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Bookworm Festival Pulse: A Conversation with Karoline Kan

About 3 Generations of Life, Loss and Hope inChina

Karoline Kan is a soft-spoken, petite young woman with long black hair that she keeps swept across her right shoulder. She has a palpable sweetness to her disposition that emanates from the stage and into the room, and she sits beside Riley Brett-Roche, a PhD candidate from Standford University, who is there to ask questions and moderate the talk.

The book, Under Red Skies, is a multi-generational story of three women: herself, her mother, and her grand mother. She tells us that her mother gave birth to her while the One Child Policy was in effect, and she was the forbidden second child. She doesn’t go much into what this must have meant, for her mother and her family, aside from that her mother lost her job, and never got another one that was formally recognized by the government. Kan also mentions, as a brief aside that leaves the room deadly silent, that many women who had a second child were forced to go through a sterilization process that the police continue to deny.

Kan notes that many people throughout time feel the younger generations in a society are different from older generations, almost as if they belong to two countries, but “when you sit down and think about it, you realize their stories are impacting our stories and our lives.” That one generation was born from the other, and so we are intricately and inherently connected.

When she’s asked what she hopes people who read the book will learn about it, she says “I hope this book will be an inspiration for people to discover more stories about Chinese people. I don’t want to be regarded as a voice for my whole generation . . . because my storyi s just one of tens of millions of stories in China.”

“Most Chinese people will tell you,” she says, “that regarding their personal history, there is nothing special to tell. They look at their neighbor or their friend and you see that they all share the same tragedies. You think, ‘that is China. That is my generation.’ They think they are just common women who know nothing who never went to school.’”

For example, her grandmother lost two sons to starvation, and she thought it was just a normal story, not worthy of being told; perhaps through Kan’s book, these stories, and others like them, will find a shape and a space to be heard.

Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLFVolunteer, 2019


Bookworm Festival Pulse: Myths and Dreams in Paris by the Book

“Once a week I chase men who are not my husband,” is the first line Liam Callanan reads from his new novel, Paris by the Book, while standing behind a substantial glass of redwine and a microphone. “Once a week I chase men who are not my husband . . . I walk my daughters to school, stare past the parents that stare past me, and search for that day’s man.”

It is a striking beginning, in the words of Liam’s 42-year-old female narrator, Leah, who “lost” her husband. He was a writer with a tendency to wander off, and so despite the police’s suspicions that he drowned in a nearby lake, Leah’s two daughters are convinced he has simply wondered off. These suspicions are buoyed when they find an unfinished manuscript of their father’s that takes place in Paris. Desperate with the idea that he must be in alive, writing in some café in the French capitol, they convince their mother to take them on a family trip so that they can follow in the footsteps of the characters; in the end, they are sure they will find their father.

Liam tells us that the book is, in a way, about the myths and dreams that sustain us. We can see this reflected in the fact that Paris itself holds a mystical quality. When he is asked why this is, he says it may be because the city has not changed in generations, and because even when we arrive for the first time we feel as if we have been there before in our lives. But regardless of the reason, there is no arguing about the fact that the city has captivated millions of imaginations.

“Paris is a beautiful myth,” he says, “a dream on the horizon.” We dream about going there, and when we arrive we realize there are parts of the dream that are true, and parts that are not true. The architecture and the Seine do not disappoint, but the sidewalk smells a little bit less pleasant than the smell of freshly baked croissants we had imagined, and people have atendency “to step in front of you and then slow down, “which is of course annoying. Somewhere between myth and reality is the truth not just of Paris, but of life in general.

Liam went back and forth to Paris while writing, but when writing in the USA he “traveled” to Paris by listening to audio files of the city that had been uploaded to youtube. He could hear Russian, and English, and French and the sounds of Vespas whizzing by the sidwalk.

The first question Liam is asked is about being a man writing an entire novel with a female narrator. He answers that at first, the book was third person, then “I reached a point where I was stopped. I was blocked. And what I tell my students to do if they’re blocked is to ‘hand the microphone’ to each character and see who can move the story forward.” He says he gave the microphone it to each character, and they had nothing to say. Then he handed it to Leah, and she couldn’t stop talking. “So I gave her the book.” He adds that “I am not an expert in women, but I am expert in Leah. I know her very well.There’s a lot of me in her.”


Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLFVolunteer, 2019


Bookworm Festival Pulse: Short and to be Continued

Authors Colin Barrett and Shi Yifeng discuss their inspiration to keep writing

By Hatty Liu

“I think novels are less demanding of the reader than a short story,” said Irish author Colin Barrett, stunning the 50-something attendees of “Short and Complete: Stories Behind the Stories,” a short-story writing panel that convened at The 12th Bookwork Literary Festival on March 18, 2019.

“With a novel, you have chapters that you can read on your commute, dipping in an out of the story as you choose,” he explained. “With a short story what you see is all you get.”

In conversation with literary agent Peng Lun, founder of Archipel Press, Barrett and Beijing-born author Shi Yifeng discussed their motivation to write and the audience for short stories at the intimate 8 p.m. session. “You either love [the short story] or hate it,” said Barrett, whose debut story collection Young Skins, set in a small fictional Irish community similar to Barrett’s own hometown in County Mayo, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

Shi, who is a literary magazine editor and the author of award-winning novel Fruits Under the Red Flag and novella No Chen Jinfang Anymore, was even more to the point. “Being a writer is like laying eggs; how to sell the egg is the responsibility of the egg-seller,” he declared. “I just focus on laying the biggest, best, and most beautiful egg I can.”

Still, both writers acknowledged that their creative processes are fraught with anxiety over where they can continue finding material and how their work will be received. “I don’t really plan whether this is going to be a short story, or a novel, or do I fictionalize something or write something autobiographical,” said Barrett, “but work with whatever form works best for a certain narrative and makes me feel the most creative.”

Shi agreed. “Every writer has these worries—what to write next, what happens if you can’t, and can you still call yourself a writer if you can’t?”

Overcoming these anxieties requires the writer to look beyond themselves and at the world they inhabit—an ability Shi argued is ingrained in the Chinese literary tradition. “For Chinese novelists, writing has never been a way for the reader to escape reality, but provide them a way to access society, to record it, and change it,” he said. Thus, “being a writer isn’t about burying yourself among books, but go to work, buy food, argue with people, do whatever you’re supposed to do—don’t isolate yourself from life.”

“Secondly, pay attention to other people: what are their problems, what are their solutions. Have empathy, and you’ll always find something to write about,” Shi added. “The most important technique in writing a novel is creating a character who is alive in your heart—I can see their thoughts and feelings, and recognize this person if I met them on the street. If it’s only a concept, or a symbol, and not a living and breathing person, then I personally can’t write,”

For Barrett, the interplay between fiction and reality is where he finds motivation to continue writing. “I agree that it’s not an escape from reality, at least not in my genre of writing. However, I’m not a politician, and I’m not trying to change society, but just presenting people and situations as honestly as I can.” he explained.

This way, seeing these records published is its own reward. “Young Skins came out five years ago, and I still get to talk about it today. I’m very lucky to be able to do that,” Barrett said.

Bookworm Festival Pulse: Huawei Panel Q&A

with Joe Kelly, Vice President for Corporate Communications at Huawei, and Elliot Zaagman, technology columnist and consultant.

Edited for length and clarity.

BLF: At least one audience question referred to ethno-nationalism. What place do you think Huawei holds in Chinese culture and the Chinese psyche, especially after the latest crisis, but even before?

EZ: They’re the best tech company in China. If you look at the ways that China is a leader in technology in the world, if you took Huawei out of that mix, there are very few areas where they are leading to that degree. If you contrast that with the US, which has many strong tech companies — well, China also has many good tech companies, but Huawei is the only one that’s a global elite, aside from some of these AI startups that have a lot of potential. If you took it away, which the US has been more aggressive about trying to do, it’s like taking a queen off a chessboard. They don’t have as much without it. […] It’s very evident that [Huawei] is tied with the Chinese nation and people. You look at their entire senior management team, they’re all from China, they only list Chinese universities they’ve been educated at. They say that, for example, Lenovo is a global company with Chinese roots, and Huawei is a very, very Chinese company that does business globally. The fact that they’ve had success abroad, and they produce very good products, and they make a lot of things well, is a source of pride for China. Ethno-nationalism is not something I really subscribe to, but it is something that you see a lot in China, and it is something that is used to unify the culture at Huawei. That does pose an issue, because […] it’s very difficult for you to really be a part of it. It’s the same thing with a Chinese vision of the world that is largely based on Chinese nationalism; how do you be part of it if you’re not Chinese? And that’s a very big question. […] That idea of ethno-nationalism can be very cohesive internally, but I think it does have some issues externally.

JK: It’s mostly anecdotal. When I meet Chinese people for the first time, and they learn I work for Huawei, they go, “Wow!” That’s kind of seen, almost, as a status. Currently the Chinese people are proud of Huawei. They’re proud of our technology, they’re proud to carry our phones. And if I go back six years, everyone wanted an iPhone, that was the aspirational product to have. Today, my Chinese neighbors, my Chinese friends, who don’t work for the company, are very happy and proud to have Huawei phones.


BLF, to JK: You got a few audience questions about company ethics. Do you have a written company policy on ethics?

JK: We have something called our Business Conduct Guidelines, which every one of the 180,000 staff including me, has to read, understand, and pass a test on, and then sign once a year. That covers things like complying with the law, whatever the law might be wherever we operate, it includes keeping customer data and networks safe, it governs the way in which we think and operate. It basically means that we have to comply with all laws. And I’ve been signing that contract every year since I started; it’s been around for quite a long time. I kind of feel like Huawei is a good mix between these global standards, technology standards, for how companies operate, how they think, what they do, with some Chinese culture as well. But for sure many of the cultural aspects of Huawei that I have to live with are very familiar. I’ve complied with similar rules in other companies around the world.


BLF, to EZ: On the panel, Joe talked a bit about how, as [Huawei] expands on the global stage, they’re learning more about how these multinational companies do business, and have written ethics policies. I’m interested in your experience working with Chinese companies, maybe on a smaller level. Is ethics something that’s discussed often in Chinese tech?

EZ: No, it’s usually not discussed. This is an issue with China in general. I do think that there is a vacuum when it comes to things like ethical principles. There are a lot of reasons for that. It doesn’t mean that there are [no ethical principles]. But it does mean that they are many times subordinated to broader goals. […] And the issue is that there are lines that can get crossed in China that might not get crossed elsewhere. I don’t want to say that China is a bad actor and that Chinese companies are bad actors and that other countries and companies aren’t — it’s a tricky thing. Trying to define Chinese ethics and how they work in the context of technology, where ethics are more and more important, is a tricky thing. And especially now, when the Communist Party has more control than it used to, and its number one principle is […] control. How does that get embedded into technology in the future? That’s something that is concerning to me. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be worked out in a way that is beneficial for humanity, but it is a concern.

BLF: Do you think that might have to do with a greater alignment between the goals of Huawei and the goals of the State here, than you can say for most multinational corporations?

EZ: [The goals of Huawei] have been very much aligned with the goals of the Chinese state. We’ve seen over the last 6 or 7 years that Chinese companies and China itself has exerted more influence globally while internally becoming more closed. I think Huawei seems to be representative of that, as well; they seem to be quite closed internally, while spreading themselves globally. That I consider to be a fundamental contradiction. It is always a two-way street. It’s something I mentioned towards the end [of the panel]. You see China putting a lot more money into propaganda, you see Huawei putting a lot more money into PR, but it’s always to get their message out, what I don’t hear is anyone interested in how they can work with and learn about and meet the values and interests and cultures of the countries where they do business. And to me, that’s offensive.

JK: Huawei’s goals are very simple. They’ve got nothing to do with the goals of any state. Number one is, grow the business. Number two, look after the interests of customers. Number three, lead in innovation. We do that. We invest very heavily to do that. $15 billion in R&D last year, $13.8 billion in the year before. We’re one of the largest intellectual property owners in the world. So we’re driven. The loudest voice I hear inside Huawei is the voice of the customer. It’s not the voice of the investor, because we don’t have institutional investors. It’s not even the voice of the managers. It’s the voice of the customer. What the customer wants, the customer must get. And I think that that’s a culture that many companies talk about, but maybe some have forgotten what it really looks like.

Bookworm Festival Pulse: advice from Paul French to writers

Paul French Workshop 

Writers trickle quietly into Mesh, a low-lit, boxy lounge-bar with black and green leather sofas and walls of windows that look out onto the mid-afternoon in Sanlitun’s shopping district. They have come for a writing workshop with acclaimed, true-crime writer Paul French, a lanky British man with thick-framed black glasses and neatly trimmed hair, wearing a journalist’s button-down blue shirt and jeans. He starts off by saying “anyone taking this workshop probably has an idea for a book,” then rocks back and forth on heeled, brown leather shoes beside a projector and a screen. He goes over the basics, like the appeal of writing across genres, and the importance of research, then digs into of the kinds of nuanced historical details that breathe life into a place, and set him apart as a literary non-fiction writer. 

