Focus should have been on those present at book fair
Updated: 2012-05-04 08:47
By Chitralekha Basu (China Daily)
Chinese writers were under the spotlight in the British media in the lead-up to the London Book Fair, with China being the country of "Market Focus". While it was lovely to see a sustained interest in China in the Books pages of some of the UK's leading papers, it was somewhat disconcerting to see a disproportionate focus on who got, or rather, did not get, invited. It was as if the writers who did not make the list were the only true independent voices of Chinese literature while those who did, did not matter.
The British Council in the UK, which drew up the list of attendees in consultation with the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) in China, drew flak. The council was seen as kowtowing to GAPP's preferences and inviting only State-approved writers. The tone in some of the reports could well have led one to believe that the select 21 were affiliated to the Chinese government, having agreed to be part of a State-sponsored junket.
What was getting lost in the clamor for inclusion of the so-called repressed and disowned writers was the distinctive and multi-hued range of literary voices from China that had been put together for an international audience. We had profiled some of the authors on that list in China Daily - as well as some supposedly controversial high-profile writers who, it was insinuated, were not considered or dropped as an afterthought because they did not always toe the government line. To my mind, the din over the few missing writers was like missing the wood for the trees.
While every writer having anything to do with China is expected to have a political view, that may not, necessarily, define his or her writing. A writer can be engaged with themes other than those in the realm of politics and still be as valid as one making a political statement.
For instance, Tie Ning's being the chairperson of the Chinese Writers' Association does not take away from her convincing portrayals of contemporary Chinese women - be it in materialistic cosmopolitan set-ups or remote and rural, almost pre-lapsarian, China, as in Pregnant Woman with Cow.
Han Dong, once associated with an underground poetry movement, astounds with his ability to come up with fresh takes on the much-explored but still inexhaustible theme of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). His poems cover an entire gamut of emotions and stylistic experiments, be it his re-workings of Chinese myths or his musings on the role of a poet trying to find his feet in a culture forging ahead at breakneck speed.
And Li Er, who explores the status of the Confucian scholar-academic in an entrepreneurial China on the highway to fast-track development, is, by his own admission, "more political" than a lot of the writers commentating on China's present political situation.
Richard Lea of The Guardian, however, had a balanced view. A possible way of finding out about how the selected 21 authors felt about issues such as censorship, the so-called government endorsement of writers and the nuances of living and writing in present-day China, he said, was to hear them out.
I hope it indeed turned out that way. I also hope that the distinguished audience at Earls Court also managed to check out the works of some of these Chinese authors, samples of which ought to have available in English translation and engage them in conversations about what their writing was about.
Did the select 21 make a representative list of contemporary Chinese writing? They couldn't. In a culture that puts out about 300,000 titles a year and has close to a million writers publishing in print and on the Internet, 21 writers, by any reckoning, could never add up to the "whole China story".
But I do hope the presence of these writers at the book fair elicited an amount of genuine curiosity in their writing - which is as diverse as they are engaging. I also hope the curiosity will sustain a while as more writers from China visit the UK to take part in different literary events.
The author is a literary critic at China Daily.