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Hay Festival 2017: Olivia Sudjic, Peter Ho Davis, And Madeleine Thien

A photograph of Georgina Godwin, Peter Ho Davis, and Olivia Sudjic at the Hay Festival

In the small, dark tent called The Cube, where some of the most interesting conversations are held with lesser-known authors, Georgina Godwin introduced Peter Ho Davis and Pushkin Press début writer, Olivia Sudjic. Ho Davis’s newest book, The Fortunes, looks, in a fictional manner, at the life of Chinese American actress Anna May Wong of the black and white era. Sudjic’s book, Sympathy, is a look at the way social media can create obsession and fictional identities. They are two very different works but the questions about ancestry and ethnicity, using these and other forms of identity in fiction, made for a fairly unified conversation.

Godwin asked about identities, the different types there are. Ho Davis brought in the academic angle, thinking in terms of how we show ourselves to others. He said that to choose either ethnicity or nation is to deny the other, or at least it feels like it. What interests him is the way we struggle against imposed identities. “All writers are interested in outsiders,” he said. He looks to write characters like that; a yearning for ‘place’ drives the main character of his book.

Sudjic, who said she pronounces her own surname in the wrong way but has come to learn the correct way, didn’t want to take the microphone from someone who had the mixed race experience; she let identity unfold throughout the novel to “lure the reader into identifying her”. The lure of social media for Sudjic’s character came from wanting connection; the obsession of ‘making it’ makes the character more isolated. A reader who distances themselves from her will see the creation of her online identity.

Ho Davis said that Anna May Wong’s acting stereotypes worked for her in America but she was hated in China for it. The writer reclaims racist jokes in the book. He also spoke of the Chinese immigrants who worked on the American rail road, how they were different to other immigrants in that they had planned to go home, and how we are identifying how many people worked based on bones – bones of those who died were kept, all pieces in individual bags.

A photograph of Madeleine Thien and Jemimah Steinfield at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Liam Webb.

There were a great many events happening whilst Madeleine Thien stepped onto the Starlight Stage, a lot of competition for audience numbers, but from the feeling in the room it would be hard not to say that those not there to listen to the writer talk about Do Not Say We Have Nothing did not miss out. It begun quietly, a short discussion of present day China away from the context of the book, and grew to something very special. In conversation with Thien was Jemimah Steinfield who has worked as a journalist in China for many years.

Steinfield wanted to look at language in the context of Thien’s book. She noted that music is a kind of language and asked ‘are there any safe languages?’
‘The private self,’ replied Thien, after a pause. “It’s astonishing what people risked their lives to hide… music, a book, a diary…. If you could hide it away you could come back later and retrieve it.” She continued, saying that revolutionary language has its own register – slogans, for example. It becomes the way of thinking and restriction; permissible language and thinking become the same thing and old words are considered to hold things that need to be removed. You learn to speak the public language so that you can hold on to your space in it.

Thien said that on a student level, people believed the revolution was good – the Red Guard, for example. It was said Mao was being compromised by the older generation, and as much as the older generation were good they were carrying around ‘old stuff’ and that had to be changed. It was therefore up to the youth to take the revolution and be the ones to change things. The appeal was to their goodness, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Thien wanted to look at not just the oppression but at that desire to make the world a better place. She said that it was seen as a politic that would finally put things in action. She spoke of watching the events of 1989 on TV and the way the feeling she had then contributed to the book.

I have not yet read Thien’s book but from my pre-event position as a person who had read one of her books and very much disliked it… well, at the end of this talk I joined the crowd on their way to the bookshop and bought a copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Those of you who’ve read it may see that as the obvious conclusion; certainly I’ve already started to see why many said it should have won the Man Booker.


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