This is the final part of a three-part report on the Melbourne Writers Festival’s inaugural Asia-Pacific Writers Forum and features responses to Laurel Fantauzzo’s provocation on audience and readership.
Provocation 3: Audience and Readership
Provocateur: Laurel Fantauzzo
When Laurel Fantauzzo was in a class in the University of Iowa, she mentioned to the students that she writes about her reverse migration life in Manila, the Phillippines.
“A young white American undergraduate raised her hand to interrupt me with a question, ‘What’s Manila?’ Not, where is Manila? As a Fillipino-American writer I often encounter this odd blindness in new acquaintainces. One white American man said to me in a workshop on several occassions, ‘It’s great that you write about Indonesia or whatever’. What grates me most still, it’s not necessarily the mistaken use of Indonesia, it’s the ‘or whatever’. As if all of Asia is one country united under the banner of ‘whatever’. The strange sense of ignorance, or indifference or whatever seems to get more sold as I move forward professionally in the writing world”.
“One American-Asian told me my book was better suited as a short magazine article to be published in Filippino- neighbourhoods in the US. ‘Where do Fillipinos live around here again?’, she asked me, indifferent to the statistic that Fillipinos comprised the second largest immigrant group in the US. One Black American writer’s workshop classmate at the University of Iowa challenged my choice of identification as a Fillippino-American asking me ‘What right does she have to call Fillipinos her people?’ In the Phillippines my writing is offerred no sure reception in the major bookstores. Filipino and Filipino-American authors are often overlooked in favour of writers like John Green or Stephen King or JK Rowling.”
Laurel then cast her observation on a younger, digitally reliant generation of readers -her Filipino-American writing and literature students.
“In the past 15-20 years students have not been raised as readers, they are accustomed to abbreviated fragmented stories in the form of tweets, status updates, snap chats and instagrams. I tell you not to drown you in my postcolonial-hybrid-identity-digital-native- anxiety, I have received kind support and very receptive audiences for my work. If I haven’t, I would have quit writing and fulfilled my life long fantasy of raising goats and becoming a radio DJ. But as an Asian American writer, I suspect that many of the questions I ask myself, are ones that cross your minds as well”.
“To which audiences are we loyal as writers? Are there stories we write only for our homelands? Must we always be thinking beyond our borders? Is this idea of homeland itself antiquated in a hyper-connected world? Must we be always multiple in our identification and our subject matter? When do we feel most frustrated when trying to show our work? And as for the truncated text of technology – is digital distraction something that we’re always working against as writers, or is it an indication for us to adapt a new way of communicating our stories?”
The following are responses to Laurel’s provocation on audience and readership:
Table 1: Lisa Dempster, Sam Twyford-Moore, John Mateer, Kate Larsen, Hop Dac, Juliana Qian, Eddin Khoo and Jarni Blakkarly.
Table 1 discuss new technology and audience development; the push and pull between traditional distribution networks and audiences that can be nurtured through social media and online.
In John Mateer’s project about the movements of the diasporic Malays of the Katanning/Cocos Islands, part of the distribution is online and part of the distribution is a radio broadcast. As an art project, the work has funding for translation and sound recording, whereby the project will be written in Jawi (so that an older generation can read the text), with two translations – in Malay and English to enable a wider reach of audience who identify with the region historically. For John, he is interested in language and the historical quality of the translation which does not have a commercial dimension, thus he has concerns about distributing the information via traditional distribution methods. However, the opportunities offerred via digital networks may circumvent those readership restrictions.
For Ahmad Fuadi, his writing is popular with Indonesian audiences between 17-40 year olds, thus he uses social media to his advantage. Indonesia has a population of approximately 250 million people, with most of them living in Java. Ahmad Fuadi’s publisher advised him that the greatest readers of Indonesian books are concentrated in the Jakarta greater area. It is the fourth largest nation on Facebook, with around sixty million users and about fifteen million on Twitter, and for Ahmad Fuadi social media is a very important way to attract a readership. For example, he has asked audiences for book cover and novel ideas. He believes that by engaging his audience through input to his work, he nurtures and maintains their interest. The majority of social media users are concentrated around Jakarta, which also correlates with Ahmad Fuadi’s readership base. However, even though his book has been translated to English, his main readership is still Indonesian and he is currently grappling with ways to broaden his audience engagement to the entire island of Indonesia and beyond.
