Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott describes her month-long writing residency stay in Jilin, China as part of her 2019 McKitterick Prize win.
As I stepped off the plane in Beijing in August last year, en route to Jilin Province, I could not have predicted the intellectual and creative journey on which I was about to embark. I’d been invited to the Jilin International Writers’ conference in northern China after winning the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize for my debut novel, Swan Song.
I was honoured to be one of twelve writers from across Europe, North America and Australia chosen to join twelve Chinese writers for several weeks, travelling together throughout Jilin, the northeastern Chinese province bordering North Korea and Russia. Sponsored by the China Writers’ Association (founded in 1949 to support the work of Chinese authors), the programme’s mission was to promote a cross-cultural understanding of our lives as writers working and publishing in different countries around the world.
My Western colleagues and I arrived in Jilin’s capital city of Changchun, and were driven to a sprawling hotel, set in an idyllic forest landscape. We were greeted with a sumptuous banquet featuring endless courses of regional dishes – a generous ritual that would repeat itself thrice daily throughout our travels. The next morning, we convened for our first formal summit. Our Chinese counterparts were poets, journalists and novelists whose work ranged from ecological writing to social commentary. Some focused on contemporary urban life, others gave voice to rural labourers. Many drew from oral storytelling traditions, something particularly close to my heart as a writer raised in the American South.
In collective conversation, through interpreters, we compared experiences. We debated the value of Creative Writing programmes and discussed the business of writing in different markets. Concerns were shared that Eastern work was not more widely published in translation in Western markets, and vice versa. These exchanges drew us closer, establishing common ground. We were keen to pursue individual discussions but it quickly became apparent that our two translators could not possibly be present for twelve conversations at once. I felt frustrated that first afternoon, cursing my abandoned attempts to learn Chinese years before, when researching and writing a screenplay set in 1930s Shanghai. I found myself stripped of the one thing writers most rely on: words.
Lost in translation
Crucial to the endeavour of coming to know one another was establishing an ongoing dialogue about our work. Lacking a common language with which to discuss literature and ideas proved the greatest of challenges. Then, one by one, smartphones came out and translation tools were explored. There was a joy in smashing communication barriers through technology, but it was the human investment required that was profoundly meaningful. Each conversation – pieced together, phrase by phrase – was made all the more rewarding for the effort. We exchanged childhood tales. Literary influences. Details of past and future works. Writing processes and techniques.
Naturally there were lost-in-translation moments. Over a meal of surreal abundance, the Chinese novelist Ren Linju and I were discussing – through voice apps that audibly and visually translated dialogue – sources of inspiration. When he enthused about his passion for ‘Tall Boy’, I nodded, perplexed, straining to place the reference. Eventually, he looked at the Chinese text version of his speech onscreen and began to weep with laughter. ‘Not “Tall Boy”’, he clarified, ‘TOLSTOY!’ A stirring discussion of Anna Karenina ensued.
"Hearing my novel being read in Mandarin was at once humbling and thrilling"
With time, the translation aides seemed to vanish. Our bonds deepened through the course of collective adventures. Together we were given carefully curated experiences we would not have had as lone tourists. Throughout Jilin, private tours of cultural sites were led by experts ranging from botanists to folklorists. We hiked the northern side of Changbai Mountain, a dormant volcano and the highest mountain system on the eastern edge of Eurasia. Our efforts were rewarded with panoramic views of waterfalls and the aptly named Heaven Lake. We interacted with red-crowned cranes in their marshland habitat, and strolled through water lily reserves. One evening we visited a film studio from the Golden Age of Chinese cinema. Walking through the ghostly lot-turned-park, illuminated by hundreds of lanterns, I noticed bronze busts of characters from prewar Chinese films, which I recognised from my 1930s Shanghai research. My hosts and I bonded over a shared appreciation of Chinese screen classics.
Perhaps the most moving moment came when we formally shared our work one evening. We read extracts from our own books, which our interpreters repeated back in both English and Chinese. Each author reading their words in their native tongue had a visceral impact. Feeling the wave of comprehension ripple through the room when the extracts were translated and meaning took shape was electrifying. Hearing my novel Swan Song being read in Mandarin – with the occasional ‘Truman’ and ‘Capote’ peppering the tones and cadences that had become familiar during my time in Jilin – was at once humbling and thrilling.
By the end of our weeks together, my colleagues and I had developed genuine connections, based on a love of literature, a commitment to the craft of storytelling and a shared understanding of what it means to be an author.
As I embark on my second novel, the voices of my fellow Jilin authors continue to resonate. I recognised in each a desire to give voice to the human experience through narrative art. While I’m not sure precisely how our time together will manifest in my work, I think it will have something to do with the universal nature of creativity, which speaks directly to my current subjects – internationally renowned design innovators.
All writers face the blank page with the same anxieties and ambitions. We can’t help but be influenced by the paths that we’ve travelled. As a Chinese proverb observes, ‘He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.’
Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of The Author
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott was born and raised in Houston, Texas, before coming to call Los Angeles and London her adoptive homes. Swan Song, her first novel, was published in 2018 by Penguin Random House / Hutchinson. Named a Book of the Year by The Times, Swan Song was longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, shortlisted for the Goldsboro Glass Bell Award, and won the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize.