With more than 180 storytellers from 30 countries, this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival lineup is a treasure trove of discoveries. Each week in the lead-up to UWRF19, we speak to a writer whose work you may not have encountered yet, but who could well turn out to be your festival favorite. This week we hear from Chinese journalist and author Karoline Kan. Formerly with The New York Times, she’s now Beijing Editor of chinadialogue.
When and why did you start writing?
I started writing for work seven years ago. In my first job, I was a feature writer for an English magazine. I had a lot of opportunities meeting and talking to people from different backgrounds and it was a huge privilege for me to listen to their stories. Then I began to write my personal stories, about growing up in China, family stories set in the political and social changes in the past few decades, and those short essays received very good feedback.
I think writing is one of the most powerful tools, to express yourself, to record history, and to communicate. Also, it’s one of the most accessible tools one can use: everyone could use this tool because you only need to sit down and write what you want to say. To me, there’s also another reason why I write. Writing provides a platform for me to present a China I am familiar with and I believe many people are interested in. I have witnessed its changes, and I have the first-hand materials of its people’s lives. I want to tell the stories of the people who have no access to have themselves heard.
What’s the most extraordinary place your work has taken you?
If we are talking about physical places, my book Under Red Skies has taken me to many great literary festivals around the world, including UWRF. But there’s another ‘place’ the book has taken me to, that is a closed distance between readers and me from all around the world, and as some wrote to me and said, a deepened understanding on China for some people who have never been to China.
The book has acted as a ‘bridge’ between me and many readers from different cultures. I received many emails from readers who told me they find the connection between my story and theirs, although our cultures are so different. One American reader wrote to me and said my story reminds her of her struggles and ambitions settling down and finding opportunities in New York, as someone from a small place with big dreams, as well as a young woman who fights every day for equal opportunities with men.
Writing provides a platform for me to present a China I am familiar with and I believe many people are interested in. I have witnessed its changes, and I have the first-hand materials of its people’s lives. I want to tell the stories of the people who have no access to have themselves heard.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process, and least favorite?
My favorite part is to see the book developing from zero to a published work. You have imagined many many times how it would look like, how you are going to write it, but you need to adjust your ideas while writing it, you see it gradually taking shape, and it never looks exactly the same as you imagined. This whole process is exciting. The least favorite part probably is the deadline. Deadline gives people pressure, but of course, it’s useful.
What issues and ideas are you hoping to explore during UWRF19?
I hope I could have a chance to talk to audiences and other authors about how feminism is developing in different countries, especially in developing countries; the challenges for different communities to create more opportunities for young people; how to make life more sustainable because we are facing huge challenges with the environment but we haven’t done enough. I want to discuss what could writers, journalists, activists, and artists do to help.
Who do you hope will be in the audience?
Young people, people from less privileged backgrounds, people who are seeking new ideas to change their own life and their communities. I also hope to see some audiences who are interested in Chinese stories and Chinese culture.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
If you believe in what you do – writing, then keep on doing what you do, meet the right people for advice, look for a good agent, be self-disciplined, and the best way to improve your writing skill is to sit down now and write.
For those unfamiliar with your work, what do you suggest they start with?
Under Red Skies is my first book. In this memoir, I weave together the stories of three generations of my family, from the daily poverty and political unrest in the past century to the lives of my generation who were born after the Reform and Opening Up and enjoy a more prosperous China.
My book starts with the story of how I was born in 1989 as an illegal second child under the One-Child Policy. My mother, a strong, fearless schoolteacher, risked everything by giving birth to me. I also write about my grandmother, who married at age 15, and fought to make way for her family during and after the Great Famine. My own and my family’s stories are intimately connected to the political and social changes of China in the past few decades.
What are you working on now? Where to next for your writing?
I have some projects being planned now. Since my first book was just published this year, right now, I am enjoying going to book festivals and events and talking to readers and other authors.
What are you most looking forward to at UWRF19?
Meet new people, go to many talks, watch performances and of course enjoy the wonderful local food.