Conversations

An interview with Jane Camens, Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific Writing Partnership, an umbrella group for writing in the Asia-Pacific region

Jane Camens

WaterBridge Review: What motivated you to start the Asia-Pacific Writing Partnership? Was your prior role in the Hong Kong Literary Festival a factor?

Jane Camens: What motivated me to start the partnership? After living in Hong Kong, Macau and China for more than twenty years, I spent about 18 months in Britain doing an MA in Creative Writing in the senior writing program at the University of East Anglia. In my last six months there, I worked on a new initiative set up between the university and the British Arts Council called the New Writing Partnership, established to nurture new writing from the east of England. The forums and workshops that this organization was able to run made me feel dispirited for emerging writers in Asia who had no such opportunities. On leaving Britain, knowing I would return to my roots in Australia, I wanted to start a similar collaboration in the Asia-Pacific region. I figured that if I could initiate something as unlikely as a Hong Kong literary festival—which people used to think was a contradiction in terms—I should at least try.

The Hong Kong International Literary Festival was certainly a catalyst. The idea behind the festival was to give courage and confidence to local writers to tell their stories, as well as to help raise the bar for them by creating a platform for good writers from abroad. We (or our sponsors) brought in established writers from overseas who were Asian or whose writing engaged with Asia, and they spoke in panels with the local writers. The festival gave overseas Asian writers a media profile, at least in the local English-language newspapers, and created a workable model for other international festivals in Asia (like the Ubud Writers’ Festival in Bali). I like to think it also helped focus the minds of some major publishers on the idea that there might be writers in the region.

But the festival wasn’t set up to do what the partnership has been established to do. The festival wasn’t equipped to provide on-going support for emerging writers in ways we see new writers nurtured and developed in the West. Since the festival’s early days, when I was involved, it has gone on to become associated with a major new literary prize (the Man Asian Literary Award), which is one way to encourage writers to devote themselves to writing. However, having moved on to academia and been associated with skilling up and resourcing writers in Britain and the USA (where I earlier did an MFA in Writing through Vermont College), I saw that there are other ways to develop writing.

WBR: What is the APWP’s mission?

JC: I can’t give you a succinct mission statement as this is yet to be agreed and signed off  on by members at our forthcoming meeting in Delhi, India. Different people want different things from the partnership. But key to our mission is that the APWP supports the region’s diverse cultures, languages and creative approaches.

I want universities involved because they are important in developing thinkers and writers. They could also provide more writers with employment prospects. For scholars to take an active interest in this endeavor, the partnership needs to have a research focus. It has the potential to provide a regional and internationally broader network of academics exploring new thinking originating from contemporary writing coming out of Asia and the Pacific.

The easiest way for me to answer you is to point you to the partnership’s aims as laid out on www.apwriters.com under "Charter." The aims include further developing academic literary exchanges; enhancing dialogues about the region’s literatures through forums, research and resource sharing; creating writing programs; and promoting, internationally and locally, writers engaged with the region.

WBR: What were some of the highlights of the APWP’s inaugural meeting in Bali in 2007?

JC: The meeting, which we held in a thatched hut in the centre of a rice field, had lots of highlights for me. I was thrilled so many people from around the region showed up with enthusiasm and support for the partnership. I was pleased that writers teaching in Asia and the West were able to meet and talk with people like Chris Merrill, Director of the International Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, about whether creative writing might be recognized in more universities in Asia. Chris introduced me to David Fenza, who runs the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), with the idea that the AWP could be a model for us. As David Fenza pointed out, the AWP started small too.

The major highlight was meeting Indian poet Rukmini Bhaya Nair, who heads the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, because she expressed such interest in the possibility of her university hosting the APWP’s 2009 meeting, together with an inaugural Asia-Pacific festival of writing. This has been developed in less than a year into Writing the Future.

WBR: Writing the Future is taking place in New Delhi and Simla in October. What do you hope its impact will be?

