Beijing Header

Archive for the ‘BLF’ Category

Podcast: Women and Chinese Sci-Fi: NüVoices Live at the Bookworm

By NüVoices

Recorded live at the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival, this week’s episode of the NüVoices podcast features a discussion with two prominent science fiction authors, Tang Fei and Ji Shaoting. The episode was recorded as part of a series of five live SupChina events at this year’s festival.

Tang Fei and Ji Shaoting are both titans in the Chinese science fiction world. Tang Fei is a speculative fiction writer and a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her story “Call Girl,” which was translated by Ken Liu, appeared in Apex Magazine and was reprinted in Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014. In addition, she has authored several novels published in Chinese. Ji Shaoting, a former Xinhua journalist, is the founder and CEO of Future Affairs Administration, a professional cultural brand in China that helps aspiring science-fiction writers develop and produce their work. She is also the co-founder of, a popular science explainer.

Together with NüVoices co-host Alice Xin Liu, Tang Fei and Ji Shaoting explore the various challenges facing female Chinese science fiction writers, including widespread gender discrimination and expanding the market for Chinese science fiction works.

Go for the podcast.

Reprint from supchina.


Bookworm Festival Pulse: Ginkgo – The Tree That Time Forgot

Inspired by the historic ginkgo that has thrived in London’s Kew Gardens since the 1760s, renowned botanist Peter Crane has explored the history of the ginkgo from its origin, proliferation and spread across the planet, to its decline, near extinction and ultimate resurgence

Crane notes, in a presentation of his latest book Ginkgo, at this years Literary Festival in Beijing that the Ginkgo is easily recognizable from the peculiar shape of its leaves, split in the middle and met with a single stem so that each leaf appears torn, or as two joint together as one. And dawning its arrival in Europe it has since sheltered the likes of Virginia Woolf, and in 1815, incentivized the poet Goethe to give symbolic expression to his intense relationship with Marianne Willemer, by giving her a leaf from the ginkgo tree, explaining that, like its deeply cleft yet still whole leaf, he was “single yet twofold.”

The Ginkgo’s leaves are very heavy and are often used as compost. Most of which appear on tiny shoots formed a season before they bloom. The tree made its way to Europe in the 17th century through the botanist John Bradley Blake, who worked in China as a resident supercargo for the British East India Company and sent seeds of indigenous plants to great Britain for propagation. Blake Observed that While some plants simultaneously possessed both male and female reproductive parts, the Ginkgo’s had separate male and female plants from which the females are easily distinguished in the spring by their ovules which develop into large stinky seeds which can be roasted and eaten. Both male and female plants have strange downward growing branches resulting in what Sir Peter Crane describes as a tree that looks more like a thicket than a tree.

But Cranes explains that his love for The Ginkgo is not primarily based on his understanding of it as a Paleontologist, but from the ascetic appeal of its “brim stone yellow” leaves, its grand structure, paradoxically regal and commonplace, recognized mostly as a street tree. The Ginkgo is said to be one of the most famous tree’s in Manhattan. They are remarkably resilient, known in Japan to have survived Hiroshima and the fires of Tokyo.

From an evolutionary stand point, the modern Ginkgo as we know it has remained unchanged for the past 16,000 years. The Ginkgo can be traced back around 2 to 5 million years ago as the last remaining species of its group. Sir Peter Crane stresses that all varieties of plant life can be divided into five groups; Bryophytes (Mosses and liverwort), Pteridophytes (Ferns and horsetails), Gymnosperms (Conifers), Angiosperms (Flowering plants),  and Ginkgo (both a single species and the last remnant of an entire group). It has thus earned a peculiar place in our authors heart from which he has dedicated a period of his focus to document and explore The Tree That Time Forgot.

By Lethokuhle Msimang

Bookworm Festival Pulse: ‘Inspector Chen’

‘Inspector Chen’ novelist says Chinese society crumbling under materialism

A repost from the news agency efe-epa

Chinese crime novelist Qiu Xiaolong at BLF session: “Becoming Inspector Chen”. 

