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A lifelong love of literature

For David Parker, running the Man Asian Literary Prize is a perfect fit, writes Doretta Lau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 3:10pm

Under executive director David Parker, the Man Asian Literary Prize has evolved into the most sought-after award of its kind in the region.

It has also evolved from an award for an unpublished manuscript into one for a published novel. One of the reasons for the change was to engage readers in the process. People around the world can now buy the books and read them before a winner is crowned.

"The prize gives recognition to the writers - a recognition that's significantly different from being recognised in their own country," says Parker, also a professor at the Chinese University's English department. "It's recognition that is regional, right across the whole breadth of Asia, which is half of humanity when you think about it. We're giving global recognition to Asian writing."

The shortlist for the 2012 prize will be announced on January 9.

Parker's love affair with literature began at a young age. Born in Adelaide, Australia, he showed a great aptitude for writing in elementary school. "All my life I've been writing in one way or another," he says. "I've generally kept a diary - diary's probably not the right word - some sort of intellectual notebook where I just put down my thoughts, things that have happened to me. It's always been a way of reflecting on my experience."

In secondary school, he won an award for his poetry, which cemented his career path. "It gave me the feeling that this really was who I am, that I was really a writer," he says. "In those days, I thought of myself as a poet."

After completing his bachelor's degree in English and history, he received a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in English at Oxford University. An appointment by the Australian National University followed. "At that stage I was very much invested in my academic career as a literary critic and scholar. But during the first few years while I was an academic, literary theory began to break upon the scene in a powerful way," Parker recalls.

"Deconstruction, and so on. I could never find myself caught up in those things because they never helped me much with the sort of passion that I had for literature.

"I just found myself drifting back to creative writing, and I started writing short stories. These were published. So I had this second career going on as a writer."

In 1986, on a sabbatical, he returned to Oxford with his wife and children. "I had everything prepared to write an academic book," he says. "Everything was in place. I wrote the first chapter and then gradually what happened was memories of my childhood poured in." He began writing down those memories. One day, a sentence came to him: "The house was built on sand."

"The metaphor suddenly brought a whole range of things into focus," he says. "Then I realised I actually had a book. So I wrote Building on Sand, which just poured out of me in a delirium of delight." He wrote the first draft in three months, and spent the rest of the sabbatical editing the novel.

On his return to Australia, he showed the manuscript to a friend, who passed it on to a publisher. Building on Sand was published in 1988, and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. " Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey won," Parker says. "The shortlisting was my first experience at close quarters with a literary prize. I knew what it was to be a part of it from a writer's end."

A collection of stories and an academic book followed. In 1998, he and his wife went to a conference in Beijing, and dropped into Hong Kong to visit an old friend who was then chair professor of English at the Chinese University. The friend, about to retire, urged Parker to apply for the position.

"Hong Kong turned out to be a huge change in my life. It gave me opportunities I've never had in my life before," Parker says. The university allowed him to build a department according to his wishes. A few years later, while talking with a Hong Kong tycoon, he spoke about starting a Shakespeare festival. They quickly secured the funds. The Chinese Universities Shakespeare Festival now brings together students from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the mainland to perform scenes from Shakespeare's plays in competition. It celebrates its ninth year in 2013.

"This was something that I had conceived and it gave me a huge satisfaction to see these kids getting the opportunity to perform and the best of them to be recognised as champions." A theatre group, the Shadow Players, has grown from this venture, and will stage its first performance next year.

Parker's enthusiasm for building community did not go unnoticed. Peter Gordon founded the Asian Literary Prize and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in 2007, and asked him to sit on both boards. By 2009, Gordon had stepped down and Parker began overseeing the prize.

Throughout the years, Parker has learned a great deal from his journey as a writer, academic and organiser. "I think what I've discovered in myself is that my passion is in creating the institutional framework to give people with talent the opportunity to develop that talent, and to have that talent recognised."

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