JC: "From small things, big things grow," as they say. I hope scholars at other universities around the region will want to take up the baton from Rukmini and spearhead Asia-Pacific Writing events in 2009 and beyond, possibly in conjunction with other universities and literary bodies in their country. Writing the Future isn’t going to make much impact if it’s limited only to academics. My hope is that the academics will reach out to writers in the community and bring them in to look at what they need to support and further develop them.

Also, I hope the event in India will stimulate action plans for increasing the number of good translations of quality contemporary writing from the region.

Another hope is that publishers and arts bodies might take an active interest in participating in future. Best wish would be that an organization offers the APWP financial assistance to help facilitate future events.

WBR: Tell us something about your own background. What took you to Southeast Asia?

JC: My background is in journalism, though I also worked in government as a press secretary, and in corporate communications. I was a journalist in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra, Australia, when I was headhunted by an international PR firm to work in Hong Kong and, later, in mainland China. I did stints in promoting tourism, healthcare, and managed international communications for the outgoing Portuguese administration of Macau. But always I wanted to devote myself to writing fiction. In the year Portugal handed Macau back to China, I started a low-residency MFA in the States, where I spent a few weeks twice a year over two years.

WBR: What led to your interest in writing from this region?

JC: My own writing was inspired by my experiences in Asia and, for my MFA thesis, I wanted to read and refer to novels set in the region. When I started researching the bibliography, I came up with a lot of non-Asian writers—such as Graham Greene (The Quiet American), Marguerite Duras (The Lover), Christopher Koch (The Year of Living Dangerously) and E.M Foster (A Passage to India). I had read Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and, after finding a book of short stories in translation written by Chinese Hong Kong writers, I became conscious to the fact that non-Asian perspectives showed only glimpses of the worlds beyond the authors’ Western backgrounds. It seemed to me that, in the twenty-first  century, to write well about a culture other than your own you needed a local lover and literacy in the language, or to get into the head of local writers. At that time, 1999, I found it difficult to find contemporary fiction from Asia in translation to English. I wanted a greater intimacy with Asia, wanted others to experience a greater intimacy with Asia, through the work of Asian writers.

I believe that we know each other through our stories.

WBR: Can you comment on the increase in the number of books that have come from Asia Pacific in the last two decades?

Sri Lankan-born humorist and crime writer, Nury Vittachi, who started Hong Kong’s literary festival with me, speaks of this often and has credited the festival with putting a fire cracker in the air to alert people that here was something exciting that was happening. Certainly, there have been many, many more books by Asian writers made available in English in the West since the first Hong Kong festival in 2001.

But I put the recent increase in books from the region down to globalization, the growing number of Western readers with some knowledge and greater curiosity about Asian cultures, and the increased number of second-generation Westernized Asians who are able to see two sides of the coin and can take non-Asian readers into Asian realities by unpacking the meaning of symbols, rituals and customs. My PhD thesis, which I’m still writing, deals with this. It looks at the notion of "literary contamination," an idea adapted from Princeton Professor of Philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah, who writes about cultural contamination as a positive thing, and a way into other cultures. This starts to sound too academic, but I hope I have made the idea plainly.

WBR: What are you reading now?

JC: I’m reading or rereading a small pile of books that are the set texts for the course I teach, Contemporary World Writing, at Griffith University. They include Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, a posthumously published novel by New Zealand writer Janet Frame, Towards Another Summer, Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. There are a couple of others on my personal "to read" list, including two Australian novels currently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog and Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole.

WBR: You’ve traveled extensively. Where do you call home?

JC: I have Hong Kong permanent resident status and still have my name on the lease of an apartment there, but I live now in my native Australia, visiting Asia only for short periods. (I hope this might change when I finish the PhD.)

WBR: What do you do in your spare time?

JC: The APWP is what I do in my "spare" time. No one pays me. I am doing a PhD, writing a novel, and teaching at Griffith as well as an online unit for BA students in Creative and Professional Writing through Open Universities Australia. Apart from that, I am recently married—and I ride horses!