Novelist Qiu Xiaolong, best known for famous crime fiction series of “Inspector Chen”, says the Chinese society, including himself, has lost all its ideals and is morally collapsing under the weight of materialism.

In an interview with EFE, the Shanghai-born, United States-based novelist spoke about the transformations he, his character and China have experienced in the last three decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre – one of the most sensitive issues for the Chinese authorities even today.

“Thirty years ago, people were more idealistic and wanted to change things. But now, people are not so optimistic anymore. We are all more cynical and we are all more disappointed, including my main character and me,” Qiu said.

The novelist said the reality of China was complex and he often felt confused.

The country is improving at many levels all the while revealing a moral collapse with materialistic tendencies that “will have a cost”, he warned.

“Today, young people do not care about all these things. Many are content to make jokes on social networks. The important thing (for them) is to make money and I am worried because there is no desire to fight anymore,” said Qiu who was at a bookshop in the Chinese capital for a talk about his work.

His crime series of detective-poet Chen Cao as the protagonist have all been set in Shanghai where he was born in 1953.

The series, spanning almost two decades now, portrays murky relations between police and the Chinese Communist Party. It lets readers peek into the dark side of Shanghai of the 1980s under the rule of Deng Xiaoping when crime seemed an order of the day.

“For me, it is not just about who killed whom. These are crimes that interrelate with corruption, with pollution and the pollution of the mind, even alienation (…) But the most important thing is in which kind of social, cultural background the crime and the investigations take place,” said the author.

“I hope my books can serve as a window to all the hidden things that happen in China,” says Qiu.

He acknowledged the influences in his work of European authors such as the Spanish Manuel Vazquez Montalban, the Italian Andrea Camilleri and the Swedish pair Mark Sowall and Per Wahloo, who exposed the evil of contemporary societies through the noir fiction.

Recognizing that he has a social responsibility, the novelist confessed he has had to deal with censorship many times as his editors have had to translate and re-translate and he must accept cuts and adjustments to be able to publish in China.

“In one novel, they falsified the name of the city of Shanghai to ‘H’ but everybody knew it was about that city,” said Qiu.

About his life in the US, he said he travelled to America in 1988 to work for a year but ended up staying forever as The Tiananmen Square riots erupted the following year and the Chinese authorities blacklisted him and froze the publication of a book of poems.

“I hope that in the near future, the Chinese will be able to talk about all this. Nobody, not even your ownself, should tell you what to write or what is desirable,” says Qiu, the son of a victim of the Cultural Revolution reprisal and a Chinese translator of the works of T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner and Conrad, among many others.

The writer said in his next adventure he was looking to mix the adventures of Inspector Chen with another case set in the times of the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) where then, as now, “there are no private investigators or judicial independence, but high-ranking officials who dictate all the rules”.

“Classical Chinese literature is very (much) linked to poetry and poetry is very important for me and for Inspector Chen,” he said, given that in almost all of his works there are references or transcriptions of poems.

“Love for poetry makes us more human,” said the author, whose novels have been published in Spain by Tusquets publishers: “Death of a Red Heroine” that won the Anthony award in 2001; “Visa for Shanghai”, “Red Mandarin Dress” and “The Mao Case” among others.

By Jesus Centeno

Bookworm Festival Pulse : A Fitting Close to an Inspirational Festival

A Fitting Close to an Inspirational Festival

It’s eight o’clock at night, and The Bookworm is teeming with excitement. This is the last night of the Beijing Literary Festival, and what better way to cap off two and a half weeks of creative energy and intense conversation than this: A Pub Quiz!!

People mill about with their drinks in their hands, waiting for their teams to arrive, or scout out their tables and hunch forward to discuss strategy. The Bookworm staff hover around the edges, dutifully scanning the crowd to see who needs a drink and making sure the sound and lights are all working as they should. Chairs are pulled into tables, people stick out their hands to introduce themselves, and music flows from the speakers.

I stand to the side with the other festival volunteers, busily typing up my final blog post as Sam Waterson, who has been a reliable source of photography for the festival, alternatively sluices between tables and perches on chairs, snapping stills of the participants. Alison Chen, who has been conducting a mind-blowing number of interviews with authors and audience members over the last few weeks, joins us at the table as Karen Tong, this year’s kick-ass BLF manager, surveys the crowd with a satisfied smile.

Anthony Tao, a manager of BLF in previous years and creator of the Literary Festival’s pub quiz, sits at the front of the room in a light purple button-down shirt and blue suede shoes. He is staring intently at his computer with a half-finished beer and a microphone.

The music is lowered and Tao asks for everyone to find their seats and put their group name on their score sheets for the first round. Quick clips of movies that were adapted from books are the first challenge. There is head nodding and drink sipping and a buzz of collective chattering as teams lean in and bounce around ideas.

From art pieces that represent wars, to country codes, to a game of human-telephone where quotes from movies and poems are passed between living participants then announced to the crowd for identification, the quiz question get sillier and sillier. Owners David Cantaloupo, whose charismatic presence has been a constant delight over the past two and a half weeks, and Peter Goff, whose has been sacrificing money and time for this event since its beginning, both make appearances.

The night ends with a spirited debate over the meaning of the title “Khaleesi” in Game of Thrones, with two brave men standing up to dispute its origins. There is a raucous round of applause as the winners are announced. Gifts and rounds of drinks are passed out to the three top scores, the music is raised, the microphone turned off, and just like that, two and half weeks of passion and inspiration and literature come to a close—but then more drinks are poured, and the participants resume their role as customers, and the conversation continues, as it always will at the Bookworm.

Until next year, BLF!

Thanks to all!

Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer, 2019

WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

Bookworm Festival Pulse : Jade Life: In Conversation with Andrew Shaw

“I arrived with my suitcase in one hand and my ignorance in the other” – this is how English-born Andrew Shaw describes his first arrival in China. From this humorous beginning, he has since gone on to become China’s only foreign master carver of jade. Over the course of an hour, he discusses his personal history with China, the craft of jade carving, the international jade industry, and every topic in between.

It seems Shaw is well used to the amazement provoked by his title of master carver – how on earth did he become so skilled in jade carving, and just what made him start? All is explained in a short video which prefaces his talk, as Shaw uses a mixture of Chinese and English to tell his story.

Originally a senior reporter for the BBC, Shaw stayed in Thailand for four months in 2003. During this time, he visited a jade carving workshop and felt a pull towards the stone. Suddenly all he wanted to do was learn how to carve jade himself. He quit his job, moved to Suzhou – famous for the quality of its jade pieces – and there began the search for a teacher.

After six months of searching, Shaw found his teacher. This first teacher gave Shaw use of a workshop, jade to practise on and tools to use every day for two years – a generosity he says you would be hard-pressed to find among the goldsmiths of London or other similar professions.

This generosity is linked to Shaw’s views on jade and the people it attracts in general. The stone is tied to Chinese culture and has been for thousands of years – Confucius was one of the early speakers extolling the virtues of jade. Jade “represents everything good in China” in a way that attracts good people, Shaw says. He also told us that to fully understand the Chinese symbolism of jade, you really need to talk to Chinese people. His own book is more about “the Chinese jade industry seen through the eyes of a foreigner”.

Nonetheless, it would be hard to overstate Shaw’s knowledge of the stone. When the moderator of the talk, Rianke Mohan, gives Shaw her jade necklace to inspect, he says within seconds the specific variety of jade it was made from and where it was carved – even that it had been carved by a computer.

Shaw’s historical knowledge is similarly broad. Jade was one of the first musical instruments in China, he says. Confucius was said to be good at “playing the stones”, which meant instruments made of jade. Shaw has brought a similar instrument to the panel – a piece of jade curved like a bracelet. When struck, it rings out bright and clear with a delicate, bell-like sound. Whenever Shaw feels stressed in his workshop, he tells us, the sound of jade can always help relax him. There are even jades sold as worry or meditation pieces; holding them in your hand is said to have a calming effect on people. As to the other purported healing powers of jade, Shaw only smiles and says, “There are many myths about jade – it depends what you believe”.

On the more practical side, Shaw leaves us with a few words of advice for buying jade – if you were buying diamonds, “would you go to a tourist trap or a jeweller”? Treat buying jade in the same way, he recommends. “Find a piece you like and then look at the price,” he says. “If you can’t afford it, look for another piece.”

The monetary value of jade is less important than the meaning embedded in an individual crafted piece. The stone finds significance on a personal level, as well as in its symbolic resonance within Chinese culture. For Shaw, this is the true beauty and value of jade.

Written by: Kiera Johnson

Student in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer 2019

Bookworm Festival Pulse : Addressing Sexism in Fantasy, with Samantha Shannon

Why is so hard for us to imagine, even within the blurred boundaries of fantasy, a world that is equal? This is a question Samantha Shannon, one of the youngest fantasy writers of our time, poses to her audience at the Bookworm.

Why do we keep recreating the same mistakes of the real world, even in fantasy? Why is it so hard to imagine worlds that are equal?

For Shannon, a 27-year old whose career has already outstripped many author’s wildest expectations—she had a book deal while she was still at University, and her 7-part dystopian series will soon appear on television—sexual liberation is a central tenant of her world-creation.

Wearing a black and white polka dotted shirt, and speaking with articulate acuity, she tells us that “when I can name more fantasy books published that are sexist than are not sexist, then that’s a problem.” She connects this to her own literary choices by explaining that “every time I opened a fantasy book there were women being held down by the fact that they’re women, and I wanted to write something different to that. I wanted to write a story where you could have queer characters and queer romance that isn’t a problem.”

Perhaps it is not surprising to hear that in Shannon’s worlds there is a Queendom instead of a Kingdom, or that she goes out of her way to retell legends such as that of St. George slaying a dragon to rescue a princess; in Shannon’s version, there is a woman doing the slaying.

This commitment to equality goes beyond world building for Shannon, who connects her feminist perspective to our popular conception of strong female leads who are considered “strong” because they exhibit stereotypically “male” characteristics.

She gives an analogy most of us can relate to: the sisters Arya and Sansa, from the book series-turned-HBO sensation Game of Thrones. Arya deals with the injustices she’s endured by becoming a fierce warrior, and she is adored by fans for it. By comparison, Arya’s sister, Sansa, who exhibits stereotypically “female” traits such as “cunning and quiet endurance” is not given the same attention.

Shannon laments that these sorts of “female” traits seem to be misunderstood, and sometimes even demonized in popular culture. She argues that people are underestimating their value and that in truth it is these “female” characteristics have been the bedrock of survival for women throughout the ages. Even in Game of Thrones we see that Sansa survives longer than many other characters.

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, she tells us, is another example: she’s emotionally stoic, she’s physically strong, she’s good with a bow and arrow, and she’s loved for these masculine qualities because this conception of a “strong woman” is idealized by the media.

Shannon isn’t saying there’s something wrong with strong female characters who exhibit these kinds of traits, but hopes, through her own work, to promote a femininity that breaks the mold while still overcoming extremely difficult circumstances.

It is interesting to learn that Shannon got some of the inspiration for the main character of her first New-York-Times best-selling book, The Bone Season, through the experience of being “beaten up on a very public street in London.” While there were people around who clearly saw what was happening, no one stepped in to help her. It is no surprise that this affront to common human decency stuck with the young writer, or that it played a large role in the creation of Paige, the female lead who Shannon describes as someone who would have intervened no matter what; her strong moral compass would not have allowed her to imagine another option.

Shannon describes the 7-part series that The Bone Season represents as her attempt to integrate epic fantasy with a dystopian genre. She says it’s the story of how that dystopia affects one woman, and the huge pressure she’s under to try to fight injustice. But dystopia is far from the only type of fantasy Shannon is interested in; her next series, the first book of which has been recently published (The Priory of the Orange Tree), will take place in a magical version of the past rather than a dystopian future. She is currently enmeshed in research that led the book’s magic system, drawing on the lore of dragon mythology from a variety of ancient civilizations.

