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Zhang Li x Mia Kankimäki: Travel, Memoir, Inspirational Lives – The Road to Narrative

At 5:00 p.m. on December 5th, 2020, the twenty-forth event of the 5th Europe Union-China International Literary Festival was held online. Mia Kankimäki, the Finnish writer, together with Zhang Li, the Chinese writer, had a discussion under the topic of “Travel, Memoir, Inspirational Lives – The Road to Narrative”. The conversation was moderated by Berlinka, an independent cultural reporter and writer.


Zhang Li is a professor and doctoral supervisor of Beijing Normal University. She is the author of The Occurrence of Modern Chinese Women’s Writing, Sisters, The Holder of Micro-Fire and The Story of a Traveller, etc. In March 2019, she did a research on 127 contemporary authors on the theme of “Our Time and The Gender”. She was the editor-in-chief of Selected Works of Chinese Women’s Literature in 2019, 20 Short Stories in 2019, etc. She has won the Best Chinese Prose Award, and is a member of the Theory Committee of the China Writers Association and is a judge of the Mao Dun Literature Award.


Mia Kankimäki (born 1971) is the author of two best-selling books which blend travelogue, memoir, biography and women’s history. She has graduated in comparative literature at the University of Helsinki, and worked as an editor and copywriter. Her first book, Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster (2013) took her to Kyoto in search of Sei Shonagon, a Japanese court lady and writer who lived a thousand years ago. Her second book, The Women I Think About At Night (2018) was inspired by her travels in the footsteps of inspirational, historical female figures in Tanzania, Kenya, Italy, and Japan. She currently lives in Helsinki, Finland.


At the beginning of the conversation, Berlinka asked Mia, “Since you are from Europe, why did you pick Sei Shonagon, a Japanese court lady and writer who lived a thousand years ago as the first main character of your book? And why you were attracted by her?” Mia answered that when she was in the University of Helsinki, she was quite interested in Japanese literature, and among them were the poetry and the works of Sei Shonagon. In her mind, the writing style of Sei Shonagon was very modern, which described her own life, interesting and disgusting things.


When talking about Zhang Li and her works – “new female albums” published on October, she said that she was inspired by the dissatisfaction of women’s writings. She thought the gender issues and the living conditions of females today should get more attention. From her perspective, the women’s writings in the new era should enter the inner world of daily life to explore the hidden gender relationships.


Berlinka thought that both of the writers were trying to present women’s living conditions and she wanted to know what kind of women they would choose as their writing objects. Mia said that she might choose who attracted her. For example, in The Women I Think About At Night, she hoped to find herself an example to lead her to a better life through writing about females in history.


Zhang Li hoped that she could present how could a female writer write and the survival of females through Emerging from The Horizen of History. She found that during the period of the May 4th Movement, females writers like Ling Shuhua not only wrote about the females in the new era who had received education, but also focused on those women who had been marginalized because of the old thoughts. She hoped that she could find some pearls among those writings.


When talking about travels, Berlinka asked Mia, “In your eyes, what makes female writers distinct from male writers in the travelling genre?” Mia thought it was a difficult question because she could only think from females’ perspectives. But she mentioned that compared with male writers, female writers would face more difficulties and challenges. For example, at that time, it was difficult for women to travel alone, they were socially obligated to dress in a conservative and impractival manner, and they lacked financial support and respect.


The conversation was also closely related to the theme of the 5th China-Europe International Literary Festival – “Recovery/Reflection”. Berlinka asked, “Compared with the works written by the former generations, do you think we make any progress or get back?” In Zhang Li’s mind, women both in history and at present share the same living difficulties. For example, although Chen Hengzhe, a female writer in the period of the May 4th Movement had won various honors, she had to resign from her teaching position in Beijing University after she had fell pregnant. Until now, the contradiction between the family and the work still remains unsolved. On the other hand, “stay-at-home wives” are regarded inferior currently because they do not have a formal job.


Besides, she also mentioned today’s office ladies and middle-class women. Cold violence still exists and the role the female writings do not play well, which made her worried. Mia also said that, in Finland, many household routines were done by females. However, luckily, many of them were involved in literary creating. They re-write history – like the history during the Second World War – from the perspective of females to show their own understandings to the history.


During the Q&A session, a reader asked, “For a writer, is it necessary for her to be a human first and then to be a woman?” Zhang Li thought it should depend on the definition of “human”. For example, there was a kind of medicine against the heart attack which fit males well but not for women; during the pandemic period, we made the protective clothing under the standard of “human” whose size is suitable for males but not for women. This is because today’s standards for “human” is still for “males”. Before the 19th Century, women’s writings and the living condition of females were covered, so female writers needed to break the rule of male only and to emphasize the importance of female perspectives.


Another reader asked, “Do women’s writings play the role well in improving women’s status, or it runs counter to the desire?” Zhang Li believed that women’s voice was to let more people know the living conditions of females. However, women’s writings were always be discussed under the perspectives of males. Women’s writings have not been solidified, or even generated a powerful source, so there is still a long way to go.


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.


By Ming Ming

Translated into English by Sarah Sa