Hong Kong, Singapore writers festivals court controversy
Freedom, censorship and government oppression are themes running through two of the region's biggest literary gatherings next month
The controversial American author Lionel Shriver is set to bookend two major literary festivals in Hong Kong and Singapore, both running from November 4-13.
She will open the Hong Kong International Literary Festival with a talk about The Mandibles (2016), a darkly satiric novel, set in a near future in which Mexico builds a wall against a deeply indebted US that has been forced to rely on a currency controlled by China and Russia.
Her November 4 talk will be part of a fundraising dinner at The American Club. That will be followed two days later – which is two days before the US election – by a public Q&A at the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre. With the possibility of a real-life Donald Trump presidency on the horizon, truth may be stranger than fiction.
Shriver, known for pushing against the limits of political correctness, will close the Singapore Writers Festival with two events: a November 12 masterclass on Melding Fact And Fiction and a November 14 talk at the National Gallery called An Unflinching Eye Into Truth.
Literary festivals all over the world are delving increasingly into news, politics and current events – and Hong Kong and Singapore are no exceptions. Talks in the two Asian financial and commercial hubs will cover everything from The Panama Papers to North Korean escapees.
Shriver, a North Carolina native now based in the UK, is known for disturbing novels like We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003), a sympathetic portrait of a mass school shooter’s mother, and Big Brother (2013), inspired by the death of her own morbidly obese brother.
But the most recent furor around her hasn’t been about her books. At last month’s Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia, Shriver veered from the rather dull, assigned topic of “community and belonging.” Instead, she took on the growing, possibly censorious influence of political correctness. She poked fun at universities so concerned about “safe spaces” that they crack down on students wearing sombreros at tequila parties. She railed against current concepts of “identity politics” and “cultural appropriation” – and the idea that certain depictions of racial or sexual minority groups should be off-limits, especially to white Western authors.
“The kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with,” Shriver said in Brisbane.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a social issues activist, walked out of Shriver’s talk and responded with a blistering, 1,400-word diatribe in The Guardian. The Sydney Morning Herald piped in, as did the Washington Post and Canada’s National Post and many others.
Shiver shot back in TIME, saying “If to disagree with someone is to personally injure them in a grievous and unpardonable way, then intellectual discourse is dead.”
Phillipa Milne, the Hong Kong festival’s program manager, said she hoped the topic would come up. “Literary festivals are there to prod and provoke and get people talking,” she said. “People feel incredibly strongly about it.”
Festivals get gutsy
Several top authors, like Hanya Yanagihara, will be appearing in both Hong Kong and Singapore. Yanagihara’s A Little Life (2015) was an unexpected hit despite topping 700 pages and being filled with what the London Review of Books called a “ghastly litany of childhood sexual abuse” and what the New York Review of Books called its “sheer quantity of degradation.” Given that A Little Life has been nicknamed The Great Gay Novel for its homosexual themes, it’s interesting that Yanagihara will also be speaking in Singapore, whose record on gay rights is mixed at best.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong festival is taking a greater role in discussing censorship, a hot issue in a city caught between wanting its own freedoms and being under the thumb of Beijing. In fact, the new Hong Kong branch of PEN International — the writer’s group that campaigns for freedom of expression — will be officially launched as part of the festival on November 13.
The Singapore festival, too, will be exploring the issue of freedom of information. On November 12, the German investigative journalist Frederik Obermaier will discuss the Panama Papers in a talk called Privacy vs. Surveillance.
Milne said that the exploration of more controversial topics was deliberate. “The festival is shifting from being a completely literary festival that focuses just on novels and poetry,” she said in an interview. “Last year, we saw that the non-fiction events, like a series on urbanization in China, were really popular. People here are really interested in current affairs and politics.”
One focus of the Hong Kong festival will be on North Korea. The idea came about when Milne started debating with a friend whether she felt comfortable visiting a nation that held her fascination but was also run by a totalitarian regime.
“It’s the most unknown country in the world. Should we be going there? Is it right? Is it ethical?” Milne asked rhetorically. “Would ignoring the country have an even worse effect than visiting it? I don’t know the answer.”
A panel of experts will try to find the answer on November 12. Speakers include Hyeonseo Lee, whose memoir, The Girl With Seven Names, recounts her own escape from the hermit state; Adam Johnson, who won a Pulitzer for his North Korea-based novel The Orphan Master’s Son; plus a journalist, a tour operator and an academic studying humanitarian aid to the impoverished nation.
Lee – whose book has been published in 20 nations and whose TED talk has been viewed 8 million times – will have her own talk on November 6. Meanwhile Johnson will speak November 11.
The North Korean theme continues November 13 with Ronny Mintjens, who has visited North Korean 10 times and who once taught at the Pyongyang College of Tourism. Mintjens’ photography book, A Journey Through North Korea, is said to be the first such publication produced outside of the country.
Any literary festival’s main focus, of course, will still be literary – and there is a strong line-up of poets and novelists in both cities.
In Singapore, the Pulitzer-winning American poet Vijay Seshadri will speak at events November 12 and 13.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong will welcome Sarah Howe, a British poet with roots in the Asian city. This year, she became the first writer to win the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry with a debut collection, Loop of Jade. She will be speaking about having cultural roots from two places – an experience to which many Asians can relate.
Helen Oyeyemi, named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, will be in both Hong Kong and Singapore to discuss her new short story collection, which TIME called one of the best books of 2016 so far.
Surprising to Milne, the writer who has most excited the Hong Kong festival’s young interns is Bei Dao, a 67-year-old who was part of the Misty Poets group in China that commented on the Cultural Revolution. Exiled from his home country from 1989 to 2006, he has made his life in Europe, the US and Hong Kong. His name has come up in past years as a possible Nobel laureate of literature.
“Students were going crazy for Bei Dao,” Milne said. “They’re coming to me saying, ‘Bei Dao is my favorite poet.’ Who knows? Maybe the Umbrella Movement roused something in them.”
For more information about the Hong Kong festival, go to www.festival.org.hk. Tickets available at www.ticketflap.com/Literary-Festival. For information about the Singapore festival, go to singaporewritersfestival.com.