Hear Professor Julianne Schultz AM, founding editor of Griffith Review, and three outstanding young writers as they provide fresh perspectives on life in the world’s most populous region.
Each writer describes what their country feels like up close and personal, with an insider’s eye and passion.
Griffith Review: New Asia Now
10 August 2015
National Library of Australia
Speakers: Alex Philp, Dr Julianne Schultz, Miguel Syjuco, Annie Zaidi, Sheng Keyi and Dr Jing Han (translator)
Alex Philp: My name’s Alex Philp and I’m the Director of Overseas Collections Management here at the National Library and it’s my pleasure to be your host for the evening. Before we start I’d like to acknowledge the Nanbury and Nanawal people who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and to pay our respects to their elders past and present. It’s my pleasure to see so many of you here this evening for the second Griffith Review Conversation of 2015. We’re very pleased to continue this collaboration with Griffith Review and editor, Dr Julianne Schultz. The National Library is proud to be the largest and most actively developing research collections on Asia in Australia. The Library’s Asian collections focus on contemporary from the 19th century onwards and we hold over 650,000 volumes in Asian languages. Systematic collecting began in the 1950s and we cover a range of subjects such as history, politics, current affairs, society and culture. The collections are strongest for the countries of east and Southeast Asia and there are also very rich holdings of English language material on Asia. A couple of years ago the Library did a strategic review into the scope of our overseas collecting and we affirmed our focus again on acquiring Asian language material. We’re immensely proud of it and we see it as important for our role in supporting first class scholarship and researchers. The collection helps these researchers to put Australia in a global context.
Now tonight’s conversation will focus on edition 49 of Griffith Review, New Asia Now, which is a journey through the writing and diversity of the Asian region. Tonight we welcome three of its contributors, Annie Zaidi, Sheng Keyi and Miguel Syjuco who hail from India, China and the Philippines respectively and we also welcome the issue’s co-editor, Dr Julianne Schultz to the Library. Dr Schultz is founding editor of the Griffith Review and a professor at Griffith Centre for Cultural Research. Dr Schultz was appointed as a member of the order of Australia in 2009 for her services to the community and as a journalist, writer, editor and academic. Dr Schultz will chair tonight’s discussion. Annie Zaidi writes in both English and Hindi across genres. As a journalist she has reported from across India and has collaborated on an illustrated book of poetry, has published prizewinning plays and her essays and short stories have been widely anthologised. Her essay embodying Venus about nudity as a symbol of domination and protest is published in New Asia Now. Sheng Keyi has gone from promising talent to established writer to banned author in the space of six novels. She’s won among others the Chinese People’s Literature Prize, the Yu Dafu Prize for Fiction, the Chinese Literature Media Award and the Top 20 Novelists of the Future Prize. Northern Girls was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize and her story, A Little Life, is published in New Asia Now. Miguel Syjuco won the Man Asia Literary Prize for his novel, Ilustrado, a Satirical Look at the Filipino Political Elite. He writes about topics unsuitable for the polite dinner table, politics, religion, sex and human folly. His essay, Beating Dickheads, about the role of the writer in a corrupt political environment is published in New Asia Now.
We also have with us Dr Jing Han, head of subtitling and program preparation for SBS TV who will act as translator this evening. Dr Han also lectures on translation studies at the University of Sydney ... sorry, University of Western Sydney ... and has presented frequently at national and international conferences. She’s just trans ... completed the translation of the Chinese writer’s Ye Xin’s novel, Debt of Love. Please join me in welcoming our guest speakers to the National Library.
