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October 22, 2016

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Shanghai inspiration for visiting writers

TEN writers from around the world are in Shanghai for two months to discuss all facets of the writing craft and to be inspired by new experiences. The 9th Shanghai Writing Program, hosted by the Shanghai Writers’ Association, aims to add a different perspective to writers’ views of the world in general and of China in particular. This year, the writers in residence, who come from Spain, Denmark, Poland, Russia and the United States, are from all walks of life. They include an artist, a corporate manager, a teacher and a police officer, most of whom write as a sideline. For some, it was their first trip to Asia. Yao Minji asked six of the participants to share their journey to becoming a writer, their favorite themes and subjects, and their impressions of Shanghai, among other topics.


Ekaterina Cheban, Russia

Q: Is this your first visit to China?

A: It’s my second visit. I visited Shanghai last year to attend a seminar with young Chinese and Russian writers. Some of our works were translated and published in a Chinese journal and some contemporary Chinese poems were translated into Russian.

Q: During your stay in Shanghai, were you inspired by the city?

A: My time in Shanghai gave me a better understanding of Chinese culture and a more informed perspective on Chinese people. With this as inspiration, I’ve written a series of new poems in Shanghai.

Q: What are you most attracted to exploring in your writing?

A: I am very interested in writing about how people find their places in the world. I pay close attention to the instability people face, and the choices we have to make between good and evil. Every one of us has to make these choices throughout our lives.

Q: What are some of the trends in Russian books today? What do people read?

A: Detective novels and fantasies are the bestsellers these days. Many young authors write only fantasy novels. Publishing blogs into books is also popular, and many publishers scout for popular bloggers.

Biographies are coming back, and long social novels are on the rise again, novels that reflect the political, cultural and social transformations we have undergone in the past decade. Thanks to numerous film and television adaptations of Dostoyevsky and Kuprin, young people are also becoming more interested in classic works.


Jennifer Haigh, USA

Q: Have you find Shanghai inspiring?

A: Oh, yes. It sounds crazy, but I had started writing a novel set in Boston before I left for Shanghai, yet since I have been here, I have only wanted to write about this place! There is so much in Shanghai to write about, so much so that I’m now working on a story set here.

Q: You have written three books set in the same small American coal town. How did you come to decide on this setting?

A: The town in my stories is modeled on the town in Pennsylvania where I grew up. It’s a town that exists only because of this industry, and when the industry begins to fail, the town falls apart. It is very much about the tension between the environment and economic progress, a scenario repeated around the world, and very relevant to China.

My third book in the series, “Heat and Light,” is about what happens to this coal town years later when the economy is ruined, and suddenly, they have this chance to drill for natural gas. It will be my first book to be published in China.

Q: When will it be published?

A: In 2017. I will be doing a reading at the Beijing Bookworm at 7:30pm next Monday.

Q: Are the three books related to each other?

A: They are stand-alone books, but the series is about the same town and features several generations of the same family over time. The first one, “Baker Towers,” opens in the 1940s and ends in the 1960s, when the coal mine was doing well. The second one is set in the 1990s, after the town basically died. And the third book is set today.

Q: Your debut novel, “Mrs Kimble,” tells the story of a man from the perspectives of his three ex-wives. How did you come up with this idea?

A: Many of my friends have divorced parents, and two in particular, a half-brother and sister, have the same father but different mothers. I found that they had very different memories of the same man. That led me to thinking that you almost become a different person with a different partner.

Q: What do you most like to explore in your novels?

A: For me, a novel is about the moment after which nothing will ever be the same. Often it starts with an event when something happens that changes everyone’s life forever, and what I do is to look at the consequences of that event. For example, in “Heat and Light,” that moment is when the natural gas drill comes to town. It changes the entire community — not just the economy, but individual families, marriages, households, neighbors. I seek that moment of transformation.


Angela Pradelli, Argentine/Italy

Q: You have participated in quite a few residence programs across the world. Does the experience of living in different places help with your writing?

A: It definitely does. All the residence programs in which I’ve been a participant have been very important experiences for me and for my writing.

I’ve lived in different countries for one, two, or six months with time to write without interruption. I have taken advantage of all that time to read, write, and meet the people in these locations.

I’ve written three books at residence programs and have good friends in each of these countries. Residence programs are such an important opportunity for a writer.

Q: Is this your first visit to China? How has it been so far?

A: It is my first visit to China. It took 30 hours to get here from Argentina.

You know, in my country we say China is on the other side of the world, but I don’t feel that I’m in a strange country.

Many years ago I read “I Ching” (“The Book of Changes”) and it wasn’t an easy read, but it turned to be one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

For many years, I have also been reading about the nushu script — used exclusively among women as a secret language in central China’s Jiangyong County of Hunan Province — with great fascination.

I’ve also read about Chinese women with bound feet, and both these topics have appeared in my novels.

Interestingly, I’ve also come to realize that I always include an Asian character in my novels. The book I’m currently writing is called “The Silk Weaver,” and now I am here in the country of silk! These connections have magically brought me to Shanghai and I hope they will bring me back again.

Q: How did you come to read “I Ching?”

A: It was a gift from a friend 10 years ago. The prologue was written by one of the most important Argentinian writers. As I said, it’s not easy, but it is so fascinating that you can easily lose yourself in it.


