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21 August 2015: Places beyond Earth

Jason Phu, I like the seedless ones - less trouble, 2013, ink on Chinese paper, 40 x 40cm-WEB_0

Jason Phu, I like the seedless ones – less trouble, 2013, ink on Chinese paper, 40 x 40cm. Courtesy the artist and Ray Hughes Gallery.

 

Australian readers of Chinese literature are currently well-placed to encounter some of that country’s most prominent contemporary writers, with a slew of authors appearing at events and festivals this month. Sheng Keyi is the author of six novels, two of which have been translated into English: Northern Girls (2012) and Death Fugue (2014), an allegory on post-Tiananmen China that has not appeared in mainland China. Sheng Keyi has been travelling in Australia this month, speaking at festivals and universities about her work and Chinese literature. She is a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival next week and has spoken at several events associated with the Griffith Review’s current New Asia Now edition, to which she is a contributor.

We are delighted to publish a version of a paper, ‘I am not here to pander’, delivered by Sheng Keyi at the Centre for Writing and Society at the University of Western Sydney on her relationship to Western readers. ‘I don’t understand the West and the Western reader’s reading tastes,’ she writes. ‘What I write is what makes my blood bubble and boil.’

Another contributor to New Asia Now, Murong Xuecun (author of Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu) will be speaking on ‘China’s Censorship’ at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House and at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

This month also marks the Third China Australia Literary Forum. Chinese and Australian writers – Yu Hua, Tie Ning, A Lai, Xu Kun, Yang Hongke, Chen Hong, Alexis Wright, John Tranter, Fiona McFarlane, Anthony Macris and Michael Mohammed Ahmad –  will exchange ideas and experiences about their literary worlds onstage in Sydney next week. The forum will explore the kinds of cultural transactions and encounters that are possible in a changing global environment. Are there distances that cannot be breached by technology and translation?

Cultural and geographical distance was a theme that emerged in the discussion that followed Sheng Keyi’s paper, I am not here to pander – but it didn’t carry a burden of cross-cultural anxiety.  How important is it, she was asked, for Chinese writers to have Western readers?

Firstly I’m curious about the world. I want to know more about the world. Secondly I want more people to know my work and to know Chinese literature.

I’m the kind of person who always longs for distance. When I was five or six years old already I was thinking about places far away. I was born in a small village and I was always hoping to have a distant relative somewhere far away that I could pay a visit but sadly I didn’t have a distant relative. There’s a river next to my house and when I was ten I swam across the river wanting to see what was on the other side. It was pretty much the same.

I grew up. I left the village. I went to the city and I went to Beijing, the capital city of China. I went to New York and I came to Sydney. I’ve gone to the place that is far away but once I’ve been there the distance is further away. So there’s always a place that’s far away. Maybe now I’m thinking about places beyond earth.

Nobody can tell me where faraway is. Perhaps the faraway can only really be reached through writing, and the faraway is just that which can be imagined, idealised, and never explained.

Sheng Keyi’s answers were interpreted by Isabelle Li.

Our second essay this week is by Jeff Sparrow, who writes on American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book on racism, Between The World And Me. His essay, ‘Racism and the Dreamers’, situates Coates’ work in the context of current and historical attitudes to race and racism:

Today, the US government does not keep any comprehensive record of people dying at the hands of police. But best estimates suggest that nearly 900 Americans have been killed every year for the last eight years. A hugely disproportionate number are black. Still, those caught up in the American Dream see only ‘perfect houses with nice lawns’, ‘Memorial Day cookouts, block associations and driveways’ and ‘tree houses and cub scouts’: they cannot acknowledge structural injustice, even when confronted with the brutal consequences for black bodies.

This week From the Archive goes to China. Sydney Review of Books’ Editorial Coordinator, Alice Grundy, travelled to China in 2014 on an Australia Council grant to learn about Chinese publishing. Her essay, ‘Editor’s Cut: Notes on the Chinese Publishing Industry’, reports on her experiences at Shanghai 99 and the People’s Literature Publishing House. She writes:

A question I asked almost everyone I met, because I found it so confusing, was what does it mean to work in a cultural industry in a country where culture is so controversial. Does the government oversight manifest itself on a daily basis? Is it something they are conscious of? Each interlocutor responded in a slightly different way, but in general they knew where the line was and they knew that if they crossed it, the book would not be published.