May 7 2015
Literary extravaganza aims to foster debate about controversial subjects from the continent and allows for comparison between big two – India & China…
HOW YOUNG women live, work and play – and relate to others – in Asia will be among the prominent themes of this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, opening today.
Having already heard from two strong, independent voices in women authors Anuradha Roy and Anita Anand*, (the BBC broadcaster and political journalist), the stage is set tonight for Chinese Xue Xinran.
Now settled in Britain, she has written extensively about social change in China and has seen it up close and personal through her mid-20s son, Pan Pan, like many others of his generation, an only child.
Among the South Asian highlights of the festival – which ends on May 18 – are a special night of discussion on the importance of story-telling in an Indian context, ending with a racy tale and accompanied by award-winning cocktails from Indian restaurant Dishoom; a ‘Magic Carpet Ride Through Asia’, a special event for children and parents; ‘Dispatches from Kabul’; ‘Sounds of Asia’; ‘The Migrant Voice’; ‘A Tea Odyssey’; and ‘Love Across Divides’. (See below for more.)
“We want to engage young people and youth and gender are the subjects we very much want to talk about,” explained Jemimah Steinfeld, Asia House literature festival manager, responsible for putting the programme together in what is her first festival, having joined the business and culture institute earlier this year.
Almost uniquely placed to discuss the similarities and differences between Indian and Chinese youth – with whom she is very familiar, having written a book, called “Little Emperors and Material Girls”, about love and sex in modern in China, she is keen to ignite debates about the position of women in Asian societies. “Gender has become such a huge everyday conversation.”
“I know the situation in China well – it is completely different to India on one level, it’s very safe on the streets for women.
“You feel quite equal, in India you aware of the dangers more,” she outlined, having travelled to both countries over the last year. “China is way more comfortable than here (London) – you feel quite safe walking down a back street at 4am.”
However, while the public space is often a safe environment for women, the home can be more dangerous.
“The Chinese haven’t accepted domestic violence as a criminal activity. People marry quite young. There is no marital rape law and there is a lot of marriage breakdown and there are cases of child abuse.
“But people don’t like talking about this, it’s very difficult to have a conversation about these subjects,” said Steinfeld.
As it is in India – though with a relatively free press and no formal censorship, more debate is taking place and it was quite apparent from the opening pre-event, ‘Anuradha Roy in conversation with Claire Armitstead’ (Guardian & Observer Books Editor) that these subjects are being aired more and more.
Her latest novel, “Sleeping on Jupiter” (an allusion to the planet and its 16 moons) has three female characters as the main protagonists and, as she explained to Armitstead and the assembled audience, dealt with “sexuality and religion” and was set around a fictional temple town where some women aid and abet ‘unspeakable’ acts.
Roy was keen to counter the image of the submissive, cowed and hidden ‘Indian’ woman through her latest novel.
In her book, they are independent and free spirits and revel in their sexuality and frankness, even though they are not young or nubile (as the common trope might present).
The novel also casts a light back on a different time when sex and sexuality were more openly discussed subjects. In China too there is a mass of classical literature on the erotic, but these are rarely, if ever, points of discussion in a public space today.
Armitstead raised the point that one of the temples guides has to explain that the erotic carvings around the places of worship were not obscene and should not be viewed by ‘modern’ Indian standards.
“It is meant to be ironic,” said Roy. “The temples they are looking at are 1,000 years old, at which time the erotic was really celebrated in India. There appeared to have been no inhibitions and the culture of temples can be shockingly explicit to people today and yet at the end of that 1,000 years there are godmen using religion to abuse children or women.”
Roy’s argument as expressed on the evening and through her novel is that the Hindu priest class (Brahmins) abuse their position and subjugate all others to their selfish wills and purposes, and that patriarchy becomes entrenched and officially and crucially, “religiously” sanctioned. Roy played down any idea that it might upset religious groups but conceded her own mother, who is religious, could not for the first time actually finish reading the latest of her three works.
And while you might think China may have done a better job of equality with its Communist legacy, Steinfeld presents a different picture.
“China isn’t very high in equality tables compared to a lot of countries – it is lower than Iran,” she pointed out.
So, what are her own personal highlights from this year’s programme?
“The opening night with Xinran – she’s been one of my favourite authors for a long time, so I am excited about that and we have also got an event on the Silk Road in China where we will have a slide show projection on a big screen from the British library and the storytelling series – for adults on the Friday night (May 8). There will be a panel discussion on the relevance of big stories like the ‘Mahabharata’, ‘Ramayana’ to the UK in 2015, and then followed by Seema Anand telling an erotic story set in the Himalayas and Dishoom are doing the cocktails – that should be fun and they are sponsoring the storytelling on Saturday for kids.”
And those don’t feature any cocktails…!
Main picture: Anuradha Roy and Claire Armitstead
- Opening, Thursday, May 7, 6.30pm – ‘China’s Now Generation – Xinran in conversation with Isabel Hilton. Tickets from £10 (for non-members)
South Asian highlights (for full festival programme please see Asia House – link below)
Friday May 8, 6.45pm-8pm – A Night of Storytelling – Happy Ever After featuring Sarwat Chadda, Seema Anand, Bhavit Mehta and Vayu Naidu, followed by (8pm-8.45pm) Cycles of Carnal Karma with Seema Anand + cocktails
Saturday May 9, 10am-1pm – Family event, A Magic Carpet Ride Through Asia.
Monday, May 11 12.30pm-1.30pm – Dispatches from Kabul – Canadian journalist Heidi Kingston talks about her life and first book written there, ‘Dispatches from the Kabul Café’
Monday, May 11 6.30pm-8pm, Sounds of Asia, with Imitiaz Dharker, Vidyan Ravinthiran, and Preti Taneja – poetry and spoken verse.
Tuesday May 12, 6.30pm-8pm – The Migrant Voice – Huma Qureshi and Xiaolu Guo with Arifa Akbar (literary editor of Independent)
Friday, May 15, 12.30-1.30pm – The Living Goddess – Isabella Tree on Nepal’s tradition of anointing a girl as a goddess.
Monday, May 18, 3pm-4.30pm – A Tea Odyssey – with Jeff Koehler author of ‘Darjeeling: The Colourful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea’
Monday, May 18, 6.30pm-8pm – Love Across Divides – Elif Shafak, Mirza Waheed, Jennifer Klinec with Samir Raheem
Tickets from £10 (non members)
All events at Asia House, 63, New Cavendish Street, London W1G 7LP
Tel: 020 7307 5454
‘Sleeping on Jupiter’ Anuradha Roy, Maclehose Press, click here
Anita Anand spoke to Sailesh Ram, editor of www.asianculturevulture.com at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015 about her book – Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary