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Irish Writers Celebrated at Hong Kong Lit Fest
Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney among those at Hong Kong's 6th annual literary fest
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2006-03-17 12:10 (KST)   
When it comes to things artistic, Hong Kong rarely has much to boast about. Earlier this week, renowned street performer Matt Pearce was sentenced to 21 days in jail for impersonating Spiderman. He also happened to be protesting the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre atop a giant TV screen in the middle of one of the city's busiest intersections at the same time. The fact that he was more of a draw than the current ballet version of "The World of Suzie Wong" says much about the city's dire art scene.

Then there's the cold-shouldering the celebrated Paris-based writer Gao Xingjian received at the hands of government officials after he won the 2000 Nobel Prize for literature. And who can forget the unforgivable fact that only last year did hometown hero Bruce Lee finally receive a statue ... 32 years after his death and without any support from city officials.

But in spite of all these slights, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival (March 6-15), now in its 6th year, is trying to add a bit more culture into a city more known for its cash.

Seamus Heaney
Appropriate for an event falling on the cusp of St. Patrick's Day festivities, this year saw a particular focus on the Emerald Isle with Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney attending, along with fellow Irishman and 2005 Man Booker Prize Winner John Banville.

Speaking at an intimate gathering called "From Youth to Experience" at Hong Kong Olympic House, Heaney explained how Mossbawn, the farm he grew up in Northern Ireland, remains "the first place" in his poetic imagination.

From his first book Death of A Naturalist published in 1966 to District and Circle published later this year, Heaney is renowned for voicing the "the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat" that surrounded his boyhood home. He eventually abandoned the spade of his father for an entirely different tool:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
For roughly an hour, Heaney charmed and chuckled about everything from Irish Whiskey to the disappearance of an "alienated foreign policy" once vigorously expressed by such American poets as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell, both of whom opposed the Vietnam war of their day, albeit in quite different ways.

He also answered questions from Canadian writer Charles Foran and the audience, as well as reading two poems from his 2001 collection Electric Light -- At Toomebridge and Electric Light, about his grandmother:
The dirt-tracked flint and fissure of
her nail,
So plectrum-hard, glit-glittery, it
must still keep
Among beads and vertebrae in the
Derry ground
He went on to vividly recall the day his destiny diverged from that of his family when as a boy of 12 he rode away from the farm, not in a horse-drawn wagon, but in an automobile. He had received a scholarship to study in the city of Derry -- over 60 kilometers away. From that moment he knew his path would lead him far from the green fields of his youth.

Beginning the evening were two young writers in their mid-20s based in the U.S. --
Nell Freudenberger, author of Lucky Girls and Rattawut Lapcharoensap, author of Sightseeing.

Both spoke candidly of the challenges involved in rendering their stories. Freudenberger, who taught English in New Delhi and Bangkok, admitted that "being American is about what we don't know about the rest of the world," while Lapcharoensap, born in Chicago but raised in Bangkok, confessed laughingly that it's "quite familiar to seem quite strange."

The festival also included Chinese writers Mian Mian and Ma Jian, as well as award winning travel writer Pico Iyer and Canadian poet Karen Connelly.

In his closing words, Heaney noted that "the 21st century darkened all of the sudden" and added that we were living in an "age of anxiety." When Connelly asked if he was refraining from directly addressing politics in his poetry, he said no and declared with a smile -- "I believe in stealth."

Whether that earns him a cold shoulder from Hong Kong officials remains to be seen.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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