Although Shannon goes out of her way to draw our attention to the enduring inequalities of modern-day fantasy, perhaps it is a testament to the changing times that her own books, committed to worlds run by women and dominated by sexual freedom, have been so wildly successful. Perhaps the equality of the worlds she creates will one day mirror real-life change, but until then the least we can do, as Shannon’s own work proves, is dare to imagine.

Written by: Amanda Fiore
Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China
BLF Volunteer, 2019
WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

Bookworm Festival Pulse : The Art of Creating a Collective

It’s 6pm at the Bookworm, and on stage before a packed audience is a collection of spirited expats who, if you are into art and have lived in Beijing for more than a few weeks, you have almost certainly rubbed shoulders with. Each of them has the artful glow of people whose days are breathed into life by the work they do, and the fact that they are artists.

There is Matthew Byrne, founder of the multi-faceted, and now international arts collective, Spittoon; Amy Daml, co-founder of LoReLi, an open platform for artists of all kinds to express themselves; Shuilam Wong, co-founder of Hole In the Wall, a Zine dedicated to a “visual journalism” that highlights the changing landscape and underground arts movements of Bejing; and David Huntington, who recently took the reigns of the Beijing Writer’s Network, which offers a way for Beijing’s writers to connect and share their writing.

Each of the panelists introduces themselves, and what their projects mean, but the passion in their voices begins to rise when moderator Poornima Weerasekara asks if there has ever been any interest or intent to monetize.

Byrne speaks first, saying of his dedicated network of collaborators that when “people believe in something, they contribute things that they might not contribute if there was the expectation or limitation of a salary.”

Byrne’s sentiment is quickly echoed by Daml, who tells us that LoReLi originally began with the intention of making money and paying people for their work. But, she explains, “once you start paying people they start to expect things,” and suddenly you need money coming in all the time just to keep the operation going. But the worst part, she says, is what is does to the community, because “when people think there’s money available, there’s a mad rush and people change . . . it’s better to rely on [their] passion because they’ll be more invested in your project that way.”

This cautionary tale is deepened by Wong, from Hole in the Wall, who shares with the audience her experience bringing people in who wanted to monetize what they were doing. It was this juxtaposition of philosophies that made the driving force behind the project truly clear for the first time. “We rely on passion,” she says, “we love illustration and we love to draw, that’s why we do this.” She realized that if she changed what she was doing to make money, it would no longer be meaningful, because like everyone else on the panel, she isn’t in it for the money. “Stay true to who you are and what you love, and don’t let other people pollute that for the sake of money, because the purpose of having an arts collective is to have an avenue for our passion and our creative talents. The minute that is compromised, the entire purpose is also gone.”

Byrne quickly picks up the microphone to agree with Wong, saying that he too has experienced people coming into the organization who lead with structure or ticket sale before passion. He says this “is the wrong way ‘round. When you lead with that kind of thinking, it’s easy for the passion and the flare to be disappear.”

The other big issue Weerasekara brings up is how the panelists interact with China. “Do you feel obligated to engage with China while you’re here? Or do prefer to allow the artists to do what they do?”

Wong’s parents are from Hong Kong, and she went to high school in Beijing, but otherwise she spent significant chunks of her life in Japan, Singapore, and the UK. She tells us that for her part, Hole in the Wall is able to bridge the language and cultural barrier due to the fact that her medium is visual.

Comparatively, for organizations like Spittoon and The Beijing Writer’s Network, whose bread and butter began with literature, the language barrier can be decidedly difficult.

As Huntington rightly laments, he can’t see a way to have a bilingual writer’s group, due to the fact that the primary purpose of the group is to share and critique language. While they include writers from a huge variety of countries, they have to agree on a common language in order for their collective to function.

Spittoon, on the other hand, has evolved from its poetic roots to put on multi-media and multi-lingual events. Byrne says of the challenge that being an “expat,” and calling yourself one is like “an incantation. You’re casting a spell.” If you call it an ‘expat organization then you’re stuck “in an expat bubble and that’s it.”

He says people accused them of not getting under the skin of where they were, but instead creating a system and awarding themselves within it. “That was a wall when we first were created,” he says, but “we’d be missing something if we didn’t evolve in this direction.”

