Xia Cui and Allison Chan were bloggers in residence for the recent Chinese Writers Festival, held in Melbourne by Writers Victoria, together with a host of collaborative partners. In anticipation of a series of events focused on translation and intercultural literary production, both bloggers reviewed participating writers featured at the festival: Xia reviewing Ouyang Yu‘s extensive body of work (as published in Peril alone!) and Allison, Xu Xi’s essay “Why I stopped being Chinese”
After a heady day at the bilingual coal face, tweeting themselves into a frenzy, we asked both writers for their reflections on the event. Here, Xia shares her thoughts in – fittingly – both English and Chinese.
As a “celebration of bilingual literature”, the Chinese Writers Festival on Sunday 28th of August was, in many ways, a success. The fact it happened is already an achievement to be proud of, recognising the success of and contribution by bilingual ethnic Chinese writers in Australia.
The thoughtfully chosen guest writers, from mountain to sea, gave passionate speeches in English or Chinese, interpreted impeccably to a room of participating audience members. The festival fulfilled what it set out to achieve: a celebration. Yet we human beings are greedy and always want more. As the speakers were gathered in front the camera for one last photo, and Allison and I could finally take a tweeter break, my brain started to replay the day: How did I like it? How would I expect it to be better next time?
What are we? Do we have to decide right here, right now?
The keynote speakers were all given topics to address, topics including, how they position themselves in a globalized society, perceive their role as a global urban Chinese writer, 你代表哪个民族? (Which nation do you represent?), and how they identify themselves, all important issues. The Chinese community in Australia is getting bigger, and these topics clearly echo a collective need to see ourselves in relation to where we or our parents or grandparents are from, and where we are now. The ethnic Chinese audience, especially those who had lived in Australia for decades, were eager to join the discussion. Despite time running out, some still managed to share their stories, and some persistently wanted a definite answer: “How do you identify yourself, now?”
Oh, if only writers stayed where they were born and only wrote about their vicinity. Then West China writers, novelist, poet, beautiful female writers (美女作家) would easily apply. (On the very last point though – since when do all female Chinese writers between the age of 20 to 50 who do not look “hideous” have to be called “beautiful female writers”?! I don’t know how the two writers at the festival, Belinda Jiang and Wang Ruobing, felt about this label tracking them down all the way to Melbourne, but I do have a problem with that. Another story though, not here, not now.)
When writers live in places other than their hometown, and tell stories about people beyond their own ethnic group in a language that may not be their first language, almost inevitably, big questions about roles and identities will be asked.
However, does it really matter that much that writers know where they stand and who they represent in order to have their work appreciated? Or, do we have to figure out where we belong to feel finally settled? Or can we?
The first keynote speaker Lei Tao, a renowned writer based in West of China, believes that regardless of one’s nationality, a writer is a thinker who is empowered with his pen to fight for the integrity of the world that is now inflicted by both natural and human disasters. Xu Xi who lives between Hong Kong and New York and writes in English believes borders don’t matter much, and where her heart finds peace is home (此心安处便是家). Belinda Jiang, who migrated to Australia in 2008 in search of career, love, and happiness, and therefore started writing best sellers, decided that she is not going to represent any culture, but instead being an observer, documenter, user and experiencer of multiple cultures, whatever makes her happy. Wang Ruobing, whose work helps to draw attention to vulnerable groups, believes she’s breaking the social and cultural boundaries by being able to observe and write from a bi-cultural and bilingual mindset. Award winning Melbourne author Alice Pung, in her new book, helps kids from lower socio-economical backgrounds to get their voice heard. Last but not least, Ouyang Yu, as poets tend to do, says: I can be so many things at the same time. You name it, a writer, translator, a poet, a sleeper, eater, a time waster. I might have that last one on a T-shirt.
Noticed a pattern yet? For these writers, who they represent or where they belong doesn’t really matter. If anything, it is the breaking down of social and cultural constraints that they take most seriously, and it is from their such endeavours interesting works were born.
Honestly, to let any of them, or us, take the role to represent a nation or culture is too much a responsibility, too much for us individually, as well as collectively. After all, can we really distinguish one culture from another when a key ingredient of Italian cuisine, tomato, actually originates from South America?
At the end of the day, we will still be asked what we are. Feelings will get complex. In our heart though, Chinese, Cambodian, Asian, Australian, urban, contemporary, beautiful or not female writers, migrant, perhaps it’s a decision we don’t have to make, at least not right here, right now. You might even say, as my friend Lucy does, “I’m from Brunswick”. So true.
Leave the big questions aside, if the festival is to run again, let’s perhaps give writers some space to talk about their lives as writers and their work at a more personal level. Bear in mind though, if we were to try and really get to know even one Mainland Chinese writer and his work, and save all the evolutionary and inspiring talk, some of these bigger topics may need to be left out. Otherwise, as was the case at this festival, we would end up having Lei Tao only starting to talk about the most interesting topics towards the very end, when he had no time left (I have a whole belly of words to say but no time now 有一肚子话要说，但是没有时间说). Having the Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese consulate on the front seat might not have helped either. Lei Tao is a member of the party after all.
举办方周日之前给嘉宾们都分配了一些讲座主题，其中包括：在全球化形式下，他们是如何给自己定位的？他们如何看待自己作为一名全球化都市作家的角色？他们代表哪个民族? 如何认同其身份？类似的严肃话题。的确，澳洲的中国移民人口不断增加，我们作为一个群体有必要通过审视我们自己，或者父辈的过去，以及现在的自己，来思考我们的社会文化定位。大会所提出的这些话题因此是应时的。 在场的华裔听众，尤其是在澳生活数十年的年长人士对话题的讨论也是积极参与，十分热情。即使在时间不够，主持人屡次催促的情况下仍然争着分享自己的类似经历，并且执意想从嘉宾口中得到一个明确的答案：那现在的你是如何认同自己的？”
围绕这些话题，来自中国西部的知名作家雷涛首先开讲。雷涛认为作家无分国籍，首先是一名思想家。作家手中的笔是用来维护饱受自然与人类灾难困扰的当今世界公平与正义的武器。在香港与中国两地工作生活的许素细女士主要使用英文著作。她表示国界没有那么重要，此心安处便是家。Belinda Jiang 2008年移民澳洲。用她自己的话来说，她来澳洲，是为了谋生，谋爱，谋幸福。如今撰有多本畅销小说的她认为自己不打算代表什么一个文化，而是要做一个多种文化的观察者，记录者，使用者和体验者。自己开心幸福最重要。同是来自中国的移民作家王若冰女士为多个杂志期刊撰稿。她近年来的作品多关注弱势群体的生活。王若冰相信通过她对在澳洲文化语言了解的不断提高，她已经可以在作品中突破社会和文化的局限，从一个双语和双文化的角度去创作。居住在墨尔本的畅销书作家Alice Pung在她的最新著作中为生长在较低社会经济地位家庭中的孩子提供了一个创造和发言的空间。这些孩子中有亚洲人，也有非亚洲人。欧阳昱，秉承其诗人风格，最后说到，我可以同时扮演太多角色，要多少有多少。作家，翻译家，诗人，睡客，食客，时间荒废者。最后一个印在T-恤上很合适。