French’s chosen historical time period is 1930s and 1940s Shanghai. He tells us that white men living in Shanghai at the time would have drank a “Stengah,” which was a half whiskey half coke, and that they would have drank it in “Frenchtown,” which is what the French Concession was called at the time. He talks about the importance of smells, including that in the 1930s Shanghai smelled of “peanut oil and camphor,” and that Beijing used to smell of stinky tofu and the exhaust from city buses, but now it’s just dry air and a cleaned-up sort of “nothing.” He also talks about getting a sense of a character’s life by collecting the “ephemera” they might have found in their pockets at the end of the day, or stuffed into their mailboxes, like bus tickets, phone books, and shopping catalogues with advertisements the remind us of fashion and the squeaky wheels of tram cars with badly oiled brakes . . . as he speaks we can begin to feel ourselves the presence of a not-so-distant past rising up around us, with people shouting out for tuk tuks and passing cash into the hands of street vendors.

By the time he is finished, it is clear that writing true-crime is a thing French does with a passion for the historical period, an obsessive intrigue for his subjects, and dedication to the literary merit of his writing. His most highly acclaimed novel, Midnight in Peking, is being turned into a movie, and The Serpent, which comprises a series of murders along the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia is being turned into an audible series. As the talk wraps up, he is swarmed with writers who have questions about the projects they’re working on, and French patiently gives each person their time.

Short cut for interview

Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer, 2019

WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

Hyeonseo Lee Will Give an Encore Talk this Sunday

Hyeonseo Lee resized

We knew Hyeonseo Lee’s solo talk was going to be a hot ticket, but we didn’t quite expect it to sell out within two weeks. In the weeks since, the wait list has steadily expanded, to the point where we had to do this: give her a second solo. So this Sunday, March 27 at 6 pm, Hyeonseo Lee will be giving an encore to her book talk, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Tickets are now available both online and at The Bookworm. (more…)

Roxane Gay Won’t Be Traveling to China

Roxane Gay

Due to a last-minute emergency, Roxane Gay is no longer able to travel to China. She sends her regrets and regards, and says the trip would have been a highlight. Roxane’s solo event on Sunday, March 13 has been cancelled, and we will provide a full refund to everyone who purchased a ticket to this event. The panel discussion she was scheduled to appear at on Tuesday, March 15, Voices from the Margins, will go on as planned with Xiao Meili and He Xiaopei speaking with Emily Rauhala, but we will also offer a full refund to those who request it. (more…)

Meet an Author: Jess Row, three-time anthologized in Best American Short Stories

Jess Row, author, "Your Face in Mine" (Riverhead, 2014)

Jess Row is the author of two short story collections — The Train to Lo Wu andNobody Ever Gets Lost — and the novel Your Face in Mine. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, Ploughshares, Granta,American Short Fiction, Harvard Review, etc., have been anthologized three times inThe Best American Short Stories, and have won two Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O. Henry Award, among other prizes. In 2007 he was named a “Best Young American Novelist” by Granta. He is currently teaching at The College of New Jersey and is a faculty member of the MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong. (more…)

That Damned Thing She Said: A BLF “Speed Bookclubbing” Event

That Damned Thing

With International Women’s Day (March 8) in mind, Read Paper Republic has selected four short stories from China that focus on highly charged issues such as sexual freedom, political disappearances, “leftover” women, and compromising situations. A woman trapped in a loveless marriage has an awkward, but ultimately empowering, one-night stand. A wife comes home to find her husband has disappeared, or rather “been disappeared.” The colleagues of a career woman apply their engineering expertise to the intractable problem of finding her a worthy husband. A young woman refuses to sleep with her boss, with catastrophic consequences for her family. (more…)

The Bookworm Literary Festival Begins Today

BLF 2016 picture (smaller)

Our first event is at 1 pm with Agnes Desarthe, with the Opening Ceremony at 8 pm. Multiple events every day from now until March 27. Happy festivalling!

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