Hong Kong literary festival director’s books for a desert island: five volumes she can’t live without

Phillipa Milne knows her books – each year she invites some of the world’s top authors to appear in Hong Kong over 10 days in November. She tells us her favourite reads, from a gothic classic to contemporary books from Asia and Africa

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 1:31pm

Phillipa Milne grew up in the English county of Derbyshire, and after graduating from Sheffield University lived in London for five years, working as a programme manager for the City of London Festival.

She moved to Hong Kong in 2014 with her fiancée – now husband – and has been director of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival since 2015. She’s now working hard on the programme for the 2018 festival, which starts on November 2.

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Here are the five books she would take to a desert island, in her own words.


by Bram Stoker, 1897

This was the book that began my love affair with reading. I studied it for my A Levels and read it five or six times. I had a brilliant English teacher and we pulled the book apart; it was amazing to see the intricacies of literature in one book. I love the gothic genre, especially from the Victorian era. There was something creepy about those days and I am a massive fan of all things scary.

A Fine Balance

by Rohinton Mistry, 1995

This book is set in an unnamed city in India in the middle of the 1970s, a period of political upheaval. I read it about 10 years ago when I was backpacking in Cambodia, and I raced through it. It was my first taste of literature about India and it left me wanting to read more about the country. I went to India a few years ago and it was just as I’d imagined it through Mistry’s writing. I often think back on this book; it left a lasting impression on me. It’s quite bleak, but it’s beautifully written. A story about families and friendship.

We Should All Be Feminists

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2014

This is a short, book-length essay by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about what feminism means today. It was based on a TEDx talk she did and I think it’s essential reading for men and women, especially given the sexual politics we are reading and hearing about every day.

She talks about the male ego and masculinity versus femininity and female shame. She is able to put into words the ideas that women have but are not able to articulate as brilliantly as she can. I adore her writing and think that she is one of the greatest writers of our time.

The Remains of the Day

by Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989

I studied English literature at university and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) was on the reading list. I didn’t enjoy it, so I thought I’d try The Remains of the Day, but I didn’t enjoy that either. It was only after I’d read and enjoyed his 2015 novel The Buried Giant that I thought I should go back and reread the others – and I loved them.

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The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize in 1989; it’s a masterpiece about class and love. I like that the narrator is completely unreliable – we have no idea if he’s telling the truth. It’s a clever device.

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara, 2015

My job means that I read a lot about contemporary writing and this book was absolutely the flavour of the month in 2015. It’s a big book – about 700 pages – and I took it on holiday with me to Japan. I couldn’t put it down because I was transfixed – and equally horrified. When I came back from holiday I got in touch with Yanagihara’s agent and she agreed to come to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. Her event sold out really quickly.

It’s an epic book that follows the lives of four men who all went to the same college and move to New York. It’s a beautiful story about friendship, loss and love.