Julianne Schultz: Well thank you very much for being here, it’s a great pleasure to be back here for another of these wonderful conversations with contributors to an edition of Griffith’s Review. This is I think without question our most ambitious edition ever. It’s number 49 and across two volumes we have 49 writers from 20 countries. When we started this project which was very generously supported by the Australia Council it was at a time when there was more public focus, I think it’s fair to say, on what the Asian century would mean and how we as Australians would interact in the region. And so we at Griffith Review had the feeling that there’d been a lot of concentration, a lot for discussion about the trade issues and about the commercial dimensions and some discussion about people to people activities but very little conversation about the points of cultural exchange, of really understanding the very great diversity of the countries in the region with whom we were trying to position ourselves. And so we had this mad crazy idea that we would try and find a group of writers who were all born since 1970 so a sort of a younger generation of writers from countries in this whole vast region who might like to write for Griffith Review. So working with my co-editor, Jane Caymans, who runs the Asia-Pacific Writers’ and Translators’ Association and who was a founding director of the Hong Kong Writers’ Festival who spent most of her career working in the region and has very strong connections to the sort of writing networks, we put out a call and received within a very short period of time I think about 300 submissions from writers across the region. When we started going through them there were probably more than 200 that we could very comfortably have published ‘though the standard, the quality, the insights were exceptional so getting it down to 49 across the two volumes, both the print volume and the supplementary volume was a very difficult task but I’m very pleased with what we’ve come up with. This group of young writers really gives ... it brings a great insight into their countries and the changing nature of their societies, their interrogation of the history, the social relations and so on. So this is a great sort of exercise in old-fashioned cultural diplomacy in a way, to now have the opportunity to bring some of these writers to Australia to hear from them directly.
One of the things that was very apparent in the writing was that everyone was dealing with evolving political systems one way or another and there was a sort of a sense of ... Miguel addresses this very directly in his essay, Beating Dickheads, of the corruption of the Philippines and so I’m sort of interested in drawing you each in to talk about the sort of similarities and differences in terms of this evolving political ... evolving political systems in your countries and the points of similarities, whether it’s in terms of corruption, dynastic power, evolving democracies and so on. Miguel, would you like to start the conversation ...
Miguel Syjuco: Sure.
Julianne Schultz: ... by talking ...
Miguel Syjuco: Good evening, everyone, thank you for coming tonight. I come from a very corrupt and complicated, troubled society but really what it is is it’s a society where these global problems of inequality and institutionalised oppression have collected and deepened into systems. And in the Philippines there’s this sense of hopelessness, that our votes mean nothing and so the premise of my piece was that given that there’s no way we can get rid of these dynastic families who have established these neofeudal kingdoms in their region the most that the writer can do I think is really look to the long game and take from them, take from these politicians their vanity and take from them their legacy so that they will thieve and they will pillage all they like as they have for decades but that the least we can do is make sure that the world knows and ... what they’re doing and that they know that we know so this is sort of the premise that I’ve put together because really there’s this sense that there’s nothing we can do. Our current president, Benigno Aquino III, is the son of a former president, the son of Ferdinand Marcos, the deceased dictator, is now a senator and a frontrunner in the elections, Joseph Estrada, a president who was ousted for plundering billions has been pardoned and is now mayor of Manila and is one of the most powerful men in the country, his mistress has ensconced herself in an adjacent city as mayor, I mean it’s absolutely ridiculous and we just can’t do anything about it.
Julianne Schultz: But you found that by wri ... you’ve written about many of the rumours and stories ... you’ve written about many of the rumours and stories and ... well not rumours but the real situations in the Philippines for his piece in a way that you would not have been able to write about it at home, is that fair to say?
Miguel Syjuco: I think so, I think the way I wrote about it would not have been published in any print journal or magazine in the Philippines partly because what I’m doing is I’m voicing a lot of the rumours and frustrations that the peoples discuss in private but would be sued or punished for printing or discussing in public. In the Philippines defamation is a crime, it’s punishable with six years in prison if you print something against a politician. However true or not it is they have the right to file a case and very often what they’ll do is they’ll file a case in a far flung jurisdiction so that the reporter who has ... has to travel at his or her own expense, get ... take time away from their job. Often these are jurisdictions that are very inhospitable, they’re often very ... they’re ruled by the politician themselves so there’s this harassment and it creates the sense of self-censorship so rumour, innuendo you know as healthy a thing these are in ... for people who are frustrated, there ... and as much as we may have a free press in the Philippines there’s still many things that we can’t say.
Julianne Schultz: So, Annie, when you were ... first read Miguel’s piece, you said oh this sounds like India but maybe we’re not so bad.
