Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Tale of Three Cities: Taipei, Beijing, Seoul

Outside the humble Beijing Capital Library
I've just returned, woozy and a little waxen, from Australian Writers Week (AWW) 2015. I have an extra suitcase for gifts. And business cards.

Previous AWW tours have focused on Beijing and other Chinese cities, but this year's itinerary was enlarged: I jetted to Taiwan and South Korea alongside China. We stuffed a great deal into the little meat sack of Damon.

With Cathy Raper
My first stop was Taiwan, staying at the Woolloomooloo guest house and restaurant.  My Japanese-style tatami room was small but very comfortable, and I enjoyed the best coffee of my trip in the café downstairs: a neat short macchiato. Hats off to the owner, Australian-Taiwanese architect Jimmy Yang.

I met with the Australian Representative in Taiwan, Cathy Raper, and had a short chat about the island's history and politics.

Then I was off to the National University of Taiwan, to give a workshop and lecture on philosophy. The chief point of my talk and questions was to get students thinking about the relationships between scholarship and everyday life; how each informs the other (or doesn't). I used examples from authors including Seneca and Nietzsche. (I wanted to introduce them to the poetry of Alison Croggon, but language made it awkward.)

One of the discussions, nudged along by Professor JJ Yuann, concerned the verbosity of the safe: how freedom often encourages a certain bellicose chatter, as opposed to the stoic quiet of those struggling with empire.
With Professor JJ Yuann and students, Taiwan National University
After the class, Professor Yuann joined me for a casual meeting with Taiwanese academics, publishers and arts professionals. Then it was time for a quick radio interview on my How to Think About Exercise.

Sweating at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial
Fittingly, I then took myself off for a brief jog to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, then a jaunt on the subway to the amazing Palace Museum, which holds an enormous collection of Chinese antiquities and art. My favourite part: the extraordinary 'Along the River During Qingming Festival'. Somewhere between Bruegel, Pepys and Where's Wally, it's an incredible historical document.

My next gig was at Woolloomooloo: a reading of My Nanna is a Ninja, plus some games. My host was children's book guru and local author Charlene Lai.

After this, but not before an sumptuous Taiwanese lunch (highlight: mullet roe with gourd and radish slices) with Jimmy Yang and Charlene, was another My Nanna is a Ninja reading: at the Taipei Public Library. Then it was time to leave this intriguing Chinese island...
Lightning moves at Taipei Public Library

...for the Chinese mainland. And not just China: Beijing, the enormous capital. I say 'enormous', though of course I saw chiefly the Opposite House hotel, taxis, shops and the festival rooms. But what Henry James wrote of London seems apt for Beijing:
Practically, of course, one lives in a quarter, in a plot; but in imagination, and by a constant mental  act of reference the sympathizing resident inhabits the whole--and it is only of him that I deem it worth while to speak. He fancies himself, as they say, for being a particle in so unequalled an aggregation; and its immeasurable circumference, even though unvisited and lost in smoke, gives him the sense of a social, an intellectual margin. 
My first events were two more readings of My Nanna is a Ninja, for the Bookworm literary festival. One at iQiyi cafe, then another at the huge Beijing Capital Library.

The former was relatively quiet; the second, a riot. Their discipline seemingly undone by my games, the children took to the stage--quite literally. My translator, Christine, worked tirelessly to explain the ideas and words, and control the crowd.

When 'an intimate reading' means toddlers on your knees: Beijing Capital Library
That night I had dinner with novelist AJ Betts, author/illustrator Frané Lessac and author Mark Greenwood. We had Peking duck. In Peking. (And it was very good.)

Portable magic: keeping oxygen in
a dome
Next was a session on How to Think About Exercise, with final years at the British School of Beijing. Some fascinating reflections on embodiment and social values, including a revelation: teenagers don't like to sprint alone. Part of the class was inside the school's dome: a sealed gymnasium, so the kids can do sports without breathing in Beijing's polluted air.

From this quite privileged institution, I was off to Mingyuan: one of Beijing's migrant schools. These were the children of rural parents who had moved to Beijing looking for work, forfeiting medical and educational access. The Migrant Children's Foundation, a charity, provides schooling, basic equipment and uniforms.

I arrived while the younger grades were napping, but my class were year fives--and they were awesome. After the quiz and games, they were quick to identify English words, and answer questions about the characters and story of My Nanna is a Ninja. Their questions, like their drawing and colouring, were careful but fun. After a sneak preview of My Pop is a Pirate, we ended with a quick photo outside, alongside the whitewashed buildings and hard playground.