Due to social media hype, a major part of Amazon.com booksales is in Asia. However, the market works anachronistically with bookshop lists dominated by New York and London titles. For example when Tim Parks’ book was released in London, it was strangely available one week prior to its release in KL bookstores. On the other hand, huge chain stores like Kinokuniya do very well in Asia, and they are now beginning to expand their distribution networks to stock Indian, Singaporean and Australian titles, which can be found in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian.
In Australia, Amazon distribution networks can be costly for Australian books. John Mateer’s publisher in Fremantle had to send his book to the Amazon warehouse in Oregon, US. When his friend in Japan wanted to buy the book, it cost him $100 because of postage. The expensive cost of books for literary authors with smaller publishers is a concern. This means that even if the literary books are available via commercial distribution networks like Amazon, readers won’t buy because of the expense.
Table 1 ended the conversation with polarised views on how social media has affected the richness of language. In Eddin Khoo’s view, the use of twitter has resulted in people “becoming stutterers more than speakers, where tweeting is for birds”. There are questions raised about engaging more deeply into complex ideas and discourse which cannot be captured by slogans. In defence of Twitter, Kate Larsen who tweets as Katie Keys and is a Twitter poet, has been tweeting a poem a day for five years. As part of the Marco Polo Festival of Digital Literature, Kate is about to leave for Beijing to have a conversation with Chinese poet Yisha who also writes a poem a day on social media platform Weibo. On Twitter, Kate’s readership of approximately 5,000 reads a poem a day. Yisha, on the other hand has four million followers, which is an incredible reach of people who engage with poetry through social media on a daily basis. Perhaps there are opportunities to engage with the medium and to take language into a different area not previously known before.
Table 2: Alvin Pang, Linda Jaivin, Laurel Fantauzzo, Amanda Lee Koe, Nikki Lam, Jiamin Zhao, Zhang Tianpan, Hamish Townsend.
Table 2 establish that they share several anxieties. At the Melbourne Writers Festival, some writers have been accused with ‘How can you write about China? You’re China’s not China’. How can readers make room for multiple experiences; the whole world has to grow up around this issue, where there are people with multiple identities, and that there can be multiple stories.
Singapore and the Phillippines don’t stock Australian books. Furthermore, in Australia, books already written in English don’t cross into other English-speaking countries – for example from Australia to the US or UK to Australia.
Linda Jaivin has depressing stats – only 6% of the world’s published books are translated into English. In 1950, the US publishers published 11,022 books and 563 of them translated from other languages. ln 2010, 200, 000 were published in the US and 341 translated from other languages.
While books form one kind of cultural production, there’s debate on whether art requires less translation. Exhibitions need to be re-done and re-learned with each generation, while influenced by world literature, art or music, there can be a decline in consciousness in qualities.
The primacy of English and the integration of Europe has somehow made Western countries monolingual, but even in English when there is diversity, this isn’t addressed. The Chinese really need outside translation. Culture flows from English to other countries. The internet now can help people find their niche. While there is a richness of study in world literature, the translation of this often loses its original force in context.
Novellist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o wrote his novel Caitani Mutharabaini (1981) translated into English as Devil on the Cross, (1982) on toilet paper while imprisoned for critiquing the injustices of Kenyan society. While imprisoned the author gave up on English to write in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. When he was released he proceeded on to a US university. The group discussed how “his hybrid identity got locked into academia”, and the options available: “of writing on toilet paper in prison or sort of in an ivory tower?”
Zhang Tianpan’s main audience is Chinese, because the cutting edge context of his work is not understood outside the context of China. For eg ‘going after tigers and flies’, means fighting corruption, where the tigers are the big corrupt people and the flies are the smaller issues. This phrasing might not be understood outside its context.
Alvin Pang believes that the passport you hold and your nationality has become overdeterminant. Writers might be writing for different people in different spaces and in different time. What a writer is writing now might not be understood or appreciated till say in 2042, writers can’t predict the reception of their work. However, importantly, with good translation comes an expanded readership.
Table 3: Lian Low, Terry Jaensch, David Carlin, Lily Yulianti Farid, Janet de Neefe, Julien Leyre and Francesca Rendle-Short.
The group discuss the change of genres across history; how currently audiences have shorter attention spans, which doesn’t necessarily reflect a loss of literature, but reflects more a change of genre, reading habits and desires. People read a lot online nowadays with the invention of smartphones and some Facebook dialogue can be great.
Francesca Rendle-Short reiterates Laurel’s provocation to the group: “Who and what are we writing for? That’s a sketch of life in the modern world. As writers, as makers, where is our sense of identity coming from? Who are we thinking about in terms of readership? Is it the regional, local, community home sense but then do we want to expand beyond that?”
In terms of audiences compare superstar celebrity global authors like JK Rowling with authors and writers who have micro communities of a few hundred or few thousand followers on social media. Julien Leyre wonders “if there’s a future for those writers in expanding that from three thousand to ten thousand readers online?” However, for Francesca, a contrary question to that is “does the numbers of readers matter? Does that mean good literature?” For Francesca it doesn’t. Both agree that quality matters as well.
This discussion resonates with the earlier provocation about translation – who are writers writing for? However, there’s the question of gatekeepers – those who market / publicise books. For example Francesca lent a book by Australian novelist Jessie Cole to Alvin Pang, and Alvin as a Singaporean writer noted that the blurb, and flyer is for an Australian audience, while for Alvin it looks interesting, but foreign.
For the Marco Polo Project, Julien Leyre is soliciting writing from China for publication to a broader audience, his readership is a big community of expats. Thus when working in translation, are there already readers in mind? For example, when writing within Australia, only in Australia will people get the reference, thus when making work, should the writer be conscious about their audience?
Lian Low will be collaborating with Malaysian based spoken word artists for the Melaka Art and Performance Festival on work themed around a vampiric Malay myth – the “Pontianak” – told through revised Malaysian ghost stories, myth and folklore via feminist and queer lenses. She’s now grappling with what can be said/unsaid or what is understoond/not understood within the local context. For eg last year at the festival, she was told that she can only mention saying ‘lesbian’ once, as long as it’s not repeated too many times, which means that in performance this can escape people’s attention/censorship.
For Terry Jaensch, while he would like to have his poetry widely appreciated and understood, he thinks that making sure the work is understood is different to deciding who the readership is. Terry has written sonnets for rural contexts and sensibilities, and believes that in the instances of reading, audiences have the opportunity to contextualise the work without the need to change the language.
Genre writers may have certain formulas or a sense of readership – in terms of who might be interested in their work. However, for Terry, this idea of genre wouldn’t work as his readership would only be readers interested in sonnets, which isn’t the case.
Julien wonders about the ethics of readership and distribution. When living in Paris he noticed that French bookshops are organised by linguistic and geographical areas – for eg American lit, Eastern European lit, etc. When he looked at French bookclubs he noticed that they were dominated by American lit, as if it represented ‘the world’. Julien started an Asian bookclub with his partner, but it didn’t work because people had aesthetic difficulties in connecting with the work because of the dominance of a North American model. For Julien, “I wonder how this comes into play and how we can play with that, and what role have we as writers, people who write differently and read differently in encouraging people to read differently.”
Perhaps a way is to look at how festivals are programmed, for example having panels with a mix of novelists and poets, to broaden the audience base for both. A lot of novel readers do not read poetry.
While Ubud Writers and Readers Festival doesn’t attract a lot of funding, they are still committed to attracting unheard of authors into the festival and will do the research themselves, sidestepping booksellers or a middle-person.