Jaipur Lit Fes: Chinese Voice Drown out by A Star-stubbed Circus

I’ve been going to Jaipur Lit Fes for the past three years, each time noting how much more unwieldy this event is getting to be.  This year’s author list alone is 260 names long, and they expected 70,000 or more visitors to descend upon the festival.  And honestly, if it weren’t for the lure of Geling Yan, one of the most accomplished and prolific authors to have come out of China, I would probably have stayed home and give the circus a miss.

I arrive at Diggi Palace late on the first day—a Friday—after a near-seven-hour bus ride from Delhi.  The first thing I notice at the venue is how much of the festival’s spontaneity, something the organizers take great pride in, has mostly been done away with.  Gone are the free music events. Gone as well are the free lounging areas (replaced instead by Fabindia, boutiques, and other paid outlets).  This means the tents are squeezed more tighter together, and seats at different events are even harder to come by, and that a scuffle for a priced spot can erupt at any time.

Because of the never-ending controversy over Salman Rushdie being barred from coming to the festival over his banned book “The Satanic Verses” (and later, his being barred from speaking to the event by video link), and the craze over the arrival of Oprah Winfrey, the mega star American TV talk host, even the gates of the festival venue are now blocked by thick layers of security police—a first in Jaipur Lit Fes history.

You never know whose interest the security guards are really after, however.  Are they there to protect the safety of the audience and the organizers, or are they there to spy on the event for the Muslim extremists’ sake? But one thing is ample clear: they won’t hesitate to pounce on any one trying to get too close to the “Big O.” Never mind she’s neither an author nor a publisher.  (Are the organizers that desperate to add more glitz to their already overly star-stubbed event?)

And while criticism about India’s diminishing freedom in the literary scene echoes throughout the front and back lanes of Diggi Palace, over at the more secluded Baithak Tent in one corner on the second day, Geling Yan voices her own concern about freedom of expression of another kind.

Yan, an international Chinese author who left Beijing in 1989 for a creative writing degree in the U.S. and has since been living overseas, has her first session on the morning that day under the panel “Three Voices,” sharing the stage with African writer Taiye Selasi and Indian novelist Anuradha Roy.  The moderator asks each of the authors to read from their works for ten minutes, and Yan chooses to read from “The Banquet Bug,” a satirical novel she published in 2006 about the social ills and hypocrisy of modern China.  She explains that although she’d written several Chinese works since, she wants to read from this particular one because it’s the only work she’s written in English, which she thinks is fitting for the audience at the festival.

In “Banquet Bug,” Yan presents a portrait of a corrupt Beijing where the nouveaux riches, profiting from China’s economic reforms, munch on raw fish presented on the backs of naked young maidens, all this while the poor sell pints of their own blood to get by.  Everything in the capital also seems to be a con: prostitutes posing as virgin college girls, soy sauce made from human hair, and unschooled migrants workers posing as journalists to freeload on banquets and “money-for-your troubles” in exchange for the promise of favorable press.

In passing, Yan mentions the novel has subsequently been translated into Chinese by a Taiwanese translator  and published in Taiwan, though critics bemoan the fact that the language of the translation is horrible, a far cry from the author’s own elegant Chinese prose.  That’s when someone in the audience raises an interesting, and very legitimate question: “if you can write Chinese beautifully, why did you choose to write this novel in English?”

Yan smiles and says she decided to try her hand at writing in English because she wasn’t sure if she could get away with writing about many of China’s modern-day problems in the Chinese language.  “I also found writing in English very liberating, giving me the sense of freedom I didn’t feel when writing in the Chinese language.”   Having lived in the U.S. and elsewhere for over twenty years, it seems Yan has not only managed to return to her home country with a fresher, more critical eye, but also managed to find an alternative voice to get around the censor bureau.  Perhaps her alternative voice has served her well, because the Chinese censor bureau never came after her.  Or maybe they were busy cracking down on more hard-hitting works by the likes of Yan Lianke, author of the banned novel “Dream of Ding Village”—a work about the sad lives of AIDS sufferers in Chinese villages; or Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic and political activist as well as the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2010 who’s currently serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Yan’s remarks about the need to constantly think about ways to get around China’s censor bureau as a Chinese writer could have led to an interesting debate about literary censorship and freedom of expression in China.  But Urvashi Butalia, the moderator who herself is a writer, is ill-prepared to follow up with any intelligent questions to spur meaningful discussions.  A lost opportunity! It’s such a pity, especially given much of the clamor this year is all about freedom of expression the world over.

Then again, it’s not really Butalia’s fault.  From my experiences from previous years, many of the panels are run much like this one at “the greatest literary show on earth.”  Panelists, whose works have nothing in common with one another either in themes or subject matters, it seems, are hastily lumped together simply because the organizers don’t know what else to do with them. Hence you have sessions with such dubious and uninspiring titles as “Three Voices.”  By the time you add hosts brought over to the stage at the last minute, and you get half-baked results.

If you ask me, the event organizers of the lit fes would be well served to channel their energy better in the future on how best to create meaningful debates with authors and hosts given more time for preparations, not how many more Bollywood celebrities and TV show hosts they can get to come to this circus.  After all, this is a literary event, not some glitzy tourist trap.

Geling Yan speaking with Urvashi Butalia before the "Three Voices" panel discussion.


About Karen

A life-long expat originally born in China, I was raised in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Over the years, I've lived in Seattle, New York, Beijing and now Delhi. A freelance writer and Chinese language teacher by trade, I love reading, traveling, going to the movies and sampling international dishes. In May 2013, I published a novel called Excess Baggage, now available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Excess-Baggage-Karen-Ma/dp/0835100464
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