Southbank Centre's Book Podcast: American Dreams in the time of Trump

American Dreams in the time of Trump by Southbank Centre's Book Podcast

In a special edition of Southbank Centre’s Book Podcast, introduced by Head of Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson, we bring together the thoughts and insights of an array of acclaimed American authors, all of whom recently joined us for the 2018 London Literature Festival and a strand of events anticipating the United States’ midterm elections.

Over the course of this episode you’ll hear from leading novelists Marilynne Robinson and Salman Rushdie, author and professor, Sarah Churchwell, and poet Terrance Hayes on the construct and constraint of modern America under Donald Trump, and the historical currents that brought us here. You’ll even hear a few anecdotes about personal encounters with the 45th president of the United States. 


There’s anger everywhere we look. If anger is a form of heartbreak, it just makes the person a bit more human as opposed to something you can kill… we shouldn’t eliminate or destroy an enemy because that might not be the best way to fix it.
Terrance Hayes, poet, on humanising the political divide


Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK, and the venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.

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Subscribe to Southbank Centre's Book Podcast via your preferred podcast provider to enjoy more interviews and insights from well-known names, including Anna Burns, Khaled Hosseini and Matt Haig.

Six things... Emmy the Great learned from visiting China

You might know Emmy the Great as a singer-songwriter but for the China Changing Festival she is bringing us a show that is a bit different.

It’s about her first trip to China and how it led her to fall into the currents of fate, and is told through music and storytelling. She is joined on stage by Dfu who, as well as being Emmy’s friend, is a musician and DJ, and founder of the Thank You Bar, a centre of music in the south-east port city of Xiamen.

Ahead of her appearance on Saturday 6 October we asked Emmy to tell us six things she learned during her month in the People’s Republic of China and this is what she told us...

I don’t speak Mandarin

Embarking on my first trip to China last year, I was quite confident that I would communicate easily and fluently with everyone around me, because I studied Mandarin in primary school. It turns out that there is very little you can do in practical terms when all you know is a song called ‘Little Children Let’s Learn Mandarin’. I was also sure that the fact that I spoke Cantonese until I was eleven would be helpful, but it was a hindrance. Mandarin is dependent on four tones, and my ten-tone Cantonese accent mangled all my sentences until they were unrecognisable hybrids of the two dialects – just sounds, essentially.

Necessity is a powerful motivator, so there were a few essential phrases that I learned quickly. I’m embarrassed to tell you that these were, “I don’t drink milk, do you have soy?” and “Can you charge my phone? It’s Apple.”

The week that I returned home, my phone ran out of battery on my way to a meeting, and I had to duck into the nearest shop to ask them to charge it. As it happened, it was a Chinese herbal shop, and the boss lady spoke only Mandarin. She was impressed, both with my ability to ask her about my phone, and my lovely song about children.

There is such a thing as Destiny

There is a force in Chinese folk religion called yuanfen, and it’s a kind of karma-based synchronicity. It is responsible for bringing people together and for parting them.

After I found out about yuanfen, it followed me around Xiamen, where I was based in China. I became used to amazing coincidences and chance meetings, and began enjoying the flow of them as if I had surrendered myself to a current. It is this sense of magic and freedom that I think of most when I think of that time.

I was supposed to write an album in Xiamen, but after I discovered yuanfen, I gave up going to my studio and traipsed around the city all day, following my curiosity and searching for new people to bump into, in case they changed my life. This approach to work, which I previously would have called ‘skiving’, ended up being amazing for songwriting. My adventures around Xiamen were more valuable than time spent inside alone, and the songs wrote themselves around the experiences I had.

The marriage market is lucrative

My month in China was spent on Gulangyu Island, which is mysterious and architecturally unique. Every day, hundreds of engaged couples travel from all over China to take their pre-wedding photos, which they will display at their ceremonies. They disembark on Gulangyu every morning in their full wedding outfits, the brides in white chiffon and red Chinese silk, cradling their skirts like nets full of fish.

I would sit opposite the popular photo spots, and watch as the make-up artists sent them out to the photographers, mesmerised by the endless procession of couples. It got me thinking about relationships in China, and eventually this train of thought led me to a professional matchmaker. He told me that I could pay him to find a husband, and, if I paid more, this husband could come with property. Sadly, I declined this excellent opportunity, but not before my friend worked out that his company made 49 million yuan (around £5.5 million) a month.

My favourite song is cheesy

The Moon Represents My Heart - Teresa Teng

Having grown up in the West, I am used to being alone with my interests in Chinese popular culture. There’s a song by the Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng called The Moon Represents My Heart, and I have always listened to it in private, most often when I am feeling sad and want to luxuriate in that sadness. When I first arrived on Gulangyu Island, and was wandering around feeling alien and unfamiliar, I heard this song on a busker’s penny whistle, and was comforted, thinking that my song was watching over me.

I would hear that song every day, and everywhere, for the entire trip. It came from busker, hummed from the mouths of tourists, over the speakers in restaurants...At my final show, I asked Fei Fei, a Xiamen R&B singer, if she would sing it with me. She was horrified. “It’s really cheesy,” she said. It turned out that The Moon Represents My Heart is sort of like China’s Hallelujah  – overdone and out-of-bounds for any reputable musician.

I still really like the song.

China is a land of contrasts

My friend Rob, who I met on Chinese Bumble, wrote an article about how Chinese surrealist fiction doesn’t work anymore – it just doesn’t compare with the oddness of reality. So Chinese surrealist writers are resorting to hyper-factualism instead, writing faithful accounts of real events.

I did notice absurdities in China, but even more I noticed contrast. I’d walk past a luxury hotel, then on the next street a sewage worker would emerge from an open manhole with no protective gear on. I’d sit in one of Xiamen’s many branches of Starbucks, surrounded by urbanised, hyper-connected young people on their laptops, then leave through a park built for elderly people, where they played mahjong all day on bright plastic stools. The young people belonged to China’s millennials – a generation of only children who are growing up in a booming economy. The elderly people had lived through the Cultural Revolution.

All around us was dust from construction – Xiamen is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Yet the past was still alive, observing the changes as they went by. In Xiamen, I saw a culture that was old and new at the same time. I wondered how it felt to be on either side of that gap, and if there was any hope of the two perspectives meeting.

Life can change quickly

Before I went to China, a journalist asked me what I expected, and I glibly answered, 'It will change my life'.

I had assumed that I would click instantly in China, because I’m a half-Chinese woman who was born in Hong Kong.

In fact, China is such a vast, unknowable entity that I was initially overwhelmed and unable to connect. I realised that there were significant differences between the cultures in British Hong Kong in the 80s, and China today, and that I would not find a catch-all solution to my questions about heritage and identity.

But for all its unfamiliarity, there were still resonances. Eastern philosophy and spirituality felt natural to me, as did the emphasis on family. The discovery of yuanfen, and the adventures I had in chase of it, taught me that sometimes you don’t know where you’re heading – and that could reap rewards. A trip to a temple for the Goddess of Mercy also proved important. I learned to be open, and to enjoy the sense of being lost.

By the time I left, I had gotten used to the idea that there may never be an exact answer to the question of who I am. Sometimes, I realised, there are no exact answers. After the trip, however, I unexpectedly discovered that I was fluent in Cantonese again. The immersion in Chinese language had somehow triggered the part of my brain where I kept it locked up. A few months later, I found myself in Hong Kong, in search of language, and the lost rituals and behaviours of my childhood. So my life has changed, after all, through a series of events that began in China, or maybe before. My show is about that – the infinite chain of actions, people and random meetings that lead you where you need to go.


Emmy the Great with Dfu takes place on Saturday 6 October as part of the China Changing Festival. Tickets are on sale now.

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Kung-fu meets fantasy: Who is Chinese author Jin Yong?

Jin Yong is the most widely read Chinese author alive. In his novels he creates worlds of battle and war, of chivalry and love, of magic and conquests.

Born in 1924, he started his career as a journalist and in 1959 he founded the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao. Around the same time he was working on his first novel, The Book and the Sword. It would become a key work in the wuxia genre of Chinese fiction, which combines traditional martial arts with adventure.

The complexity of Jin Yong’s kung-fu fantasy world is perhaps why A Hero Reborn has only recently been translated into English, almost 60 years after it was first serialised in the Hong Kong Commercial Daily

A Hero Reborn: the Work of Jin Yong

A Hero Reborn is the first book in The Condor Trilogy. Jin Yong’s trilogy is amongst his most famous works and was turned into the wildly successful television show The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Here’s the theme tune for the much loved 1980s version starring Felix Wong and Barbara Yung.

射鵰英雄傳 – 重溫《鐵血丹心》片頭

And here is a trailer for the 2017 revival.

《射雕英雄传》片尾曲MV The Legend of the Condor Heroes - Ending Music

As part of our China Changing Festival Talks Pass, we were thrilled to host a panel discussion all about the works of Jin Yong.

Ahead of the event we invited our panellists to tell us a bit about their experiences with Jin Yong’s work and what it means to them.

Paul Engles

Paul is the editor of the English translation of A Hero Reborn. He has been an editor at MacLehose Press since 2011 and was involved in the acquisition of the series by the press in 2013. He is currently editing the translation of the second book in the series, A Bond Undone, by Gigi Chang.

“My favourite work by Jin Yong is definitely The Condor Trilogy – which is a good thing as I will be working on it for another few years yet! My favourite character is Huang Rong, because she has an answer for everything and anything and is not overawed by anyone. For me, Jin Yong is a master storyteller who makes this time and place in history come alive like no other writer. China in the 13th century sounds like an amazing place – I wish I could travel up The Grand Canal from that time.”

Dee Lo

Dee Lo is a British-born Chinese DJ who grew up watching TVB’s adaptations of Jin Yong’s books.

“Jin Yong is a very talented writer. His stories are extremely enthralling. He has written so many stories that have captured the hearts of the Chinese people. He has had a great influence on Chinese culture and many of the character names and martial art styles are still referenced today. My favourite character is from The Legend of the Condor Heroes series, Huang Rong. She is smart, quick-witted and very talented. She also has a playful side.”

Amy Ng

Amy Ng is a playwright who views the work of Jin Yong as one of her many influences and points of inspiration. He was her portal to martial arts, Chinese history, Taoism, Buddhism, popular spirituality, Chinese metaphysics, mathematics, chess, music and the I-Ching.

“I first read Jin Yong when I was nine. I was already a great reader of English books – a consequence of growing up in a British colony (Hong Kong). But my father was desperate to get me reading Chinese novels, and forced me to read a chapter of Jin Yong’s Condors every evening. I was furious. I knew I would hate it – I was determined to hate it. But from the very first pages, I was gripped. By the time we came to the part about the pyramids of skulls (end of the first volume), I gave in and read the rest of the Condor books in a weekend.

“Jin Yong taught me about complexity of character. Most of his characters (especially the later novels) are flawed, struggle with enormous temptations, and are neither wholly evil nor wholly good. Identities and allegiances are fluid. Appearances conflict with reality.”


The Festival Talks Pass, just £20, includes a whole day of talks on Sun 7 Oct. Explore and discover a broad range of topics, from Jin Yong to Chinese sci-fi and from feminism to climate change.

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China Changing Festival, which took place in October 2018, featured four days of dance, theatre, music, talks, free and family events exploring contemporary Chinese art, culture and identity.

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Eight great events to catch at October 2018’s China Changing Festival

Eight (八) is a most auspicious number in Chinese, so it seems appropriate for us to pull out eight must-see events as the final instalment of our China Changing Festival approaches.

The idea of the festival is to showcase some of the brilliantly innovative contemporary art and performance from China, as well as its creative connection with the UK. It features visual arts, music, dance and plenty of debate and conversation – including plenty of free events.

Emmy the Great with Dfu

Emmy The Great - Paper Forest (In The Afterglow of Rapture)

The acclaimed singer-songwriter presents a show combining performance and music, telling the story of her first visit to China. Although Emmy is half-Chinese, she was surprised every day by the country she discovered.

In this show she is joined by Dfu, a musician, sound artist and practising Buddhist from the city of Xiamen, where he runs Thank You Cafe. This event is a great chance to hear about contemporary China from a figure at the centre of music culture and someone trying to understand a culture she both is and is not a part of.

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Ken Cheng: Best Dad Ever

Ken Cheng at Chortle's Fast Fringe

Cheng puts his unusual childhood growing up in Britain with Chinese parents at the heart of Best Dad Ever, which was a sell-out at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. He was studying maths at Cambridge University when he decided to pack it in for a career playing online poker, so Cheng is not short of real life material.

I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change.
Ken’s award-winning Funniest Joke of the Edinburgh Fringe

In this very, very funny show, he explores his complicated relationship with his parents – and his obsession with toy lambs.

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Cloud Show

Cloud Show

The finale of China Changing Festival is a spectacular performance, curated by Academy Award-winning costume designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

Through costumes created by up-and-coming fashion designers, music, film and narration, we explore themes of identity, migration and environment, from the point of view of London’s young citizens. And it’s all free! Don’t miss our Cloud Video Installation as well as free fashion workshops curated by Mei-Hui Liu.

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The Injustice to Tou O

Injustice of Tou O

Discover the story of Tou O, an abandoned child, a widow and finally a wreaker of vengeance. In this famous play, dating back to the 13th century, corrupt officials wrongly convict Tou O of murder and as she faces execution she puts three curses on the town where she will die.

This influential work is brought to life with film, live music and a cast of 10 performers including award-winning Ding Yiteng, who also wrote and directs the show. Born in 1991, he has twice been nominated for the Most Promising Young Chinese Theatre Artist of the Year (2015 and 2016).

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'Ink' - Dance Short

Contemporary dance infused with hip-hop moves become an embodiment of Chinese calligraphy in this politically inspired piece. It is set in a place where writers can find themselves banned, their reputations hanging on the testimony of friends – or enemies. And yet the word retains its explosive power.

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Wen Hui’s RED


Red Detachment of Women, a ballet from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, is choreographer Wen Hui’s starting point as she builds up a critical panorama of the tumultuous period in this mixed-media performance. RED acts as a live documentary, with the physical bodies on stage telling the story through dance and movement, accompanying videos and archival footage. Featuring people who were directly involved or affected by the original piece, this autopsy of a 20th century ballet becomes a living and lived archive.

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Citizens of Nowhere?

Eavesdrop on a British-Chinese family as they talk to each other in this innovative theatre piece written by Ming Ho, where the audience enjoy refreshments at a pop-up cafe, sitting adjacent to the actors and listening in on the action through headphones.

At its heart is a mother Linda Lo, and her conversation with her son, Jun Chi, and her daughter, Jane. Through their words, we get an insight into generational differences and cultural identities, as the characters grapple with what it means to be British Chinese, and if they are citizens of the world – or citizens of nowhere.

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China Changing Festival Talks Day Pass

On Sunday 7 October join us for a day of interesting panel talks and discussions on a wide range of topics affecting contemporary China.

There’s discussion about feminism; insights into the writer Jin Yong – sometimes described as ‘the Chinese JRR Tolkien’; a look at China’s role in tackling global warming; and an examination of contemporary sci-fi novels. Access to all these events is only by buying a day pass, so don’t miss out!

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China Changing Festival takes place from Thursday 4 – Sunday 7 October. There are many other events in the programme, for full listings visit the webpage.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in conversation with Reni Eddo-Lodge at WOW 2018

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Reni Eddo-Lodge in Conversation by Southbank Centre: Think Aloud

Why have just one best-selling author on your stage when you can have two? As part of Women of the World 2018, the multi-award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie joined Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of the acclaimed Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, on our Royal Festival Hall stage.

In this fascinating recording of the event, the pair discuss some of today’s most pressing cultural issues, including blogging, social media and discussions on race.

There's a sense that, when being asked to talk about race, after you've written a book, you're supposed to have the answers, you're supposed to have the solution; and while you're having the solution, you're supposed to cater for the emotional needs of the people listening to you
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Enjoyed this? Listen to further podcasts and recordings from WOW - Women of the World 2018

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WOW returns to Southbank Centre on 8 – 9 March 2019, with talks, discussions, events and workshops for all ages.

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Be inspired with women of colour at WOW

Intersectional feminism has gone from being a concept proposed by academic Kimberlé  Crenshaw back in 1989 to a term that, thanks to social media, is now in common parlance. But in case you’re still not sure. . . it’s a way of looking at oppression as influenced not just by gender, but also by race, health, ability, class, age, religion and other factors.

As WOW – Women of the World has a mission to look at how to make the world a better place for all women and girls, it is imperative that our programme embraces intersectionality. At WOW 2018 we’re proud to present our most inclusive programme to date, and in this blog post we’re highlighting some of the talented women of colour who appear.

We’re honoured that Patrisse Khan-Cullors joins us for Friday night’s event No More. She helped start a worldwide movement back in 2013 when she coined the Black Lives Matter hashtag and has some great advice for activists.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at WOW 2017

WOW favourite Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (pictured above), author of Half of a Yellow Sun and We Should All Be Feminists, returns. She’s appearing in conversation with Reni Eddo-Lodge, who burst on to the scene last year with her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, in a conversation that covers race, gender, feminism and more. At the moment the event is returns only, but do keep an eye out in case more tickets go on sale.

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For those lucky enough to get weekend or day passes, the following events are included (if you missed out, please check our social media channels for coverage).

Melanie Eusebe

Friday has a focus on women at work and in businesses. You can hear Senegalese entrepreneur Mariéme Jamme, as part of Power, Purpose and Progress; and June Sarpong, Melanie Eusebe (pictured above), Deborah Williams and Shona Baijal, who appear together at a talk called Diversify. Also on Friday is our special event Code Switching, which looks whether Black women are forced to compromise to fit into the workplace and the impact this can have.

Reeta Mumbai

On Saturday, outspoken model Munroe Bergdorf, who hit headlines last year when L’Oreal dropped her for comments about white people’s racism, appears as part of Sweep Through the World. We’re asking the question ‘Desi Lesbians, Where are you?’ in an event chaired by Reeta Loi (pictured above), co-founder of Gaysians.

Also keep an eye out for Mother Tongues, a screening of Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s acclaimed film of poets working with their mothers to translate their work into their first language The screening is followed by a discussion with Victoria and poets from her film.

On Sunday you can see Laura Marks and Julie Siddiqi chairing We Stand Together, an event where Muslim and Jewish women speak out, or join the WOW Book Club for a discussion of Sister Outsider by Black lesbian poet and feminist writer Audre Lorde. There’s also the Power & Protest event looking at activism and disability, hosted by the Sisters of Frida collective, and LGBTQI+ Resilience with Black Pride UK, chaired by Black Pride UK co-founder Phyll Opoku-Gyimah.


There are plenty of free things to do if you missed out on a day pass. Search our website for details of events like the Women, Drumbeats and Self Care twerkshop; an interactive demonstration by Muslim Girls Fencing (pictured above); Scar, a film about violence against women in Rio de Janiero’s largest favela; a poetry reading with Momtaza Mehri; and Women for Refugee Women singing songs, to name just a few.


WOW – Women of the World 2018 takes place from Wednesday 7 – Sunday 11 March.

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WOW 2018 would not be possible without its generous sponsors and supporters: Bloomberg, UBS, American International Group Inc (AIG) and The Chartered Insurance Institute.

Inspired by WOW? You can support the future of the festival by donating today.

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Antonythasan Jesuthasan: the remarkable story, from migrant to moviestar

Antonythasan Jesuthasan is not like other leading actors. And those few words are very much an understatement. At 15 he was a child soldier in Tamil Eelam. At 25 he was living as a refugee in Thailand. At 35 he was leading a double life as a noted Tamil author and a Parisian bellboy. And at 45 Jesuthasan was the lead actor in a film that would go onto win the Palme d’Or.

Dheepan, directed by Jacques Audiard, tells the story of three Tamil refugees forced to pretend to be a family in order to flee civil war-ravaged Sri Lanka and escape to France, in the hope of reconstructing their lives. It’s a story the man in the title role knew all too well. Like Dheepan, Jesuthasan had also fled war-torn Sri Lanka as a Tamil refugee. He too had found a passage to France, and he too had to eek out a new life from the very foot of Paris’ social ladder.

DHEEPAN- Official UK trailer - Out now on DVD, Blu-ray & digital

Jesuthasan's story begins in Sri Lanka where, as a teenager, he witnessed first hand the severity and brutality of the 1983 Black July attacks on Tamil people by factions of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. 'Sinhalese members of the Sri Lankan Army came to our village and executed people on our front yard, our sisters were raped and sexually assaulted by them. The [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] were resisting against these atrocities, and so I joined them with a great confidence; it was a time when, all over the world, lots of resistances were taking place, for emancipation from all kind of oppressions. By reading in newspapers about events in Vietnam, Palestine, Nicaragua, and the Indian Naxalites resistance, we were moved to believe in the armed resistance.'

When Jesuthasan joined the LTTE as a child soldier, he was becoming part of a guerilla group which resonated closely with his own beliefs. 'Self-determination of socialist Tamil Eelam was my dream at that time. LTTE proclaimed that they were fighting for a socialist country and I took up that call, as I was dreaming of a socialist nation which would be free of cast, gender and religious differences.'

However, the LTTE grew quickly, and soon became the dominant opposition group in the Civil War that would engulf Sri Lanka for more than a quarter of a century. As the LTTE’s power base and influence grew, Jesuthasan sensed a shift in their focus. 'The socialist discourse which they had previously claimed, turned into rhetoric of ethnocentric Tamil nationalism. The leadership of LTTE dismantled and destroyed all other alternative political factions with its weapon. I left the movement then, so did many others. All our dreams had been burned inside three years, but history has subsequently proven that my decision to leave at that movement was the right one.'

Leaving a group like the LTTE is not something one does easily. Jesuthasan’s decision to walk away from the organisation ensured that from that moment on his very existence in Sri Lanka would be under threat. And so in 1988 he left the country for Hong Kong - the only place it was possible for him to travel without a visa - and from there he moved onto Thailand. Here, under the auspices of the UN Refugee Agency, he would live as a refugee in a Bangkok suburb for a number of years. In 1993 the chance to move on to France, travelling on a fake passport, fell his way and he took it. Jesuthasan has lived in Paris ever since. 'I love Paris a lot; this is the city that made me a famous writer and a world known actor, after I arrived here initially as a refugee'

I wasn't a born artist, I was a child of war. War and the injustice which were imposed on my people inspired me and pushed me forwards.

Does he still consider himself to be a refugee? 'Who wishes to be a refugee? Nobody wishes to inflict upon themselves the identity of a refugee, or an outsider. I consider Paris to be my home, but the French government keeps me as a refugee. Me considering Paris as my home bothers Madame Marine Le Pen; it is a big problem to her.'

Whilst Jesuthasan’s status as a resident remains locked in a status of flux; his life in France has seen him gradually gravitate back towards long-held passions, and the search for a means through which to tell important stories. He is something of a natural artist; whilst a member of the LTTE he wrote and acted in street dramas on the liberation of the Tamil people, which the organisation would deliver in local villages. But despite these early steps into the arts in his teens, to forge a career in literature or acting remained far from his thoughts.

'I wasn't a born artist, I was a child of war. War and the injustice which were imposed on my people inspired and pushed me forward in the first instance. I never considered Literature as a means to earn money. I studied until tenth grade, and the only language I can speak and write is Tamil. My knowledge of literature is also pretty small. But I always liked to resist, and I would always like to talk about the subjects others were reluctant to talk about. My stories are a medium by which to express my stance.'

With barely a handful of small film roles behind him, Jesuthasan initially auditioned for a minor part in Dheepan. But just weeks before the scheduled start of shooting Audiard learned of the actor’s backstory, and, after rushing him through classes took a chance on the inexperienced actor, casting him in the lead role. An incredibly bold move but, with the film going onto win the Miami Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize as well as the Palme d’Or, one that ultimately paid off.

Who wishes to be a refugee? Nobody wishes to inflict upon themselves the identity as a refugee, or an outsider.

So after the success of Dheepan, and with the film roles that have followed it, does Jesuthasan now consider himself to be an actor? 'Above everything I like to be identified as a left activist. To achieve, and to be identified as such I have needed to work hard, and to have lost a lot'.

And work hard he has. It was only in the late 1990s that Jesuthasan, encouraged by friends in the Revolutionary Communist Organization, first began to document his thoughts and experiences. Under the pseudonym Shobasakthi, he wrote short stories, essays and plays based on his experiences during the Sri Lankan Civil War, publishing his first novel Gorilla in 2001. But the transition from refugee to writer to actor was neither swift nor smooth. For more than two decades, right up to being cast in the role of Dheepan by Audiard, Jesuthasan trod a very ordinary life, earning a living as, amongst other things, a shelf-stacker, dishwasher and street-sweeper.

'It was hard, surviving with these lowly jobs. The time to stand up with my own theories and experiences didn’t arrive at my doorstep; I had to work hard to pull it towards me, so I could tell my stories'.

When I ask Jesuthasan whether the success of Dheepan has changed or altered his life, or expectations, it is the escape from the stress which these many jobs placed on his mind and body which he moves to acknowledge first. 'I have been emancipated; rescued from the torment of becoming disabled, mentally and physically, from being squeezed and sucked in the name of work at supermarkets and restaurant kitchens'.

But he is aware too, as any left activist would be, of the wider impact of the film’s success, and what it has meant not just for him, but for the people whose stories and voices he has long strived to represent. After the success of Dheepan prominent French directors have begun to give roles to Tamils in their movies; many other faces have now made their debut in French cinema'.

When I was working on Dheepan I fully submitted myself over to the great artist, director Jacques Audiard, and as a result I didn’t feel any tension or worry.

It is understandably difficult for anyone seeing Dheepan, and knowing Jesuthasan’s own history to avoid drawing parallels between the life of the actor and that of his character. But simply being able to resonate with a life, doesn’t mean portraying it comes easily. 'Yes, I was able to understand the screenplay clearly, since Dheepan and I had endured similar experiences. But Dheepan's mindset and mine are not the same at all; completely different from each other. Dheepan was a creation of the director, not me, and so I had to work hard to bring this created character through on screen. I had to keep my own emotions in control; losing that control would’ve been dangerous for the art’.

Though Jesuthasan had acted before Dheepan, this was by far his biggest role to date, his first title role, so how does it feel to make that step up, and to do so with a director as accomplished and revered as Audiard? 

‘It felt really normal. If I had worked with a debut director then I think I would have felt greater pressure - after Dheepan, when I played two further lead roles, I had that sort of a pressure. But when I was working on Dheepan I fully submitted myself over to the great artist, director Jacques Audiard, and as a result I didn’t feel any tension or worry. I was happy, but worked very hard.’

Hard work, and a willingness to work hard to earn the right to tell his stories are evidently significant cogs in the machinery of Jesuthasan’s character. He is a man who is under no illusions of the struggles and fights an increasingly global community must face in order to make themselves heard. He is a leading man unlike any other, so what does being a man mean to him?

‘We are in the era of globalisation and the time of refugees, it’s a context which pushes me, and many of us, to the very edge of slavery. The establishment, laws, and the justice system have invented means to keep us as slaves forever. It is by standing up to this we find some sort of meaning for our very existence’.


Migrant to Moviestar: Dheepan’s Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a special screening of excerpts from the film Dheepan with contextual discussion from Jesuthasan took place in Royal Festival Hall as part of 2017's Being A Man festival. This annual festival explores what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

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interview by Glen Wilson

Practise the Swedish art of moderation

With preparations for The Great Nordic Feast in full swing, it might seem an odd time to look at the topic of balance and moderation – unless you consider the Swedish expression ‘lagom is best’. This means practising moderation, for the mind and the body, in order to achieve balance.

Which is why our feast is about more than joyous eating and drinking (although it’s definitely about that!). It is also a celebration of Nordic lifestyles and an exploration of how we can embed Nordic values like equality, sustainability and openness into our own lives.

Before the feast starts, Visit Sweden shared a few tips from Bertil Marklund MD, PhD, a medical doctor, researcher, author and professor of general medicine, and a specialist in public health. He believes that balance is of utmost importance and wrote The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer to help people work towards lagom. Here are three of the strategies he advocates:

Measure your stomach height

  • Monitoring abdominal fat will tell you how much fatty acid is being released into the abdomen by fat cells when you are stressed, which ultimately damages the heart, arteries, liver and pancreas. A healthy figure for men is less than 22cm; for women less than 20cm.

Drink 3 to 4 cups of coffee daily

  • Researchers at Lund University in Sweden found that a few cups of coffee a day may help to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer, while scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that the equivalent of two large cups a day could offer up to a 30 per cent reduced risk of multiple sclerosis.

Sleep for 6 to 7 hours

  • A Swedish study of 70,000 women showed that short and long sleepers ran a greater risk of premature death – although negative effects of too much sleep are offset by physical activity. The optimal period of sleep for most  20- to 40-year-olds is seven hours, reducing to about six hours by the age of 60.


If you’re feeling inspired by the Nordic way of living come and get a taste of a simple, balanced lifestyle at The Great Nordic Feast, which takes place from Friday 20 to Sunday 22 October.

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Change and continuity under China’s two-child policy

Ahead of the latest instalment of our China Changing Festival, co-founder and editor of WAGIC (Women and Gender in China) Séagh Kehoe offers their interpretation of the impact, considerations, complexities and ambiguities around China’s introduction of the two-child policy.


On 29 October 2015, China's state news agency Xinhua reported a significant change to one of the most widely recognised and controversial symbols of the Communist Party’s rule - the one-child policy. From 1 January 2016, the two-child policy took its place, allowing all married couples in China to have two children.

Introduced in 1979, the one-child policy was originally intended as a temporary measure to curb China's rapidly growing population and stimulate economic growth. It ultimately remained in place for more than 35 years.

Strictly  enforced, the human toll of the one-child policy could often be enormous. Couples who failed to comply with the policy could face loss of employment, forced abortions and sterilisations, and vast ‘fines’ for ‘illegal births’.

This policy, and its impact on the lives of millions of people in China, have been the subject of various pieces of dystopian fiction, most notably across the chilling pages of Ma Jian’s The Dark Road and more recently, Maggie Shen King’s The Excess Male.

To what extent the policy was responsible for the great fall in China’s birth rates is still a point of discussion. Many argue birth rates were already in decline before the policy was introduced and would have continued to fall as a result of urbanization, rising incomes, and, as Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen contends, ‘the empowerment of Chinese women through rapid expansion of schooling and job opportunities’.

While a number of exceptions to the policy were gradually implemented over the years, the policy generated a number of major demographic issues for the country. With couples allowed to have only one child, a strong traditional preference for sons led to sex-selective abortions and resulted in a dramatic gender imbalance with roughly 116 boys born for every 100 girls. As a result, notes Xinhua, China now has 34 million more men than women, many of whom will be unable to ever find wives.

The government introduced the two-child policy in the hope that it would alleviate the mounting pressures of this extreme gender imbalance, and also arrest other big issues such as a rapidly aging population and a shrinking work force. However, many wonder to what extent this new policy encouraging married couples to have two children will really put a dent in a demographic trend that has been established for decades.

China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) reported that the number of new-borns in the year following the policy’s introduction increased by 1.31 million against 2015, while the birth-rate of second children rose to 45%. These numbers however still fell short of government estimates.

Yet in urban areas, high living costs, long work hours, insufficient provision of social welfare, maternity and parental leave, along with ever-rising child-care expenses often means many couples are reluctant to have a second child, or even a first one.

For women the policy also presents additional concerns about how it might impact their careers, promotions, and earnings. Many fear that it could feed into what is already an overt and widespread culture of gender discrimination in the workplace. Discussions about the new policy on Chinese social media regularly point to anxieties about discriminatory employment practices and how employers will react to the prospect of having to now potentially pay maternity benefits twice.

For all its controversy the one-child policy is often credited with improving women’s status in urban spaces, particularly in terms of girls’ education. With families only permitted to have one child, girls often became the focus of their family’s aspirations and financial resources. What the new policy will mean for these advancements in gender equality made during the old-child policy era remains to be seen.

The baby deficit is a serious challenge for the government, and could curtail China’s future economic growth and ability to provide for its aging population. The government will now need to consider options such as more affordable housing, healthcare and education, better regulations to protect women from gender discrimination in the workplace, and perhaps tax breaks to encourage couples to have more children.

Another option would be to make it less difficult for single women to have a child. Without a ‘reproduction permit’ from the government to have children outside of marriage (notoriously difficult to obtain), unmarried single women and other pregnant people may face ‘fines’ and their children may be denied birth certificates. The government also continues to prevent single women from accessing assisted reproductive technologies, such as egg freezing.

Despite the new challenges and changes the shift to the two-child policy has brought, one thing remains constant – a strict state policy of birth control. The new policy will not end forced sterilizations, abortions,or ‘fines’ for ‘illegal births’, nor will it make it easier for single, unmarried women and other pregnant people to have children. As long as the State continues to intervene in and override people’s personal decisions about having children, questions of bodily autonomy and reproductive rights will remain prominent.


Séagh Kehoe’s take on this, is just one of the many perceptions to be discussed at Women, China and the Two-Child Policy, one of a number of talks taking place at Southbank Centre on 7 October as part of our China Changing Festival.

listen to the talk

Séagh Kehoe is a PhD researcher as the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. They are co-founder and editor of WAGIC (Women and Gender in China), an online project dedicated to discussing gender, sexuality, and feminism(s) in China past and present. They can be found on twitter via @seaghkehoe, and @halfthesky49

How can I listen to poetry in a language I don't speak?

At Southbank Centre, home of the National Poetry Library, we’re proud to host an inspiring programme of live poetry readings all year round. And we’re similarly delighted to be the venue of the biennial festival Poetry International, which has taken place here ever since it was founded by Ted Hughes in 1967.

Not only do we present poetry in English, but we also offer you the chance to hear work by poets who write in other languages. But what if you don’t speak that language? Is it merely a waste of your time to listen to the work of poets delivered in a foreign tongue?

We certainly don’t think so. Hearing poetry in any language is a meaningful, often moving, experience, and there is still much to gain from listening to verse, even when you don’t grasp the meaning of every word.

Poetry is a universal language of understanding in which we can all hope to meet
Ted Hughes, founder of Poetry International

But how can you listen to poetry in language you don’t speak? Here are a few pointers.

  • Focus on hearing the sound of the poem, rather than what individual words mean

  • Listen out for the music of the poem

  • Think of a poem as a ‘language game’, rather than operating in the world of information

  • Try exploring the idea that poetry exists as an ‘air language’, as poet and Southbank Centre Translator in Residence Stephen Watts puts it

  • Sometimes it’s OK to just trust that an artist (in any medium) has a clear intent, even if you don’t know exactly what it is

Want to put this advice to the test? Watch this short video of the famous Armenian poet Razmik Davoyan, recorded at the National Poetry Library’s Poetry Parnassus festival in 2012. Or, if you speak Armenian, try Ethiopian poet Bewetu Seyoum below, and if you’re fluent in both Armenian and Amharic, then please accept our apologies.

Razmik Davoyan - Armenia

Bewketu Seyoum - Ethiopia

Sound poetry

There is a great tradition of poets focusing on the sound of language rather than words. A good example of which is the Austrian writer Ernst Jandl, who translated Wordsworth’s ‘My heart leaps up’ using German words that sounded like the original English, changing the meaning entirely.

My heart leaps up when I behold           mai hart lieb zapfen eibe hold
A rainbow in the sky                                    er renn bohr in sees kai

More recently, the English poet Hannah Silva has combined sound and sign language in her work, to very powerful effect.

Schlock! by Hannah Silva trailer

If embracing poetry in another language still seems a little daunting you may be relieved to know that many of our events featuring works in languages other than English also have translations.

help save an endangered language

Do you know a poem in an endangered language? If so then you can help the National Poetry Library project to help save languages that are under threat and preserve them for future generations.