematic narratives.
Richard Obermayr noted that the writers who most influence him aren’t necessarily Austrian.
“Of course I cannot represent Austrian literature,” Obermayr remarked. “I cannot even represent myself, because my inner state is always changing and I have an inner parliament.”
Obermayr’s inner parliament is indeed an interesting one. He described the intersection of time and memory as a kind of conspiracy to create a past we wouldn’t have understood contemporaneously. His suggestion is that this lens, rather than the present, is the true medium of life.
Zhu Wenying is likewise interested in inner states rather than nation states. She talked about the role of negative childhood experiences in shaping the energy of writers, pushing them to express something that could not otherwise be resolved.
Stanley Chan came across as a partisan of science fiction more than any country. “Traditional fiction,” he remarked, “Is no longer realistic enough for me.”
Chan spoke about artificial intelligence in relation to the Victorian novel Frankenstein. Just as in this early work of science fiction, there is a potential for the creation to supersede the creator, profoundly shifting our place in the universe.
The Delving Deep panel presented four very distinct, yet compelling approaches to writing. Their discussion revealed that the true diversity of these authors was not to be found in their passports, but rather the different approaches they take in contemplating what it means to be human.
Three questions for Zuzana Kepplova：
You studied script writing. Has that influenced you as a novelist?
When I write, I see things in scenes. And whenever I don’t know what to write next I change the scene. I cut, and then I go elsewhere. I don’t believe the writer needs to resolve everything.
Earlier you mentioned the problematic intersection of literature and nationalism. Could you talk more about that?
Yes, take for example the Hungarian politician Victor Orban. He also flirted with literature in the way that he used literature as a sign that “Okay, you can see how many books are being produced in Eastern Europe, that means we’re flourishing and Western Europe is in decay and we are the new Europe. We are the carriers of the narrative. The real Europe.”
So there’s this internal battle. In a way I see him as a fiction writer. He doesn’t really have books produced but his politics are very much based in fiction. His politics deliver very strong fictions.
Some of the panelists described their process almost as though the act of writing alters their state of mind. Does anything like that happen to you?
When I started writing, I would definitely smoke menthol cigarettes to enhance the writing process. I guess that we are somehow victims of this Romantic narrative, that you go into this other altered state of mind in order to be the big spirit of literature. In the end when we read it, either it’s a good text or it’s a bad text so I’m not quite sure whether menthol cigarettes help.