As I enter the International Anthony Burgess Foundation I realise I’m early for Wang Anyi’s talk on the subject of her novel, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. The room is empty but Anyi soon enters and begins talking with the organisers from Manchester Literature Festival as well as members of Confucius Institute, an organisation that aims to promote understanding of contemporary Chinese Literature and culture in the UK.
Although diminutive in stature Anyi has an air of scholarly gravitas that means I instantly recognise her from the rest of her party. She has her hair pulled back into a slick bun with an unassuming brown dress, a hint at her creative genius is displayed in the form of a beautiful floral scarf draped over her shoulders. As the room begins to fill with a diverse selection of ethnicities and ages she gazes around the room with a look of indifference. The hum in the room is electric as many of the audience instantly take photos of her sitting on the stage before retreating to their seats. There is a sense that for many of the audience members this is an opportunity for them to hear from their idol. She is joined on the stage by Anita Sethi who will be interviewing her over the next hour and Yu Jing who will translate the event. The event begins with Sethi listing Anyi’s impressive body of works and many accolades, before the talk begins with fervour. Anyi reads an extract from The Song of Everlasting Sorrow from the chapter Gossip. She reads in Mandarin and I follow with a print out of the extract. The sound of the unfamiliar language lends itself to my interpretation of the extract and gives a subtle back drop to the topics we will be discussing later in the talk. As she reads her face relaxes and she starts to smile. After she has read the extract Anyi’s deportment changes and she seems more comfortable and accessible to the audience.
Sethi starts her questioning with a logical opening line of thought, inquiring as to the link between the Chinese epic poem by Bai Juyi which shares the same name as Anyi’s novel. Anyi admits and advocates the comparison, sharing insight into the way in which ‘gossip’ or messages are both integral themes in the texts although points out that that is where the comparison ends as the content of the texts are very separate.
The part of the talk I enjoy the most is Anyi’s discussion of the job of a novelist. Her opinion on the cultural significance of authors is insightful and humble. She refutes that the job of a novelist is to record historical events and instead insists that the role of a novelist is to document the micro detail of individual’s lives. She uses her own experience of being part of the Cultural Revolution at only fifteen to explain that change is gradual and that in her novel she uses fashion to represent gradual cultural and political change. Anyi divulges that British publishing houses wanted her to change her first chapter and showing us a glimpse of the stern idealist that has made her Chairwoman of the Shanghai Writer’s Association, she admits that because she would not cut the chapter that she felt was so integral in the understanding of Shanghai, the book was published by a University publishing house as opposed to a commercial one.
The talk has a relaxed atmosphere, although the topics are thoroughly explored and the questions intelligent and insightful the language barrier is evident. The Chinese speakers in the audience have more extreme reactions to Anyi than the English speakers had to Yu Jing. Certainly the humour and the famous fiery wit of Anyi is lost through translation. Despite this I leave the event feeling as if I have more insight into the world of Chinese literature. To the western reader, Chinese culture and literature can sometimes feel alien and inpenetrable. The talk was well organised, friendly and accessible to a relative novice of the work of Wang Anyi, and Anyi herself was a charming symbol of Shanghai.