Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Beijing Bookworm Festival 2015 - yes, I went to China!

There's a Forbidden City in there

It is not often one gets sent to China. It is usually never, in fact, which was why I’d assumed I wouldn’t be getting to visit that faraway, mysterious place in this lifetime. Thanks (eternal) to the British Council, however, I spent a long week in Chengdu and Beijing in March, and like a character from a fairy tale, I returned feeling as though I’d been away for months.

I was posted off there with two other short story writers, Rachel Trezise and Adam Marek, to take part in the 9th annual Beijing Bookworm Festival. The Bookworm bookshops are a kind of readers’ and writers’ dream come true: new book, old books, second hand ones and free-to-borrow ones, lining spaces that can be cafe, bar, reading room or performance space, beautifully lit with glowing lanterns. At the festival, a collective-noun of writers from all over the world turn up, do readings, answer questions, run workshops, take part in literary quizzes, and are looked after like kings and queens.

I can tell you that now, with the despicable smugness of someone who has had the most wonderful time, but before I went, boy was I nervous. I noticed the difference between the younger me, who seemed to be able to sally into any country and assume everything would be fine, and the 30-something me, who was terrified that, with zero Chinese, I wouldn’t even make it out of the airport and would starve to death there, unable even to order dumplings.

How wrong I was. Beijing and Chengdu – a huge, graphic novel of a city which has even less concern with Western culture than Beijing – were both as friendly as they were magical. I was surprised and delighted over and again by the enthusiasm of the people who came to my workshops and readings, and by the people who were prepared to provide transport and food and drink and all kinds of unexpected beauty without me being able to ask for any of it politely. It should have been embarrassing. But everyone was so gracious that it never was, even when I was attacking a bubbling pot of coconut water and chicken’s feet with chopsticks.

The view from my Chengdu hotel, twice

This trip was one on which I cut my teeth on creative writing workshops. While I’ve been to more than I care to mention as I student, it’s a different thing to turn learning into any kind of convincing teaching. But, over-preparation pays off. I packed into my tiny travel bag my entire collection of postcards, printouts of some choice folk tales, and a whole pile of odd folk customs and beliefs on strips of paper. With a combination of images and ideas, and primed with the stories I’d read out, my workshop participants, ranging from ten years old to forty, came up with the most incredible ideas. Some of them were like fully planned fantasy novels; others took folkloric ideas and imposed on them dilemmas that would make the most wonderful short stories. I was so impressed. If I needed any confirmation that teaching creative writing is the way to go for job satisfaction, this was it.

Another mind-expanding moment was doing a writers’ Q&A in translation. A Chinese writer, Jiang Yitan, and I both answered questions from a chair and the audience, with a brave and studious translator jotting it all down ready to reproduce in the opposite language. It was an awesome (in the original sense) way to get to know another writer, and to understand quite how tough the job of translator can be.

Afterwards, a motley mix of Chinese, English and lucky speakers of both went out to eat Sichuan barbeque together. I was allowed to poke around in the cafe kitchens and eye up big glass vats of liquor, with mysterious scraps floating in the bottom. The one I liked the look of turned out to be penis liquor, incorporating the best bits of many different creatures, but I wasn’t allowed to drink it. For the men, apparently...

The pandas also get very well looked after

The welcome from the Bookworm and all the people I met in Beijing and Chengdu was so warm, but a large part of the experience that so surprised and enchanted me was the cities themselves. London can make you feel as if nothing could surprise you, but everywhere I turned in Beijing and Chengdu, I got that wonderful hit of wonder and delight. A dog wearing little shoes, a man sculpting 3D caricatures of passersby out of fimo, washing hanging out on the main highway, balloon sellers ready to sail away beneath bunches of fat Hello Kitty faces, endless uninhabited sky scrapers poking into smog, cakes made of rose petals, old men swimming in the cold lakes, sci-fi-style adverts flickering on the outside of the tube train windows, temples with names like ‘anticipation of bliss’, signs asking us to ‘cherish the green life.’

As a writer, the translations of Chinese were a source of occasional mirth but also of inspiration. My absolute favourite was a misprint of dumplings as ‘damplings’ which to me sound like slimy little goblins who will lick the soles of your feet in order to send you across the dew in search of mischief. I hope I will write a story about them.

This dragon bounces evil spirits back where they came from

I could go on for many paragraphs, and I know my writing will benefit from Chinese inspiration for a long time to come. But here I would like to thank Peter Goff, Moz, Anthony, Deva, Catherine, Ran, Kelsey, Annie, and many other from the Bookworms, as well as Li Ning, Rachel Stevens, Debo Amon and the British Council. Also Rachel Trezise and  Adam Marek, my equally pixilated travel companions. Life will never be the same again, and by hook or by crook I will get back to China!

Another dream come true - blossom season in Beijing