Annie Zaidi: When I first read it there’s this line in his essay where he says that it is the most corrupt and ... or something to that effect and I was ... my instinctive reaction was no, no, he doesn’t know India but by the time I came to the end of his piece I was like mm, maybe it is a little worse. India has very serious corruption issues. Corruption was one of the ... one of the most important election issues in our last parliamentary elections. There is ... I don’t know if you use the same term here, scams so there is a scam related to everything. Ever since I’ve grown up I’ve grown up hearing about scams. There was something called a fodder scam where you know fodder for cattle and animals, there were people making money off of that, there was something called coffin scam where people was making money on dead soldiers’ then there was some other scam and then there was ... it’s a series of scams and it is a known fact in India that almost everyone in government and the bureaucracy makes money illegally, the question is who makes how much.
And in India it is also ... it’s similar to what Miguel was saying, that reporters face very serious risks. There is of course this whole thing of defamation and using policy and law against the people but the other thing is that people are just often killed especially in smaller towns and places where people are not directly connected to powerful people. Whistle-blowers are often killed. One of the major campaigns that has been running for the last 10 years or more actually has been the Whistle-blower’s Act. We’ve been asking for protection for whistle-blowers, we still don’t have that and in one of the recent cases, the Vyapim scam, it’s a scam related to jobs and admission into professional courses, into medical colleges and things like that. Somebody blew the lid off that scan and apparently at least 25 people who were witnesses or accused in the scam have died mysteriously, one after the other so the corruption is very serious and it is ... the saddest part about that is that we hear about the biggest things, we don’t even hear about the ways in which the poorest and the most vulnerable communities affected by very small degrees of corruption.
Julianne Schultz: So, Keyi, when we talked about this yesterday at the Byron Writers’ Festival and you’d listened to the descriptions of the Philippines and India and you said well that’s the description of corruption, I’m talking about something which is rotten. How do you explain that in terms of your understanding of China now?
Translator: [Chinese translation].
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: Now we seem to entering the great competition of a corruption and I don’t think any country can compete with China in terms of corruption and in ... especially in terms of reporters you know the terms of the corruption cases have been reported and then they’re talking about number of money being embezzled in terms of billions and they’re talking about in terms of tons, how many cash ... the cash is actually weighed in tons and they have empty houses to ... just to put the cash embezzled. So in that sense it is seriously corrupted in many places in many circumstances but many circumstances have not been reported either.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: I should feel proud because China is wealthy now but unfortunately in facing corruption I often feel speechless and corruption is only one of many, many problems that China faces.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: I feel speechless is ... on the one hand is like I can’t raise my voice or my voice can’t be heard, on the other hand I also feel the sense of hopeless and despair.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: But as a fictional writer at least I can realise dreams that I can’t realise in reality, for example I can write there is a corruption, write reality in the form of a fiction and that’s the way that I’m using.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: Well at least for Filipino and India writers, they can publish their writing on the website online but in China that is also very difficult. You can publish certain things but it can be censored quite quickly and bent or deleted. Our government has hired many expertise and they go through just using keywords and then in the matter of seconds your postings can be discovered or detected and can be deleted quite quickly so in the way of censoring and in ... to achieve the way that they want to achieve so government in the end achieve the kind of a peaceful harmonious life the way they want it.
Julianne Schultz: Miguel, so in terms of your writing you do that as well, of writing in fiction. I mean you’ve ... both you and Annie have both had experience of writing as journalists but then choosing to write fictional work for different purposes. I mean can you just reflect on that extra power that you get of writing in fiction and the difference between reporting and writing?
Miguel Syjuco: Yeah, I consider myself primarily a novelist. When my first novel, Ilustrado was 150 years of Philippine history through the lens of the elite and the failure over the decades of our leaders to create a society that actually works and I wanted to take a sympathetic but very frank look at that. I come from a privileged background, many of my friends that I grew up with wanted to contribute to the society in some way but there are ... the structures that have been put up ... the church, government, family expectations, patriarchy, media that is incredibly sensationalistic, lack of education, for example where the difference with China is that we can publish anything but nobody cares because nobody reads it. Maybe the middle class does or the intellectual elite but the majority of the 100 million Filipinos are too busy putting food on the table to actually care so there’s these ... I find it very interesting how we’ve configured our societies to allow the powerful to remain in power so what I’ve tried to do is I’ve tried to look at that with my first novel.
