Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Things that Don't Fit in a Drawer # 5: 2013 Shanghai Literary Festival

Fervent reader that I am, I've always imagined illiteracy to be a terrible thing. But it's one thing to imagine it and another thing to actually live your days unable to read all the text that flows around you...

So I'm always super grateful for March when for three weeks we of the english reading world are treated by M-on-the-Bund to scads of books and writers at the Shanghai Literary Festival. Founded 11 years ago by restauranteur Michelle Garnaut & friends over Martinis, every year the Lit Fest brings an incredible mix of writers to Shanghai, some of them speaking of things China, others ranging far and wide, from breadsticks with Nick Maglieri to the Simpsons with Matt Groening to Bel Canto with Phillip Eisenbeiss. (For this year's schedule including author interviews, click here.)

Some remarkable moments from years past:

Junot Diaz in 2010 inspiring a packed house of a much-younger-than-average festival crowd: "Silence, absence is the basic idiom for artists. What we do is take silence and we make presence...The power of silence is this: when you leave something off the table, people don't even know that it's a choice. Artists give people back their choices. We give people intimate contact with themselves. There's very few professions that do that." (Podcast here.)

Amy Tan several years ago: a Chinese woman in the audience began to ask a question about her daughter's choices in life and it was as though the character of Tam's mother had materialized from the novels to suddenly sit there among us. ("You don't look, you get smash flat. [Like fish, two eyes one side of face.]") It was so universally apparent that everyone in the audience began to laugh. Amy looked up to acknowledge the laughter, and with that look, gently silenced it. She spoke with great empathy to the worried mother, whose well-educated daughter wanted to become an organic farmer, a peasant to her mother's way of thinking. It was one of the greatest moments of grace that I have ever witnessed.

John Banville, the year he won the Booker Prize for "The Sea": the Festival newish then, so on that particularly foggy, dreary day only some 30 souls in the room looking out towards the Huang Pu as Banville read. The silver grey light, the black hulks of coal barges on the working river so in keeping with the novel's voice: "What a little vessel of sadness we are sailing in, this muffled silence thru the autumn dark." When the fog horns began their warnings, Banville paused & we all sat there listening to their echoing calls with great satisfaction at the rightness of it all.

And always, the great Michelle on stage threatening to through your cellphone out the window should it go off during an author's talk...

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