Hong Kong: Asia’s literary scene must overcome the obstacles of short-sighted publishers and a dearth of translators if it wants to exploit the promising shoots of growth.
Changing trends: Chinese intellectual Jiang Rong won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel Wolf Totem.
That’s the message from both publishers and authors after the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize, awarded on 10 November, highlighted the emergence of writers who are transcending cliches and stereotypes that dominate much of the culture produced about the region.
The winner of the first Man Asian prize was Wolf Totem, a novel based on the experiences of Chinese intellectual Jiang Rong during the devastating years of China’s Cultural Revolution.
While that period in the 1960s and 1970s has entered the literary lexicon as one of modern China’s cultural cliches, organizers say Jiang’s first novel avoids trudging along the well-trodden path of repression and suffering.
Focusing instead on the relationships between nomads, settlers, animals and nature in the remote northern Chinese countryside, Jiang draws on the 11 years he spent in the Inner Mongolia region as part of the first wave of intellectuals who volunteered to relocate to remote parts of the country.
According to its publishers, it has become the country’s biggest selling contemporary novel since its release in 2004, and will be published in English in March. “The books are not all family novels, or simply about concubines or the Cultural Revolution,” Adrienne Clarkson, chair of judges told AFP of the contenders for the award.
“I think there are subjects that are being written about that are really fascinating and the Western world should catch up with.”
Myanmar author Nu Nu Yi Inwa’s novel Smile As They Bow caught much of the pre-event attention, with its story of a homosexual transvestite medium who is afraid of losing his younger partner to a woman. It steered clear of dealing with the repressive military regime.
Moreover, other shortlisted novels took subjects ranging from wrongly identified bodies being flown into the Philippines, and the mysterious murder of a member of one of New Delhi’s leading families.
While the award also aims to spur sales, it has highlighted the obstacles Asian writers face, which the publishing industry is only starting to address.
“The prize is important because it gives a profile to Asian writing,” said Clarkson. “We hope it means (the shortlisted books) will get a wider distribution,” she said, adding “They deserve to be read by a wider audience.”
The award hopes to build on the expansion of Western publishers in the region, including Penguin India and Picador Asia that have set up shop recently, and the increasing number of literary festivals.
Another shortlisted author Xu Xi said publishers have for too long avoided taking risks on Asian books. “They have been very, very slow in Asia,” she said.
Xu, who flits between Hong Kong, New York and New Zealand, said publishers often get excited about the first novel from a country, or the stories of immigrants to the first world, but are reluctant to take on subjects that are based in contemporary Asia.
“Publishers do not know what to do with those writing in English,” said Xu, who gave up a lucrative corporate job nine years ago to write full time.
“But this prize could make a huge difference.” The delay in getting Jiang’s winning book published in English highlights another major obstacle.
“The greatest problem is finding a good translator. It lives and dies simply in the translation,” said Jo Lusby, general manager of Penguin in Beijing who will have faced a wait of three years since signing the rights to the book.
“There are only two famous translators working and we were prepared to wait several years for the right one to become available.” Lusby added that publishers are reluctant to take a chance on foreign literature, particularly Chinese, because so few people within their organization can read it.
“My recommendation stands alone. They take a very, very big risk on my interpretation,” said Lusby.