In the second novel I’ve ... it’s a novel about sex, power, corruption and gender politics as well and through satire and through sort of playing with fact and fiction I’m interested in examining how I can point the spotlight on these problems and these dastardly dickheads really who have led our country into this pit that it’s in. Because I believe that writing is just really part of a conversation, I don’t have any illusion that my novel will be you know find its way into the grimy hands of a revolutionary and they’ll take onto the streets and overthrow the government and create a utopia but I believe that it’s part of a conversation that we’ve been having over the ages and over count ... across cultures and I’d like to think that the ... I’m lucky that my work is actually taught in universities and high schools in the Philippines, that these young men and women who are reading it who will one day be the future leaders, whether of corporations, of government or even just families will be engaged with these issues and see them a little bit more clearly than they otherwise would.
Julianne Schultz: So, Annie, is that sort of part of your motivation as well in your writing? Especially your writing about women in India.
Annie Zaidi: I tend to work in a little more compartmentalised fashion, I ... when I have something political to say my instinct is to say it in nonfiction primarily and reach our more directly. Also I trained as a journalist, I was a reporter for a long time and I still continue to freelance for newspapers and websites and things so if there is something very direct to be said and urgent to be said I prefer to say it in nonfiction through a column or something like that. I turn to fiction I think to say the things that are either nuanced that nonfiction doesn’t make sense or to say things that I really couldn’t say so for instance one of my books is called The Good Indian Girl which I co-authored with a friend of a mine, Smriti Ravindra. It is about the idea of the good Indian girl, what is the Indian girl? Who qualifies as Indian enough and not Indian enough and things like that? And I could have taken a more directly either fictional or more directly nonfictional approach to that but a lot of the stories we wanted to tell were our stories, the stories of our contemporaries, our friends, friends of friends so I kind of took the middle path there which is take that same material and then try and ... try and lead up each story, each anecdote to a kind of larger picture about who this person is and what her motivations and what her compulsions are and how she fails and things like that. In my drama and script work I tend to often draw upon my journalism, that’s ... there are things that you see as a reporter and a journalist and you have written about them in direct reportage but the still the sense that you still haven’t finished saying what you wanted to say and the emotional quality of what ... what exactly is the struggle that’s happening here, you cannot put that in nonfiction, that’s when I turn to fiction.
Julianne Schultz: That’s interesting, I mean that’s a good distinction between to get that extra level of emotional engagement which is so ... is going to be lacking in a straight report. In your story that you’ve written for Griffith Review you tell ... it’s a piece of fiction and it tells the story of a young girl who has got pregnant when she’s been aw ... gone away from her village and the story has what appears to be an almost dreamlike ending, that she ... the family agrees to allow her to have the baby. But in fact that was a construct as you ... I understand the story is drawn from a real experience of a relative of yours who went through a rather much more damaging experience of having a very late-term termination because of the shame that attached to having a child out of wedlock in modern China. Maybe you would like to talk about both the story and also what that says about the position of women in China now because I think that’s something which is very largely unknown in Australia.
Translator: [Chinese translation].
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: In this review I published a short story, is talking about 18 year old university girl. She fell pregnant and the problems that she’s facing and basically two things, whether to give birth to the baby or not. First in nature unwed parents to have children it’s illegal so even if you have the child in the end you have to pay a hefty fine. So for the family, for this girl’s family which is very poor so this is a very harsh reality for them and even more so than being illegal or illegitimate child.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: Just a few month ago there was actually real thing that happening in China, a couple ... a lover ... a couple and they on the brink of breaking up they found out the girl actually fell pregnant and the girl who was educated in America for eight to nine years so she knows how to be independent woman and she also knows how to fight for your own rights and so she decided to have the child.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: So she has ... she initiated a public funding through website asking people to donate money so that she could pay the hefty fine but her purpose is not really about get ... collecting money, she just want to raise awareness and also as a way of resistance and telling people the system is not right and also women should have a right to decide whether have ... want to have children or not regardless of whether they are married or not.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: In China, single unmarried women it is illegal to try to freeze your eggs so some rich and wealthy women so that ... so they’re taken to America or some other countries to get the eggs ... get frozen so until one day they may want to have children.
