Chinese Literature — An Interview with Xiaolu Guo: Writer, Filmmaker and Cultural Iconoclast

Over the course of her multifaceted career Xiaolu Guo has explored the boundaries of national identity, cultural exchange and the concept of home amidst diasporic communities. Ahead of her appearance at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, we talk to her about these themes and how they manifest themselves in her films and her fiction.


Q: You are considered a writer who bridges the gap between Western and Eastern cultures, and who is representative of a new generation of diasporic Chinese. What is your perspective on being labelled like this? And are these themes you purposefully deal with in your work?

A: Well, I live as an artist who chooses to express my feelings from a very personal experience, both in the east and in the west. Given the fact that I’ve barely worked for any institution, and all my work is sort of born from solitary labours, I don’t think that I approach certain themes in a very self-conscious or even an academic way, but certainly I have been dealing with the themes of home, alienation, an individual’s life in ideological environment as well as in a global scale, naturally.

Q: The strength of events such as the Hong Kong International Literary Festival reveals the interest in publishing in Hong Kong. How do you perceive the local publishing industry in Hong Kong? The city’s reputation as a haven for more diverse opinions is engrained in its identity, do you feel this still holds true over 15 years since the handover?

A: I don’t know much about Hong Kong local publishing. Really nowadays we might live in Tokyo or Paris but we publish our work in Germany or in America. I don’t know how we can stick with the locality as we have been moving around so much in this modern life, and lots of writers write in their second language or the language from their adult life. (This is) part of survival instinct, part of integration, which I actually believe will lead to a much more open future.

Continue reading “Chinese Literature — An Interview with Xiaolu Guo: Writer, Filmmaker and Cultural Iconoclast”

Jeffrey Eugenides Reads ‘Middlesex’ on Prague Writers’ Festival


Jeffrey Eugenides grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and attended Brown University. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published by FSG to great acclaim in 1993, and he has received numerous awards for his work. He lives in Berlin, Germany, with his wife.

Excerpt from ‘Middlesex’, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Book One

The Silver Spoon

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce’s study, Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites, published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975. Or maybe you’ve seen my photograph in chapter sixteen of the now sadly outdated Genetics and Heredity. That’s me on page 578, standing naked beside a height chart with a black box covering my eyes.

My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license (from the Federal Republic of Germany) records my first name simply as Cal. I’m a former field hockey goalie, long-standing member of the Save-the-Manatee Foundation, rare attendant at the Greek Orthodox mass, and, for most of my adult life, an employee of the U.S. State Department. Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I’ve been ridiculed classmates, guinea-pigged doctors, palpated specialists, and researched the March of Dimes. A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me, too.) An army tank led me into urban baffle once; a swimming pool turned me into myth; I`ve left my body in order to occupy others-and all this happened before I turned sixteen.

But now, at the age of forty-one, I feel another birth coming on. After decades of neglect, I find myself thinking about departed great-aunts and -uncles, long-lost grandfathers, unknown fifth cousins, or, in the case of an inbred family like mine, all those things in one. And so before it’s too late I want to get it down for good: this roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother’s own mid-western womb.

Continue reading “Jeffrey Eugenides Reads ‘Middlesex’ on Prague Writers’ Festival”

Forbidden Cinema — Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salomé’, A Classic Movie of the Silent Era

A rare screening of a much-gossiped-about silent film made by Alla Nazimova, one of Hollywood’s most controversial stars, presented in a unique way. Well, that tickles our fancy just fine.


Based on Oscar Wilde’s decadent play, Alla Nazimova and Charles Bryant’s Salomé tells the biblical story of King Herod and his execution of John the Baptist at the request of Salomé, his daughter and object of lust. A commercial flop on release back in 1923, the film now enjoys cult status. It is revered for its camp acting and for Natacha Rambova’s highly stylised Aubrey Beardsley-esque sets and costumes (many made with fabrics from Maison Lewis of Paris). The bold designs and the profusion of silver lamés, veils, turbans and peacock feathers make this a stunning visual treat. Screened with live piano accompaniment. This screening is a preview for the Fashion in The Paris Film Festival which takes place at GPM in March.

Continue reading “Forbidden Cinema — Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salomé’, A Classic Movie of the Silent Era”

Classic Books — ‘A Breath of the Real’: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities

Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities had a tortuous publishing history but, as John Millar discovers, since its full publication it has become widely considered the third member of a triumvirate, including Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and Joyce’s Ulysses, representing the pinnacle of the modernist novel in Europe.

