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Some Notes From Babel Literature Festival And YALC

A photograph of Xiaolu Guo and Ma Jian

Having attended various events over the summer months, I didn’t want to post about every one and risk making this blog a blog of quotations. Looking back over my notes and photographs, however, I saw the value in writing some of it up and sharing and creating one post for a few events seemed the way to go. Included here are notes from the Babel Literature Festival (a festival normally held on the continent but this year a special one off for London), and YALC – Malorie Blackman’s creation, in its second year, part of the London Film And Comic Convention.

Part of the reason I didn’t post separately should be obvious – there wasn’t enough content, especially once incidental notes had been removed, to make a whole post, but hopefully the notes I’ve included here have been interesting. My photographs? Forget it – apart from the one above, my shots were shocking.

Babel Literature Festival
Xiaolu Guo and Ma Jian

Ma Jian does not speak English – all quotations attributed to him were translated from his Chinese into English by Xiaolu Guo.

  • Xiaolu Guo considers Ma Jian the only Chinese writer from her father’s generation she can read, because of the subjects Ma Jian includes. She sees herself and her fellow writer as united in trying to get away from the culture they came from.
  • Having left China, she wrote in English because for her there was no feeling that she had to censor herself in that language.
  • It was during political conflict, at the time she was confused and feeling nihilistic towards discussion, that she started reading western literature. “I swam in and I lost myself.”
  • She wrote her film projects as books to preserve the copyrights.
  • She didn’t like the UK at first and had no plans to stay; but she was writing her first story. It was in going to France and feeling isolated, linguistically, because she’d already written in English, that she saw she had to stay. “Forget it. I lost my country, my language – I have to find some comfort in this second language, this adopted country.”
  • “I try to communicate with western writers otherwise I have no one.”
  • When Ma Jian left his Beijing for Hong Kong, he stopped painting. When he began to write, it was the continuation of his painting.
  • He closes off to everything in the UK when he writes so that there’s just his language. (He hasn’t learned English; someone in the audience asked ‘wouldn’t learning English give you the ability to reflect on China compared to England?’ to which Ma Jian replied, “I close the door, but the window is open.”)
  • “Only half of a person is kept in translation.”
  • “Language is a reflection of a particular time in history.” Language is passive – it’s a record of the history.
  • Ma Jian said that in China, before 1949, there was poetic language. Then Mao language was adopted. Then plain language. We have to translate a Chinese book into the modern Chinese, translating Chinese into Chinese. In this way, modern Chinese translations are only half of the text. (On this, Guo said that writing in 1988, it felt the wrong language because she was so used to 1930s books, feudal Chinese.)
Philippe Rahmy talking to Vanni Bianconi
  • Philippe Rahmy, who has brittle bones, has used his disease as a tool. He might have been a writer anyway, but…
  • He calls himself ‘Ray-Me’ in London as he doesn’t know how his name is pronounced in different places.
  • He thinks in German and writes in French.
Chloe Aridjis and Franca Cavagnoli
  • Chloe Aridjis: As a translator and author, I have a responsibility to try not to get in congflict with another’s language. There may be a clash between the imaginations; there’s a risk in translation.
  • Franca Cavagnoli feels England to be home. When asked, she says she’s Mexican, but being in Mexico feels foreign to her. She speaks English with her father and Spanish with her mother. “My analytical mind works in English.”
Alexander Hemon talking to Maurizia Balmelli
  • Alexander Hemon uses Bosnian jokes in English despite knowing it may not work. It won’t have the full impact, he said, but it’ll become a story, acquire a narrative quality. That, to him, was interesting, and he wanted to go into that process of joke to story.
  • “I’m greatly interested in translation as a process, a human project.” In translation you lose some and gain some. If everything was translated it’d be the exact same text. To say translation is a loss is to lose the value of experience.
Malorie Blackman, James Smythe, Eugene Lambert On Sci-Fi
  • Blackman: Sci-fi books are books of the scientifically probable and possible. (She loves the idea of possible other realities.
  • Smythe: Fantasy is the point where things aren’t possible, that’s the difference. There’s a huge amount of scope for what it could be and what it actually is.
  • Lambert: How do you tell stories? You begin by exaggerating.
  • Blackman: We talk of social mobility but we’re dismantling the very things that provide it – libraries, for example. To enjoy things costs money.
  • Blackman: As a woman I found sci-fi very frustrating, growing up, because the female characters didn’t have much to do.

What’s the best talk you’ve attended, literary or otherwise?



October 14, 2016, 5:03 pm

Fabulous events you got to attend! thanks for sharing a bit about them.


October 15, 2016, 1:27 pm

Stefanie: They were indeed very interesting!

Phil Rahmy

October 25, 2016, 9:32 am

It was a fantastic day. Great readings and exchanges. I was deeply moved by Adam Zagajewski reading “To go to Lvov”.



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