Julianne Schultz: So, Annie, in your story you write about shame and nudity and the way that gets sort of in the heads if you like of young women in India but I’m interested both in hearing you talk a little bit about what you’ve written but also putting it in the context of your recent mammoth undertaking of putting together a collection of 2,000 years of Indian women’s writing and finding these same fault lines of shame and ostracism, being there in that writing over that long period.
Annie Zaidi: So where women are concerned shame comes from multiple sources. In my essay I focus on nudity and on clothes partly because I’m noticing even in my generation and in generations to come the way women’s bodies are used to shame them, sometimes directly in the form of you know when ... when you want to humiliate a woman in public you take off her clothes in public, you strip her in public and you kind of parade her around the village or the town or whatever. Sometimes there’s a protest and if ... I’ve seen pictures of some random person trying to take the clothes off a woman in public with no particular agenda attached to anything, just as a way of humiliating her and harrassing her. And then there is the question of the body and the ... we grew up with a very private view of our bodies in India by and large particularly urban India but I think in most parts of India it is not common to see women wearing very few clothes or like I write in my essay, Mumbai is a seaside town. We’ve got several beaches but you never see any women in any swimsuits.
You see men in the beach sometimes with their shirts off and things like that but never women so the rules obviously are different for men and women and that’s one of the things obviously that does bother me but also the way in which shame particularly applies to women in the sense that if you can shame her, if you can establish that she is open to shame and that she has done something shameful either by showing her body or the fact that you may even have photographed her body without her knowledge and are putting it up on YouTube or whatever. Then that becomes a way of shaming the woman even though she really had no part to play in this display of herself. Then that further becomes a way of punishing her because if she can be shamed then you can further impose punishment upon punishment of her whether that’s through social ostracism or whether it’s through legal laws, the way it operates. So those are some of the things that I was struggling with.
Even now recently after the essay was published in fact I read a news report about a woman ... about a case in which there was this picnic spot where couples often go to hang out because the parents don’t approve of them hanging out at home so they look for quiet nooks and corners and this is true of all Indian cities and what often happens actually is that they’re completely beleaguered because sometimes the police will come and arrest them and this just happened in Mumbai a couple of days back where there were this couple in a hotel room and the police just raided them and charging them with obscenity and public decency [indecency], whatever but they were not in public, they were in a hotel room. The police ... actually the police has no mandate, it is completely legal, the courts have ruled against it but the police keep doing it. But also it’s not just the police, it’s also other people who are looking to kind of prey upon vulnerable young people, both men and women but particularly women so very often couples are surrounded in isolated areas, the woman is often gang raped, sometimes they’re filmed, photographed and then that is used as evidence against them and held as a sort of ... as a form of blackmail that she will hold her peace and not go to the police.
So there are all these different pushes and pulls in different directions and shame is particularly something that like in Sheng’s story there is the shame of say an unwanted child or ... but even if it’s a wanted child there is still shame attached. In India even now even in very big cities like Mumbai and Delhi single people and particularly single girls cannot find apartments to rent. It’s sort of ... it’s just seen as you know oh that there will be trouble or oh she will bring men home or oh the fact that some woman who is not married to a man may be hanging out with her friends or somebody in her own ... in her own house which she is paying for will somehow shame the entire housing colony or this building. There’re multiple layers and levels of shame operating with regard to women in our culture.
Miguel Syjuco: Can I say something?
Julianne Schultz: Yes please.
Miguel Syjuco: Can I say ... hello .. I just want to say something about speaking of multiple levels of shame really and we talk about new Asia now and one of the things that I’ve taken from this, this wonderful landmark volume is really what characterises Asia is its interconnectedness with the east and the west. Asia’s becoming more emergent, we’re seeing more of an ... of the effects and influence of Asia on the rest of the world and vice versa. And it strikes me that you know when we’re talking about the issues here in India, in China, in the Philippines and we ... so we tend to lose sight of the fact that these are global issues and that the shame really is humanity’s shame. If we’re talking these gang rapes in India they are directly connected to the fact that there is institutionalised violence against women and minorities or the less powerful all around the world. 125 million women it’s estimated are ... have suffered genital mutilation around the world, one in three mil ... one in three women in the world have been sexually assaulted or raped, one in three. Think about that, that’s crazy. 60 million women are denied education, 10 million are sold into slavery, a thousand Pakistani women every year are killed for honour. I think something like 82 or 81 countries in the world have made homosexuality illegal, some of it punishable by death in some countries. I mean this is a shameful thing that we should all be very concerned about. And it’s just something that has really struck me when I’m reading this volume, is that these issues are everyone’s.
