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March 28, 2010

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Network welcomes author on first visit

THE indigenous Australian author Alexis Wright had never been to China until earlier this month but she walked into the welcoming arms of a ready network of Chinese contacts working on her behalf.

Wright has been caught up in a whirlwind of international literary and promotional activities since publication of her big novel "Carpentaria" about three years ago which deals with Aboriginal land rights through "dreamtime" stories and recent conflicts.

The judges of Australia's most prestigious literary award described it as "a stunning evocation of a sublime and often overwhelming tropical world that is still inhabited by traditional spirits," in giving her 2007 prize.

And so it was that Wright, 59, came to Shanghai to talk about her work at the annual literary festival, Michelle Garnaut's convivial oeuvre at M On The Bund that concluded last weekend. Her China visit included other literary gatherings in Beijing, Chengdu and Hong Kong, a talk at an international woman's day event in Shanghai and meeting the Shanghai Writers' Association.

"We've never been to a city as big as Shanghai and we love it," she said shortly after arriving in town with her husband Toly Sawenko. "I don't know this country well and I am just here to look and learn but I think it will help me understand what it means to be a person from another place."

Wright's visit to China was the last in a promotion tour that included India, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Indonesia and New Zealand and, as is the case with such fleeting visits, will leave her with a superficial view of the country.

However, local readers are about to know perhaps a lot more about Alexis Wright than she about their country because her book is being translated into Chinese, complimenting other versions already in French, Italian and Polish and one pending in Catalan.

The translation is being done by a veteran named Li Yao who is credited with interpreting more than 40 books over a 30 year period from Australia, Britain, the United States and other countries.

Li has specialized in Australian literature and in 2008 received an Australia-China Council award "for his outstanding contribution to Australia's bilateral relations with China." He has translated or co-translated more than 20 "down under" books, including Nobel Prize winning author Patrick White's "The Tree of Man."

His translation of "Carpentaria" is being published by Peng Lun from Shanghai 99 Readers, the publisher of Dan Brown, Stephen King and Philip Roth books in China. Peng moderated Wright's talk at the literary festival.

Wright's authorial career started with short stories in between working as a researcher on Aboriginal issues in Australia. "Carpentaria," her third novel, took two years to research and six to write. It was overwhelmingly rejected by major publishers until it was picked up by an independent.

"I feel very fortunate that the book is being translated here in China and will be published here," she said. "When it was rejected so widely I felt destroyed that I'd wasted six years and felt perhaps that I could have been doing something more important in my life. "It's not for me, so much, but to get the story around is important for Aborigines because the more we're in literature the more it helps people understand (our plight)," she said.

"I feel literature can do a good job if it's allowed to happen. I am privileged as I know that people struggle to be heard."

The kaleidoscopic complexity of challenges in the relationship between indigenous and white Australia and the ensuing dislocation of cultures and families has constituted most of Wright's life work in Aboriginal organizations and it is now given fuller voice through her writing.

And it takes on a compelling resonance in the quiet of a workroom meters away from the hustle and bustle of a book festival when she talks in hushed tones about learning on the eve of her visit to China the real name of her Chinese great-grandfather.

Wright's China bloodline started when her great-grandmother Opal was "given" as a wife to a Chinese cook by the owner of a big cattle ranch in northern Australia. Until recently Wright only knew the cook as Sam Ah Bow, but now knows him as Chu Kum Bow, born in Guangzhou, a man remembered for his "hard work in extreme conditions to develop an extraordinary market garden of vegetables and fruit trees."

Sam and Opal had seven children, two of whom died and three he either took or had sent back to China. They were never heard of again, she said, and admitted her visit to China was tinged with the emotion of this.

By nature a private person, she said that "Carpentaria" had opened a lot of doors and she's tried to take the opportunities but at the end of her China tour will retreat to Eltham, Victoria, to start writing again.

"I'm hoping very soon to be the person I was before," she said. "You can't write a book by being on the road and talking about so many different things. Once I start writing again it will be very hard to find me."

In the meantime, she may be building a new set of fans in China's literature culture.


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