From Nanjing to Xinghua, Chinese and Foreign Writers Communicate with Art and Literary Together
Dec 21, 2023
On a warm winter’s day, Bi Feiyu’s studio on Confucianism Street in Xinghua, Taizhou, welcomed several special guests. They are five foreign writers participating in the 2023 Nanjing International Writers Residency Programme, invited by the International Literary Exchange Centre of the China Writers’ Association (Nanjing) and The Nanjing ‘City of Literature’ Promotion Center. They temporarily left the city of Nanjing and came to the water town of Xinghua.
“Xinghua is a ‘water city’ like Venice.” Zhao Sifan, the accompanying interpreter, explained with a smile. Deepening literary exchanges and promoting mutual appreciation of civilisations, foreign writers walked and sang during their stay in Nanjing and Xinghua, feeling the aura and breath of the city of literature to their heart’s content.
A Spark of Ideas at a Fiction Salon
On the morning of 25 November, the 41st Novel Salon of Bi Feiyu’s Studio was held, which is one of the important activities of the International Literary Exchange Centre of the China Writers’ Association (Nanjing) this year.
In Xinghua, where the literary trend is blazing, the Bi Feiyu Novel Salon is held four times a year, aiming to build a platform for local writers and literary enthusiasts to communicate with scholars and editors, and to cultivate a larger literary population. This time, the Chinese and foreign writers chose a book called ‘Rooftop Horseriding’ with obvious strengths and shortcomings in order to open up more topics for discussion.
In the Chinese courtyard, the small town opens a literary channel with the world. As Bi Feiyu expected, the tone of the whole salon was sharp and well-intentioned.
The title of the work ‘Rooftop Horseriding’ builds up a novelistic character full of tension, which is a story about the disabled. The local writers of Xinghua present were less appreciative of this experimental work. They argued that ‘The lack of laying out the details of life turns what should be detailed into an overview’ and that ‘the excessive literary accent leads to the separation of the work from life’.
The appreciation of this work by foreign writers constitutes a collision of thoughts. Kyle Mewburn, children’s author and president of the New Zealand Writers’ Association, recognises the author’s brave attempt at a second-person narrative, which may not be successful, but at least ‘he tries out new voices before finding his own’.
During the salon, Bi Feiyu had a full discussion with foreign guests and other Xinghua local writers, constantly putting forward insightful literary ideas, and sparks collided in the exchanges.
Feeling the Aura and Breath of Chinese Cities
In order to understand the literature of a place, we cannot only understand its literature. Going beyond literature, touching the soil that nurtures it, and experiencing the local customs, may bring more excitement to cross-cultural ‘communicators’.
For this consideration, The theme for 2023 program is ‘Urban Life and Literature’. Ms. Lilas YUAN, Director of Nanjing Literature Center, said that compared with last year’s ‘Rivers and Literature’, this year they hope foreign writers will first get to know the city of Nanjing, feel the daily life of contemporary Chinese people, and then come back to talk about literature.
‘To foreign friends, China is still a distant and mysterious country.’ Ms. Lilas YUAN exclaimed. Currently, the vast majority of the world’s literary capitals run residency programmes, which are the most common, as well as the most effective and intriguing, of international literary exchanges. After participating Nanjing International Writers Residency in 2019, the Spanish writer Antonio Munir Hachemi Guerrero returned to China to teach at Peking University again after only six months, telling the media, ‘I got to know China right from the Nanjing residency programme began.’
On the bus from Nanjing to Xinghua, there were waves of laughter. Miodrag Kojadinović, a writer and professor from Quebec, Canada, has a warm personality; he has taught at six universities in China and can speak simple Chinese. He gave a reed to Debby Lukito Goeyardi, an Indonesian writer travelling with him, and told her it had been picked along a river (the Yangtze) near Nanjing. They chatted animatedly with each other about what they had seen in China, including the experience of travelling on the high-speed railway and their enjoyment of Changzhou Dinosaur Park.
The first stop for overseas writers at the Xinghua city walk turned out to be sitting at the Zheng Banqiao Memorial Hall, listening to Banqiao Daoxiang. According to Zhao Sifan, ‘Banqiao Daoxiang’ is a folk song written by a famous ancient Chinese litterateur, which tells the story of the not-so-luxurious lonely life of a great intellectual. The foreigners listened carefully and gazed at the artist when he sang on stage.
In the former residence of Zhao Haixian, a famous doctor in Jianghuai at the end of the Qing Dynasty, the foreign writers climbed up to a wooden attic with great interest, which was a great feeling! They excitedly asked: ‘Can we stay here for one night?’
In front of a hat and coat shop in the Jindongmen historical and cultural district, Miodrag Kojadinović immediately fell in love with a hat, 25 yuan, warm, at a fair price, and then put it on after scanning the code and paying for it. The interpreter made fun of him for ‘turning into a Chinese old man’.
A ‘road of the heart’ intertwined
On the evening of 25 November, Bi Feiyu’s studio continued to organise a dialogue between five foreign writers and five local writers on the theme of ‘The Possibility and Self-Deepening of Literature’. It was a cool winter night, but the auditorium was still full.
Kyle Mueben described herself as a magpie, a word that in English has another meaning: someone who has a penchant for collecting bits and pieces. Müben says she is a magpie, keen to collect words, sounds and shiny things.
Liu Chunlong was born on a fishing boat in Xinghua, and worked as a fishery technician in his adult life. When he picked up a pen, what he wanted to do most was to dig up and record the fishery affairs of his hometown with the attitude of cultural archaeology and field research. To that end he went through almost every book he could find on fishing and recorded 100 fishing methods. ‘Do you know?’ Liu Chunlong said proudly, ‘Fishing is also an intangible cultural heritage.’
From the small town ‘walk’ to the world, Xinghua local writer Yi Kang’s sharing is particularly sincere and moving. Yi Kang, who has never left Xinghua, has always travelled far in the spiritual world through extensive reading. In the 1980s, he read Dickens ‘Bleak House’ in this small city, and set up the ambition to write, and he firmly believes that the mission of the writer is to write about the suffering in the world.
Pang Yuliang, chairman of Taizhou Literature Federation and Writers’ Association, is very satisfied with this exchange. In his opinion, Xinghua local writers have competitiveness, but the tendency of homogenisation is more obvious. ‘In order to inspire them and lead them forward, we need to open more windows. This time, several foreign writers opened our eyes too much, they can notice what we have not noticed, like the British writer Nick Holdstock talked about the ‘writer’s fear’, which is a very good topic, because staying in their ‘comfort zone’ isn’t a good way to produce literature.’ Pang said to media.
The 2023 Nanjing International Writers’ Residency Programme is scheduled to end on 30 November. We came with anticipation and left with a harvest. From Nanjing to Xinghua, or other cities, a ‘road of the heart’ intersects and converges, gently connecting the hearts behind different skin colours.