You know you see this with refugees, for example. I live in Italy right now and there are these ... by boatloads of thousands and I know this is sounds very familiar to Australia ... thousands of people are coming ... arriving on these shores because why? They have to the east of them war, to the south of them poverty, to the west of them they have Islamic fundamentalism and so what do they have? They have the sea to the north, this dangerous terrible sea and the unknown and yet they’re so desperate that they will take to boats and risk their lives for the promise of hope because they’ve long given up hope and I think this is a shameful thing that we’re not getting together as human beings. We can send someone to the moon, we can you know create all these meticulous systems of ... for our entertainment and for our wealth and yet we’re not able to solve these problems together.
Julianne Schultz: One of the things that really struck me when ... with a lot of the writing that came in for this collection is that sort of sense of interrogating both the shared history and the shared experience but also finding the particular wellsprings of problems in individual societies and I think that one of the values of this volume in a way because it’s a sort of peculiar Australian conceit in a way, that you could manage to pull together a volume that represents such a vast number of countries all at you know in hugely different circumstances but I do think that what you’re saying is that what we get is some ... some sort of refraction that gives us a real insight into shared issues and shared ways of dealing with them in a way.
Miguel Syjuco: Yeah, yeah, I think so, I think of these issues as ... it’s like a blanket of snow, in the places where the problems are deeper the snow will collect even deeper but everything gets blanketed with it and we tend to forget particularly when we’re looking just at these wellsprings but of course it is I think helpful to look at how these different cultures are creating these systems and hopefully tackling them.
Julianne Schultz: Sheng, your new ... do you want to talk about your new novel? It seems to ...
Sheng Keyi: Death Fugue? Or ...
Julianne Schultz: No, the ... yes, the one that you’re still writing about the .. with the ... you don’t have to if you don’t want to.
Sheng Keyi: Yeah, that’s secret ...
Julianne Schultz: Oh still secret, okay, that’s fine, I wasn’t sure whether it was secret or not, somebody ...
Sheng Keyi: I can talk a little.
Julianne Schultz: Just a taste because I think it goes to these issues.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: My new novel is again about Chinese women and actually it is very hard for me to write and my inspiration only came from a piece of news that I heard. The news says that they have caught a company, illegal company running a surrogate ... surrogate mothers and surrogacy and that company was shut down so ... and then based on that I start imagining my own story and in my story, my novel, there are four women, they’re coming from different places, because of ... for survival and for money as well so they decided to join this company to be a surrogate mother.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: The company, the management system is a bit like concentration camp. Women who are there, they have no freedom at all and they ... the methods that are used are kind of very extreme to manage them. Basically they regard surrogacy or having babies for other women as products so they need to provide perfect and complete satisfied products to their clients and so by doing that they installed a perfect, kind of a perfect regime which includes sleeping, the time you go to bed and the time you get up and what meals you have and what sort of interests you should have so all streamlined in a rigid method so this story’s really about you know absurd and satirical-type stuff.
Julianne Schultz: Now, Annie, in India obviously this is something which is quite widespread already, isn’t it?
Annie Zaidi: Yes, in fact the moment she said it I was just nodding and thinking to myself that the issues are so similar across so many of our countries. Surrogacy has been ... India has been kind of focal point for surrogate parenthood for a while now. I don’t know what it’s like in China, I don’t know if it’s ... if the kind of im ... regimen imposed upon the surrogate mothers is quite as harsh. I do know that a regimen is imposed. I also know that the needs of the surrogate mother are not really seen as paramount. Her body just does become a kind of ... a machine that is going to deliver something. In fact recently there was a case where this quite well known and fairly posh clinic was busted after one of the girls who was an egg donor died. An interesting thing was that she was underage actually and her family claimed not to know at all what she was doing but she lied to them saying she had a job but she couldn’t find a ... actual job so she used to go to this clinic and she wasn’t even 18 year and the clinic hadn’t bothered to take her family into confidence, they hadn’t bothered to verify her age or typically with surrogate mothers, they hire women who have been mothers before but for egg donors they’ll just take anyone, any young girl. And it’s a kind of exploitation actually but we’re still kind of having debates about it, there’s people ... activists are pushing for a new law to monitor and control surrogate parenthood but there’s ... so far I don’t know if there’s been much progress on that front.
