Food for thought and a feast for the senses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am

The newspaper 'experts' nodded smugly and sagely; the bookmakers backed them up; the public - at least the book-reading minority - knew it; the bookshop stockists and the university professors knew it; the gods had pre-ordained it.

Ian McEwan was going to win the Man Booker Prize 2007 with his novel On Chesil Beach which, in sales figures, was bludgeoning the other five shortlisted entries combined, and which was on the way to becoming a set text from Hong Kong to Hollywood. McEwan's second Booker (after Amsterdam, the 1998 winner) was in the bag and the metaphorical engraver had already set about the trophy. So when astounded Dublin novelist Anne Enright was awarded the #50,000 cheque for The Gathering, a study of dysfunctional family life set in Ireland, she told the BBC: 'I was ready for anything - possibly anything except that ...' before earmarking some of the money for the purchase of a new kitchen.

Since October's triumph, Enright, who will be behind the lectern for this year's Man Distinguished Lecture at the University of Hong Kong on March11, has let herself be anything but carried away on a euphoric victory wave.

Describing herself as a 'working' and 'unstinting' writer, she returned to her computer soon after claiming her winner's laurels to write stories and edit at least one anthology. But that hasn't stopped her undertaking a rock 'n' roll-sized world tour on the back of The Gathering, with invitations to appear at literary festivals and deliver keynote speeches in danger of turning into

a torrent. The motions of the planets will also be rewarding the festival with a visit from Dava Sobel (at the Blast Off! forum with Marina Benjamin of Rocket Dreams, March 9). Author of The Planets, which for the scientifically hamstrung goes a long way to answering cosmic questions with a down-to-Earth dose of searing commonsense - while still cementing the spheres' places in our affections and cultural orbits - Sobel's indefatigable curiosity also produced her other best-sellers, Longitude and Galileo's Daughter. Asian authors are naturally prominent in the lineup, with the biggest name perhaps being that of journalist Fatima Bhutto. A niece of assassinated former prime minister Benazir, Fatima produced a volume of poetry at 15, and two years ago published 8.50AM October 8, 2005, a collection of the testimonies of survivors of the earthquake that shook Pakistan at that time. Its proceeds continue to be donated to child survivors of the disaster.

Also keenly anticipated is shooting star Lijia Zhang. Her career took off after she spent 10 years working in a mainland rocket factory, where she was sent at 16 when her schooling was abruptly curtailed. Seeking deeper satisfaction than ordnance could give her, she taught herself English. The result was her first novel in English, Lotus, which she completed recently.

PEN/Hemingway Award winner and Granta Best Young American Novelist Yiyun Li, who hails from Beijing, is a contributor to The New Yorker, The Guardian and The New York Times. Together with Madeleine Thien, a Canadian novelist of Malaysian-Chinese extraction, Li will be discussing the craft of short-story writing with Hong Kong novelist Xu Xi.

Malaysia's Tan Twan Eng, author of The Gift of Rain, will join fellow novelist Patrick Gale, in conversation with writer Rosemary Sayer, to discuss the sort of hand-wringing despair only fictional protagonists ever have to confront.

'Indian Spice Girls' Manreet Sodhi Someshwar and Priya Basil join fellow novelist David Davidar in an appetising programme hosted by restaurant Bombay Dreams on Wyndham Street, Central. The focus of the event is Indian food and literature, and accordingly begins with a buffet lunch.

And in a session that reflects the growing international appeal of the Hong Kong Literary Festival, the highly decorated Mitsuyo Kakuta, author of more than 40 books, joins Alexandra Harney to talk about the new generation of contemporary Japanese writers. The event will be conducted in Japanese.

Philip Ardagh, described as a 'national treasure' by The Independent, has written 70-odd books for children. That makes him the natural choice for an event revealing the secrets of how to make the art of reading a joy for juniors.

Poetry, festival organisers said, would have its day, in a spectacular way, when a posse of published and unpublished poets battle for space on the Fringe Club stage.

Meanwhile, in these dangerous times, when the relationship between Islam and the west is regularly contorted, anybody who can illuminate a potential way forward no doubt deserves a voice. The Literary Festival has identified Ziauddin Sardar, author of more than 40 books on Islam, Islamic cultural studies and other related subjects, and a visiting Professor of Postcolonial Studies at City University, London, as that man.

And providing further psychological and geographical insight into the Middle East will be acclaimed travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron. Having made his name with three books about the region in the late 1960s, Thubron has since turned his attention to China (as well as the rest of the globe), a subject he revisited in his latest book, Shadow of the Silk Road.

Full details of all Hong Kong Literary Festival events can be found at

Stephen McCarty is the South China Morning Post books editor