now incorporating the Sudbury Hill and Wood End Times

Monday, October 01, 2012

Notes from Small Wonder 2012

Small Wonder 2012: Perspectives on China
with Fang Fang and Hilary Spurling

Fang Fang was asked through an interpreter at Small Wonder if China had literary festivals and live literature like this. By the way, we were a few dozen people, maybe 150 or so, huddled shivering in a draughty barn, in the back of beyond***. Fang Fang pointed out that they recently had a festival of poetry, where they had invited several British poets and bedecked a vast railway station with hundreds of large posters featuring poems by their guests and Chinese poets.

When asked about the epigraph to her story - it was a quote from Baudelaire - and what her influences were, she said that most Chinese writers could list you eight or ten western writers and that people recited Shakespeare and so forth. She wondered how many westerners could name ten Chinese writers? I thought Fang Fang was a bit defensive, and her prose (perhaps too literally translated for us on a screen) seemed to me to be full of allegorical sideswipes about smug outsiders looking in on a complex family society. (However, that might have been all in my mind!)

Her narrator is revealed to be a dead child at one point, looking on at its surviving family. This might be connected to her description of the move from social realism, which had been condemned by the party many years ago, to the current fashion (or was it policy?) for neo-realism, which had to contain no trace of the author's feelings. She also described this as like glass realism or zero realism (but I am not quoting verbatim).

Despite the language barrier, Fang Fang managed to inject a few bits of humour. She is very prolific. They said 80 novels, but I think they might have meant novellas, it wasn't clear. It might have been the questionable literal translation but her story came over as somewhat chaotic.

Tess chatted with her in Mandarin afterwards and I said "ni hao" and "xie xie", which exhausted my usable Chinese vocabulary, as there was no call for me to count to five. Fang Fang's contribution was only half the event. The other half was Hilary Spurling talking about Pearl Buck, the subject of her latest biography. However by happy chance, Fang Fang came from the same place as Pearl Buck and had a great interest and knowledge about her, and so that conversation (through translator) was very good.

Fang Fang recalled that when people in China first saw the Hollywood film adaptation of The Good Earth, they began by wondering why people with long noses were playing the parts of Chinese peasant farmers; but then as they got into the film, they forgot about that and were amazed to see their own lives portrayed there realistically for the first time.

Despite the technical difficulties with the simultaneous translation, and the heroic efforts of the distinguished chair of the discussion  (? Jacobson) and the translator, it was a bold and timely attempt at promoting cultural exchange in the short story world. It's not before time we showed China and its people some empathy and respect, as I think they have cause to feel misunderstood, if not hard done by. I only mean in the cultural world, saying nothing here about politics, politicians or governance.

Steve Moran

Small Wonder short story festival

Fang Fang
"Author of the year 2011" (

Hilary Spurling
Guardian: "A Life in Writing", with reference to "Burying the Bones" her new biography of Pearl Buck 

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