Julianne Schultz: It’s been an interesting year because of the trade effectively in surrogate children especially from India and Thailand which has raised a whole series of other issues. I mean I didn’t actually anticipate that we would have this sort of gender thing as the sort of central flashpoint but it’s been interesting the way that it’s evolved and, Miguel, your story that you tell about your cor ... one of your many corrupt politicians and the reproductive rights, the senator whose plagiarism you know created such an issue in your writing.
Miguel Syjuco: Yeah well I mean again it’s really the systems that have allowed for these terrible tragedies on the personal level. I mean the Philippines, we were trying for many years I think, for the past 12 years, every year the Congress has tried to enact a reproductive health law and the Catholic Church has done everything it could to stymie it. They threatened to excommunicate the President; they threatened certain professors and universities with heresy ... I mean what is this, the inquisition? I mean it’s ridiculous ... if these politicians and professors supported this bill and in the end what was passed was a very watered-down bill. I mean the Philippines is a country of 100 million people, our biggest export really is warm bodies, we send Filipinos all around the world and these Filipinos remit their salaries which account for something like ... I think at last count was 10 or $15b, a vast amount of our GDP. And you know overpopulation is a problem, so much so that some families who earn a $1 a day because they have no access to reproductive health options, education, contraception, they have 10 children and so what happens is you know going back to exploitation and surrogacy, what happens is some of these families will sell off their daughters to cybersex dens so that someone in England can ... some paedophile can watch this wom ... this young girl be sexually abused.
And so what happened was ... in the Philippines there was this one senator, Tito Sotto, who will go down in history as a very infamous terrible politician if I have anything to do with it, he kept pla ... he plagiarised a lot of terr ... plagiarised and misrepresented a lot of information in his landmark speeches in the senate and some journalists found that he had plagiarised and they talked about it and in other countries this would have possibly resulted in a reprimand or even his resignation but no, not in the Philippines where impunity is such a problem. What he did was in the second speech, his follow-up speech he plagiarised again just as a big you know screw you all, you can’t touch me. And then his third speech he plagiarised again and his fourth speech you can imagine what he did, he plagiarised again. And this time he plagiarised from Bobby Kennedy speech from 1962 and so what I did is I wrote Bobby Kennedy’s daughter, Kerry Kennedy, and they said well look at ... this is what this terrible politician is doing, he’s taking your father’s words and ideas and misre ... you know warping them, really, not just misrepresenting them, he’s warping them and using them for something completely opposite to what you and your family have often fought for and it was only then, it was only then with the international attention that the senator saw fit to apologise. But you know there was a case ... nothing happened. There was a case launched against him in the Senate Ethics Committee but he’s still one of the most popular senators around and he’ll be laughing all the way to the bank as his kids one day become senators and continue on in the family business.
Julianne Schultz: But you were advised, having had a part in this, that it was probably best that summer not to go ... not to go back home for the holidays or ...
Miguel Syjuco: Some friends in the senate said that you know you never know and he’s very upset with you and may ... might be best that you don’t come home for Christmas. I went home anyway but ... nothing happened but I was scared, I was a little bit scared ‘cause you never know with these dickheads you know there’s just this sense that we can’t speak about what needs to be spoken. So I'm ... the senator was pilloried because of ... because of his actions online, there were memes made about him, hashtags were created, Sottocopy became very popular term for plagiarism. And he was embarrassed, we mocked him because we had no other option but .. to do that and it was revealed later that he was behind the ... this bill that would increase the penalty for defamation twofold so 12 years rather than the regular six years if that defamation was implemented online. So if you Facebook something about him or if you tweet something about him you could be slapped with 12 years in prison.
Julianne Schultz: So, Keyi, your new book or your current look, Death Fugue, you’ve published that in English, not in Chinese so how do you draw the distinction between what you feel you can say at home and what you want to say in a different ... in a different milieu that’s not going to be subject to the same level of control?
