The Great Firewall: censorship in China

By Vikki VanSickle

“Now we have 90 per cent freedom, what more do you want?”

– Chan Koonchung

The audience members at Chan Koonchung’s reading and interview on Sunday were humbled in the presence of not only a renowned writer but a brave political dissident. But Koonchung does not consider himself a dissident; As he said with a touch of a humour, it is the censors and high officials that decide who is a dissident. Thought his work has been censored, he has been able to live relatively free from persecution in Beijing.

Chan Koonchung at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Koonchung read from The Fat Years, his internationally acclaimed novel which has been banned in China. Written in 2009, it was set in what was then the not-too distant future, 2013. Koonchung wanted to talk about the present but set in slightly in the future so he could create a series of fictional but plausible events that illustrated his point. In the book, a group of intellectuals in Beijing discover an entire month has been erased from Chinese history.

Koonchung was adamant that his novel was fiction, but claimed that there are true stories in China that are even more unbelievable. Though it is true that one one hand, China is more prosperous and making strides in terms of human rights, there are still gross violations taking place in a quiet, insidious and equally damaging manner. This false sense of freedom makes it difficult for citizens to speak out. As interviewer and human rights activist Minky Worden said, if you don’t know what’s missing than how would you know to look for it?

Chan Koonchung in conversation with Minky Worden at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Koonchung spoke about the collective amnesia of the Chinese officials, and how certain incidents (such as Tiananmen Square) are not only not taught to students, but not spoken of at all. He gave an example of an acquaintance who was instructed by his children not to talk to his grandson about the past, lest he bring it up in school and get in trouble.

Koonchung and Worden spoke in depth about the nature of censorship in China. The internet is monitored and limited by the “Great Firewall,” policed by hundreds of thousands of censors who are paid to browse the Internet looking for content that has crossed an ever-changing and seemingly arbitrary line. These censors are paid by the deletion. But the Chinese people are learning to work around the Great Firewall. For example, a kind of coded lexicon has been created by the Chinese people to talk around events, ideas or people that are regularly censored.

Publishing houses are also state-owned and play by the censors’ rules, lest they be shut down and the livelihoods of hundreds of people are put at risk.

The Fat Years was published in Hong Kong in 2009 and immediately reviewed by many papers and critics in China before the censors could ban it (which they did, eventually). Koonchung referred to this as “rushing through the yellow light,” the red light being the censors. In China the only way to read the book is to get your hands on one of the many electronic copies people have made available, for free, online. Because some of these versions are riddled with typos and errors Koonchung prepared his own electronic version and gave it to a political activist who made sure to release it on the net. Imagine a North American author providing a free e-book, solely so people could read his work and be informed.

Koonchung spoke eloquently and wistfully about the 1983 constitution, a “beautiful” document ignored by the government. Koonchung claims that if only the party adhered to the principles and laws of this constitution, “an electric appliance without electricity,” the quality of life and government in China would vastly improve.

It was an honour to listen to such a gracefully-spoken and brave man, who feels compelled to ask questions and remember incidents his countrymen are forbidden to remember. His work gives new meaning and urgency to the concept of national literature. For if there are no writers like Koonchung to remember the past for us, how will we avoid these pitfalls and tragedies in the future?

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

With the fluidity of heritage, does a national literature matter?

By Vikki VanSickle

“When in Rome, decide to be Roman and convince the reader that they are Roman, too.”

-A.L. Kennedy

Sunday’s round table on national literature, part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at IFOA, began as many academic English courses in Canada begin—with a reference to Margaret Atwood. Moderator James Grainger quoted from Atwood’s seminal Canlit bible Survival, providing a Canadian context for the theme of national literature. Grainger suggested that since the 1990s, Canadian writers have been moving away from a national literature and embracing a more regional literature.

All five writers hail from countries with something of a colonist complex: Canada, Scotland and Australia. They agreed that there is an overriding feeling that an English or American novel is by default the norm and anything else is “other.” Both Irvine Welsh and A.L. Kennedy touched on the fact that Scotland hovers somewhere between a region of the UK and nation. To define a novel as a Scottish (rather than British) novel is a political statement. Kennedy said that while it is paramount that countries maintain a culture life there is always the possibility that politicians will hijack the arts for cultural purposes.

Irvine Welsh, Kristel Thornell, Beatrice MacNeil, A.L. Kennedy and Liam Card at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Is a national literature based on the writer’s nationality or the setting of the book? When and where does quality come into the conversation? An audience member observed that as an Italian-born Canadian, he appreciates literature that is both Italian and Canadian and does not draw distinctions between them.

With the fluidity of heritage, does a national literature matter? There are of course practical benefits to defining oneself as a Canadian or Australian writer. Kristel Thornell mentioned how her Australian citizenship allows her to apply for grants and be eligible for national awards. Her nationality makes her visible in a community and the cultural infrastructure of a nation provides support for its writers. This is definitely true in Canada, as well.

