Close to 50 live audience members and 170 participants on Zoom joined us for our “Memoirs from Xinjiang” event with author Li Juan at Beijing’s Aotu Space on Thursday, conversing about nature, hometowns, and writing, to the rhythmic cracking of a themed snack—sunflower seeds.
At 7 p.m., we kicked off with a 45-minute book discussion, where long-time Spittoon book club members, TWOC readers, and Li Juan fans discussed the author’s latest translated works, Distant Sunflower Fields and Winter Pasture. This portion of the event also gave the attendees a chance to write their questions for the author on index cards and submit them for prize-drawing in our raffle.
Speaking of prizes, we raffled off five copies of the new issue of The World of Chinese magazine, “Dawn of the Debt”; two copies of the latest issue of Spittoon literary magazine; a Spittoon T-shirt featuring original artwork by a member of the collective; and a copy of new English edition of Li Juan’s Distant Sunflower Fields, translated by Christopher Payne and published by Sinoist Books. Congratulations to all the prize winners!
In the meantime, our friends online were getting ready to join us from Hainan, London, and all over the world. At 8 p.m., we unmuted our cameras here in Beijing, and the long-anticipated meeting with the author began!
Li Juan and Deva Eveland, coordinator of the Spittoon Book Club, read two excerpts from Distant Sunflower Fields in Chinese and English, before turning the floor over to Li for the author Q&A.
In her well-known wry and self-deprecating style, Li took us through the beginnings of her career, her reputation for being a recluse, and misconceptions readers have about her (“or maybe, they don’t have misconceptions about me, but I have misconceptions about myself,” she mused).
Describing her ideal living environment, she said, “Somewhere quiet, where there is nobody I know, and where I can order takeout”—adding that the village in Hainan where she lives now fulfills all of these conditions, “except I can’t order takeout.”
Li was candid about her difficulties with writing, saying, “I lack self-discipline…I just have to force myself to do it, and it gets easier as I write.” She admitted to not having written in two to three years, instead spending this time “gathering [her] thoughts.”
On comparisons between her and Taiwanese writer Sanmao, Li said, “It’s a natural comparison to make, as we both write about marginal people and ethnic minorities,” adding that “for those of us growing up in small towns, Sanmao’s romantic prose and exotic settings were things that we yearned for, and I loved and was inspired by her. But as I got older I began to have my own thoughts, so while it’s true that I like her, it’s also true that I don’t like her.”
Regarding the publication of her books in English and her status as an “international writer,” Li said, “I don’t see myself as an international writer. I write in Chinese, and my work only exists in Chinese. The translation is the translator’s work…I’m very happy to see my books translated, but I feel they have little to do with me.”
Questions from audiences in Beijing and online ranged from which writers Li Juan admired or were friends with (“I don’t have any writer friends…or maybe I want to be their friend but they don’t want to be mine,” she replied) to whether she has taken up drawing as a hobby, as hinted on her Weibo (“yes…but I am not good at it”). Daniel Li and Ying Mathieson of Sinoist Books, who hosted the Zoom event, also answered questions on the translation.
One of the audience questions that drew the lengthiest response was on Li’s view of nature and the role it plays in her writing. “Nature is important to humanity, but humanity is not important to nature. I am very worried about our present situation,” she said. “No matter how much a person loves nature, they need to draw clear boundaries with it. Those who say they like a pastoral life simply want to change nature, so it’s better if they stay in the city.”
The Beijing event was moderated by Tina Xu of TWOC and Deva Eveland of Spittoon; the online event was moderated by Daniel Li of Sinoist Books. TWOC managing editors Hatty Liu and Liu Jue provided simultaneous translation during the Q&A portion. Event photography was provided by Tan Yunfei and Dragos Cacio. Thanks to our host Aotu Space, and all our participants!