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Archive for December, 2012

Mo Yan’s Nobel speech “Storytellers”

Saturday, December 29th, 2012
English: Mo Yan after giving a reading in Hamb...

English: Mo Yan after giving a reading in Hamburg, Germany. Deutsch: Mo Yan nach einer Lesung im Gymnasium Marienthal, Hamburg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend recently forwarded me Mo Yan‘s speech at the Swedish Academy, accepting his Nobel Prize in Literature. I’ve read a novel and a collection of Mo Yan before and my reading group is in the process of reading another novel of his now. To me, Mo Yan is not only a writer, but social critic. I wonder if those who voiced the controversies regarding his winning of the prize have read or understand his writings.

I read his novel “Life and death are wearing me out” in English and found his way of revealing the social changes and injustice via the eyes of reincarnated animals refreshing and clever. I’m also very impressed by the English translation done by Howard Goldblatt, though I must say, the title in Chinese is much better and cleaner. (Goldblatt is such a good translator that I sometimes prefer reading his translation than the originals, which has never happened to me in reading others’ translation before.) For “Big Breasts and Wide Hips”, the novel my group is reading now, I’m shifting between Chinese and English, trying to get a better sense of both the writing and the translation. A nice exercise.

Below is a few excerpts from his speech that I find inspiring:

“Humility and compromise are ideal in one’s daily life, but in literary creation, supreme self-confidence and the need to follow one’s own instincts are essential.”

Cover of "Life and Death are Wearing Me O...

Cover via Amazon

“What I should do was simplicity itself: Write my own stories in my own way. My way was that of the marketplace storyteller, with which I was so familiar, the way my grandfather and my grandmother and other village old-timers told stories.”

“My greatest challenges come with writing novels that deal with social realities, such as The Garlic Ballads, not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event. As a member of society, a novelist is entitled to his own stance and viewpoint; but when he is writing he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events, but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.”

“Possibly because I’ve lived so much of my life in difficult circumstances, I think I have a more profound understanding of life. I know what real courage is, and I understand true compassion. I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent. So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.”

“Many interesting things have happened to me in the wake of winning the prize, and they have convinced me that truth and justice are alive and well.

So I will continue telling my stories in the days to come.”

Translated by Howard Goldblatt. Read entire speech at http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2012/yan-lecture_en.html

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning feature-length documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.

 

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A young woman’s advice

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

yu juan1I recently received a heart-wrenching story of a 32-year-old Chinese woman from a friend. It came as a PowerPoint slide. It touched me and compelled me to appreciate each day from a deeper level.

The woman’s name is Yu Juan, a teacher at Fudan University in Shanghai. She came from a working family and studied hard to obtain her master’s degree in Norway and Ph. D in China. The mother of a two-year-old son and wife of a college professor, she was making inroads in her own career. In December 2009, however, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and was given a year and a half to live. As she fought her battle with cancer, she began to blog about her feelings, struggles, and reflections on her life. Her postings became viral and touched many readers. After she passed away, in less than the time she was predicted to live, her writings were collected in a book titled “… this unfinished life – recollections of a mother, wife, and daughter”.

yu juan2Yu Juan was a high achiever, racing with time to get her education and advance her career. “I spent more than 20 years to get my education,” she wrote. “I rarely go to bed before midnight.”

Suddenly being forced to face a very limited time to live, she realized that she could let go of her pursuits and find joy and happiness in her daily life.

“Life is one-way street. Once passed, there is no way back,” she wrote.

She urged everyone to ponder the meaning of life.

“I want to provide a better life for my parents and child, yet in the end, I realize that they’d be happy if I could simply survive,” she continued.

She described her own life like a busy bird flying from one destination to another under tremendous self-imposed pressure.

“I set the goal to finish my Ph. D ahead of time,” she wrote. “I was miserable when I failed. Who cares if I got my degree a year earlier or not?”

She called upon people, especially the young, to stop and ponder and search for a more meaningful and happy life instead of busily and blindly pursuing certain goals.

The very notion of having a limited short time to live, therefore, being forced to choose how to spend the precious remaining days stopped me in my tracks.

It is not that I don’t know we all have a limited time to live. But a life span of seven or eight or nine decades seems to be a long one.

The alarm sounds off when I try to think in terms of days, months, or even a year or two.  If that were the case, would I be living differently? I wondered. Would I look at things from a different perspective?

I know I would.

And I think many of us would, too.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into a feature-length documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.

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Reading ‘Sacred Hunger’

Friday, December 21st, 2012
Cover of "Sacred Hunger"

Cover of Sacred Hunger

Our reading group just finished reading/discussing Barry Unsworth‘s Sacred Hunger. The novel was released in 1992 and won the Booker Award of the year in Britain.