Spittoon’s answer to the problem has been multi-faceted. For example, they have recently published an edition of their literary journal that is entirely Chinese authors in translation, and they have a monthly “Spit-tunes” event where writers and musicians allow their art (poems, music, and soon to be visual art as well) to inspire a collaborative performance regardless of language. Byrne is even looking to branch out from downtown Beijing into Shunyi, a suburb in the northeast of the city where many international schools are located. Recently, a Chinese gallery owner who lives in Shunyi introduced him to a “labyrinth of hutongs filled with artists” ripe for this kind of collaborating.

For Daml and LoReLi, they determined early on that “the low hanging fruit was the expat community.” They have real interest in reaching out to the Chinese community, “but we realized we couldn’t sacrifice continuity and regular publication” for the sake of attempting to cross that barrier. For LoReLi, it seemed just as important to discover that the expat community around them was welcoming and eager to share their knowledge and experience.

When reflecting on this variety of approaches, it seems quite possible that the balance we see among the panelists is exactly as it should be: each is following the flow of their work into the cross-section of people who most resonate with it.

Moreover, as a foreigner who has lived in expat communities outside of China that did not value or respect the culture they were surrounded by, it seems important to say that these organizations encapsulate so much of what is possible and important about living an international life. Whether that it as a foreigner in Beijing, or a Chinese person who spends a significant amount of time outside their Chinese-circles: we are here, or should be here, to build bridges and knock down barriers. Art has, through the ages, been a consistently successful way to accomplish this. What matters isn’t why or how or to what extent that we do this, but just that we are, in fact, doing it. One song, poem, short story, song, or piece of visual art at a time, which will hopefully lead to understanding, if not a (fluent) conversation.

Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer, 2019

WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

Bookworm Festival Pulse: A Conversation with Enoch Li







当以诺被问及这段抑郁经历中让她收获最多的是什么时,她沉思了一会儿说:“我从这段经历当中学到最多的就是与你自己的情绪沟通真的很重要。你要感受你身上的所有情绪,并且不断追问自己这种情绪意味着什么为什么会产生这种情绪。通过这样的追问,我才真正更了解自己。当我说我更了解自己的时候,不单单指的是好的方面,还有我不怎么喜欢的那个自己。当各种恐惧、假设、无疑是的想法涌入我的脑海时,我都会追问:这种情绪究竟是什么?在真正了解了这些情绪后,不要躲着他们,要将他们当作自己的一部分,接受他们。” 这一段面对抑郁症的经历使得以诺更加强大,也能更勇敢地去面对未来的挑战。在某种程度上,这段痛苦的经历给了她力量,让她知道自己是那么地坚忍不拔。





在采访的最后,以诺非常诚恳地给老书虫的朋友们分享了一些关于如何减轻疲劳与压力的建议。她说:“很多人认为压力似乎是不愉快的事情; 然而有时候压力可能会有很多好的方面,比如可以激励你去做更多的事情。所以真正的问题在于我们如何处理压力,面对那种被打倒被淹没的感觉。只有明确这是一种什么压力搞清楚触发压力的原因与压力真正的根源后,我们才能对症下药。我认为避免过大压力的另一种方法就是了解我们的极限,然后释放压力。比如说对我而言,疏解的方式就是写书法,花时间独自充电。我觉得每个人都需要找到自己的方式,找到一种玩乐方式,找到一种与自己相处的方式……寻找到适合自己的方式来释放这种情绪。”




Stress and the City: A Conversation with Enoch Li

Written by Copper

BLF Volunteer, 2019

Bookworm Festival Pulse: Grief Works: a Conversation with Julia Samuel

Julia Samuel is a psychotherapist from the UK who sits before an image of her book, titled “Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving.” The title, which someone in the crowd draws attention to later, symbolizes a central tenant of Samuel’s philosophy, which is that grief is a natural process. If we allow it the time and space it requires, it will, in fact, work to make us better.

