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February 29, 2012

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Booking that date for the write stuff

FOR 10 years the Shanghai International Literary Festival serves up a heady brew of ideas to illuminate, provoke, educate, entertain and generally broaden our horizons. The curtain rises on Friday. Yao Minji reports.

For the next three weeks, the ideas will fly fast and furious as writers from around the world and curious readers come together to discuss the art of writing, the New Asian Character, mysteries, wildlife, gender imbalance, Chinese culture, wine and food, writing for children, foreign affairs and the global economy.

The Shanghai International Literary Festival, which begins Friday and runs through March 18, packs a lot into three weekends and holds most of the weekday sessions at lunch time, all at the Glamour Bar and M on the Bund.

The weekend morning sessions, which start at 10am, are stories and workshops suitable for children, including a session with Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, author of the children's Mr Finney book series.

The festival has something for everyone, such as talks and discussions with authors, workshops, literary lunches, architecture panels and a 10th-anniversary concert.

On March 16, the Rock Bottom Remainders, an all-author rock-and-roll band consisting big names like Stephen King, Amy Tan, Matt Groening and Mitch Albom, will play a special concert to celebrate the festival's 10 years of opening minds.

The Shanghai concert will not have the full band, but Tan, Groening, Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Sam Barry from the band will perform with veteran author and lecturer Nury Vittachi and professional musician and composer Wu Tong from the Silk Road Ensemble.

Since it started in 2003, the literary festival has grown from only a few small-scale lectures to become one of the largest and most influential literary events in China, something to expect every year during the first three weeks of March.

Along with its growing scale, the organizer also started the Capital Literary Festival in Beijing last year; it's held from late February to early March and shares authors with the Shanghai festival.

"It's been wonderful to see it grow from a tiny event - we literally would have audiences of two - to something that has become a part of Shanghai life and something that our audiences look forward to all year," Michelle Garnaut, festival founder and M on the Bund owner, tells Shanghai Daily.

"Over the years, we've had an incredibly wide range of authors, from celebrity names to emerging writers, from all over the world, and their diversity and quality is what has created the festival's identity," she says.

This year, the festival has also made its history by having three sessions immediately sold out on the first day when tickets became available - The Great Financial Times Debate, Tan's session "On Shanghai, Life & Writing" and Groening's "The Simpsons, Futurama and Springfield." Groening is the creator of The Simpsons.

Tan is famous for her portrayals of the Chinese-American experience and her exploration of complex mother-daughter relationships in bestselling books such as "The Joy Luck Club," "The Kitchen God's Wife," "The Hundred Secret Senses" and "The Bonesetter's Daughter." "The Joy Luck Club," stories of four Chinese-American immigrant families, was also successfully adapted into a film directed by Oscar-winning Ang Lee.

Tan, whose mother is from Shanghai, has also shown a special attachment to the city in her books and has held sold-out sessions at the festival before it has grown large.

Groening, creator of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama," has already won 12 Primetime Emmy Awards, among many prestigious global prizes. He also just received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this year, on the Valentine's Day.

Many award-winning authors will deliver talks and take part in workshops.

A.B. Yehoshua, considered one of Israel's foremost authors, is known for capturing the mood of contemporary Israel. He has received nominations and awards from all over the world including National Jewish Book Award in the US, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize in the UK. He was short-listed for the first Man Booker International Prize, among many plaudits. Many of his novels have been translated and published in China. He has also lectured in various prestigious Chinese universities.

Kathi Kamen Goldmark is winner of the 2008 Women's National Book Association Award and author of "And My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You." She is also founder and member of the Rock Bottom Remainders and will perform at the concert.

Mohammed Hanif is Pakistani writer and journalist whose debut novel "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award, among other prestigious awards. Writing in a comic, satirical style, Hanif bases the book on the 1988 plane crash that killed General Muhammad Zia ul-Hap, former president of Pakistan.

"The festival has brought over many famous authors, however, the best events have been lesser known authors of books I haven't yet read," says Nicholas Kent, an expat fan of the event. "There are so many rising stars that come through the Shanghai festival that I enjoy finding two or three a year who open my world and widen my interest in new genres of literature."

Organizer Garnaut says one of the best things about running the festival is meeting and reading new writers. She recommends a few up-and-comers.

Singaporean author Cheryl Tan's book "A Tiger in the Kitchen" is a memoir about food and family, which recounts her years of learning how to cook her family's favorite dishes.

Filipina writer Criselda Yabes has written eight novels and short fiction, including "Below the Crying Mountain," which was long-listed for the Man's Asian Booker Prize. The book describes the Moro Rebellion through a fascinating fictional story. The journalist and author will give a talk about how she turns her journalistic skills into prizewinning fiction.

Indian novelist Manreet Sodhi Someshwar's book "Earning the Laundry Stripes" is a thriller set in the Taj Mahal. And Singaporean novelist Ovidia Yu's latest book "Orchid Chan and the Chinese New Year Murders" features a crime-solving Shanghainese émigré in Singapore.

For detailed schedule, visit


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