Edna L. Shemesh, Israel

Q: You write in many different forms. Do these complement or conflict each other?

A: I write novels and short stories, and teach creative writing classes. I am a translator and journalist and I also write book reviews. All of these are different aspects of writing, and I don’t think they necessarily contradict one another; in fact, sometimes they help my writing.

For example, being a writer gives you a different perspective on being a book reviewer. You know what goes into writing a book, and you’ll think twice before destroying three years of an author’s hard work, for example. My view is that it is not my role to write about how fabulous or horrible a book is — instead, it is to analyze, be precise, be decisive, and inform.

Q: How has your stay been in Shanghai? Is it what you expected?

A: As a child, I read many legends of China. As an adult, I read about China in the news. Today, everything is made in China, yet I still had no idea that Shanghai would be like this. I had no idea of its diversity, density, or magnitude.

It exceeds every expectation I had of Shanghai and it has been such an adventure. It is a great mix of East and West, which you see throughout the city.

Q: In your Harvard lecture on writing, you mentioned a new trend of personal writing in Israel. Can you tell us more?

A: In the year immediately after the establishment of Israel, writers focused on national problems and conflicts between Israel and Palestine. It was not just a trend, it was what writers were thinking and talking about all the time.

After this, many writers withdrew in despair, because despite all the writing on these national issues, nothing had changed. So instead, they focused inward, writing about family, economic problems, love and friendship, rather than the big issues.

I am one of the writers who have come back to talk about national problems, as I believe that is the role of a writer.

Q: How does your writing differ from the first generation of writers who wrote about national issues?

A: I combine political and personal aspects in my writing. For example, one of my short stories is about the encounter of a pregnant Israeli woman with a pregnant Palestinian woman.

Another story opens with an Israeli woman who is locked out of her own apartment on a chilly morning, and tries to warm herself up by joining some Palestinian construction workers nearby who have lit a fire to get warm themselves. We all need some warmth in life.

Q: As a feminist writer, you have received awards from feminist magazines and organizations. What is your idea of feminism? What do you see as the biggest feminist issue?

A: Feminism begins with awareness. Many people, even women, are simply not aware of the issues. I am very careful not to fall into chauvinist traps myself as a writer, not to stereotype my characters with gender roles: putting my female characters in an apron, for example, or giving my male characters a briefcase just because they’re men.

Women in Israel still have to struggle. It always has to do with awareness. Since the concentration of power is still in the hands of men, when women make it in their careers, when they become powerful, their models are men.

They simply imitate what these powerful men do and they become worse than men.


Nuria Ano, Spain

Q: Do many Catalan authors write in the Catalan language? What about you? Do you write in both Spanish and Catalan or only in Catalan?

A: Many Catalan writers do write in Catalan. In my case, I write in Catalan because it’s my mother tongue and I feel more comfortable when it comes to selecting words. But depending on the topic, I do also write in Spanish.

In the end, languages are only a tool for communication. I use my writing to discuss socially relevant subjects, to inform and to condemn injustices. Most of my characters are antiheroes and they are probably the most important in my work.

Q: Why antiheroes?

A: I prefer to be on the side of losers, the misunderstood or lonely people rather than writing about the strong and powerful.

Q: You are currently working on a biography of Salka Viertel. Tell us what it is about this actress and screenwriter that drew you to write her biography?

A: As I learned about her, I saw just how fascinating a woman she was. In the 1930s, she was well known as a specialist on scripts for Greta Garbo, but she is much more than that.

In exile in California she created a salon that welcomed many prominent European artists, composers, film and theater directors, actors, physicians and writers who emigrated to the US, fleeing Nazism. Her house was a shelter for intellectuals, and this is what attracted me. And I love cinema and classic films, and appreciate other women’s lives.

Q: Do you consider Salka Viertel an antihero?

A: Yes, as a Jewish woman in exile in the 1930s, she is an antihero.

In Europe, she was an actress who had to leave her work and dreams. When her husband’s contract expired, she had to learn English and support him and the family for many years.

Her work as a screenwriter was closely associated with Swedish actress Greta Garbo, so much so that when Garbo retired from the silver screen, it meant the end for Viertel as well.


Ana Rubio Fandos, Spain

Q: Do you write in both Spanish and Catalan? Is Catalan well preserved as a local language?

A: I only write in Catalan, but I do translate some stories and my theater scripts into Spanish. The dying out of many languages is a theme that worries me. In my case, Spanish and Catalan are both rooted in Latin, but are independent languages. Catalan is an official language in Catalonia, the Valencian community and the Balearic Islands. In theory, these places are bilingual, but in reality, Spanish is the dominant language and overpowers the use of Catalan in many instances, especially in my own Valencian community, where we have no mass media in our own language.

Families and schools are the great forces ensuring the survival of the Catalan language, but that is not enough. The survival of a language also requires political backing, TV, newspapers and easy access to learning the language.

Q: What are the themes that particularly interest you?

A: My favorite themes are loneliness, mental illness, heartbreak and unfulfilled dreams. My characters are usually people in limited circumstances. These are difficult themes, I know, but I imbue them with all the senses (taste, scent, sight, hearing and touch) and express them in a musical prose to enter the soul of the reader.


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