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,

2019: A Tale of Many Cities

Selina Xu Kaiping 碉楼

滚滚长江东逝水,浪花淘尽英雄。
是非成败转头空。
青山依旧在,几度夕阳红。
白发渔樵江渚上,惯看秋月春风。
一壶浊酒喜相逢。
古今多少事,都付笑谈中。

《三国演义》开篇

Roiling waves of the river flow,
Rippling tides sieve out heroes,
Wins and losses now hollow.
The earth lies here still,
Many sunsets come and go.

A snowy-haired elder perches by,
Seasons ebbing in his eyes.
History’s many tales
All washed down with wine,
Drowning in laughter with old friends.

(my translation)

Romance of Three Kingdoms Wuhou Temple 三国演义武侯寺

The huge stone engraving sits in a courtyard of the Wuhou Temple, carrying the opening verse of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Chengdu. Centuries ago, once the Kingdom of Shu. The Temple memorializes Zhuge Liang, who ought to have been forgotten by time — only a prime minister of a kingdom that lasted 43 years, dating back to close to two millennia ago; not to mention, China was split into three — no one could call himself emperor (帝), only king (王). Being neither king nor emperor, Zhuge Liang has posthumously found outsized fame. When I was a kid, my parents would say, Be as smart as Zhuge Liang. His is one of the first names that come to mind when one thinks of wisdom, strategy, or yin and yang (八卦). Ironically, in this temple named after him lies the tomb of Liu Bei — the King of Shu, who Zhuge Liang had served.

But why? Because of one book.

No one would remember Zhuge Liang, Cao Cao, Liu Bei, or Guan Yu, were it not for Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which, alongside Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, and Heroes of the Marshes, are deemed as China’s four great literary classics).

The temple is crowded with visitors. Every corridor, every statue, every inch of the bamboo-shrouded red walls are surrounded by bobbing heads and peering faces. Several of the famous generals whose statues loom are, in fact, fictional. So pervasive has been Three Kingdoms that legacies are invented and History reconstructed. Like everyone else chasing the words of the guide, my grandpa, my father, and I are devotees to a book that has grown larger than life — one that reigns over modern Chinese consciousness.

A Western pop cultural parallel that immediately comes to mind is Hamilton, which I caught this summer in New York. It celebrates history in the making and, in a musical spectacle, tears open the sinews of History to show us how it is written, construed, and remade. What captivated me most wasn’t those contemporary bits, but how it seemed that the audience was watching the arches and domes being constructed for a narrative-in-the-making. Letting the music wash over us was to partake in Hamilton‘s version of history; commemorating Zhuge Liang in a temple where a literary overture resides front and center is to blur the line between fiction and history.

You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Selina Xu Chongqing 磁器口

这个冬天,我最后的足迹遍布了各大古镇:从开平的碉楼到顺德的逢简水乡,从成都的宽窄巷子到锦里武侯祠,从重庆的洪崖洞到磁器口再到民国街。中国的大江南北充满了历史残留的韵味与商业化的喧哗。不经意间,我扑捉到了很多很多梦想篇幅的一小边角:阁楼酒吧和茶馆驻唱的歌手、执着于快要失传手艺的老人,还有能写出《三国演义》的罗贯中。我们如此平庸的活着,怀揣着亦伟大亦渺小的梦想,品味着人生百态——不正是舌尖上的人生吗?

在重庆山城里,我扶着爷爷,闻着火锅的味道,淌着长江的风,看着姑姑录抖音。爷爷给我讲了他在文化大革命时候的故事、1966年来看武侯祠时的光景,还有他在十六岁时独闯哈尔滨的孤独与憧憬。我想到了命运的波折和转机,以及上帝神奇的手。我的爷爷出生于浙江,在哈尔滨谋生,在四川成家。他的孙子如今在东京,而孙女风尘仆仆地终于从新加坡飞到了他的身边叽叽喳喳。

在东莞,我握住了年迈的外婆躺在病床上的手,嘴巴里是咸咸的。小时候,我在公园里骑车,外婆总是追在我的后面跑。她是全世界最善良的人,总是为别人着想,为别人流泪。现在,她想吃一颗巧克力,我却不能给她。在医院里,我想到了疾病与死亡,想到了我的青春意味着长辈的衰老,想到了自己的幼稚与无知。怎么这么快我就已经成为了大人呢?

Chongqing Peijie Hotpot 珮姐老火锅

In 2019…

I turned 21.

In 2019…

I draw a map of cities. I embraced the new year with fireworks in Taiwan, visited startups in Beijing and Shanghai, scaled the insides of a pyramid in Egypt, watched 9 Broadway shows in one New York summer, turned 21 in Los Angeles, crossed the deserts to Vegas, cried over a book in Halong Bay. The final days of the year are spent in a roundabout of cities — the frigid winds by the Yangtze River and the misty fog of Chongqing, laced with the smell of hotpot; in bamboo-shrouded temples and dirt mounds masquerading as kingly mausoleums; by moss-covered bridges and dusty ancestral shrines.

Despite milestones and numbers, 2019 does not strike me like a circle, or a period, or a threshold. I think of the year as a phase, a transition, a map of footprints, another collection of stories to catalog in the library of my life. I think of growth — uncomfortable, alienating, redemptive, then hopeful. I feel the surge of days, the flipping pages of years. I see the new decade open before me, first like a horizon, then like a ravine. The minutes tick like I’m standing at the edge of an unfurling abyss, on the precipice of the untold. My hair rustles in the face of time’s inexorable pull. A quiver, and we free fall into the roaring twenties.

Thank you, 2019, for your blessings, lessons, wonders, adventures, and growth. Thank you, God, for showing me life’s difficult questions and inspiring me with the faith and strength to shoulder them. ❤️❤️❤️

Hello 2020!

Selina Xu Hongyadong 洪崖洞

May 2020 treat you each with love, ❤️

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