Writers' festival offers insights into modern China

by AFP/Karl Malakunas, Mar 25, 2009 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Beijing, March 5, 2009 - At first glance, a literary festival gathering dozens of writers from around the world may seem out of place in China, where censorship of the local media remains heavy.

But The Bookworm International Literary Festival, now in its fourth year, has proved to be a huge success, providing a platform for a relatively free flow of ideas and offering another example of the complexities of modern China.

"In terms of debate and discussion, I think people are surprised about how much is able to go on here," festival director Jenny Niven told AFP ahead of Friday's start of the two-week event in the Chinese capital.

The festival does not aim to anger the government, rather to offer a chance for cultural exchanges and intellectual debate, according to Niven, who has brought together roughly 50, mostly foreign, writers.

Among them is Englishman Justin Hill, whose prize-winning first novel set in contemporary rural China, "The Drink and Dream Teahouse," was banned by Chinese authorities when it was published abroad in 2003.

Nevertheless, Hill, who lives in Hong Kong and appeared at last year's festival, was upbeat about the level of freedom of expression in China for these types of events.

"My impression is the Chinese government is more tolerant than people assume," he said, although he did express some caution.

"The problem with China is there is an invisible line that you can't cross. The problem is no one really knows where it is and it shifts depending on what is happening in China at the time."

Perhaps offering some extra cover for the festival is that it mainly targets foreigners in China, with all presentations in English.

Indeed, for expatriates the festival -- to be held in Beijing as well as the cities of Chengdu and Suzhou further south -- offers a rare opportunity to meet and listen to some stars of modern literature.

Among the headline names this year is Rabih Alameddine, author of "The Hakawati," meaning "The Storyteller" in Arabic and which The New York Times Book Review hailed as a stunning work offering the Western reader a glimpse of the Arab soul.

One of the most popular writers -- his two sessions have sold out -- is American William Zorzi, a screenwriter for the US television series "The Wire" that brilliantly portrayed gang and police life in modern Baltimore.

Among the Chinese voices at the festival are Mo Yan, author of "Red Sorghum," which was made into a film by acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, and poet Xi Chuan.

Festival director Niven said the event was an extension of a series The Bookworm, a cafe-restaurant-library chain in China, has developed over the past few years and which has brought more than 200 writers to the country.

They have included Hong Kong's last British colonial governor, Chris Patten, influential US columnist Thomas Friedman and Chinese author Ma Jian, who left China after some of his works were banned.

The increasing number of Western writers travelling to China is part of an Asia-wide phenomenon, with literature festivals mushrooming over the past few years since a trend-setting event in Hong Kong in 2000.

Festivals have since been held on the Indonesian island of Bali, the Sri Lankan coastal town of Galle and the eastern Chinese economic hub of Shanghai.

Hill, who is also a contributing editor to the Asian Literary Review, said the rising number of festivals was partly because people in the West and elsewhere around the world wanted to know more about Asia.

"There's a lot more interest in literature about Asia and set in Asia," he said.

However he also put it down to the growing number of Westerners living in the region.

"In Suzhou last year, I was astonished at the number of foreigners there," he said, recalling walking into a bar in the eastern Chinese city on St. Patrick's Day to find it full of expatriates.

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Fact File:

Beijing Bookworm. Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Road, Chao Yang District, Beijing.

The China Bookworm International Literary Festival 2009.

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