Travelling in literary China

Publishing assistant Andrew Wrathall attended Australian Writers’ Week in China in March. Here, he gives us a taste of three Chinese literary festivals that hosted Australian authors in 2011.

English speaking literary festivals have sprung up all around China over the past decade. Festival guests this March included many Australian authors, who flew to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong as part of Australian Writers’ Week, coordinated by the Australian Embassy.


Perth author Craig Silvey and director of UWA Publishing Terri-ann White in Beijing

‘We really draw on the resources of our community to highlight what an amazing and vibrant city Beijing is,’ said  Bookworm International Literary Festival director Kadi Hughes. The festival runs during March each year within Beijing and two smaller cities, Chengdu and Suzhou.

‘We’ve been running Bookworm International Literary Festival for five years, it’s grown enormously every year. This year we have about 160 events in Beijing,’ said Alex Pearson, managing director of the festival and owner of the Bookworm Bookshop. The festival runs out of the Bookworm, which is part bookshop and part library, with books for sale and books that can be borrowed.

‘We are bigger than we have been in the past, but really sticking to the core beliefs of the festival. So we have book talks, panel discussions, writing workshops, literary eats, performance poetry, a variety of different things, and our program really focuses on a combination of amazing writers and amazing voices from around the world and also from China,’ said Hughes.

At this year’s festival Christos Tsiolkas spoke on a panel with Irish-born author Emma Donoghue on the subject of ‘taboo’; Kate Jennings and Jessica Rudd spoke on the topic of the boy’s club in big business and politics; and Craig Silvey joined Julia Leigh to talk about the Australian outback as a gothic backdrop in their literature.

Australia is one of 19 countries represented by the festival, with authors also attending from Iceland, Hungry, Poland, Wales, Scotland, Belgium and Nigeria. Pearson said she often goes abroad to other international festivals to find an international contingent of writers. The purpose of the festival is to ‘encourage the foreign community in Beijing to enjoy Chinese literature, the foreign community outside China to enjoy Chinese literature, and Chinese community here to enjoy foreign literature,’ said Pearson.

Alex Pearson talks to the festival audience with her translator

‘We have Chinese writers who you may have read in translation, whose work has been established abroad, and hopefully after this festival, more writers who will be translated and read abroad,’ said Hughes.

‘Another important part of our festival is our social enterprise, and every year we’ve been involved in international schools in Beijing, Suzhou and Chengdu, bringing our festival authors to children to share with them our celebration of literature and ideas. And this year we’re very excited to announce we have a migrant school program where a lot of our authors are going to migrant schools where they will share folk tales of their home countries and inspire children to write their own stories,’ said Hughes.


The view from Shanghai restaurant M on the Bund

Shanghai International Literary Festival started nine years ago at Shanghai restaurant M on the Bund. Michelle Garnaut manages the restaurant and is also the festival director.

‘It started by accident,’ said Garnaut, who recounts that a friend in Shanghai said, ‘We have a friend who’s a writer called Frank Moorhouse,’ to which Garnaut replied, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do that. Why don’t we get him to fly over and do that?’ Soon after, Australian author Moorhouse held a lecture called ‘the Martini in Literature’ in the restaurant’s Glamour Bar, thereby becoming the first writer of the festival. Other writers were due to attend the festival, but were scared off by the SARS outbreak.

An audience listens to Christos Tsiolkas

The Hong Kong International Literature Festival heard about the session and asked if Moorhouse would come to participate in Hong Kong. ‘Right from the beginning, it was the Australian Consulate-General in Hong Kong who supported the writers, when somebody was going through they attached their name to it,’ said Garnaut. The Consulate-General then became major sponsors of Shanghai festival.

‘Most literary festivals are subsidised by governments, or publishers send people, or writers are already coming through. Nobody does it for money, that’s for sure,’ said Garnaut.

At this year’s festival Walkley Award-winner Shirley Shackleton spoke about her memoir The Circle of Silence during one the festival’s literary lunches. Thomas Keneally, an author who has visited the festival previously, spoke on his life in writing.  Silvey and New York-based author Andrew Fukuda spoke about coming of age across countries and cultures.

Christos Tsiolkas speaks in Shanghai

Tsiolkas spoke about his book The Slap (A&U) and also reflected on a conversation he had with three Chinese students in Beijing: ‘We had a great discussion on migration and cultural norms, and I realised the questions in the book are specific to Australia, but a lot of them are a kind of a globalised conversation that we’re all having at the moment. It did make me realise that in one generation I’ve become Australian and there’s something in the so called “new world” cultures that makes that possible.’

‘New Zealand writers Sarah Laing and Eleanor Catton attended a fantastic session on the short story,’ said Garnaut. Also in attendance was British author Simon van Booy, and the session ‘ended up being a fascinating conversation between three writers and their forms’.

Garnaut also ran the M-Capital Literary Festival in Beijing this year, with authors attending both festivals. ‘We did Beijing first then Shanghai, we had a cross-over, we had some there and we had some here, for example Christos Tsiolkas was in Beijing last week.’

Hong Kong

Paul Kenny of Pan Macmillan Asia and author Jessica Rudd

Hong Kong International Literary Festival hosted 40 writers in its eleventh year. The festival ‘started off with no budget and no staff, with a bunch of literary-minded friends who got together, and constructed quite a small program which was very popular,’ said Douglas Kerr, director of the festival and professor at the University of Hong Kong.

The purpose of the festival is ‘to put local writing in the context of international writing, and to bring international writers to meet our local readers, so usually when we have our local writers in a session, we have them together with a writer from outside Hong Kong,’ said Kerr.

Rudd spoke about her novel Campaign Ruby (Text) in front of an audience in Hong Kong. ‘I feel like my character is real and she’s sitting next to me while I write and she’s telling me what she’s doing almost like a best friend would, and unfortunately I can’t protect her from all the mistakes I would choose not to make and the mistakes I would avoid,’ said Rudd.

Kerr said, ‘I actually reviewed Campaign Ruby in a newspaper here. I’m an academic, I don’t usually read books of that genre, so it was really a treat for me, I really enjoyed it, I thought it was good fun, and a very lively and entertaining book.’

Author Sally Rippin speaks to children in Hong Kong

Children’s author Sally Rippin enjoyed several sessions at the festival. ‘My second day of the festival has been great to meet children close up in the Saffron Café and I’ve also had some big successful talks at the Central Library with some really fantastic students, a lot of energy, a lot of fun. I’d love to come back any time,’ said Rippin.

‘Brian Castro is a good example of what goes on at this festival, because he’s not a Chinese guy, though he did stay in Hong Kong for a little while. He’s an Asian, but he’s also Australian, and he writes in English, so while nobody is typical in our program, he’s a good example of the kind of writer that we bring and that we think local audiences are interested in,’ said Kerr.

Brian Castro speaks in Hong Kong

Silvey was unknown to Kerr prior to his session at the festival. ‘He did go down quite well and one thing that struck me is how knowledgeable his audience were, because they were asking him some very detailed questions, about his recent book Jasper Jones (A&U). This should be one of the effects of our festival. For me, I went along to that session having never read the book and now I want to read it. So it worked,’ said Kerr.

‘Where there’s a choice, the one thing we try to do is get plenty of variety into the program, so that includes people from all over the place and that includes varieties of writing. Jeffrey Archer is an amazing English novelist. He’s not a literary novelist and I wouldn’t put him in my syllabus. We had en event a few days ago and it was sold out, he has an adoring audience,’ said Kerr. ‘And on the other side we’ve got very intellectual scholars and poets, and we want them too. We not looking for a particular niche, we’re just trying to get people in.’

Andrew Wrathall is publishing assistant at Bookseller+Publisher.

One thought on “Travelling in literary China

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *