Last month Geoffrey E. Taylor (Director) and Christine Saratsiotis (Deputy Director) of the Toronto International Festival of Authors took three Canadian writers—Ronna Bloom, Shari Lapena and Sylvain Neuvel— to the 11th Bookworm Literary Festival in Beijing, China, as part of our international touring programme. We asked the writers what they thought about the the reception of Canadian literature in China and more.
On The Bookworm Beijing bookstore:
“The Bookworm has to be one of the best book stores in the world. Always packed, always lively, with great music and food and drink flowing freely, the place was absolutely bursting with energy. We were reminded of Rick’s American Café, in the film Casablanca. We knocked back the cocktails and got to know our remarkable hosts and fellow writers. It was inspiring—not to mention sobering—to hear of the risks that running a book store entails in communist China. Running afoul of the authorities can and does result in occasional arrest.”
“Peter at the Bookworm is the kindest and most dedicated organizer. Everyone I met on this trip was amazing and I hope our paths will cross again.”
On Chinese readers, writers and CanLit:
“The events—with writers from China and from other countries—were very well attended. The audiences were engaged and full of questions. What struck me most was the courage and enthusiasm of these Chinese readers, writers and booksellers in the face of government oppression. It made me appreciate more than ever the freedoms we enjoy here in Canada.”
“It was as mind opening an experience as it was a whole lot of fun. I got to exchange with Chinese writers and readers. It’s hard to form an opinion in such little time, but the Chinese authors I talked to, especially in the science fiction community, were all hungry for new perspectives.
They are literally trying to make the world a better place through writing and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. Being Canadian made it somewhat easier to interact with just about everyone there, both Chinese and foreign. We’re seen—or at least it felt that way—as open-minded and not judgemental. Conversations are honest and insightful, and I got the feeling the passport I carry made it easier for people to engage with me right away, to see me and not some distorted image of the West.”
On their fellow travel companions:
“I was part of a very heterogeneous group from Canada: a poet, a crime writer, two people from the IFOA, me and my giant robots. Perhaps surprisingly, this was the best group travel I’ve ever experienced. We were all different, but respectful of these differences and excited to share something truly unique. Not once did I feel like stepping out of the room for a minute. It was very special and I’m grateful to have been a part of it (even if no one was super enthusiastic about my idea of getting matching face tattoos. Big red dragon on one side of the face. Cool, right?).”
“One of the best aspects of the trip was the presence of Ronna Bloom, who prescribes poetry as needed. We were all lucky to be offered an appropriate poem by Ronna at some point in our trip.
For me, that time came when we went as a group to visit the Great Wall of China. I didn’t realize that to get to the wall you had to take a gondola ride up, and a toboggan ride down. And I don’t like heights. On the way up in the gondola, Sylvain set the mood by playing the theme songs from James Bond and Mission Impossible from his phone. The wall itself was breathtaking. I never thought I’d find myself walking along the Great Wall of China. It felt like a gift. But when it came time to go down—that’s when I needed one of Ronna’s poems. The descent looked like a steel luge twisting and turning down the side of the mountain and out of sight. But Ronna’s poem settled me and gave me courage. In the end, the slide down wasn’t that scary.”
On the interesting or surprising things they’ve encountered:
“It was certainly an interesting time to visit communist China. President Xi Jinping had just effectively been made “emperor for life” with the removal of term limits on the presidency. It felt like an historic moment. The Congress was on but because it took place on Tiananmen Square, we weren’t able to see the body of Chairman Mao, but we were able to visit The Forbidden City.”
“The thing that surprised me the most about Beijing is how few people there were, everywhere. It sounds like an insane thing to say about a city of over twenty million people, but it never felt crowded. Everything was wide: the streets, the sidewalks. What little I’ve seen of China felt very…roomy. Best moment? That’s hard – there were many – but celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Beijing probably takes the cake.”
On experience overall:
“I went to China! I have to remind myself every now and then. I was jetlagged and sleep-deprived for all of it and there are times where it feels very much like I dreamed the whole thing. I know I had a blast, though.”
“The generosity of our hosts was heartwarming. We had many wonderful meals, including Peking Duck served with a gong. It was an exciting and enlightening trip—friends were made—and I’m grateful to the Canada Council of the Arts for making these trips possible.”
Poet Ronna Bloom wrote about her experience on her own blog, I had a dream I went to China, that you can read here. We’ve included a passage about one of the panels Ronna was on.
The next day I sat on a panel called “Poets for the People” with Welsh poet Ifor Ap Glyn and Chinese poet Dai Weina. Each read in their own language then in English and spoke of translation. Someone asked about my work in hospitals and I talked about writing people poems on the spot. Its own kind of translation. Dai Weina said, “Every act of poetry is a translation of inner experience.”