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Laimonas Briedis x Zhou Kai: A Tale of Two Cities and Two Genres

At 12:00 p.m. Beijing time on Sunday, November 29, 2020, the 19th literary dialogue was held at the 5th China-EU International Literary Festival. Lithuanian writer Laimonas Briedis spoke with Chinese writer Zhou Kai on the theme of ” A Tale of Two Cities and Two Genres”.


A book describes a city. Laimonas Briedis produced the best-selling, non-fiction Vilnius: City of Strangers (published in Chinese by Beijing: New Star Press), while Zhou Kai released his extremely successful historical fiction title Moss, which brings us back to the city of Leshan during the Qing Dynasty. Laimonas Briedis is a Lithuanian writer and scholar of history, literature and the geographical imagination of Lithuania. Vilnius: City of Strangers surveys the history of European culture through the changing cultural and linguistic landscape of the Lithuanian capital. Zhou Kai, from Leshan in Sichuan, published his deeply researched historical novel Moss in 2019, a book that centres around the Qing Dynasty city of Jiading, modern day Leshan. Laimonas Briedis and Zhou Kai will discuss their recent work, their research and writing processes, and how they brought these two cities to life on the page. Moderated by Berlinka.


Zhou Kai, from Leshan in Sichuan, published his extremely successful historical novel Moss in 2019, a book that centres around the Qing Dynasty city of Jiading, modern day Leshan. Taking the different fates of two brothers as clues, Moss involved extensive research and brings us to old teahouses, dyeing workshops, wine shops and brothels, and introduces the reader to the local customs and folk humour of the time. It was selected as the Southern Weekend Best Book of the Year, Tencent·Chinese Best Book of the Year, the One-Way Street Bookstore Literary Award, etc. Zhou Kai is currently studying creative writing in Renmin University of China. His collection of short stories The Detective Novelist’s Future Book will be published soon.


Laimonas Briedis is a writer and scholar of history, literature and the geographical imagination of Lithuania. A native of Vilnius (Lithuania), he has lived for most of his adult life in Vancouver (Canada) where he completed a doctoral degree in cultural geography at the University of British Columbia. He received his postdoctoral degree in history at the University of Toronto. His research and literary investigation explores the deepest cultural strands of Lithuania in relationship to different parts of the world. His creative output stretches from charting a GIS anchored global digital map of the multilingual literature of Vilnius to examining the ramifications of being bi-local; placing questions related to belonging, migration, diaspora, translation and memory at the core of his work. Laimonas is the author of many books, articles and works of translation, and he has presented his ideas and work at Tedx and on numerous radio and television programs in multiple countries. Among his non-fiction books is the bestselling Vilnius: City of Strangers, surveying the history of European culture through the changing cultural and linguistic landscape of Vilnius. The book has been translated into several languages, including, Lithuanian, German, Chinese, Russian and Portuguese. He is currently mining KGB archival files for his next book on the Cold War divide of his family divide between Canada and the Soviet Union, and is also writing a history of cultural memory of Lithuania. He is fluent in English, Lithuanian and Russian.


At the beginning of the conversation, the two writers first answered several questions raised by the host. Briedis talked about the problems of non-fiction writing about a city. “History is a key factor, and the depiction of geographical space is also very important,” he said. “From my own experience, I am more concerned about the geographical conditions of a place. The history of a city and its events are intertwined with geographical space. So, when I write, I will pay attention to the geographical location and spatial layout of the city. In addition, my own writing is closely related to my childhood. When I was a child, I liked to study maps, and my love of maps deeply influenced my writing. When I read the works about Vilnius and compare the city’s appearance now, I find that the city has undergone great changes in modern times, which gives me the power to write. ”


Zhou Kai thinks that even though history seems far away, but actually it is made up of life. He gave an example of his hometown. He has lived in Leshan for many years, and his impression of Leshan’s life, including the comparison between the past and the present, is his most intuitive experience of Leshan’s history. Zhou Kai said, “for writing novels, history is an atmosphere, and it must be admitted that sometimes when writers are writing the histories, it is also a kind of escape for them, because when you write the contemporary, you will face more external constraints, but if you go deep into history, the writer will be more open.”


Briedis added, “In the process of writing Vilnius’ history, I realized that it was more difficult to write about Vilnius’ history than it is now, because it was occupied by different countries in history, and the language changed at different times, so for me, when I write about this city, I also need to understand the changes in its language at different stages.” When talking about the choice of historical materials, Briedis said that it is very important to find the center of writing, and historical materials should be developed around this center. But frankly speaking, Vilnius’ history has a kind of incoherence in modern times, which makes it difficult to find the center.”


When it comes to Zhou Kai, he uses his work Moss as an example to illustrate his understanding of writing and region. In Moss, he wrote in Leshan dialect which like a code. Taking the different fates of the two brothers in Jiading (Leshan) of Sichuan Province as clues, he told a family story which disappeared in the misty clouds of history to the contemporary people, and vividly reappeared the fate of characters from all walks of life in Sichuan. However, Zhou stressed that he did not want his writing to be generalized in a local way.


He added, “in addition, as far as in China, the traditional urban biography writing is also divided into different types. Back to my novels, because the core of the novel is people, my writing materials are organized around how to establish people. What I want to say about locality is not the traditional local chronicles, but that many local concepts are actually derived. For example, the East is relative to the West. When people talk about the local place, it is easy to become a display perspective and a limited reflection adopted by the central government with the help of the local government. However, my writing subject could be narrowed. ”


In Q&A, a reader asked two writers what the next writing themes of the two writers will relate to. Briedis said, “I’m going to deconstruct my family’s history and incorporate it into my writing.” Zhou Kai said he will continue to focus on the combination of individual history and collective history. He said that writers have to be honest first and acknowledge their own limitations. After recognizing this point, writers can find something really suitable for him to write.


The China-EU International Literary Festival has been held for four times to date. During the annual exchanges, Chinese and European writers have conducted in-depth exchanges and discussions on various aspects of life and society, presenting a series of high-quality ideological collisions. At the 5th China-EU International Literary Festival, many outstanding Chinese writers and writers from 27 European Union member states will continue the literary dialogue between China and Europe.


At the end of the event, the two writers expressed their thanks to the organizers of the China-EU International Literary Festival and wished that this literary journey could go further and further and help more readers appreciate the beauty of words.


By Zong Cheng

Translated into English by Helen Qiu