GUEST BLOG: China Inside Out
21st March 2012 - Sarah Hesketh
Sarah Hesketh is the Events Manager at English PEN. Her first collection of poetry, Napoleon's Travelling
Bookshelf was published in 2009 by Penned in the Margins. Here she discusses the attempts to develop stronger literary ties with China, guest nation at this year's London Book Fair, and to give British readers a better sense of the real China today through its writers.
The numbers are astonishing: between 2006 and 2010 over 20 million books were published in China; best-selling authors can register sales of upwards of a million copies in just two months; there are 457 million internet users in China, around 40% of whom are regularly visiting self-publishing websites to publish their own work and read the work of others.
By contrast, just 21 Chinese authors will visit the 2012 London Book Fair as part of the official British Council Cultural Programme. Their task, in the midst of the rights deals, the seminars, the drinks parties and the post-drinks-party parties, will be to represent their country to a UK publishing industry desperate to break into a lucrative Chinese market.
The British Council list is an interesting and impressive one. There are a number of Tibetan-born writers, a Man Asian Prize winner, an ex-policeman turned novelist as well as a number of writers who have enjoyed phenomenal success as part of the new wave of internet writing. But we can't pretend that such a small group can even begin to communicate the depth and variety of Chinese literature, and it's a task that's made even harder by the fact that this is a state approved delegation. There are important topics in contemporary Chinese life that are off limits to these writers, and we know that they will not be able to tell the whole story about their country. Not just because of its size and diversity, but because there are real restrictions on what they can say.
In an attempt to open up this programme of cultural exchange English PEN, together with Free the Word and The Reading Agency, have programmed a day long series of events on Thursday 29 March that will include writers that won't be given a hearing at London Book Fair. We've called it China Inside Out, and whilst I'm aware that's setting our ambitions a little high, I'm hopeful we'll be able to create a space in which a wider range of stories can be told.
We will be featuring exiled writers such as Ma Jian and Li Jianhong. But this is not a day with an overtly political agenda. I'm not interested in creating a portrait of a 'true China' that's as monolithic as its official counterpart. What's important is that this endlessly complex country can be subject to genuine discussion and debate - disagreement, even in how it's viewed by those both inside and outside the country. And so we've invited writers such as Chen Xiwo, who lives and works in Fujian Province, a successful writer who found himself denied access to copies of his own novella when it was released in a Taiwanese edition. We'll also be hearing from Kaiser Abdurusul Ozhun, who will be talking about the Uyhgur community, China's Muslim minority that has resisted assimilation into the image of modern China. There will be filmmakers, journalists, poets and some really good food, courtesy of Fuchsia Dunlop and Barshu.
I look at this post and I realise that when I try and talk about China, I can't help but resort to a series of lists. It seems to be the only way that I can begin to communicate what I'm learning about this incredible country. I hope that China Inside Out will encourage people to begin to make their own lists. Of questions, of books, of writers they want to hear more from. No one's list is going to be exhaustive or perfect. And that's really how I think it should be.
Click here to find out more about China Inside Out and to book tickets.
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