Welsh talked about globalism and how it has created bland consumable culture, and anything interesting is pulled into the mainstream and is sanitized, synthesized and mass produced before it has a chance to percolate. There was fear among the group that globalism and the desire for an international bestseller has publishers seeking the major common denominator in fiction, that original voices are being ignored, and we are experiencing a steady decline in imagination.

Despite this malaise, all the panelists swore that being true to one’s story and one’s voice was their number one concern, and claimed not to bow down to these perceived external pressures. As Kennedy says, a novel is a conversation between a writer and a reader. It is intimate and universal, regardless of the reader or the writer’s nationality.

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

The Future of the Novel: story is here to stay

By Vikki VanSickle

Saturday’s round table discussion, Zombies, Witches, Killers and Cowboys: Visions of the Future of the Novel, featured a group of authors from various genres with a wonderful natural chemistry. The scope of the discussion was large, touching on themes such as genre, love, the imagination and the writing process. The audience was very welcoming—and obviously full of Jo Nesbø fans.

Moderator Andrew Pyper kept the tone of the discussion light and fun. At one point Nesbø described storytelling as inviting people to your house; if they like it, they will come again. The event very much felt like we had been invited into a cozy collective living room. The discussion included a number of personal anecdotes and I’m sure if given the opportunity the audience would have stayed all afternoon to hear these mix of authors talk.

Andrew Pyper, Deborah Harkness, Alen Mattich, Jo Nesbø and Corey Redekop at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

The question of genre and categorization was one of the more interesting and heated discussions. Genre writers often feel sidelined or undermined by the literati. According to Nesbø, crime fiction is respected and prestigious in Scandinavia, but this is not the case in North America or England, causing Pyper to surmise what a M.G. Vassanji or Anne Michaels crime novel would look like, to much laughter from the audience.

Redekop brought up the case of Margaret Atwood, who made her mark as a literary writer and poet before diving into genre fictions such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Redekop wondered if she had written these novels first, would she be considered “merely” a science fiction writer? Atwood herself refers to these novels as “speculative fiction,” which many sci-fi writers find evasive and suggest that in using this term Atwood herself is aware of (and avoiding) the stigma of genre writing.

Deborah Harkness and Alen Mattich talked about the constraints of genre. Harkness referred to genre as a weapon, used by critics and literary award committees to demean so-called genre writers and exclude them from the literary elite. She also talked about genre policing, in which readers and critics are quick to exclude titles based on an arbitrary set of rules or perceived notions about genres.

Harkness is a historian and a professor and talked about the snobbery of her own colleagues, who assumed she would write her fiction (which features witches and vampires) under a pseudonym. Mattich agreed that in North American and British literary circles there is some derision of genre fiction, but he felt that the constraints of genre fiction benefit the writer. With no constraints, Mattich believes it would be harder to succeed. The framework provided by these categories, as arbitrary as they may be, allows the author a framework to push against or an opportunity to test the boundaries and perhaps come up with something fresh and new.

There was some discussion as to why we categorize. Harkness believes the categorizations exist only for the reader, and Redekop confessed that as a librarian, categories are are a useful tool when readers are seeking something to read.

Nesbø pointed out that genre is all about expectation. When a reader picks up a crime novel or a paranormal romance, they expect certain conventions. Like Mattich, he felt that these expectations make it easier to frame a story. So what of the cross-over novel, that holy grail sought by publishers, which seems to defy genre or categorization? The panel agreed that to write for the masses, or seek something as elusive as the cross-over novel, would endanger the story. As Nesbo says, don’t go to the people, invite them to come to you.

As for the future of the novel? The group steered away from discussion of format (re: e-books) and instead focused on content and what readers want. The panelists all agreed that story is here to stay. As Mattich says, people don’t like random events or information. We like a story to explain things.

Redekop took this one step further, suggesting that we are genetically predisposed to create stories in order to understand the world around us. Nesbø suggested that some of the most interesting writing is not in the novel, but in other formats, pointing to cable TV and shows such as Mad Men. He believes that in the future readers will want to be challenged, and that writers of all forms and genres should be ready for a world of intelligent readers.

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

Miéville & Toews: fiction as a living thing

By Vikki VanSickle

Last night’s event, part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at IFOA, featured two very different speakers covering two very different topics.

From England, award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer China Miéville postulating on the future of the novel, and from Canada, literary darling Miriam Toews dissecting the idea of a national literature. Thanks to moderator Rachel Giese who drew clear parallels between these two very different keynote addresses and lead the audience in a rich discussion.

I made it, it’s mine.

