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Books, glorious books
2013-03-01
By Yao Minji

THE Shanghai International Literary Festival opens a new chapter today, featuring three weeks of events involving writers from around the world on everything from frogs to Turkish fantasy fiction to hot Nordic noir detective stories.

Now in its 11th year, the festival attracts authors from more than 20 countries and more than 60 sessions, including the popular children's sessions on weekend mornings.

There's something for everyone, from cooking and puppetry to tales of adventure and in-depth critique on Chinese and world affairs. Chinese American Da Chen describes his journey from southeastern China's Fujian Province to Wall Street to a Random House author.

Finnish crime writer Leena Lehtolainen, one of several Nordic crime writers, talks about "My First Murder" and others, featuring her female detective protagonist.

All sessions are scheduled at M on the Bund and the Glamour Bar.

"Our festival has always been characterized by its internationalism, and that is a major highlight," Michelle Garnaut, festival founder and M on the Bund owner, tells Shanghai Daily.

"The breadth of the nationalities of our writers is matched by the breadth of the topics we cover, and we hope to continue expanding this."

The list includes Man Asia Literary Prize winner Shin Kyung-sook from South Korea and Man Booker Prize short-listed author Jeet Thayil from India.

Shin, one of South Korea's most widely read and acclaimed novelists, has been extensively published in English and Chinese. Her novel "Please Look After Mom" (2009) was a Korean best seller. The story of a husband and children trying to find a missing mother won 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.

Thayil, an Indian performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, was short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize with his debut novel "Narcopolis," set in 1970s Mumbai.

Since it started in 2003, the festival has become a stage for both literary household names and emerging writers. Many young writers have found their first platform encouragement at the festival.

More significance

"The Shanghai Literary Festival has established itself as China's leading literary event, but for me as a local author it has much more significance," Tom Carter, San Francisco-born photographer and editor, tells Shanghai Daily.

"It is where I was given my first public speaking engagement in China for my photo book 'China: Portrait of a People' (2010) when no other book fairs were willing to give stage time to an unknown, independently published author."

The book features photos from all 56 ethnic groups in China and shows the diversity of appearance, lifestyles and cultures. It won critical acclaim and Carter was invited to many more public events.

He has decided to return for another kind of debut, this time as the editor of "Unsavory Elements - True Tales of Westerns Living in China," an anthology of stories by 28 well-known Westen writers and their thoughts on being a foreigner in China today.

For Da Chen, a Fujian-born investment banker on Wall Street, the festival will mark the first time he has returned to China as an author.

Chinese American Da has been invited to many literary festivals around the world, but this one is special.

The grandson of a former landlord, Da was born and raised in rural Fujian in the 1970s. He immigrated to the United States and became a successful banker.

When he switched to writing in his late 30s, Da started with a New York Times bestselling childhood memoir "Colors of the Mountain" (2001), about his own boyhood after the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976).

"It was never my thing to be a banker, in a highly competitive market, doing dreadful deals one after another," Da explains in an e-mail interview.

"After a while, I felt compelled to do something else, something more fulfilling, dearer to my heart, which turned out to be writing."

Fulfilling writing

"I guess blood is truly thicker than we know. My great grandfather was a poet and my father was a playwright and composer in Putian (City). So it feels really right and fitting that I do this."

The memoirist, literary novelist and young adult author has brought his latest novel "My Last Empress" (2012) to the festival. Set in 19th century China, it follows Samuel Pickens who falls in love with an imperial concubine and when discovered, the two must flee.

The author recently moved to Hollywood writing screenplays and developing Chinese themed TV shows.

This year's festival also features a handful of Nordic writers in different genres, including Leena Lehtolainen whose crime series features detective Maria Kallio.

She created the female police inspector in early 1990s when there were no professional policewomen in Finnish crime fiction, at the time a very male-dominated genre.

"I wanted to create a character who is both an independent and tough woman, but also sensitive to the horrible things she meets in her profession," says Leena Lehtolainen the Finnish author.

When she published "My First Murder" in 1993, the genre itself was not popular. In the first book, the inspector is in her late 20s and in a low-ranking position. Over 11 books, she gradually climbs the ladder, marries, has children and still solves crimes.

"During these years, it has become more and more popular and nowadays there are about 80 Finnish crime novels every year. I can't say that the increase of the popularity is because of my books, but I think I have been one of the path openers to the other writers," she says.

On Monday she and Qiu Xiaolong, famous for his Inspector Chen novels set in Shanghai, will attend a literary lunch titled "Cities as Partners in Crime." The two will discuss the role of cities in crime fiction and how Helsinki and Shanghai are characters as well as settings.

Visit http://www.m-restaurantgroup.com/mbund/literary-festival.html for detailed schedule.

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