Manchester Literature Festival 2015 – Homera Cheema

Homera Cheema lives in Manchester and works as a desk officer for a humanitarian demining charity. In her spare time, she writes both creatively and critically. She holds a BA and MA in Politics and International Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and has a dedicated and serious interest in world literature.

Sonder magazine caught up with Adam Marek and Diao Dou to talk about the power of surrealism, the experience of writing and the rising popularity of the short story form. Where better to discuss such topics than at the very home of literary absurdism, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.  

Last year, the Manchester Literature Festival, in conjunction with Comma Press, brought highly acclaimed writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Sean O’Brien together for a discussion on the greatest short story writers of all time: Edgar Allan Poe and Anton Chekhov.  This year, the festival has seen a more international and comparative look at the modern short story, bringing together Diao Dou- noted as China’s most daring contemporary satirist, and Adam Marek, winner of the Arts Foundation Fellowship and author of two short story collections (The Stone Thrower and Instruction Manual for Swallowing).

The event, in part celebrating the launch of Diao Dou’s debut translated English collection Point of Origin, has been described as a stunning display of high wire literary acrobatics. Diao Dou’s collection is another gem found by Comma Press’ far reaching literary tentacles.  With their recent ‘Book of…’ series (Istanbul, Gaza, Rio and Tokyo), translated works have been commissioned allowing them to be appreciated by English-speaking audiences. Speaking to Adam on the importance of translated works he commented ‘…there are so many good short story writers around the world and without Comma Press we wouldn’t get to read their works’.

Both authors have been described as modern masters of the surreal, but Adam dismissed the title of master, speaking instead on the influence of Kafka- an introduction made oddly enough of by MTV.  ‘Metamorphosis was one of the first stories that mixed the surreal with the real- with the surreal already taking place the story plays out after that, magnifying his insecurities. My own stories contain elements of science fiction but really I’m using the surreal to explore everyday life and all the things that people experience.  Through the medium of the weird and uncanny you can shed more light on what’s going on.’  

In comparison to Adam’s view, Diao Dou takes surrealism in its stride ‘I’m not limited to surrealism but sometimes my work is raised to the level of surrealism…where realism is traditional, surrealism is an efficient way to fortify the story.’  Diao Dou worked as a journalist for many years, graduating from the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, and won the ninth annual Zhuang Zhongwen award in 2003.  His earlier work ‘Squatting’ appeared in a previous anthology by Comma Press Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China, and is a good example of Diao’s satirical work. “Humour is the best way to deal with censorship” he tells the audience “It’s a great weapon to attract the audience.”

As well as translation Adam has been involved in the diversification of the short story, by being involved in a few concept science-fiction anthologies.  Sophisticated sci-fi is probably too prosaic a term but Adam’s serious research into the subject matter really shows the effort taken in putting something conceptual together, as well as the dedicated approach by Comma Press to push the boundaries.  “The anthologies combine real science with short fiction and all great imaginative art comes from the fusion of two things. I’ve loved doing every one of them. The research part has included spending time at the Roselyn Institute in Edinburgh, meeting the scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep. Or visiting Jodrell bank and meeting people involved with research on exploding stars.  It really is brilliant inspiration.”  With the latest anthology entitled ‘Spindles’ on the nature of sleep science, where Adam got to be involved in sleep experiments first hand, it really is the stuff of sci-fi dreams and electric sheep.

For Adam, the surreal can also help project and magnify the inner thoughts and fears of a character.  His story, Testicular Cancer Vs. the Behemoth is exactly that; a man discovering he has cancer sees his world descend into the chaos of a 1950s B movie.  The story also proves to be an example of what Adam describes as a fusion of two things.

While Adam looks to real-life scientists as his source of surreal inspiration, Diao Dou in response to a question about what exactly he is satirising, spoke about the role of early 20th century writer Huysmans on his work, and specifically his transitory period between naturalism and the decadent movement.  “Huysmans wrote about the reality of the industrial age and modernism, and in China the delayed industrial boom meant that during the 70/80s the mass population were too busy working to enjoy literature. With immense change going on, surrealism opens up the context to ambiguity and short stories are a great way to educate people on that.  What Huysmans made me realise is that, through literature, there is a great deal of harmonising that can take place the human being and the natural.”  

With short story writers gaining notoriety (Alice Munroe won the Nobel Prize for Literature and George Saunders the Folio Prize), we also asked Adam what he thought about the ‘visibility’ of the  short story writer through social media.  “It’s becoming more and more important for writers, as they do a lot of self-promotion, and getting the level right is a balancing act. Personally I hate to blow my own trumpet… It’s something you have to do as there are huge quantities of fiction out there – more than it’s ever been before, you have to stand out to get an audience…I guess social media is a great tool for reaching new readers. I don’t write for myself; I write for readers, so it’s a good opportunity to attract more readers.  I am quite squeamish and shy but I enjoy blogging and getting responses to blogging.

It seems there is something enabling about the short story form which allows for an appreciation of not only the uncanny but of the other. With the rising popularity of the short story in general, it seems it is an interesting time to read new material and to compare the nature and interpretation of the short story from other cultures.  Which is exactly what this event strove to do.  Editor of Comma Press and presenter of the talk, spoke of the portable aspect of the short story making it more amenable to translation. Last year, publication of Iraq writer, Hasan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ was met with great success leading him to win the Independent Prize.   Blasim has since been acclaimed as the greatest living Iraqi writer.  The real take-away lesson for Adam is that “It’s always good to expand their reach into new reading.”  

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