Exploring Within and Without at the Bookworm Literary Festival

Updated 2013-12-23 09:03:42
1)Yang Jisheng and Justin Hill sign books after a discussion at The Bookworm. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/William Wang]

By William Wang

The Bookworm Literary Festival (March 8 – 22, 2013) has become a mainstay of Beijing''s cultural events. Now in its seventh year, the festival has exploded to include 80 writers from 22 countries. What started in lil'' ol'' Beijing has now broadened its reach to include six other cities, each contributing to a total of 250 events for English and Chinese audiences.

In Beijing, English events are mainly held in the Bookworm Cafe itself, where attendees sip glasses of complimentary wine while listening attentively to the guest authors.

One event I had the opportunity to attend was by award winner Chi Zijian. In her first novel published in English, she explores the changing culture of the Evenki, a nomadic tribe of reindeer herders near the China-Russia border. Her conversation with the moderator (via a wonderfully natural translator) opened my mind to a remote culture with joys and challenges as tangible as my own, yet of a world incomprehensibly different from life in the city.

I also attended one of the Big Questions events, this one asking if history is cyclical. Acclaimed authors Justin Hill, Yang Jisheng and Adam Williams all more or less concluded that it is, tossing in some poignant and comedic examples.

Of course two events can''t begin to cover the scope of this festival. Bookworm founder Alex Pearson and festival director Kadi Hughes have pushed the boundaries of the event far and wide, embracing the wide spectrum of storytelling methods.

But regardless of how the stories are told, the focus remains sharply on the now. "We definitely try to look for writers who''ve recently been published or have recently published a new book," said Pearson. "We also look for diversity and internationalism so we have authors from as many different countries as possible, who use different genres, different styles of writing, and different types of people, different types of presentations. We want as diverse a range as possible in order to attract as diverse a range of audience members as possible."

The BLF range is diverse without question, but one theme is particularly prominent: China. From academic discussions about mainland economics to cross-cultural explorations of the erotic, the festival provides a much sought after discourse about its host country. "I think all the China topics we''ve had so far have sold out," said Pearson. "And it''s the same year after year. There''s a real thirst here, understandably. People are living here. The young Chinese want to know what the foreigners are thinking, and the foreigners want to know what [the experts] are thinking."

But why do people come to see authors speak instead of simply reading their books? Isn''t that the usual way? Pearson smiled before responding. "People find it inspiring. Well, I certainly do. The people I admire, the writers I admire, you suddenly see them in real life and there''s certainly something exciting and inspiring about that. There''s also of course the opportunity to ask questions, and it''s been very interesting to what people''s questions have been."

With so many events and authors, the BLF also has its fair share of challenges. One challenge is that the festival tries to reach audiences which are so diverse and international. I asked Pearson about trying to be all things to all people. "[The audiences at the Bookworm Literary Festival] are much more international than at a literature festival you''d have in New York or in London or in Edinburgh, where the audience would be predominantly from that city or at least from that country. Here we''ll bring in an Icelandic writer, and the people from Iceland will be ecstatic. But the people from Poland will be saying, where''s the Polish writer?

"That''s definitely the challenge, but having said that, that''s also the fun."

Pearson''s small team had been working long hours to get the festival together, and it''s clear they were extremely satisfied with how things had turned out. Pearson was particularly enjoying herself after things started rolling along. "It''s lovely when the festival starts because frankly there''s nothing to do except to enjoy and make sure there''s no problems. This is the time when we get to hang out with the authors." She paused briefly to think about informal conversations with myriads of writers. "We''ll go for noodles for lunch," she smiled. "We''ll have jiaozi for dinner."

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