With the kids from Mingyuan migrant school, Bejing
Then I met with AJ Betts and novelist Brooke Davis to chat with two Chinese authors: A Yi and Miao Wei. Nicky Harman, from Paper Republic, was also taking tea with us. While Paper Republic translator Eric Abrahamsen was relaxed and very clear, it took some time to warm up: the mediated talk does not come naturally. Nonetheless, we learned a little about the logistics of writing life in China, as well as some history of literature. A great and rare chance to peer behind the glossy stickers, including at the twin censorship pressures of politics and commerce. Another radio interview followed, with 774 Beijing. (I cannot remember what I said, but I know I said it quickly.)

Reading from Voltaire's Vine, with
DV, XNE, CA and MC
The final event of the day was a panel at the Bookwork literary festival, with fiction writers: Mary Costello from Ireland, Clare Azzopardi from Malta and Xi Ni Er from Singapore. Daniel Vuillermin was our host.

I can't convey the variety and nuance of each, but all were marked by a masterful brevity; the willingness to let the audience work, instead of condescending with detail.

Discussion turned to gender in the Q and A afterwards, and it was intriguing to hear the debates cross several continents.

The next morning I took myself off for a jog: just a few kilometres to a local park. But what was green on the map was actually concrete: an artificial lake (with real ducks). It was nice to actually get a brief feel for the neighbourhood, as well as testing my mask.

Jogging in Beijing on an officially 'Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups' morning
(the highest level isapparently 'Crazy Bad')
After this, AJ, Brooke and I were back together at Renmin University's Centre for Australian Studies. We each gave a reading, punctuated by autobiographical notes, then answered questions.

There was a strong note of grief and horror to the stories, which gave a depth to laughter when it happened (and, with AJ and Brooke's well-balanced novels, it wasn't long coming).
At Renmin University with AJ Betts, Brooke Davis, staff and students
At the soirée, doing soirée things
The evening ended with a soirée at the Australian ambassador's residence, where I chatted briefly to the ambassador Frances Adamson and others, and finally met author Jennifer Mills, an Australian expatriate in Beijing. There was chicken, and it and I got quickly acquainted.

My final evening in Bejing, after the soirée, was a poetry reading by poet, translator and raconteur Willis Barnstone. Having just devoted weeks to Borges, it was a nice surprise to meet someone who knew the Argentine author well--who lived across the road, in fact.


Busy stillness: Yeonhui art space,
view from the stage
And then: Korea. After a chat with staff from the Australian Embassy, including the Australia-Korea Foundation, I visted the Yeonhui art space, in Seoul.

A combination of writers' residence, library and school, Yeonhui is a perfect retreat: close to amenities, but quiet and cultivated. (There is a photo of Nic Low, who interviewed me for The Monthly, on the window of the foreign writers' building.)

The next tour was Nami Island, which is ludicrous: a resort isle, artificially divided from the coast, about an hour's drive from Seoul. It has everything. A museum of ancient and international musical instruments, a pop music museum, several performance stages, public artworks, restaurants, wild animals (including emus), galleries, pottery kiln, gardens a massive children's library, and more.

The children's library, Nami island
Originally planned by founder Mr Min as a resort for American officers, it is now a cultural centre of Korea, and a very popular tourism spot for locals and others in Asia. It is basically a city of art, which has comically declared its cultural independence from the rest of Korea. I was invited to decorate a vase, choosing to paint a pen and message: wanted: good readers.

The next day I had two more My Nanna is a Ninja gigs: at Kimpo and Incheon kindergartens. Hosted partly by Awesome World, who've published the Korean translation, these events were hugely entertaining. The children and teachers of Kimpo kindergarten had clearly devoted many days to the visit, and I was gobsmacked by their letters, drawings, buntings and written questions. I had discovered the world of the ninja nanna--ten thousand kilometres from home. It was a blast to hear my story in Korean, and the children reading along in parts.

Reading "Ninja Halmeoni" (Ninja Grandmother) to the Kimpo kindergarten kids
Drawings, letters to the ninja nanna, and questions for the author, Kimpo kindergarten
After this I had a free day, which was devoted to recovering from the previous days, finding gifts for my family, and not collapsing.

Which brings me to today: grateful for the chance to enjoy so many impressions, curious to know more, and sharply aware of my own position as one of Henry James's 'particles' in a much larger collection.

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