The audience are a mix of men and women of all ages who, when asked if they have lost someone recently, nearly all raise their hands in affirmation. Samuel herself is a petite woman with a wisp of powdery blond hair across her forehead and the sort of calming disposition you might expect from a psychotherapist, which seeps through her voice when she takes the microphone.

The first question from the moderator, Wendy Tang, is why she began this work, and Samuel’s answer is a relatable one: she was drawn to it by her parents who experienced great loss in their lives and never spoke about it. She says about this that grief is generational; many of the older generations didn’t feel they had the luxury to grieve, since many of them grew up in times of war or upheaval. But what we don’t say, she tells us, can have an even greater impact on us than what we do say, because if you block out grief, you might succeed in blocking out your capacity to feel pain, but you will also block out your ability to feel joy.

When she is asked by an audience member why it is not better to just choose to feel good, and therefore reject pain, she tells us that she can understand the logic of this, but that “as human beings, we can’t apply logic to an emotional system.” If we keep grief at bay it will come back when we least expect it, and it will be out of our control when it happens. “When people come into my office and go through the process of telling me what they’re feeling,” she explains, “it’s a bit like laying an egg.” They leave feeling lighter, because they have allowed themselves to process their feelings.

The word “grief,” she tells us, comes from a Latin word that means ‘to be robbed,’ and this feels right when she says it, because losing someone we love feels very much like being robbed of that relationship. The degree of pain we feel, she tells us, will be equal to the level of importance and love we had for the person. This equivalency of investment and love for loss and pain remains true for the death of pets and unborn children, although grieving for a pet or an unborn child can be difficult, because it is often not respected or understood by those around us as carrying the same weight.

When I ask her if it is the same process for someone who has experience rejection from their families, and therefore a great loss, she tells me that grieving for someone who is gone is a straightforward process: we can create rituals, wear jewelry or pieces of clothing that make us feel close to that person. We can celebrate that person’s life and hold farewell ceremonies that pave a path towards acceptance; they are gone, and that will not change. With rejection, on the other hand, we will always retain the hope that something might one day be different.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice she gives is in answer to an inquiry about what we should do to help those we love who are grieving; should we actively encourage them to share their grief? Or wait for them to share naturally?

Samuel says it’s important to acknowledge their loss, and say you are sorry. Let them know that you are there for them, then ask them what they need. “Do you need me to distract you? Take you to a movie? Listen to your stories?” Don’t try to read their mind, just ask, then be present.

By the end of the of the session Samuel has fielded an astounding array of questions from the audience that spanned a wide field of traumas and tragedies, from sexual abuse and suicide to genetic disease. Afterwards, I am struck by how an audience of strangers who I might pass by every day on the street has so quickly revealed their humanity. We forget, in our isolation, that the human experience is shared, in both its splendor and its grief. I am reminded of Julia’s assurance that the best thing we can do for one another, when the time arises, is to listen.

Written by: Amanda Fiore
Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China
BLF Volunteer, 2019
WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

Bookworm Festival Pulse:The Transformative Power of Poetry&Music

The cool air from the fans overhead does little to cool our anticipation; every seat is taken, and the crowd is restless from the wait, watching as wires are connected and musical instruments are squeezed into the little space that is left in the Bookworm. Sensing the mood, Matthew Byrne, the British poet and charismatic founder of Spittoon—a Beijing-based arts collective that exploded onto the scene in 2015—grabs the mic. He explains that what we are about to hear is the result of a one-month collaboration between musicians and poets, where the music has been inspired by the poetry. This creative melding of genres is the purpose of the Spittunes series, one of many literary events put on by Spittoon around Beijing.

The strumming of an acoustic guitar by Liane Halton, who sits placidly in all black at the front of the room, announces itself on the speaker. They are low notes with a deep acoustic vibration, and once the mood is set, poet Anthony Tao steps to the microphone. Tao’s poems seem as if they are meant to go to the music, landing on our ears in suggestions of images. I catch the lines, “with dust wiggling inside chests,” and, “in the congealed, sticky air of summer/there was conversation . . .” It is clear that there is a deep, intellectual purpose to his descriptions, especially as I hear the line, “there were artists/who created a new genre of art/in the form of dying.” But Tao’s story-telling style, and the lull of the guitar with the images of dragonflies behind them, pulls me back and forth from the words to the music. A line from Tao’s poem seems to say it all: they are “unsure if gravity/pulled them toward destruction/or a new morning.” (These two will perform their album at the Bookworm on Sunday, Marych 24th at 6pm).

