If I could make one claim about the success of the Shanghai Lit Fest, it would be this: we flock to it because the writers speak to our culturally schizophrenic hearts. Over the last three weeks, we’ve heard from Junot Díaz about ‘the eternal quest for home’; Emily Perkins on exile, identity, and the invention of self; Tess Johnston on her 45 years working abroad for the Foreign Service; Alice Pung on migrants who remain voiceless in their new lands; and Fred Wah on bi-racialism and hybrid identities. Being caught between worlds and navigating multiple identities are issues many foreign residents in Shanghai can certainly relate to.
Which is why I’m in Crystal Room for Saturday’s session with Mo Zhi Hong, a global nomad born in Singapore and raised in Taiwan, Canada, China, the United States, and New Zealand. He worked as a software developer for five years in New York City before heading to Dalian to teach English, and recently returned to Auckland. I wonder how long it will be before he itches to move somewhere new.
For today, at least, he is in Shanghai, appearing on stage with moderator Stephen McCarty to discuss his debut novel, The Year of the Shanghai Shark, which won the regional 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. The novel is written from the perspective of a young boy in Dalian, and charts his experiences and encounters throughout 2003. With Yao Ming, the SARS epidemic, and the Iraq war in the background, the book encompasses themes of Americanization, globalization and the shifting cultural influences absorbed by the new generation of young Chinese.
Many people in the audience are curious about why Mo would choose to write about China in light of his many global experiences. For him the answer is simple. “Because… I’m Chinese,” he says. This ethnic identity is his personal reason for wanting to expose modern China to a Western audience. “China is an interesting topic now, there are a lot of pieces to the country. It’s interesting in a way the other places I lived in weren’t.”
There is certainly a lot to write about when it comes to the country’s fast-paced metamorphosis. Mo talks about how the China he is currently experiencing as an adult reminds him very little of the China he knew 20 years ago as a kid. These changes are not just physical, but social – while teaching English in Dalian, he constantly interacted with young people and saw how Western influences impacted their lives. His novel stems from the desire to explore and examine how far these cultural influences can go, and whether they become detrimental if left unchecked, turning into a sort of modern day cultural imperialism.
Despite his familiarity with Dalian, Mo remains an outsider and whether he can authentically represent a Chinese voice becomes a concern. While this issue bothered him at certain points in his writing, he says that he dealt with it by running over details with Chinese friends, and making no pretense that the point of view in the novel only reaches as far as his own experiences. His status as an outsider also helps the book “have an element of observance that a local writer born and brought up in China might not have,” he argues.
Mo Zhi Hong at the Shanghai Lit Fest, March 20.
Local author Lynn Pan asks Mo about the authenticity of his dialogue – she references Hong Kong writer Timothy Mo, who took out all the articles in his characters’ speech to make them sound Cantonese. Mo says he considered directly translating dialogue from Chinese to English, but realized such speech might confuse a Western audience and render the book inaccessible.
With all the time and effort that goes into creating a novel, I’m surprised to learn that being a writer is not his main occupation. “No, I am still working full-time in the IT industry,” he admits. “You need to pay the mortgage. Writing for me is still a hobby.” If only all our part-time scribbles could turn into prize-winning novels!
Afterward, I approach Mo on the pretense of thanking him for the talk. Truthfully, I just want to reach out to another third culture kid – I tell him about my own experiences amongst worlds, and ask him whether he ever feels culturally schizophrenic. “Of course I did growing up, but as I got older I just learned to deal with it,” he says. “However, it still crops up from time to time, even when I think I’ve gotten over it.” Oh, how we know that feeling.
The Lit Fest is officially over, but you still have a chance to catch an author session. James Palmer’s talk on “The Bloody White Baron” has been rescheduled to Saturday, March 27, 4 p.m. at Glamour Bar. See here for details.