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January 24, 2010

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Seeking the write stuff from authors

IT'S the time of year when perpetually multitasking restaurateur Michelle Garnaut turns her attention to the looming Shanghai International Literary festival held at M on the Bund.

But in between visits to her new restaurant, Capital M in Beijing, photo shoots, media interviews and tweaking the festival for a March 5 start, she's got a pile of position applications to read through.

Eighty-two of them, in fact, for two opportunities: one in Shanghai and the other in Pondicherry, southeast India.

The positions are for writers in the inaugural M Literary Residential Program being funded by Garnaut. And in her own way - "amazing result, it's remarkable" - she's thrilled by the response.

Development of the altruistic program has taken two years and started during a talk Garnaut was having with Indian author and philosopher Punkaj Mishra ("An End To Suffering") at the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize announcement in Hong Kong.

However it goes back further than that to when Garnaut was sitting with her lawyer to write a will.

"I said to the lawyer I want the literary festival to continue and to make sure that the first commitment I've got after paying everything is that the money is there to run it," she said this week.

"Then we talked about starting a writing residency program and looked at other residencies to leave money to, or endow."

Although she'd earlier thought about it as an extension of the literary festival, the residency firmed up at the meeting in Hong Kong when Mishra said he'd also thought about doing one in Mashobra in northern India where he was based to write "Suffering."

"I said why not do something in both places?" Garnaut said. "So we did a budget, I committed to finance it all for the first time, and we decided to go ahead with it."

With fears of attracting only a single digit figure response from prospective authors and moderate expectations of around 20 applicants, the 46 candidates for a Shanghai residency and 36 for India have exceeded Garnaut's expectations.

"It's about garnering a better understanding of China and India which you can only do if you spend time in a place. You can have all the ideas you like but until you've spent time you really don't have any idea," she said, alluding to writers who "come for two or three days and leave thinking they can sum up the city."

"Writers come here for the literary festival and think 'oh my god, I can't believe it. The city's just so different to what I thought it was going to be.'

"When we started the literary festival, it was about us, we wanted these authors to come to us, we wanted to hear their stories," she said. "But we didn't think about what a remarkable experience it is for them to come to China, not just as a tourist, but actually into our whole community."

And this is the extended environment she is creating in India and China now for the residency authors. In return for three months almost-all-found and a modest living allowance of US$1,000 in Shanghai or Pondicherry (Mashobra didn't work out in the end), the successful applicants have few limitations and a blank canvas on which to produce.

But there's purpose to what Garnaut wants, gaps to fill in poetry, fiction or literary non-fiction.

"It's for serious writing and by that I mean it's for someone who wants to make a career out of it, not for someone who thinks it would be fun to spend three months in Shanghai and hang out and write an essay," she said.

She believes that good international fiction with China as a character is being forsaken for predictable story lines in which "all the women are whores, all the expat housewives are bored, shop and gossip all day, all the young people are vacant and empty headed and they're all spoilt little princelings."

"By international, I mean really looking at the society and not just being negative about it, not China-bashing. Maybe there's nothing nice to say about China, but I don't think that's true. There are lot of different things to say about China.

"In the fiction world, China has not been given a fair break and it's a very one-sided view. It's just all cliches," she added.

"Maybe I'm wrong but I can't think of anything off the top of my head that is current and now. People still talk about 'Shanghai Baby' but that was 10 years ago and the city has changed so much."

So having cringed too often when reading about China in fiction she's doing something about it "by getting people to come here and spend time, see it and change (the way it's being written about)."

Although she's yet to read all the applications - there's a judging panel of five - a pleasing aspect for Garnaut is Chinese writers wanting to go to India and Indians wanting to write in China.

"We haven't got any fixed idea of what we want so when it comes down to the judging, we'll decide the most interesting project and whether they can write," she said.

"This is about literature - we're a bit old fashioned - and it's for grown-ups."

The winning applicants will be advised next month and announced during the literary festival.


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