After a short break the next act begins. Wen Liang, a thin Chinese man with a shadow of a beard and a stylish collared shirt sets himself up behind a table with a computer. He turns on some sort of electrical box that comes out as static at first, then stretches into an odyssey of extracted sound, eventually coalescing around the futuristic tune of his keyboard. I let my eyes drift closed, thinking first of an alien communication, then air moving through a ventilator. As the chimes come there is the feeling of waking up from a dream, somewhere gently soothing.

Eventually South African poet Lethokuhle Msimang begins to read. Her voice is soft and velvety, buoyed by Lian’s computerized equivalent of dew drops, then ocean waves, which conjure the setting of Msimang’s poem. She plants us on a beach where an old man is sitting, looking out at the sea. A woman much younger than him approaches. She says hello and we imagine a touching moment, then we hear from Msimang the secret thoughts of her character, “these youths are too quick to trust an old face, and had I gathered the strength to have my way with her, the ocean would have drowned the sound her resistance. . .” The man is too old and too weak, and so instead there is a quiet exchange, and they share a respectful silence. That Msimang is talking through the voice of a would-be rapist with this kind of honesty and even compassion leaves me with my mouth open. Seagulls squawk through the computer of Lian’s accompaniment.

After a short break we are greeted once again by the sounds of a computerized synthesizer, brought to us by Solent. This one is a long slow swim through a cool, gentle lake. It is the lapping of the tide and the gliding of your flotilla body. It is so much like suspension it’s hard to stay seated normally, and so my eyes slip closed. Now it’s a body being rocked gently. It’s fingers and arms vibrating. It’s whips of sound and drips in a basement and a door opening.

I think to myself that closing your eyes is the only way to experiences Spittunes fully, and that they should tell you this in the beginning. They should pass out sleeping masks to complete the transformation. This is when bi-lingual poet, Jady Liu, who is an unassuming young man in a zipped up black jacket begins speaking. He slips from Chinese to English and back again. From the English I can understand, I hear a non-judgmental portrait of isolation in today’s hyper-connected world. I hear, “isolated pockets of solitude,” “trapped in our mazes,” and “We keep talking./We keep silent./We meet. Just meet./We depart. We depart.” And, “in the dilemma of reality and delusion.”

For the final set, pianist David Bond, drummer Matthew Byrne, and Spanish poet Jaime Santirso take the stage. Santirso is wearing a yellow tee-shirt that says, in big block letters, “Treat People with Kindness.” He reads standing up from loose sheets of paper and stops between poems for the music. The drums are light, the keyboard celestial. Byrne and Bond are visibly pulled into one another’s rhythm; there’s something soothing about the two of them. When one is playing the other is leaned forward to listen, and it is a listening that is nearly part of the music.

Santirso begins again, and if you don’t know Spanish is doesn’t matter, because his voice sounds political and poetic and determined. He likes to make sounds with his voice that are beyond or not in need of translation. Little exhales of purpose. Little tremors of intellectualism. Repetition sounds good in any language. Sounds have their own harmony especially when spoken with a voice that feels them as Santirso is doing. He says “ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta” as if he’s a part of the drumming.

I want to get out my camera to capture the way Bond’s hair is flying around him as he presses into the piano keys, and how Byrne’s foot pounds against the bass drum in time with his head nodding, but then I remember I am here to type these images into being, not snap pictures of them. I hope I’ve done them some justice.

Written by: Amanda Fiore
Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China
BLF Volunteer, 2019
WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore


The Bookworm Download Map

Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Road,

Chaoyang District, Beijing

100027, P.R China

Telephone Bar: (010) 6586 9507

Telephone Bookstore: (010) 6503 2050


WeChat @BeijingBookworm

Weibo @北京老书虫Bookworm