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November 4, 2009

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Write on, Shanghai - foreign scribes muse on city marvels

SHANGHAI'S got the write stuff as five international writers discover in a two-month stay that takes them from the glittering facade to a deeper level of art and poetry. Nancy Zhang turns the page. For five international writers, the international city of Shanghai was home - and perhaps muse - for two months.

Writers from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Greece and Norway were invited by the Shanghai Writers' Association in an international literature exchange to get the feel of life and maybe to be inspired.

The five are Conal Creedon, Leanne O'Sullivan, Tash Aw, Alexis Stematis and Ragnar Hovland.

They attended cultural events, literary talks and forums, and wandered and traveled about to feel the rhythms and textures of the city.

"Our aim is not so much to require writers to write about Shanghai, but to contribute to their creativity with the diversity of experiences that living in Shanghai brings," says Hu Peihua, external liaison officer for the Shanghai Writers' Association.

The important role of place and home in the creative process is at the center of the exchange, which featured poetry and prose forums on the theme "Where Do I Come From?"

At the end of the exchange last week, Shanghai Daily speaks to the writers about their experiences in and reflections on our city.

Conal Creedon is an Irish story writer, novelist, playwright and television documentary maker. As well as writing sold-out plays such as "When I was God," Creedon has worked as a radio presenter with RTE (Ireland's national TV and radio broadcaster) and a columnist for The Irish Times.

Q: Tell us about the poem "Shanghai Bean?"

A: The word "bean" is an Irish Gaelic word meaning woman, so the title of the poem means "Women of Shanghai."

I arrived in Shanghai seven weeks ago, and the images in the poem were myfirst impressions.

For example, I found the people doing exercises in the parks each morning fascinating - one never sees this in the West. I was also impressed by how regal, comfortable and calm the women who sit sideways on bicycles looked, especially during rush-hour traffic.

The poem is a snapshot of many different aspects of the many different women I see in my neighborhood. All the various snapshots came together as one woman in the poem.

Q: What inspired you most?

A: We have a saying in the Irish language, "Nil aon tintean mar do thinean fein," meaning, "There's no place like home." So I like to establish a sense of home, community and neighborhood wherever I live.

In Shanghai, home was the cluster of streets around Changshou and Jiangning roads, what I call "Jade Buddha Valley." When I feel at home, I feel inspired to write.

I've been invited to some great social engagements as part of this exchange, including events organized by Le Ceile (Irish community in Shanghai). But I'm happiest hanging out in my neighborhood - sitting in Changshou Park, playing pool on Xujiahui Road, or sipping Chinese tea on Shaanxi Road while watching the world go by.

Tash Aw is a British-Malaysian writer acclaimed for his first novel "The Harmony Silk Factory," about a Chinese-Malaysian family during the Japanese invasion of World War II. Aw lives in London where he is working on his third novel set in Shanghai.

Q: How do you plan to use your experiences here?

A: I came here firstly because I've always been fascinated with Shanghai, and secondly because the novel I'm working on is set in Shanghai.

I have the beginning of my novel, which is about a group of foreigners coming to Shanghai to seek fame and fortune - and of course love. Can't say more than that at the moment, as it is all top secret!

Q: What inspired you most?

A: Shanghai is a city of constant surprises - it seems that every corner you turn will reveal something unexpected. I love the streets of Jing'an District late at night, when the crowds disappear, the traffic calms down and the street vendors emerge. I'm often out in town in the evenings, and I always walk home, northward along Shaanxi Road N., and I love the quietness - the contrast with the daytimes.

Q: How does place influence creativity?

A: A sense of place is very important to my writing. I think people and characters are very influenced by their particular location. Personally, an occasional shift in location stimulates creativity. Coming to Shanghai, which is so different from London, and speaking a different language every day took me out of my comfort zone.

Ragnar Hovland is a Norwegian novelist, essayist, lyricist and writer of children's books.

Q: What was your favorite part of the exchange?

A: Meetings with Shanghai writers have been important and pleasant. It is always good to meet writers from other countries to know more about what they think, their interests and the conditions of their literature. It has also been a pleasure just to walk along the streets (always a favorite pastime), and watch the people and the fantastic buildings of Shanghai.

Q: What inspired you most?

A: For me, as for so many others, the most fascinating areas of the city are probably the Bund. Also areas of Pudong with the amazing buildings and the river. But I also find the neighborhood where I live (corner of Jiangning and Xinhui roads) very fascinating.

Alexis Stamatis is a well-known Greek novelist and poet. After studying architecture, Stamatis went on to write seven critically acclaimed novels and six books of poetry. He is currently a columnist for the Ethnos daily newspaper.

Q: What's been the best part of the exchange?

A: The lecture at the Shanghai Writers' Association was a great experience. I liked most the very interesting and fruitful conversation which followed. The deep knowledge of Greek literature that many members expressed particularly moved me.

Of course, Shanghai is also a unique experience to live in - it's as if you are experiencing the future, now. Last but not least, the food. No words can describe it! I miss it already.

Q: How do you plan to usethe experience?

A: I wrote several articles about China during my time here for the Greek National Book Center's Website about the relationships between Chinese and Greek literature. I also wrote two articles for the Ethnos daily newspaper and two travelogues for the Athens Voice magazine and Votre Beaute magazine.

Q: How does place influence creativity?

A: My first successful novel "Bar Flaubert" was all about a journey through European places. Although divided by different languages, I saw the cultural tradition of Europe as a whole body. This body through different languages tells the story of the whole region, which actually shaped the modern world.

Perhaps my next novel will have China instead of Europe. It may be a journey through China's 21st century landscape, its traditions, literature and art, and it's shaping into perhaps the most interesting country in the modern world.

Leanne O'Sullivan Leanne O'Sullivan is a young Irish poet who published her first collection, "Waiting for My Clothes," when she was 21, after winning many of Ireland's prestigious poetry prizes. She is currently completing a bachelor's degree in English at the University of Cork.

Q: How do you plan to use this experience?

A: It will take time to assimilate all these new experiences and friendships from Shanghai - it will find its way into my writing in a way that reflects the generosity and kindness of the people that we've met here.

There is also so much reading I want to do when I get home. I've bought some Chinese poetry books, and I'm very excited to discover more about the literature, having lived in this culture for eight weeks.

Q: What inspired you most?

A: Moving from one part of the city to another feels like moving to an entirely NEW city! I loved watching people and how they live and work in seemingly small communities within this huge city.

Q: How does place influence creativity?

A: For me it's not the most important thing but it does create an interesting backdrop to the writing.

I tend to write poems about relationships, how people relate to each other and try to understand each other.

I find that images and phrases from where I am sneak into the poems. I usually write at my parent's house in Western Ireland because I tend to write about family.


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