The summer may be over, the children back at school, but we’ve no time for lamenting the passing season at Southbank Centre. Instead we look forwards, to the third and final part of China Changing - our festival showcasing contemporary China - in October, followed, later that month, by the London Literature Festival. Authors set to appear at each of these festivals feature in this latest selection of our literature programming team’s recommended reads, drawn from what they’ve been reading this past month.
I’ve been delving into Chinese science-fiction this month in the run up to China Changing. In 2016, Invisible Planets: 13 Visions of the Future from China (Head of Zeus), was published, a collection of Chinese sci-fi short stories, translated by Ken Liu into English.
Ken says that the genre doesn’t fit into a neat box but takes on many forms: ‘China is also going through a massive social, cultural, and technological transformation involving more than a billion people of different ethnicities, cultures, classes, and ideological sympathies, and it is impossible for anyone… to claim to know the entire picture. China is dreaming, and its dreams contain multitudes’.
The anthology contains stories by the legendary Liu Cixin who is best known for his Three-Body Problem trilogy, winner of multiple global sci-fi awards. Also featured is the intriguing Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, which involves a mechanical, futuristic city, that shifts and rearranges itself three times across a 48 hour period, separating the city’s residents into three groups or social classes.
I was especially excited to read the stories of Wang Yao (aka Xia Jia) and Chen Qiufan (aka Stanley Chan) who will be coming to China Changing. Xia Jia’s A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight has an incredible, ethereal quality to it, with a narrative that moves through various solar terms, where spirits and ghost-like characters exist.
Stanley Chan’s The Year of the Rat follows a platoon of unemployed young men, who have been charged by the government with the mission of ridding the land of human-sized rats. The story explores pressures on young people and ideas of masculinity, as well as interrogating the notion of ‘the other’, a topic that is not applicable solely to China but indeed challenges current global conversations.
Wang Yao (aka Xia Jia) and Chen Qiufan (aka Stanley Chan) join us for a talk on Chinese Sci-Fi at China Changing festival on 7 October.
China Changing takes place at Southbank Centre 4 - 7 October, showcasing contemporary China, and its creative connection with the UK, through cutting-edge art and culture.
This month two books in particular have stood out for me, both of which will be published later in the autumn. The first is by André Aciman, author of Call Me By Your Name, whose latest novel, Enigma Variations, returns to familiar territory of romantic relationships, but delves deeper still, capturing five defining encounters across a single lifetime.
From the formative experience of first love, to incendiary passions that range across geographies and genders, Aciman is a magus of the human heart, who in disarmingly beautiful sentences, lays bare the joys and despairs of his central character Paul, and reveals how each experience shatters and shapes his fragmentary self.
Certain relationships or potent memories become a refrain that repeat throughout Paul’s life, like a mysterious melody that returns in different iterations, underscoring the entirety of his existence. The next book is no less musical, but belongs to a more sinister key. It is the newly translated novel from Polish author Olga Tokarczuk who won the Man Booker International Prize for Flights earlier in the year. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead plunges us into the wilds of the Polish woodlands, and tells the story of a disturbing cluster of murders, as perceived by a woman living in an unforgiving world.
Janina is a former bridge engineer with a passion for woodland animals, astrology and the poetry of William Blake, who happens upon a series of dead bodies in the snow. Her explanations for the deaths - that they may have been perpetrated by the animals - are greeted by the authorities with derision and silence, but such is the power of Tokarczuk’s prose, that we begin to see things from Janina’s perspective. It is a visionary thriller that combines existential reflections on cruelty with garrulous wit and compulsive plot twists.
Following our Man Booker 50 festival, I have set myself the goal of filling some of the gaps in my Man Booker reading, particularly shortlisted works. That said, this month I read The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín.
The novel beautifully imagines Mary of Nazareth in her later years, when all she has are her memories and her grief. Tóibín’s prose feels almost like a lyric poem as it weaves this deeply personal portrait of Mary’s story, and gives us the inclination to pause and consider the experience of the all too ignored women, forgotten in the wake of extraordinary men and the patriarchy that holds them up.
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah was another book I read that also demands we pause and truly consider the experiences of those often ignored. From its opening story, that contemplates the twisted ramifications of a society that continuously requires african-americans to constantly modulate their blackness in order to survive let alone thrive, to the titular story that reimagines the rampant consumerism of Black Friday as a dower and depressing zombie thriller, this debut collection of short stories speaks to the world we live in now and is at once strange, dark, furious, and funny.
Another book that struck me this month was, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy. Similarly to Friday Black, Satin Island speaks to a world as it is now, however their similarity ends there. We follow the life of U. a corporate anthropologist tasked, by his company and their clients, with decoding the world around them, giving them insight on how to manipulate it. An interesting thing about this novel is that while pointing at the likely futility of searching for, or expecting to find, some sort of underlying universal code or reasoning to our disjointed world, I - despite myself - hoped and began to believe U. would succeed in doing so, revealing more about me than possibly the world we live in.
This month I’ve been reading two books that are both first works in popular (but very different) trilogies. The first is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I devoured. The second is Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, which I am only half way through, but am enjoying so I’ve decided to include it. After hearing Hilary Mantel at Man Booker 50 last month, I left determined to finally start Wolf Hall.
It was so interesting to hear Mantel speak about how, by looking between the lines of what hasn’t been recorded in the history books, an author can bring life to the past in a way that historians can’t. I’m always a fan of books that weave together a huge cast of characters without sacrificing the plot, and Mantel has done this so well that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s fictional. Thomas Cromwell, our wiley protagonist, is so easy to root for, and as my history is sufficiently rusty I have very little idea of what happened to him so cannot wait to see where it all ends.
The Name of the Wind is the first book in Rothfuss’ fantasy trilogy The King Killer Chronicle. The story follows Kvothe as he grows from a gifted child to a legendary magician and assassin. So far the book has a Harry Potter style vibe going on - young boy is orphaned by evil and admitted to a school to develop his powers - which I am really enjoying, plus the world building is incredible. However, I have not been as encouraged by the portrayal of most of the women (with a couple of outrageously sexist moments that might have been meant as jokes), but for now I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt and settling in to enjoy Kvothe’s many Mary Sue-style adventures.