China through the eyes of a new Generation
Zhang Yueran and Sun Li in conversation about family, identity, culture and history of their country of origin.
In this episode of the Writers Series, Zhang Yueran one of the most influential Chinese writers of our time, went into conversation with Sun Li, author of De zoetzure smaak van dromen (The Sweet and Sour Taste of Dreams). Both writers explored how history influences their present and how they, as the new generation, give words to stories of their (for) parents.
Sun Li interviewed Zhang Yueran about her novel Cocoon, a poignant and thrilling story about Friendship, Family Secrets, Trauma and the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution seen through the eyes of the young generation. It's one of the most extraordinary and successful novels published in recent years in China.
This Writers Series program is in English and featured interpretation from Chinese into English by Annelous Stiggelbout.
Zhang Yueran (China, 1982) is considered one of the most influential contemporary Chinese authors: a new, fresh voice from a generation coming to terms with China's recent past.
Her works invariably sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Zhang started writing short stories at 14 and won a major literary award in 2001. She studied English and law at Shandong University and got her master's degree in computer science in Singapore.
She has published collections of short stories, including Sunflowers Got Lost in 1890 (2003) and Ten Love Stories (2003).
Her novel Cocoon (2016) became her international breakthrough in the English translation (2022) by Jeremy Tiang. In France Le clou was awarded the Prix Transfuge for best Asian novel and was shortlisted for the Prix du meilleur roman étranger.
Cocoon tells in layered and hypnotic prose about two childhood friends who meet again. Both have always been determined to follow the tracks of their grandparents' generation to the heart of a mystery that perhaps should have stayed buried.
Zhang has been the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Newriting since 2008 and teaches international literature at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
A wonderful commentary by author Ian McEwan:
'Cocoon is a stunning novel, a magnificent and impressive achievement of the greatest possible order. Zhang Yueran's unflinching psychological realism is magnificently enhanced by her magical descriptions. The novel's two narrators, childhood friends, speak on behalf of a lost generation struggling to bridge a deep divide. Their parents and grandparents are damaged and guilty, stunned by the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Li Jiaqi and her old friend Cheng Gong walk "through a fog woven of secrets, walking forward lost, unable to see the road ahead and not knowing where to go."
A glimpse of a forbidden sister, a dead baby, is one of the most poignant moments in contemporary literature, and Li Jiaqi's hopeless rapprochement with her emotionally unapproachable father is one of the most moving. A grandparent who has been between life and death for countless years evokes the image of a chilling cultural standstill. Zhang Yueran's sentences and images have an unreal sheen of both hard-won insights and eternal truths. This novel is a triumph.'
- Ian McEwan
Sun Li (b. 1980) was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the north of the Netherlands. She studied at Groningen University and Durham University. The Sweet and Sour Taste of Dreams is her debut novel and describes the family story behind a Chinese restaurant. It depicts a family that was Chinese when it arrived in the Netherlands, but over time, like Dutch-Chinese cuisine, has fused with Dutch culture.
She is also the principal author of the collection for ages 6+, Bedtijdverhalen voor Rebelse meisjes: 100 bijzondere Nederlandse vrouwen (Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Special Dutch Women, 2021). In 2023 she published Chin. Ind. Rest. Kookboek, written with Danny Lee, Ka Fai Lee and Yan Ting Yuen: besides the classics - from babi pangang, bami and fu yong hai to koo loo kai - it includes dishes the personnel eat themselves, and it reflects on the history of such restaurants in the Netherlands.
This Writers Series program is in English and included interpretation from Chinese to English by Annelous Stiggelbout, who translated works by Zhang Yueran from Chinese into Dutch.
The musical interlude was provided by pianist Willem van den Dool in collaboration with the Royal Conservatory of The Hague.
This programme was curated for Writers Unlimited by Ilonka Reintjens in collaboration with Passaporta (Brussels), Atlantide Festival (Nantes) and Promethuis Publishers (Amsterdam).
After the event, there will be a book sale by De Vries Van Stockum, along with an opportunity for book signing.
Writers Unlimited organises the Writers Unlimited International Literature Festival The Hague every year in January and monthly Writers Series programmes throughout the year at various locations in The Hague, including the Central Public Library (Centrale Bibliotheek) The Hague. The festival, featuring more than 100 writers, poets, spoken word artists and musicians from the Netherlands and abroad, will take place over four days at venues including Theater aan het Spui, Filmhuis Den Haag, Paard, Koninklijke Schouwburg, neighbourhood libraries, Hague universities and secondary schools.