Robert Musil / Grafitti from Jef Aerosol at the Robert Musil Museum in Klagenfurt
Robert Musil / Grafitti from Jef Aerosol at the Robert Musil Museum in Klagenfurt

Of these three classics, in terms of content if not technique, Musil’s work speaks most directly to a contemporary readership. Set in Vienna in the year before the First World War, it depicts a social and political elite desperately attempting to maintain the status quo in the face of radical socio-political forces that they cannot comprehend and that will in the following years tear European civilization limb from limb. Bubbling beneath the surface are the libidinal depths unleashed by psychoanalysis and nihilistic musings as described by Nietzsche. Indeed, this is the kind of ambitious novel of ideas where the central character Ulrich gives his friend’s wife Clarisse a copy of Nietzsche’s complete works as a wedding gift.

Despite the lazy comparisons to Ulysses and A la Recherche (based perhaps more on size than content), the novel to which Musil’s work bares most resemblance is Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Both novels deal with a European elite asleep to the monstrous forces contorting beneath them, and both explore the loss of narrative certainty in the face of new intellectual and scientific developments. Where Musil’s novel differs though is in its portrayal of Ulrich, a unique anti-hero, and the unique quality of the writing. Every page of this mammoth thousand-page work contains an original thought or perspective, and there are passages that set the senses on edge in their clarity of foresight. We realize we are still living in Musil’s world. Take for example:

Continue reading “Classic Books — ‘A Breath of the Real’: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities”

Our Favorite Obscure Writers — Venedikt Erofeev, The Lost Genius of Soviet Literature

Venedikt Erofeev’s life, like his writing, is often referred to as a riddle. Yet this man, who lived a life of vagrancy and drunkenness, is now regarded as the underground voice of an entire nation: a voice that both celebrated and lambasted the social inertia of the Soviet system.

Venedikt Erofeev, Russian writer.
V. Erofeev, Moscow 1977.

Venedikt Erofeev died in 1990, just a year before the Soviet Union fell. During the brief 51 years of his life he drifted across Russia without a set residency permit, taking on a series of laboring jobs whilst philosophizing, writing and drinking, existing in the same chaotic manner that characterizes the lives of this protagonists. Very few of Erofeev’s works ever made it to publication, many lost, stolen or even used as kindling. How did a man who left behind just a few of slim volumes and spent the final years of his life languishing in Muscovite apartment block come to be acclaimed as the most vibrant mind in Soviet-era literature?

Erofeev was born in 1938, far above the Arctic Circle in the Murmansk region of Russia. His father was a stationmaster who fell afoul of Stalin’s nefarious regime, serving time in a series of gulags on the charge of ‘disseminating anti-Soviet propaganda’. With their father absent and their mother unable to feed and care for them, Erofeev and his brother were placed in State care.

Continue reading “Our Favorite Obscure Writers — Venedikt Erofeev, The Lost Genius of Soviet Literature”

Philip K. Dick: The Uncertainty of Existence

American writer Philip K. Dick’s passion for philosophy gave rise to a lifelong exploration into the nature of existence through the penning of numerous renowned science fiction novels. Vincent JS Wood takes a look at the life and work of this significant twentieth century author.


Questioning what it means to be human may seem like an incomprehensible, exhausting and overtly philosophical task, but Philip K Dick regularly tackled the very concept of humanity, and other political, sociological and metaphysical questions, almost exclusively through the genre of science-fiction writing. Philip Kindred Dick was born six weeks prematurely on December 16th 1928 in Chicago, Illinois with his twin sister Jane Charlotte Dick. Jane died six weeks later, which had a profound effect on Philip and lent itself to the recurring motif of the ‘phantom twin’ in many of his works.

In 1949 Dick briefly attended the University of California, Berkeley where he took classes in history, psychology, philosophy and zoology. His studies of Philosophy, and the works of renowned Philosophers such as Plato led Dick to formulate his belief system that, to a certain degree, the world is not entirely real and there is no definite way of proving its genuine existence. This idea became a major thematic concern for Dick, and dominates the discussion in all of his well-known novels.

Continue reading “Philip K. Dick: The Uncertainty of Existence”

Fight Club vs. The Great Gatsby: Was Palahniuk’s Novel a Modern Update?

Released in 1996, Chuck Palahniuk’s debut novel Fight Club has become an iconic cult classic. Reece Choules revisits this controversial text, analysing its enduring lure and approaches the book from an angle that Palahniuk announced himself: Fight Club as an updated version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.


The first rule of Fight Club is ‘You do not talk about Fight Club’… yet nearly two decades after its release, in a time of cultural bi-polar and high turnover of ‘startling new voices’, people are still talking about it. Few debut novels of the time have had as much impact as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Hailed by the likes of Brett Easton Ellis and Ali Smith, Palahniuk’s award winning novel polarised opinion on its initial release. David Fincher’s film adaptation three years later also invited heated debate and fierce media criticism. So what is it that so many people find appealing about this controversial novel? Is it the text’s political or philosophical explorations? Or perhaps could the lure be seen as primordial? A subversive modern day tale of men with Freudian issues perhaps? Or is it simpler than that? Palahniuk says the novel is an old classic updated. Maybe the book’s appeal then is like that of the classic novel, which is itself currently experiencing a revival; perhaps Fight Club captures the zeitgeist.

Continue reading “Fight Club vs. The Great Gatsby: Was Palahniuk’s Novel a Modern Update?”

French Synesthésie — Boris Vian: Plunging into Vian’s unsettling version of reality


Thirty-five years ago, sitting in a dank flat off Portobello Road in London feeding shillings to an ever-voracious electric meter, I made two discoveries that changed my life.


One was American detective fiction. Chandler and Hammett at first, then, in train, others: James M. Cain, Horace McCoy. Never mind that I had to travel several thousand miles to learn of my own heritage.

The other came from sources much closer to where I then lived.

I was editing a magazine called New Worlds and as part of my duties regularly looked over new books sent for review. Quite some portion of this, certainly a far greater proportion than one might anticipate in the States, was fiction in translation. I first read Enrique Andersen Imbert, Alejo Carpentier and Julio Cortazar in that flat, for instance.

Then one chill morning I got up, made tea and toast, and went back to bed, breath streaming feathers into the room, with a copy of something titled Froth on the Daydream. It was, miraculously, about two couples: Colin, a rich and at first rather superfluous man, and Chloe, a woman dying from a lily growing in her lung; Chick, whose life is ruined by his collecting of Jean-Sol Partre’s books and memorabilia, and Alise, who tries to save Chick from himself by murdering Partre. As the lily grows in Chloe’s lung, Colin does all he can to keep her alive. But as she grows ever more ill, her bed sinks closer and closer to the ground and the room grows ever smaller. Because Colin has no money left to pay for burial, Chloe’s coffin is simply thrown out the window, where it breaks the leg of a child at play in the gutter beneath.

I had discovered contemporary French literature.

Continue reading “French Synesthésie — Boris Vian: Plunging into Vian’s unsettling version of reality”

Homosexuality Explained To My Mother

Abdellah Taïa


My dear family,

This is the first time I’ve ever written you. A letter for all of you. For you, M’Barka, my mother. For you, my sisters, my six sisters. And for you, my two brothers. Today, from deep within my soul, these lines well up with urgency. I can’t not say them, not write them, not send them to you. I can’t keep from explaining my rationale, what I am, what I write, and why I do what I do. Explain? Yes, I must, because necessity compels me, and because you, my family, haven’t gone to the trouble of reading, really reading, what I’ve published—books, articles, interviews… I must because for a long time explanations have been missing in Morocco. I do so that others may finally consider us human beings worthy of receiving explanations, that we may be truly involved in what happens in this country, and that we may stop being humiliated day after day.

I know I am scandalous. To you. And to those around you: neighbors, colleagues, friends, mothers-in-law… I know to what degree I’m involuntarily causing you harm, giving you worry. I expose myself by signing my real first name and my real last name. And I expose you along with me. I drag you along on this adventure, which is just the beginning for me and for people like me: To exist, finally! To come out of the shadows, head held high! To tell the truth, my truth! To be: Abdellah. To be: Taïa. To be both. Alone. Yet not alone at the same time.

Continue reading “Homosexuality Explained To My Mother”

Richard Zimler, a giant among mystery writers who brings the genre to a higher level

As one of the prominent areas of genre fiction, the thriller simultaneously engages, educates and scares its readers. Those who write within the genre need to be capable of skilled craftsmanship and, as Lindsay Parnell argues, few contemporary writers have captured the suspense and dark atmosphere of the true thriller like the American author Richard Zimler.


Richard Zimler completed his Bachelor’s Degree in comparative religion at Duke University before receiving his Masters in journalism from Stanford. Subsequently, Zimler taught journalism at a collegiate level for nearly twenty years in both the US and Portugal – where he has been a citizen since 2002. Known for his narrative fusions of Jewish spirituality and historical noir thrillers, Zimler’s body of work consists of eight critically acclaimed novels that have received international recognition from Brazil, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Portugal among others. Zimler’s literary preoccupation with the heroic search for spirituality during devastating religious and political conflicts has proven to transcend linguistic and geographic boundaries. His collection of novels are intriguing tales of personal and public history in the midst of violent turmoil. This is especially true of his three most notable texts: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, The Warsaw Anagrams and Guardian of the Dawn.

Continue reading “Richard Zimler, a giant among mystery writers who brings the genre to a higher level”

Middle East Literature — Introducing Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl: Iran’s Haunting Classic

One of the most revered names in Iranian literature, Sadeq Hedayat left behind an oeuvre that is mesmerising, petrifying and puzzling. Dubbed the father of ‘psycho-fiction’, or the Iranian Franz Kafka, he is best known for his haunting The Blind Owl, a novel telling of death, loss and psychosis. We bring you Dr. Homa Katouzian’s introduction to Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, his dramatic life and other works.

Sadegh Hedayat in Paris
Sadegh Hedayat in Paris — 1928

Sadeq Hedayat was born on 17 February 1903 and died on 9 April 1951. He was descended from Rezaqoli Khan Hedayat, a notable 19th century poet, historian of Persian literature and author of Majma’ al-Fosaha, Riyaz al-’Arefin and Rawza al-Safa-ye Naseri. Many members of his extended family were important state officials, political leaders and army generals, both in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hedayat is the author of The Blind Owl, the most famous Persian novel both in Iran and in Europe and America. Many of his short stories are in a critical realist style and are regarded as some of the best written in 20th century Iran. But his most original contribution was the use of modernist, more often surrealist, techniques in Persian fiction. Thus, he was not only a great writer, but also the founder of modernism in Persian fiction.

Having studied at the exclusive St Louis French missionary school in Tehran, Hedayat went to Europe, supported by a state grant, spending a year in Belgium in 1926–27, a year and a half in Paris in 1928–29, two terms in Reims in 1929 and a year in Besançon in 1929–30. Having still not finished his studies, he surrendered his scholarship and returned home in the summer of 1930. This provides a clue to his personality in general, and his perfectionist outlook in particular, which sometimes resulted in nervous paralysis.

Continue reading “Middle East Literature — Introducing Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl: Iran’s Haunting Classic”

Circus meets Literature: An Interview with Bianco’s Firenza Guidi

Bianco is the 2013 creation by the UK-based circus company ‘NoFitState’. Created and directed by Firenza Guidi, this captivating show uses The Elephant’s Journey by Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago as its inspiration. We talk to Guidi, asking her about this fusion of circus and literature.


At what point in the creation did The Elephant’s Journey become involved with the show? Was the book the catalyst for the creation of Bianco, or was it a less overt inspiration?

When I read the book I was charmed by the simplicity of the story: An elephant (sent as an unusual wedding present) and its motley cortège journey on foot across the whole of Europe. Everywhere the elephant brings awe, bewilderment, wonder – transforming people’s lives. It struck me that Saramago’s convoy resonates with circus: a village, a community, a travelling world. Bianco is not an adaptation of Saramago’s novel but the book was there from the very beginning of the creation, like a wonderful reservoir of images and ideas. We used the words to fuel the performers’ imagination and wondrous echoes for some of the scenes.

But my fascination with Saramago started well before The Elephant’s Journey. The truth is that all Saramago’s writing is inspirational and not only in terms of content or storyline, but also in terms of form. Saramago only uses commas to punctuate his writing. This creates a flow, a pace and a rhythm that belongs to the here-and-now of spoken language, as if the reader was part of a thinking process.

Continue reading “Circus meets Literature: An Interview with Bianco’s Firenza Guidi”