Translator: [Chinese translation].
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: My book, my novel, Death Fugue, was only published ... the Chinese version was only published in Hong Kong and Taiwan, not in mainland China and the English version was recently published. The ... I actually sent a manuscript to several publishing houses in China in mainland but were all rejected and one of the chief editors wrote me a long letter explaining why they couldn't publish the novel. Actually I understand, I understand his position and when I wrote this novel I kind of knew it wouldn’t be able to be published in mainland China.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: My novel is about a political event that happened over 20 years and I actually myself didn’t experience that event and it’s also my imagination because at the time I lived in a very remote village but as I grow up and I feel ... I realised that history is such important part in our life and sometimes the history’s not presented in impartial way, sometimes it’s actually in a partial way and sometimes it’s even a false way so I feel like I really need to give myself a truthful account of that part of history and I would also like to think that a young generation in China would benefit from knowing that part of history.
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: I have no intention to offend anyone but if I feel passionate about some topic and I need to write about it while I have no intention to offend anyone else but if I do not write what I am passionate about then I’ll offend myself and that’s also not the thing I would like to do.
Julianne Schultz: Interesting. Is that something which is important for both of you as well? You know being true to yourself in terms of what you’re writing?
Miguel Syjuco: Oh yeah, absolutely but I want to offend people you know politicians want to be called honourable, they want to be called you know the right honourable whatever and therefore if we can offend them, mock them, we take ... we’re stripping them of that even though you know ...
Julianne Schultz: But may be you have a particular priv ... you know you’ve got a particularly privileged position, I mean in the sense that you’re mobile, you’ve been educated internationally, you’ve spent you know you move easily between countries. Maybe ... do you feel that privilege in your own ...
Miguel Syjuco: I certainly do but I also feel that as a responsibility. Because I have that privilege, because I’m an expatriate Filipino who’s chosen to live abroad because I want to study these different countries and see how they work and they don’t work I take it upon myself to say the things that many Filipinos are thinking or saying in private but cannot say in public.
Julianne Schultz: And, Annie, do you ..?
Annie Zaidi: I don’t like to offend people, I have to confess, I am very careful about what I am saying most of the time. Partly also because ... because my journalist training, you have to be careful, you have to kind of .. not just because I’m afraid of defamation, because journalism stands on that ... on this assumption that one will not say anything irresponsibly so I try and be responsible about what I say. But it is true that it ... I don’t see the point of writing if I can’t say what I really want to say as well so if I can’t say it in nonfiction then I’ll say it in fiction.
Julianne Schultz: In fiction or plays or ..
Annie Zaidi: Or I’ll say it in plays or I’ll say it in a script, I’ll say it in a comic, I’ll say it somehow but I will.
Julianne Schultz: I must say that one of the things that was very striking for me as we were editing this collection was that the openness and the frankness and the intensity with which many of the writers were writing and the ... and I said on the radio this afternoon when I explaining it, it struck me that we’ve got quite a number of Australian writers including some who are here tonight who’ve written very, very powerfully as well but there was a sort of ... almost a sense that the Australian writers were being a bit more careful because they were writing in a publication that was essentially being published in their home country whereas the freedom that comes from publishing elsewhere is ... is a plus as well which is sort of interesting.
Annie Zaidi: That is true because I think if I was writing the same memoir for my country I would have written it in a different way. Here there are things that ... that I can link the concept of shame and bodies to an international kind of movement that is ... that ... and it is true that it is ... bodies are used internationally in different ways etc but in my own country I think I would have been a little more aware of a kind of backlash that may happen, not necessarily actually from people who are on the other side of the fence, not nece .. politically. Very often if people are very familiar with a culture they tend to nit-pick as well so a small thing which ... of cultural nuance is something that they will pick up on and argue about and completely overlook the broad point that you’re trying to make.
Julianne Schultz: So, Keyi, is there anything else that you’d like to add to that?
Sheng Keyi: [Chinese].
Translator: I don’t think I’m a brave writer but when I face my work or face my readers I just need to be honest to myself but perhaps to be honest also requires courage.
Julianne Schultz: Well thank you all very much indeed ...
End of recording