I must admit that it took me a while getting into the 600+ novel, which covers the slave trade in the 18th century. The content is serious and heavy and the characters unlikable, except perhaps one, Paris, nephew of William Kemp and cousin of his son Erasmus, the main characters.  Paris served as doctor on the slave ship, in an effort to redeem or rather torture himself for the death of his wife and his unborn child.

It’s a heartbreaking story. What shocked me most was not only the extent of miseries that the captivated slaves suffered, but also the white crew on the ship. It was appalling how human beings could impose such pains and sufferings on each other for profit and deemed it legal.

Barry_Unsworth_2__Small__01Once I labored through the first few chapters, the book hooked me on, making it hard to put down. The novel covers a wide range of geographical territories, from Britain to Africa, and eventually to the wildness of Florida. It’s also very interesting to read the Utopian settlement that the settlers from the slave ship established, with black and white as equals. Yet as we got to know them in their 12th year of living in the jungle, the human nature of ruling over others and accumulating power and wealth was eroding and destroy the community. If the single-minded Erasmus didn’t come with the soldiers to get his revenge, it seemed the little world of equality would soon dissolve into disparity as well.

The writing is wonderful and the exploration into human nature profound. Check it out if you haven’t had a chance to read it.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into a feature-length documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. Visit www.mulberryhchildmovie.com for more information.

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History In The Making in Tahrir Square

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

 

 

The Struggle for Egypt 200

  The Washington Institute dedicated to scholarly research and informed debate on U.S. interests in the Middle East, announced that its Book selection, Gold Prize, for 2012 has been awarded to Steven A. Cook, for his book “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.” This is a chronicle of modern Egypt that culminates in the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Cook, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies of the Council on Foreign Relations, will receive a $30,000 prize for his achievement, one of the most lucrative awards for nonfiction writing in the world.

The Washington Institute Book Prize is given annually to three outstanding new books that have illuminated the Middle East for American readers through this competition.  The winners are selected by an independent panel foreign policy specialists from academia and journalism.

Steven A. Cook’s Book tells the back story behind the gripping images from Tahrir Square and it isn’t as straightforward as an elderly dictator being swept aside by young champions of freedom. Steven A. Cook’s timely and highly readable book weaves expertly through Egypt’s modern history from British failures through Nasser’s pretensions to Sadat’s peacemaking. Cook offers a sobering reminder of how economic stagnation, bad governance and religious extremism make for an unpredictable brew and why the struggle for Egypt’s future is destined to continue.  (Source:  Washington Institute)

English: Celebrations in Tahrir Square after O...

English: Celebrations in Tahrir Square after Omar Soliman’s statement that concerns Mubarak’s resignation. February 11, 2011 – 10:15 PM (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was struck by the timing of this award, in that the struggle for Egypt is an ongoing cauldron that, at the moment, offers no clear conclusion. The week that the Washington Institute was awarding the Gold Prize to Steven A. Cook, the current Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, was being lauded by the United States and other Western nations, for the part he played in bringing the conflict between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza to a cease-fire. Obviously acting under pressure from the United States, and looking to Egypt’s own interests, Morsi and his government appeared to move quickly, in exerting their considerable influence in reaching a resolution of this conflict.

However a week later, the world saw another Morsi, a president who endeavored to quickly, and without consultation, override the Egyptian courts and Constitution and grant himself virtually unlimited power to push through an apparent Islamist rewriting of the Constitution. Suddenly the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were now against a new budding dictator Mohamed Morsi. As is often the case in the Arab world the demonstrations turned deadly, and the president had to call out the Army to surround and protect the presidential palace and other important government buildings. This was not the democracy for which the people of Egypt had created a revolution.  If anything, this was a return to the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, under the thinly veiled description of democratic government. The referendum held this last weekend will undoubtedly support Morsi. His main supporters are the illiterate religious peasants that make up the majority of the Egyptian population. The educated secular, liberal and minority groups, who were the backbone of the revolution, based in Cairo Alexandria and other Egyptian cities do not have the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, and probably not the support outside of the cities, that they would need, to remove Morsi. Consequently, this story is just unfolding. Maybe the Washington Institute will award a further prize in the next year or two to Steven A. Cook or others who may write about the Morsi government and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood over a highly fractured Egyptian public.

 

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com 

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Writing

Friday, December 7th, 2012

A student reading at open mic

I recently gave a keynote speech at the Skyway Writers Festival, a writing conference of eight colleges in IL. College of Lake County hosted the conference this year.

There was a section for open mic where students could read their works, workshops in fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, and drama, and eventually awards for these categories, results of a competition. I had the opportunities of listening to the reading of a few poems and attending the workshops on short fiction (given by Penny Dawn, who served as judge for the category) and creative non-fiction (given by Rocco Versaci, who also served as judge for the category). I was impressed by the quality of the students’ writing, the craft of writing covered at the workshops, and the passion for writing that the students demonstrated.

I was honored to be part of the Writers Festival and delighted to share what compelled me to start my writing career and the few lessons I had learned during the process.

Teresa Anguinaldo, Director of Student Life at CLC, announcing winners of each categories, with the judges sitting behind her.

“I’m an accidental writer and an accidental journalist,” I said to the audience, revealing that writing was the last thing in my mind as I was growing up in China in the ’60s and ’70s.

I told them how and why I wrote Mulberry Child, which launched my writing career, and how I began writing regularly for Xinhua News—I learned on the job and are still learning with each new assignment. Writing has helped me grow and mature, and the process and transformation I’ve experienced, in turn, have fueled my passion for it.

I shared four lessons that I’ve learned and still kept reminding myself when it came to writing.

1. give yourself permission to write

2. be disciplined and persistent

3. learn to listen and observe, and

Students, parents, and teachers at the award-giving ceremony

4. enjoy the process and grow with your writing

I was touched by the response to my speech from the students and a few parents who were present. Writing is a labor of love. It’s rewarding, but also very challenging. I was glad to see so many students were embarking on their journey of writing and learning, which also inspired me to move forward with my own writing endeavors.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning feature-length documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.

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James Joyce’s “The Dead” at the Court Theatre

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

A scene from “The Dead” at the Court Theatre

I read James Joyce‘s story “The Dead” years ago when my daughter was reading it for her English class in high school. I must admit that I don’t remember much of the details. So at our last reading group’s gathering when one member suggested we watch the show, I volunteered to get the tickets. Last Sunday, a group of us went to the Court Theater in Hyde Park.

What a delightful treat it was for a holiday season despite the title.

I passed the Court Theater on a weekly basis on my way to the racquetball court at the gym of the University of Chicago, but never made a stop at the small theatre. It felt like discovering a hidden jewel—the theatre was cozy, neat, and open. And equally important, the show was superb.

I was thrilled by the beautiful songs and performance. The small group brought the theatre to life and engaged the audience the entire time. Norm, one of our group, said he watched the show ten years ago when it was first performed at the Court Theater. He said it was different, but both show “pulled off nicely and worked!”

The show focused on ordinary people’s life, which was revealed via the gathering of an extended family and friends over a holiday dinner. It was revealing and intimate. We got to know each of the characters on stage via a narrator’s voice (Gabriel, performed by Phillip Earl Johnson) and a number of songs.

The show will continue to run till Dec. 9—only a few more days left. A segment of the performance—the singing of the song “Wake the Dead” is available on the website. http://www.courttheatre.org. Check it out. You won’t regret.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning feature-length documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.

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The Starbucks Office

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

 

Redesigned logo used from 2011-present.

I am not really a coffee drinker, so I’m not a frequent visitor to the Starbucks even though they are now located on every corner of every street in every city.  However I recently visited one of my local Starbucks stores, between my dentist and the Dr’s appointments.  Having an hour to spare I thought I would have a leisurely coffee, and catch up with my newspapers.

The Starbucks that I went to was quite large, with tables and chairs and a bar shelf in the window, providing seating accommodation for perhaps 30 people. I ordered a medium-size “Skinny Latte,” and had a slice of banana bread. The store was quite crowded, but I found a seat at a large table where there were 2 people with their laptops going at full speed. On one side of the store there were single tables and chairs, all of which were occupied by laptop-using customers, at least one of which I noticed had an earpiece phone, on which she appeared to be taking orders and promising delivery dates. Why not I reasoned?  In these days of instant global communication, Websites, Internet, iPads and iPhones, it is a simple matter to operate your business from anywhere.  If you call your clients or customers, they have no idea whether you’re calling from your office or from a swimming pool in Miami Beach.  It truly is a global village. 

English: Starbucks at West Coast Plaza, Singapore

English: Starbucks at West Coast Plaza, Singapore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My table at Starbucks started to fill up, and I found myself surrounded by 8 people of various ages all without open laptops on the table. They clearly knew each other and one young lady said to me that I was welcome to stay for their session.  She pushed a plastic menu card towards me on which I saw that there were regular “Circle Meetings” from 11:00 A.M. to 12 noon once a week, and this week’s agenda was “A Professional Approach to Winning the Interview Game.”  I withdrew from this group and made myself comfortable in a deep leather chair in the corner. However I was able to watch and listen to the “Circle Group.” Of the 8 people around the table, 5 were men and 3 were women. The men for the most part appeared to be in their 50’s, and the women more likely late 30’s or early 40’s. They were all animated and enthusiastic, and I formed the opinion that they were probably all out of work, and trying to learn from each other the best way to get back into the workplace. If my assumptions were right, I’m sure they were all able to take comfort from being in the same position.

So my visit to Starbucks taught me two things.  First of all, Starbucks has become the mobile office for so many small businesses and entrepreneurs, and secondly Starbucks is also a meeting place, networking venue, and support system for those currently unemployed but seeking to get back on their feet.  All credit to Starbucks. To many people, they provide much more than a Latte and Croissant.


Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:
www.bearanyburden.com

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