Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

We come to you this week armed with manifestos from Hong Kong, recipes from India, and voices giving shapes to poetry in Barcelona.

We look both backward and forward: a revolution in China, an election in India, poets uniting in Barcelona to cohere past and future with performance and verse. This week our editors are here with literary news items that display a history starkly immediate, a present gathering visions, and tomorrows which hope that remembrance may also be an act of resistance. 

Charlie Ng, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong:

The May Fourth Movement was one of the most influential events for China in the twentieth century as it powerfully revolutionised Chinese culture and society. The cultural movement complemented the political Xinhai Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen in heralding China’s modern era. Its centenary is celebrated across the Straits, and Hong Kong is no exception. Hong Kong’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum is in collaboration with the Beijing Lu Xun Museum to organise “The Awakening of a Generation: The May Fourth and New Culture Movement” Exhibition, displaying relevant collections from both Beijing and the Hong Kong Museum of History to the public, including the handwritten manuscripts of Chen Duxiu and Hu Shih. The exhibition will also showcase visual and multimedia artworks that are inspired by the event.

The Hong Kong Literary Criticism Society has inaugurated the “Hong Kong Chinese Literary Criticism Competition 2019” to promote literary criticism in Hong Kong, and the launch ceremony of the competition was held in the Hong Kong Arts Development Council on May 18. Hong Kong writer Yip Fai and Chinese scholar Choy Yuen-fung from Hong Kong Baptist University were invited to give a talk on the necessity of literature and literary criticism, moderated by the chairman of Hong Kong Literary Criticism Society, Ng Mei-kwan.

In early June, two important Hong Kong literary magazines, Fleurs des Lettres and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, will commemorate the June Fourth Incident through literature. On June 3, in collaboration with PEN Hong Kong, the Cha editors will organise “Matches Polished into Lights: Tiananmen Thirty Years On”. The event will gather a group of writers to read excerpts reflecting their views on the protest at Tiananmen, democracy, and the future of Hong Kong and China. Meanwhile, Fleurs des Lettres will stage “Thirty Years After—Commemorating the June Fourth Incident through Poetry” on June 4. The event will feature the poetry reading by Hong Kong writer Wong Bik-wan, accompanied by Wong Biu-shing’s performance.

Rachael Pennington, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from Spain

Last week in Barcelona, the city’s magical Palau de la Música played host to the International Festival of Poetry in its unique 35th edition. This yearly event brought poets from both distant and local shores to celebrate poetry, in all its forms and tongues, in a creative space that knew no limits.

Perhaps the festival’s eye-catching poster—a cross-section of the skin with hair follicles standing on end—was a sign that this edition meant to turn heads. From Turkey, South Africa and the States, to the neighbouring island of Mallorca and the Spanish community of Andalusia, five poets came together united in their causes: to resist censorship, to preach gender equality, to denounce the violation of human rights.

Burhan Sönmez, author of the prize-winning novel Istanbul Istanbul and translator of William Blake, broke the silence with his sombre Turkish verse. In a steady yet nostalgic tone, he peeled back layers of a nation in continuous tumult, plagued by political unrest.

Breaking gender moulds was the gutsy South African-American poet Lebo Mashile, whose booming voice filled every corner of the Palau. With outstretched arms and head flung back, she broached the topics of childbirth and menstruation. My particular favourite was Menarche, a poem interwoven with questions posed to the women in her life—“I would ask [my grandmother] what a lifetime measured in wombs looks like”.

A poet of the transition years after the fall of Spain’s dictatorship, Luis García Montero gave a delicate reading of several poems, including Madre (Mother). In perhaps one of the most sincere performances of the night, he vowed to see the light of youth sparkle once again in his mother’s eyes and made a promise to take her to Paris.

It would be impossible not to mention the daring accompanying act of the evening, which transformed the spaces of poetry in performances that were at times uncomfortably awkward and at others breathtakingly primitive. Yet—just like the guest poets themselves—perhaps their intention was to make the audience squirm in their seat. It is often the most visceral images, the ones that give us goosebumps, that we remember the most vividly.

Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from India

The counting for the 2019 general elections in India concluded late Thursday evening, with the right-wing BJP government coming back to power with a thumping majority for a second term, under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi. Minority communities, especially Muslims, have faced an increase in hate crimes in the last term of this party’s rule.

Many parts of northern India, where the BJP is hugely popular, loves Mughlai cuisine. Such delicacies come from the kitchens of the Mughal empire, whose history is under threat of being distorted in the attempt to incorrectly recast India as a Hindu nation. Now, a translation of the recipes from emperor Shah Jahan’s era can make its way to Hindu partisan stomachs, and hopefully their hearts. The manuscript in the British Library, Nuskha-e-Shahjahani (Shah Jahan’s Recipes), has been translated from the Persian into English by scholar Salma Husain and is forthcoming from Roli Books as The Mughal Feast: Recipes from the Kitchen of Emperor Shah Jahan.

The stand-off between India and Pakistan this February over the Balakot strike might have helped the incumbent government in the elections. The sworn enmity between the two countries has, of course, included a long-standing war over languages. While Urdu was expunged from India, Punjabi was marginalized in Pakistan after Partition. There have been many attempts to reclaim both languages. Pakistani software engineer Sohail Abid is one of many who has joined a growing Punjabi literary movement in Pakistan by digitizing the works of legendary Punjabi poets.

Worth adding to this reading list is But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim by Rakshanda Jalil, released this May by HarperCollins India, which examines what it means to be a Muslim in India today. 

Where rationality fails, perhaps food and poetry can stitch together a divided world.