My Experience at the Festival and a Chance Encounter

Me and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

‘s fair enough to argue the point that China, and Beijing in particular, is a land of contradictions. We hear about the country’s politics, it’s focus on a political system that is not quite true to its Maoist origins, we hear and read about the pollution that can often result in illness and a general feeling of malaise, but what we don’t hear about is the cultural richness and diversity of this city, and other urban areas within China. Of course China itself has a rich artistic history, as we all know, but what I found, as a foreigner working and living in this odften chaotic metropolis, is that there is a world beyond one’s preconceptions, and eventsa that cater for both the local and expat communities flourish on s regular basis. It was a friend of mine and co-worker, Ruth, who mentioned that she volunteered last year at a literary festival, and I was introduced to a place called The Bookworm, part lending library, part book shop, part restaurant. Bookshop you may ask? With actual books and paper and such? Yes we are in a digital revolution, the age of the Kindle and electronic tablet, so how refreshing to see a business that caters for the reader

A Festival Volunteer

 

. No kindles here my friends, no indeed, books, thousand of them from Chinese authors to across the world, classics, contemporary, fiction and non-fiction, a literary conglomeration of all that is becoming lost in this digital age. There are three branches of The Bookworm, one in Shanghai and two in Beijing, the most popular in the Western area of Sanlitun where I frequently go for brunch and DVD shopping.

This old, green building is unassuming but up the stairs and through its glass doors the place is a throng of eager readers, Chinese and foreigners alike, coffees in hand, laptops at the ready and eager to share some literary escapade. Several years ago, the Bookworm launched its annual Literary Festival, which has grown as one of the most significant literary events in the world. Authors from China and abroad, as well as select film makers, congregate for a two-week period in March for a series of panel discussions, film screenings, and workshops, and with the help of an army of volunteers such as Ruth and myself, the Literary Festival is a hive of activity, from films to a celebration of world literasture, this is a festival that crosses cultural boundaries.

My major highlight was the event for which I volunteered called ‘Across Borders’, in which a small group of authors were interviewed on stage about their process. One of those authors was a Beijing-based Australian author, Jessica Rudd. Now for those in the audience (or for that matter those reading this blog} who wewre unaware of who Jessica is, her presence may not be a huge deal except that she was just another interesting author

Some of the books on display

 

. Which of course she is. She is the daughter of former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, whose tenure as PM was somewhat controversial and involved all manner of political shenanigans.  He was elected in 2007 and won a landslide victory against conservative PM John Howard, before being ousted mid-term by Julia Gillard, who then in turn ousted her from office, before being defeated by the current conservative government last August. It’s all very Shakespearean, minus the physical blood. Daughter Jessica, once a prominent lawyer, who also worked in public relations, spent some time with her father throughout his 2007 election campaign, before settling in Beijing with her Hong Kong-born husband. It was here, feeling homesick and lonely, that she started to pen her first novel, “Campaign Ruby” a semi-autobiographical novel about life on the campaign trail. The novel’s success led to a recently published sequel, Ruby Blues。 I managed to chat with her briefly, toddler in hand, as she discussed her reasons for writing. Towards the end ofd the panel discussion, a man with Snow White hair snuck in and sat at the back. It couldn’t be, I asked myself, and it was. He came up to me, smilingly, and said ‘G’day I’m Kevin’. I never thought being in Beijing that I would get to meet the Australian Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister. Love him or hate him, agree or disagree with his politics or policies, he is still a major figure in the annals of Australian political history, and meeting him was certainly a highlight of my 18-month stay in Beijing.
From politics to a literary festival, Beijing offers the uninitiated a glimpse of a Beijing one rarely sees, and this literary festival opened my eyes into a very different side to this eclectic city.

Paul Fischer