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Review 5.17: The Opening Ceremony for the 4th EU-China International Literary Festival

The Opening Ceremony for the 4th EU-China International Literary Festival
By: Amanda Fiore

The EU-China International Literary Festival’s opening ceremony is held in a well-lit rectangular room inside the Delegation for the European Union in Beijing. This event marks the official start of the fourth annual EU-China Literary Festival, where writers from each of the 18 EU member states along with more than 20 writers from China will come together to talk about literature and promote a cross-cultural exchange.

Internationally recognized Chinese author, Su Tong, captures the hope of the festival when he likens literature to “a lighthouse for civilization.” The full metaphor, related to the audience by translator Elaine Liu, envisions civilization as a vast ocean, and literature as the lighthouse that guides us. Su Tong explains that while each nation might erect its own guiding light, we all share the same ocean, and so sometimes we may borrow the light from others as a guide.

The lighthouse analogy is appropriate, not just for literature but for the spirit of today’s event, echoed by the many authors who stand, one by one, and take the microphone, as well as by the Ambassador of the European Union to China, Nicolas Chapuis, who calls the festival a “meeting of the minds,” and Programme Director, Peter Goff, who reads a short letter from Chinese officials encouraging cooperation among artists and writers as a way to forge a new global literary future.

Perhaps it is no surprise that, as explained by the Vice Chairman of the China Writers Association, Li Jingze, and echoed by many of the Chinese authors who speak today, European literature is not considered ‘foreign,’ but rather, part of China’s literary psychology.

Setting the tone for a true open-minded dialogue is a formidable looking woman in a bright red dress named Leonora Christina Skov from Denmark. She has come to China to discuss her autobiographical novel, “The Quiet Sense of Something Lost,” which she refers to as “a book about survival.” The book features, among other things, a fraught relationship with her mother, torn to pieces when Skov falls in love with a female priest. The relationship not only caused Skov to lose her mother, but her entire family.

Acclaimed Chinese writer Li Er expresses his interest in learning more about Skov’s book, and echoes the sentiment that European literature is “part of our own literary heritage.” He characterizes European and Chinese literature as, respectively, “suspicion of the past, and belief in the future,” and tells the crowd that young writers in China work to reflect change. As such, festivals like this one are rife with the possibility of revolutionary thinking.

Chinese author, Yi Zhou, says us that after 20 years of writing and creating he has finally come to understand the relationship between himself and literature: “it is like a child,” since just like a child, he tries “mirror [his] literary heroes, many of which come from Europe.” He says that imitation is a process all writers go through, and that it is through this “process of imitating others that authors will eventually find themselves.” He adds that he expects to find many more traits worth imitating here at this festival, including from authors like Leonora Skov, who walked with him from the hotel in very comfortable shoes and then changed into high heels.

The depth of insight and quippy one-liners we hear from these authors is deepened by the diversity of children’s book authors, who make up the majority of authors at this year’s festival. Kostas Haralas, for example, is from Greece. A smiling man in a button down shirt and jeans, he tells that he is lucky enough to have written “out of my surplus rather than out of my needs,” which means he is can “support [his] work without restrictions.” He has won a national prize for his latest book, which like all his books, is about family, because “family is the main structure of humanity.”

Other children’s book writers include Zane Zusta, from Latvia, who writes because “it makes [her] soul fly,” and Chinese writer Liang Hong, who recounts the touching story of being 14 years old, and in lieu of going to school spent all day laying in trees, reading books and writing in her diary. When the sun went down she would feel as though she could hear her own heartbeat, and whereby she would get the feeling that she was “both very lonely and very full” at the same time. This, she tells us, “is literature to me.”

We hear from Croatian writer, Svjetlan Junakovic, who is a writer of children’s books but primarily an illustrator, and Bibi Dumon Tak from the Netherlands, who is a writer of non-fiction for children. She insists that her non-fiction is not boring, but what she calls “truth in stories,” buoyed by a genre she dubs “non-fiction poetry.” Bibi gets a sympathetic chuckle from the audience when she stands in front of them in her slack grey sweatpants and plain blue shirt, explaining that the reason she is not in her evening gown, but donning a “camping look,” is because unlike herself, her luggage did not complete the journey. Alas, she is here with nothing, but it’s not all bad, because that also means she is free, and freedom, she reminds us, is the literature the purpose of literature.

There is Peter Sventina, from Slovenia, who remembers one of the earliest books he ever loved as a translation of Chinese poetry, and Zsolna Ugron, from Hungary, who writes historical fiction. In the end there is much more said that can possibly be recounted here, an endless array of laughter and insight closed by Shi Hongjun, from CITIC (China), who remarks that there are many eternal topics which can be shared between us at festivals like this, uniting us through our diverse past and future histories.

There will be more than sixty events over nine days across four locations – 3 CITIC bookstores (publishing houses in China) and The Bookworm in Sanlitun. Many events will focus on children, who are, of course, our next generation of readers, writers, and swimmers in the ocean.

For more information, visit the EU Literary Festival’s Webpage.

Written by: Amanda Fiore
Writer living in Beijing, China
WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore