Earlier this month, funded by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, I attended the Beijing and Suzhou Bookworm Literary Festivals. In Beijing, I was a speaker on the panels “Poetry Around the World” and “Writing Place” and in Suzhou, I was on the panels “Agree to be Different!” and “Literature Across Frontiers”. During my stay in these two cities, I met interesting and friendly people and I was pleased to have the opportunity to talk to so many other writers (e.g. Lambert Schlechter, Antony Tao, Scot Slaby, Ray Hecht, Karen Ma, Edward Ragg, Jon Bilbao and Nora Wagener).
In the following, I would like to share some moments from the festivals.
On the panel “Writing Place”, my co-panellists were Keiichiro Hirano from Japan and Mindaugas Nastaravicius from Lithuania. There were three translators/interpreters present to facilitate communication (two for Keiichiro and one, speaking Russian, for Mindaugas, who had to use Russian as a Lithuanian translator was not available that evening). I was impressed by how our moderator, Jesse Field, himself a translator whose translations of Ge Zhaoguang and Cai Jun are coming out later this year, always mentioned the names of the translators of Keiichiro’s and Mindaugas’s works when he read from their pieces. Jesse also wove quotations from our works into the discussion, bringing out common themes explored by the three of us who write in different languages and against different cultural backgrounds. I don’t know about my co-panellists, but I was grateful that Jesse had jotted down lines from my poems and offered insightful interpretations.
At one point, Mindaugas, who writes charmingly and at times heartbreakingly about the small village of 37 people that he comes from, talked about the temporal distance necessary to turn an event or moment into poetry. He suggested that ten to fifteen years is possibly an ideal remove, and that if an event is worth recounting after a decade it is proof that it deserves being written down. I agree that this is a very good approach to write about personal memories and experiences—the poems I write often recollect what happened ten or more years ago, such as growing up with my sisters in a public housing estate or picking them up after school. I think there are other types of poems, however, that cannot wait. I mentioned my two recent published pieces, both about topical issues, one on the disappearances of the Hong Kong booksellers and the other on the ‘two-child policy’ in China introduced in December 2015.
In Suzhou, the panel “Literature Across Frontiers” was the highlight for me. I enjoyed sharing ideas with my co-panellists Owen Martell (from Wales) and Nico Helminger (from Luxemburg) and the audience members; the intimate setting encouraged an honest and sometimes provocative exchange. One audience member, a teacher from a local college, asked how we thought about our works being interpreted, accurately or inaccurately, by others. I said I have been fortunate enough to have some of my poems discussed in several scholarly articles and I found myself agreeing largely with the analysis. But I also pointed out how convincingly surprised I was by one reading of “Tiny Scissors”, a poem included in my poetry collection Hula Hooping. The poem is about my maternal grandmother who in her advanced age had lost all her teeth. She carried a small pair of scissors to cut food into pieces to enable eating. The poem ends with her passing her scissors to the persona before she died, reminding the younger woman that she will one day lose all her teeth as well. I told the audience that when I wrote the poem, I wanted to emphasise the grandmother’s love for the granddaughter, hence the passing on of the scissors, a kind of heirloom, skipping one generation. A reviewer of the collection (Ricardo de Ungria), however, suggests that
the handing over of the scissors and the accompanying reminder are not a gentle grandmotherly bequest but a sharp rebuke of the bright and sensitive and therefore naughty granddaughter […] who must have had a history of making fun of the poor woman’s toothlessness to give cause for the reprimand. The cunning phrasing does it all, and the humour becomes just a whistled innuendo. (Ricardo de Ungria, p. 268)
Another audience member, a librarian, said that while cataloguing books for a collection, what interested her the most were the authors’ acknowledgments. She noticed that while women often thank their family for allowing them space and time to write, men are less likely to show gratitude for such advantages having been afforded them. I think this is a very good observation, one that I found quite close to home. At the end of my response, I shared (from memory) the last paragraph of the “Acknowledgements” section of my MPhil thesis:
Finally, I must thank my parents and sisters for their love and support. ‘You can do whatever you want to do,’ my father told me when I asked for his permission to pursue my MPhil studies. My mother and two sisters repeated his line. And on that note I embarked on doing what I truly wanted, the result of which [you now read].