Bookish Pursuits at This Year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival

Hong Kong’s complex heritage and multinational population conspire to create an intriguing backdrop for this year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival. “Hong Kong is a conduit from China to the Western world and many of our audiences are bilingual, if not multilingual,” says festival director Phillipa Milne. “I think this encourages openness to a diverse and varied programme.”

Established in 2001 by local journalist, author and Asian Literary Review founder Nury Vittachi and creative writing teacher Jane Camens, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF) celebrates creative writing in English and emphasises writing with an Asian connection from established and emerging authors. In recent years, the event has managed to attract literary luminaries including Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Jung Chang and Ian McEwan, all of which have propelled the festival to greater prominence in the city.

One of the key themes of this year’s festival is translation, which is addressed in two sessions entitled Lost and Found in Translation. One will examine the effects and challenges of poetry and translation work with local poets and translators while another will explore the translation process behind Sheng Keyi’s Tiananmen novel Death Fugue, with Sheng and translator Shelly Bryant addressing points such as what is lost and gained in translation and how important it is to cultural exchange.

Works in translation are featured every year at the event, says Milne. “As a festival with Asian roots, we will continue to recognise the rich and varied literature coming from neighbouring countries. Worldwide fiction is increasingly becoming more popular and we wanted to explore the challenges that are associated with the art of translation, such as preserving precision, context and relevance.”  

Beyond translation, this year’s event has an impressive line-up. Authors include Lionel Shriver, who penned the controversial novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, and Hanya Yanagihara, author of one of 2015’s most critically acclaimed books, A Little Life. The festival will also host North Korea defector and human rights activist Hyeonseo Lee, author of The Girl with Seven Names, who escaped from the hermit kingdom then guided her family to freedom via Laos and China.

1400_933-headshotThe HKILF is not only a showcase for established and up-and-coming novelists but also offers the chance to hear inspiring tales. Hong Kong-based veterinarian David Gething will relate his experience of running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days – and setting two new world records in the process – to local journalist Annemarie Evans.

Those who want to hone their writing chops can do so at one of the festival’s master classes, which this year include memoir writing, children’s fiction and short story workshops.

Over the years, HKILF has gained a better understanding of what Hong Kong audiences want to see and has adjusted its programme accordingly, according to Milne. “This is crucial, as the festival programme is designed with our community in mind,” she adds.

In order to attract what Milne hopes will be festival’s largest crowd ever, ticket prices have been reduced and there are more free events. A two-hour workshop on writing children’s fiction costs HK$80 and even a top drawer event such as Lionel Shriver in Conversation is priced at HK$140. Free events include a one-hour reading from Chinese poet Bei Dao, the most notable representative of the Misty Poets, who reacted against the restrictions on art during the Cultural Revolution.

In addition to providing a platform for Dao’s defiant prose – his poem Huida was adopted as the anthem of the pro-democracy movement during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests – the festival will examine how Hong Kong and mainland cities have changed over the last three decades with Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of five books including China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs To Know. Along with Zoher Abdoolcarim, who edits the Asia edition of Time magazine from Hong Kong, California-based Wasserstrom will address just how much Hong Kong and Shanghai have changed in the past 30 years.

A veteran of the HKILF – he has been in attendance several times before including last year’s event – Wasserstrom believes literary festivals are important as they lead readers to books they might not have known about. “Writers get new vantage points on issues due to the questions they take from those attending their events and via conversations with authors from other parts of the world,” he says.

The author is keen to participate in future festivals and would love to be part of a conversational panel devoted to Hong Kong and China’s literary scene. “If I can dream big, the panel would include mainland authors Wang Anyi and Yu Hua, Hong Kong writer Hon Lai-chu, and Paris-based scholar of Chinese literature Sebastian Veg, who was based in Hong Kong for a long stretch before returning to France.”

Milne believes there is a strong, supportive literary scene in the city and is particularly impressed by the work of local groups Women in Publishing, Peel Street Poetry (PSP) and the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle. To demonstrate its commitment to the local scene, the festival invited PSP to host Australian slam poet and hip hop artist Omar Musa. “It’s our mission to ensure that the festival acts as a platform for local writers as well as a bridge between international and Hong Kong literature. It’s important that we give our local writers the opportunity to share ideas and conversation with visiting writers,” she says.

Henrik Hoeg, coordinator and emcee for PSP, which holds open mic nights three times a month and celebrates its 11th anniversary this October, says it felt Musa was the best fit for its first collaboration with the festival given the non-academic feel and youthful audience of the open mic sessions.

Hoeg says events like HKLIF are vital to the health of the literary community. “I’m hoping that a lot of people who have exposure to the festival but not really to the more grassroots, open mic feel of PSP will enjoy the experience and become regular attendees.”

Since Hoeg got involved with PSP three years ago, he says the number of attendees has increased significantly. “We’ve seen so much great talent come out of the woodwork, and just keep doing everything we can to get the word out there. Once people come in the door they very quickly feel like a part of the community and come back regularly.”

Milne is similarly enthusiastic about the current state of the literary scene in Hong Kong. She is a big fan of Jason Ng, author of Umbrellas in Bloom, which chronicles the 79-day struggle of the Occupy movement in 2014, and Tammy Ho, whose collection of poetry, Hula Hooping, has been described as “an unapologetically socially engaged voice of an emergent generation that Hong Kong has long waited for” by Commonwealth Poetry Prize and American Books Awards winner Shirley Geok-lin Lim. “I also loved Dorothy Tse’s short story collection Snow and Shadow – it’s a weird and wonderful collection of stories set in a rather unusual imagining of Hong Kong.”

With many new literary voices deserving to be heard, HKILF has no shortage of local talent to showcase at future events. Milne is keen to see the festival become more renowned among international writers and audiences. “I visited Auckland Writers Festival earlier this year and was really impressed by the scope and breadth of their programme. Coming from the UK, I have to mention Hay and Edinburgh festivals, which are both wonderful. Edinburgh has more than 700 events each year, and I’d love to produce a festival on that scale one day.”

The Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2016 takes place from Friday, November 4 to Sunday November 13 at various locations.

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