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October 8, 2010

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Foreign female writers get the feel of Shanghai

SEVEN foreign writers from five countries are spending two months in Shanghai to soak up the atmosphere of China and its most dynamic city. Yao Minji interviews three impressive female authors.

Tina Uebel has walked all over Shanghai in the past month, sometimes exploring for nine hours a day. The 41-year-old German writer points to a city map and says, "Now I want to walk further, to the suburbs. I love to feel the city with my feet."

Birgitta Lindqvist from Sweden sings in Chinese the old revolutionary song "The East is Red" and decorates her room near Jin'an Temple in Chinese style with embroidered wedding-night red bedding and Chinese items.

"Coming back to China now after nearly 40 years is like visiting a completely different nation," says writer Lindqvist who is 65.

And Klil Zisapel, a 33-year-old Israeli writer, is reading "My Country and My People," written in English by author, inventor and translator Lin Yutang (1895-1976). Lin was one of the first to translate classic Chinese texts into English. He also wrote novels and essays in English to introduce the lifestyle, philosophy, values and customs of China at the time.

The three women are among seven foreign writers who arrived in Shanghai in early September for the two-month 2010 Shanghai Writing Program, organized by the Shanghai Writers Association.

The aim is to let writers experience Shanghai in an unstructured program, in hopes they will at some point write about it and help explain China.

The other four writers are: Hungarian novelist Bartis Attila, Israeli novelist and script writer Benny Barbash, Cuban essayist and critic Ana Margarita Mateo Palmer and Cuban short story writer Raul Flores Iriarte.

Shanghai Daily seized the opportunity to chat with the three interesting women on issues including "female" writing, literature in their countries, and impressions of Shanghai.

German novelist Tina Uebel still remembers one review about her second novel "Horror Vacui" (2005) about a few extreme tourists seeking adventure in the Antarctic because of a "lack of meaning in life."

"She's not Jon Krakauer writing about Mt Everest," one reviewer said, an absurd observation to Uebel's mind.

The novel in German was not so much about adventure and spectacular settings as it was about the much-ignored primitive desire of human beings in modern society "where there is not much space for aggression."

"Nobody ever asked Puccini, 'Hey, why did you write 'Madama Butterfly?' You are a man," Uebel says.

"But I get that a lot. People come to me and say, hey I didn't know you are a woman. Why did you write about male protagonists? Why did you write adventures?"

The journalist, poet and novelist is an energetic and humorous outdoors woman with an athletic build. She has traveled to many unusual places and events, from ski trainings in the Antarctic to voodoo ceremonies in Benin.

To get the experience for "Horror Vacui," she took a three-week ski training in Antarctica with three young men, all professional athletes. It involved daily ski walks of 10 hours with packs weighing 100 kilograms.

"They wanted to 'have done it' (the training), but I just wanted to do it for itself," she recalls. "And I became the only person, a woman, picked by the coach to visit the pole."

This is her first visit in Shanghai and she has already toured the central part of the city, without taxi, but occasionally the Metro.

Uebel did all this in between her editing of her next and fourth novel, a work of science fiction taking place in the United States in the future. Her publisher didn't like it and said, "You can't write about something that happens outside of Germany."

"I don't think he would have said that if I were a man," she says. "He's probably worried that I don't know enough about the US to set a story there, because I'm a woman."

One of most annoying observations she hears is "women write about women's issues and men write about mankind's issues."

Israeli writer Klil Zisapel, now aged 33, published her first novel when she was 21 and had just been discharged from the army where she was a magazine writer for two and a half years.

In Israel, military service is compulsory for every non-Arab man and woman and "it's just as competitive as the college entrance exam here in China, because some army jobs bring a more promising future than others," according to Zisapel. She was one of four people selected to write the major defense forces magazine every four years.

In her position she had rare access and was able to interview a variety of people, from generals who are generally unreachable, to staff in intriguing departments she had never heard off.

Her first novel about young people who are drafted, or about to be drafted, revealed numerous small issues with the army.

Her second novel, "With This Ring," also involves the army - one of the two female protagonists avoids the draft, bringing shame to her parents. The novel in Hebrew was selected as one of the four women writers' works published by the Anhui Literature and Art Publishing House in 2008. Zisapel visited Anhui Province for the book launch.

Her upcoming fourth novel, to be published in May, takes a more ambitious direction - "talking about the big issues up front," says Zisapel. She had to find a new publisher "since my old publisher didn't like the idea of a woman writing about the big issues. They prefer the emotional, sensitive words about domestic issues, not social issues."

In this novel Zisapel also writes with more old Hebrew phrases from Biblical times - "that's usually the male style of writing and I want to change their view on this."

Birgitta Lindqvist, a Swedish poet and novelist based in Paris, has published 11 novels, collections of short stories and poetry over 34 years.

Her husband, famous Swedish journalist and history writer Herman Lindqvist has published 54 works during the same period.

"That is the difference between men and women," she says, with no regrets. Men have more freedom.

"When we met 34 years ago, he had written one book and I had none. We started from almost the same spot."

Sweden is known today for gender equality, but Lindqvist followed the same women's routine of her generation: home and family came first, her own writing was postponed for years.

So it was more than 30 years before she set to work on her recently published novel "Where No One Can Be Reached" in Swedish. The title is a reference to people being unavailable and unreachable during the Chinese "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

She writes about two foreign couples living in Beijing during the "cultural revolution," based on her own experience. She was among fewer than 200 foreigners in the capital at the time and they were an isolated bunch.

Lindqvist lived in Beijing from 1969 and 1971, when her Sinologist ex-husband was a China consultant to the Swedish Embassy in China.

She kept a detailed diary about "everything that I could never have imagined before."

"I tried to learn Chinese, but the language was codified with all the quotes from Chairman Mao. We were precisely in that isolated situation in which 'no one can be reached.'"

Like many foreigners at the time, she was most impressed with the bicycles and the charisma of Premier Zhou Enlai. She met him by chance on her way to an event when she had taken off her high heels and scampered up a back stairway in the Great Hall of the People. At the top she was winded and from nowhere, it seemed, a gentlemen reached out his hand to help her, saying, "Bon soir, Mademoiselle."

But the mother of five children waited "until my youngest daughter moved out of the house" to write the novel. During that time period, however, she managed to publish 10 books, including a collection of short stories titled "Chinese Box," also based on her China memories.

In order to refresh her memory, she constantly played old revolutionary songs at home, and deliberately avoided visiting China.

"I didn't want the new images to flush out my old memories before I put them down in words," she says, with relief. Now that she has completed the novel, she can visit China again.

"And it feels like a completely new country for me now."


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