Thursday, 29 October 2015

Q & A: Phillipa Milne

Lit-wise, Hong Kong and Singapore are both busy at the moment.  The Hong Kong International Literary Festival started on Monday, October 26, and runs through until November 8. Meanwhile, The Singapore Writers Festival starts tomorrow, October 30, and also runs until November 8.  (The two Festivals often overlap; when last year I asked why, I was told it enabled authors travelling long distances from the West to visit both Hong Kong, and Singapore.)

Today, Phillipa Milne, Programme Manager, Hong Kong International Literary Festival, answers questions.  Tomorrow, it will be the turn of Yeow Kai Chai, Festival Director, Singapore Writers Festival.

So: over to Phillipa…

There are very many literary festivals around the world.  What makes Hong Kong’s special?
Hong Kong is an incredibly fast-paced and dynamic city – the Literary Festival gives people the opportunity to take an hour or two out of their busy lifestyles and engage in some exciting talks and debates from world-class speakers. We are proud of the calibre and range of writers on offer and each year we welcome fantastic headliners to Hong Kong. This autumn we’re thrilled to have Dame Margaret Drabble, Professor A. C.  Grayling and Ken Hom all participating. 
Audiences can enjoy talks in really special and unusual venues too. We have events in spaces across the city, including The Helena May, a declared monument of Hong Kong built over 100 years ago, and the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences which contributed to research of the bubonic plague outbreak in the early 1900s.  
We also run a schools programme alongside our public programme. Every year our visiting writers meet and talk with local students. Reaching young people is an integral part of our aim and we have been building on this consistently over the years.

Why do you think authors renowned in the West are willing to visit you? 
Hong Kong is rich with culture and the influence of the British Empire means it is permeated with its unique blend of legacy where East meets West. Our culinary arts are rich in diversity and offerings.  It still operate as a gateway to the cultural, political and economic pulse of mainland China.  We would think that authors are always on the lookout to broaden their reach toward Hong Kong, which is very often thought of as the most cosmopolitan and open-minded city within Asia.  Our readership here is bilingual, if not multilingual; in this digital age Hong Kongers are very much up-to-date with developments on all fronts so in a sense if a book is simultaneously released across time zones, we would be the first ones to talk about any resultant buzz.

Do you intend your programme to act as a bridge between the literature of the China, and that of the West? If so, how does this year’s programme reflect that intention?  
Absolutely. Hong Kong boasts a truly energetic and progressive writing scene and each year we continue to provide a platform for local writers. This year we have several events which feature conversations between local and overseas writers. This includes a discussion on experimental fiction between New Zealander Anna Smaill, whose debut novel The Chimes was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, and Hong Kong writer of Stone Bride Madrigals, Nicolette Wong. We will also have an interactive panel discussion on poetry with British poet Luke Kennard and Hong Kong-based writers Tammy Ho and Sonia Wong.

Do you intend to be a showcase for Asian literature, other than Chinese literature?  If so, the same question as before, how does the programme reflect that intention?
A focus on literature from the wider region has always played an important role in our programming. In previous years we’ve been lucky enough to host celebrated Asian writers such as Chang Rae Lee, Ma Jian, Tash Aw and Amitav Ghosh. This year we’re delighted to present a talk from Haresh Sharma, one of Singapore’s most produced playwrights. In the last week Haresh has been the recipient of the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour in the arts. He’ll be talking about the hallmarks of his writing journey and the balance between arts and activism.

Does the Festival have a theme this year?  If so, what is it, and why was it chosen?  If not, why did you decide not to have a theme? 
The Festival has several strands running throughout the programme this year. One of them is Short Works, Big Ideas. Short fiction and poetry are a focal aspect of Hong Kong’s literary landscape and to celebrate this we have several talks focussing on shorts. This includes a keynote lecture from 2014 Pen Literary Award Winner and author of short story collection Cowboys and Indians, Nina McConigley.
Another theme to look out for is identity and immigration, a topic which regularly fills newspaper pages worldwide, from the migration crisis in Europe to the race row in the US. We’re looking forward to talks from cultural critic, and author of The N Word, Jabari Asim, and British-born Chinese PP Wong, whose Bailey’s nominated novel The Life of a Banana deals with cultural conflicts in a moving and hopeful way.
Festival-goers will also be able to participate in several talks on the urbanisation of China. Author of In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland, Michael Meyer will be talking about the three years he spent in the rice-farming community of Wasteland and the tremendous change it’s undergoing during times of growth. Similarly, David Bandurski, editor of China Media Project, spent nearly ten years putting together his brilliant work of non-fiction on China’s journey towards urbanisation, Dragons in Diamond Village.

Is your programme entirely in English?  If so, why, in a city where Cantonese and Mandarin are both widely spoken?  If not, can you give details?
This year we’re excited to have Chinese author Xu Zechen talk about his critically acclaimed novel Running Through Beijing. This will be held in Mandarin and English. Earlier this year we held an event with popular local poet and teacher Nicholas Wong on his collection Crevasse in Cantonese and English.
We plan to build on this over the next five years and our long-term goal is to hold a completely bilingual Festival.

Are you featuring many Chinese works in translation? What about translations from other Asian languages?
Those writers I mentioned above, namely, Xu Zechen and Nicholas Wong.  Dorothy Tse will also be taking part in an event with Hong Kong-based Collier Nogues. Dorothy is one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed young writers. So Black, a short story collection, won the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature and A Dictionary of Two Cities won the 2013 Hong Kong Book Prize. Last year we welcomed Chinese author Chan Koonchung, whose dystopian novel The Fat Years was translated into English in 2011, to the Festival.
Not only do we continue to showcase Asian writing in translation, but also writing from further afield. This year, Festival-goers will have the chance to catch young and exciting writer Adrien Bosc – Adrien will be talking about his wonderful book Constellation, originally written in French and soon to be translated in to English and Chinese. In 2013, we focussed on Nordic noir literature and featured several writers in translation including Åke Edwardson.

What do you think about the dominance of English in world book markets?
It is a fact that English is the most widely used language commercially.  We are also bearers of a legacy where Hong Kong matured as an entrepôt and much later developed as an international finance centre due to its colonial heritage.  What interests us as an organisation is our ability to provide a platform for the dynamic changes that any literary output necessarily undergoes since English, like Chinese, continues to be influenced by ideas, idioms and cultural norms that cross boundaries daily.

Which events are you personally most looking forward to? Which authors do you expect to be crowd-pullers?
Of course our headliners’ events. Dame Margaret Drabble is one of the world’s most celebrated writers and I’m incredibly excited by the prospect of gaining insight into a career that has spanned over 50 years. A. C. Grayling’s talk on happiness is an event I also encourage everybody to join!
I love fantasy, and am really looking forward to Lev Grossman’s talk. His Magicians trilogy is brilliant and, even if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend coming along if you’re a Harry Potter, Narnia or His Dark Materials fan. 
I’m also looking forward to hearing from Australian writer Benjamin Law. His work of non-fiction Gaysia is a fascinating account of his journey discovering the different LGBT scenes Asian cities have to offer. His stories are hilarious, moving and eye-opening all at once.

What message do you send to potential Festival-goers?
I would always encourage people to try something new in both content and genre. Come along to a talk from somebody whose work you’re not familiar with: you never know what you might discover!