Miéville is a commanding speaker who delighted the audience with wry and at times critical observations of the literati and an imaginative and open view of the future. He spoke passionately about the demise of authorial authority, envisioning a future where “guerilla editors” get their hands on texts and edit, embellish, and “re-mix” content. Texts will no longer be “closed” in an era of digitally distributed texts. We need to change our perspective and put the book ahead of the author. Once authors can get over the fact that they aren’t special, they are workers like anyone else, it will allow the focus to be on the book.

China Miéville at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

The crowd rallied behind Miéville’s vision of the future in which writers receive a salary, a somewhat far-fetched idea that would require the toppling of current political and economic systems—but one can dream, right?

Miéville’s address was a perfect example of how content can be re-mixed, as it was based on a speech given earlier this year, with some alterations based on the discussion it generated. Talk about metafiction! You can check out his original keynote address here.

Serve your nation by serving your story.

Miriam Toews is a warm and endearing speaker who wears her heart on her sleeve. Toews spoke candidly about the odd position she has found herself in as a sort of expert in Mennonite culture; a position that has been imposed by others due to her background and content in some of her work. She talked about being both criticized and praised by the Mennonite community, and how this also typifies the demands of a so-called national literature. Communities demand allegiance; they expect their members to “reinforce certain pre-approved narratives.”

Miriam Toews at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Toews believes this is the crux of the problem with a national literature—that it demands obligation and confines the writer to ideals that may not exist.  Ideas of national identity belong to the past, and any attempt to construct an identity will be outdated by the time the reader comes to it.

If the writer has any job at all, Toews said, it is only to serve the story. By serving the story the writer is ultimately serving her nation.

Some thoughts to take away. Toews described fictional stories as “a secular bible of a community,” which struck me as a sage observation. Think of this year’s Canada Reads format, in which people are asked to vote for books that represent a region and then one book will be chosen out of these books that ultimately represents Canada. Celebrating regionalism only to pit the regions against each other seems contradictory. I’d be curious to know what Toews take on this format is.

Both Miéville and Toews spoke about the book as living thing, and how interpretations are as varied as the individuals who read the book. Being surprised by a reader’s take on a character or receiving fan art work or fan fiction exemplify ways in which a book “lives.” An audience member asked, “But what if they get it wrong?” Both Toews and Miéville insist that there is no such thing as a wrong interpretation, and just because an author created a work does not make them the ultimate authority.

Some heady discussion and lots to ponder! Looking forward to Saturday’s double bill!

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

Style vs. Content: an energetic debate

By Corina Milic

Four authors sat down for a round table discussion on Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content, Wednesday night as part of the Toronto edition of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference.

The event may have been tamer than its 1962 counterpart (authors almost came to fisticuffs during that controversial meeting), but there was heated debate, intelligent questions and even a few audience F-bombs.

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Susan G. Cole, books editor at NOW Magazine, hosted the chat with Marjorie Celona, Rebecca Lee, Anakana Schofield and Leanne Shapton.

The conversation meandered through each author’s writing process, the concept of style vs. content, style as content (reminding this audience member of fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan) and whether to use first person or third person narration.

Rebecca Lee uses first person throughout Bobcat and Other Stories, her debut short story collection. Lee said each character had a bit of her in them. “It’s like turning up the volume on yourself and that becomes your character.”

Marjorie Celona chose a double narrative for her debut novel Y, which is about a girl abandoned at birth. One storyline is told in first person, the other in third. “At one point the I key on my keyboard stopped working. First person can be limiting.”

But the real disagreements didn’t begin until Cole asked,

“Can style ever get in the way?”

Celona argued overly stylized writing can block a story’s emotion. She said she doesn’t want “the writer to be louder than the story.”

Anakana Schofield, the panel’s Irish-accented firecracker, was “horrified” at the argument, saying, “I find story is a dead end. I’m interested in language.”

Cole suggested in Schofield’s novel, Malarky, the style is the content. It was 10 years in the making and is about a grief-stricken rural Irish woman. Schofield said she specifically used stylized, fragmented language to “represent the discombobulation of grief.”

The debate evolved into the importance of story vs. language, which Leanne Shapton likened to the difference between illustration and art.

Shapton came to the round table from a unique perspective: she is an artist and an author. Her memoir, Swimming Studies, is about her experiences training for the Olympics and includes whole chapters told with photos and illustrations.

An energetic audience weighed in. Is there something gendered about the way authors use style and content? What is content? To which Lee answered with the best quote of the night: “What can writing do that other forms can’t? It can collapse experience into meaning.” Anyone can tell a story! And, doesn’t style, not narrative, define great literature?

“Shouldn’t we have both?” argued Celona.

Celona’s novel is about a girl who finds out she was abandoned at the YMCA as a baby and is looking for her birth mother. “It sounds like a bad made-for-TV movie,” she laughed. “Style is what elevates it above that.”

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog. Visit readings.org for more IFOA events.
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