Hong Kong International Literary Festival: Asian debut voices, Jhumpa Lahiri on linguistic exile, the politics of memory

Spent a couple of days listening to writers and journalists speak virtually on topics ranging from billenials (billionaire millennials) to translating oneself to China’s navigation of collective historical traumas. I’ve jotted down some notes. ⬇️

First off, THANK YOU to the folks at Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF) for gifting me with a media pass to their virtual festival ❤️

In its 20th edition, the HKILF took place from November 5th-15th, with over 53 online events — some are free; some are ticketed; all are available for replay until 30th November on Crowdcast. I’ve put the ticketing information at the bottom of the post for interested folks. 🔥

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Debut Novels on Contemporary Asia

Lately, I’ve been reading lots of aged, dusty books from last century. But, as always, nothing gets me more excited than contemporary fiction that has its finger on the pulse of the moment.

Delighted to discover several new novelists writing about the millennial condition, urban alienation in Asian megatropolises, and Chinese characters in forgotten histories of the West. I’m adding them to my to-be-read pile (and hopefully, they will wind up On My Desk).

Spotlighting a few titles that I’ve culled from HKILF (links go to Goodreads):

  • Braised Pork, An Yu — a housewife wakes up to find her husband dead in the bathtub; a surrealist tale of nocturnal Beijing and the high plains of Tibet. 🛀
  • If I Had Your Face, Frances Cha — four women in Seoul, grappling with strict social hierarchies, the obsession with beauty, K-pop fan mania, and the secretive career in room salons catering to wealthy men. 💋
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pam Zhang (Booker Prize longlisted!) — two Chinese-American siblings trying to survive on the wild west frontier in the twilight of the American gold rush. 🔨
  • Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China, Karoline Kan — a memoir by a former New York Times reporter on growing up in China since Tiananmen. 🐼

Hear these debut writers talk about their writings in the following FREE online events:

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Jhumpa Lahiri: I Belong to Italian

I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.

Nabokov, Beckett, Conrad, and Lahiri: writers who move out of one language and into another. Like a linguistic pilgrimage, writing in a foreign tongue allows for the writer to demolish then rebuild herself, and to grapple intimately with language as fundamentally an approximation (a word which one of my Harvard professors loves to use).

I’ve always been intrigued by how Jhumpa Lahiri actively made the choice to write in Italian, an acquired language, in a deliberate shedding of the mantle of English. Hers is a voluntary exile. In her 2015 New Yorker essay (written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein), “Teach Yourself Italian,” Jhumpa chronicles various stages of her literary metamorphosis from exile to renunciation to radical transition.

All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin.

Listening to her speak, I am struck by her perpetual sense of exile, which I have felt at various points in my life. “I have never been in a place where I feel completely accepted,” Jhumpa says. Even in English, there is a “consuming struggle.” So is my relationship with English and Mandarin — both are my mother tongues, yet so often I am afflicted by a sense of incompletion and failure when writing and speaking them.

Like Jhumpa, I grew up as a child of immigrants. The hybridity of space — what she calls an orientation towards another place that you cannot physically inhabit — might have been the first seed of curiosity that drove me to write. Literature is an oblique mirror for our selves; and in the inherent instability of language, we refract our own fluid identities.

I don’t know if I can ever abandon my native languages, in search of a metamorphosis like Jhumpa. I doubt it. But her relationship towards language is one that I yearn for, a return to the state of a child, to a passionate primitivity. And her celebration of language as porous is a startling reminder for our times. (Reminds me partly of what Zadie Smith said about language.)

The height of civilization, Jhumpa points out, has always been the celebration of other languages; the circulation of other cultures challenges any monolithic vision. Conversely, disturbingly, movements that seek to preserve the purity of a language and of the associated identity run against the very instinct of civilization. The multiplicity of identities, mediated through language (and its mixtures), is central to the human condition. The politics of closure is, in this vein, regressive.

I agree.

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The Politics of Memory

Love this session by two historians, Julia Lovell and Rana Mitter (who I especially admire).

Both comment on cultural memory in China and how China tells a story of its histories to itself and to the world. Lovell talks about the omission of Maoism from China’s modern narrative post-Reform and Opening Up in the 80s (with Mao’s notable absence from the 2008 Beijing Olympics showcase of China’s historical milestones) until 2011. Bo Xilai’s rise capitalized on nostalgia towards Mao; the “red revival” he espoused bolstered his political career…until it crashed. After Bo’s subsequent downfall, the Xi regime too reinstated Maoist ideals as the fulcrum of its anti-corruption campaign — a selective, partial official sponsoring of Maoism.

Mitter too observes that the politics of memory is on vivid display this year. 2020 happens to be both the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, called the “War to Resist America and Aid Korea” (抗美援朝战争) within China. While both anniversaries were within two months of each other, there was a significant shift in national discourse and official coverage. The commemoration of the end of WWII in China not only emphasized the nation’s critical role in resisting the Japanese (中国人民抗日战争) but also China’s role in the founding of the United Nations—an emphatic call for multilateralism, strengthening international institutions, and global cooperation. Official discourse lambasted the “blame game” by some countries and the clamor for “decoupling.” Yet, just two months later, as China marked the 70th anniversary of its entry into the Korean War, Xi invoked the Maoist spirit of anti-imperialist struggle, with undertones of anti-American sentiment. He quoted Mao outright: “Let the world know that ‘the people of China are now organised, and are not to be trifled with.'” Oh, the instrumentality of history.

Memory is much alive and kicking. And it mutates. Several times, Mitter brings up China’s recent blockbuster war movie, The Eight Hundred 《八佰》, which tells the story of the Second Sino-Japanese War (specifically the 1937 Battle of Shanghai) but from the perspective of the Kuomintang soldiers (instead of the usual Communist Party point-of-view). Such a movie, he argues, would have been unimaginable in just three decades ago. It is now the world’s highest-grossing film of 2020.

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The range of thinkers, wordsmiths, and topics that HKILF has brought together is incredible. Apart from the few I highlighted above, there were numerous other virtual sessions that I so greatly enjoyed, including Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan‘s juicy, hilarious event (what a romp through his entire career!) with spot-on moderating from Lee Williamson (I couldn’t stop laughing) and David Frum‘s brilliantly incisive, candid session on rebuilding American democracy post-Trumpocalypse.

Get your Festival Pass to gain access to ALL 53 online events here, available for replay until 30th November 2020. Alternatively, email info@festival.org.hk to purchase a ticket to any 3 online events for the price of 2.

What grounds and inspires me is that, even in these unprecedented times, we recognize and celebrate the power of the written word and the value of stories. Keep reading, keep listening 🌱

xo,

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