Ou Ning in conversation with Granta
By Alice Xin Liu, published
Granta magazine was established in 1889 at the University of Cambridge, named after the river that later became the River Cam.
It has a reputation for being highbrow and presciently published 12 future Booker winners and various Nobel laureates.
Chutzpah! magazine (天南) was established by art curator and poet Ou Ning (欧宁), and so far has only put out four issues. Like Granta, Chutzpah! themes their issues － they are Agrarian Asia, Universal Narratives, Mapping Poetry and Vision of Eros.
On November 20th, the editor and deputy editor of Granta John Freeman and Ellah Allfrey participated in a talk with Ou Ning at One Way Street to discuss the “life and death of literary journals.”
Here is a transcript taken from my notes － readers are welcome to listen to the video linked at the bottom.
John Freeman: Granta was established more than 100 years ago by students at Cambridge. Then American Fulbright scholars restarted it.
Magazines are like blank canvases; without it artists can’t do anything.
Giving writers a space depends on who is available at the time and our ability to find them. Granta’s mission is to find the right writers. We’ve published Czech, Latin American and French writers amongst others, including Kundera, Llosa, Márquez.
The magazine changed much in the three decades since the relaunch by Americans. Its first editor Bill Buford was fat, sweaty and insane. But brilliant. He was never on time and had sloppy issues.
Ian Jack, its second editor liked reporting more than fiction, his focus end of the colonial era, it became once again a very British magazine. Now it’s a very different writing world now than the one Bill and Jack lived in. It is now a polyphonic multicultural world, English has a farther reach than it did before. There are more global citizens. Literature has become very exciting, syntax from other places will be imported into English.
All the things making it exciting time for literature, but also difficult for publishing in the West in English. Fast growth and use of internet; migrancy in populations (other countries, culture), spread of capital markets. Capital markets don’t value what is important, bookstores are closing down, the internet making print models hard to sustain. We have to reinvent what the magazine is, means having websites, Facebook, Twitter and digital downloads. Also, making the magazine as beautiful as possible as an object.
Ou Ning: When I said I was going to start a literary magazine people asked if it would be a Chinese New Yorker? I hate this idea. Why the New Yorker; is this the only magazine in the world? In society people think that you can’t make a living on literature. McSweeney’s: Dave Eggers said that every year the number of books published increases. In China we have People’s Literature, Harvest. I think the latter is great. They can publish novels each year. When they ask writers for commissions, they say that it’s been a long time since they’ve written novels. People’s Literature started a Non-Fiction section and it was good. They have a circulation of 70,000 or 80,000, so don’t think they can’t survive. Then there are the other magazines run by post-80s authors, and they print a few million copies. It’s not very realistic. This is not something we want to make. New Yorker is a great magazine. Also the Paris Review discovered Roberto Bolaño.
Brooklyn has this cultural atmostphere where n+1 was created: it's a bit intellectual, but also about novels and writing. Yiyun Li is an editor at A Public Space. There’s a lot of poetry in it and it’s the most beautiful magazine I’ve seen. We need to have features for Chutzpah! But if it’s always about features then it gets boring. But there is also a free section reserved not for the feature. Not just in Chinese.
Arundhati Roy gave her rights to us last minute. The magazine is hard to do, it's hard to find new writers and get enough writing. It’s easy to stop thinking once there is one issue after the other. Writers have to want to write something under the feature of your issue. Chinese writers are used to freer writing. We’ve done the Western category cyberpunk and Chinese sci-fi. Poetry from the 80s (that is the spiritual heritage of modern China).
Our fourth issue centers on Sex. This has also been done by Granta (laughs). But we couldn’t find any good writing about this in Chinese writers’ world, so we had to ask a Taiwan writer to write about this phenomenon.
The issue after that will feature Liyang Li for writing by the Chinese diaspora. Her poetry is some of the best Chinese-American in poetry, even John knows her. We’ll also republish Yiyun Li and Ha Jin in translation from the New Yorker. After each magazine is out, we organize meetings in different cities to talk about them.
We interviewed 10 poets for the third issue and put it onto the website. It mostly has international and national news and the stories behind the writing.
Ellah Allfrey: A magazine needs to be a beautiful thing! I've seen on bookshelves here writing from Spain, Turkey… we try to introduce whole worlds to our readers as well.
John Freeman: McSweeneys is really writing about writing. A Public Space is loosely curated with no themes. Paris Review is Scenesterish and driven by who is popular within Europe publishing at the time – it has more poetry than most magazines. Granta is realist and narrative driven, based on the premise that stories can change your life and it is a vessel for contradictory truths. Stories which are all you have left from a relationship etc… the Keatian idea that truth is beauty, beauty is truth. The Integrity of telling the truth. The idea of what a story is never change.
Aesthetics both a moral and a fashion taste. How you package it, shape it, make it look, as integral as what’s inside of it is.
Ou Ning: I’ve been through a phase where I was around too many pictures. So we don’t have pictures in Chutzpah! People’s Literature and Harvest are all so old-fashioned [he used tu 土 here], so the new magazines become full of pictures, which isn’t good either. So we want writing foremost.
Granta did Pakistan. Chutzpah! would like to do Africa. How do we treat Africa. Do you need a local editor?
Ellah Allfrey: We spoke to every Pakistani writer who wrote in English. Then to Indian publishers and Pakistani writers. We wanted to go from the inside, not the outside.
Xu Zhiyuan [moderating]: What about a China issue? What would your point of interest, or your perspective be?
John Freeman: That's why we're here. Three reasons: 1) Translate Granta into Chinese – we’re here to understand if it's possible. 2) A China-themed issue – we’re here to meet with publishers, translators, writers. 3) We want to be here, and the food is good.
We’re looking for unknown writers who tell stories. So often the stories in newspapers – economic growth, the Tibet question, etc – present China as an idea rather than China as a place.
China is a place where billions of people live. People have their imaginations and complicated lives.
Ellah Allfrey: We’re commissioning an issue on Britain. We need to make sure they are the stories that those are people who tell themselves. Do you have any authors you can recommend?
Ou Ning: If you don’t understand Chinese, you’ll only know about Mo Yan (莫言) and Yan Lianke (阎连科). But in Peregrine, Chutzpah!'s English supplement, you’ll see lots of new writers. I recommend A Yi (阿乙). But they like to label his as “crime” fiction. I want to recommend post-70s writing. Julia Lovell is editing a book about the different cities in China, Chengdu Xiamen etc.
John Freeman: I love how things are being labeled right now. A great crime novel is Crime and Punishment, a great romance is Madame Bovary. Since Chutzpah! is a Yiddish word, have you thought about doing something cross cultural between Chinese and Jewish? The novelist Gary Shteyngart is neurotic, nuts, crazy and only dates Chinese or Korean women. He invented his idea of America and made it possible.
Ou Ning: There are all these leftists creating social movements, why not do something with that for Granta?
John Freeman: It took us 110 issues to get to sex, the biggest problem in England is self-censorship.
Ou Ning: It’s easier to do in China. Because censorship people think that sex is a way to anaesthetize social problems like demolition.
John Freeman: I also agree that sex is good medicine (laughter). Bad sex is very common, but good writing about actual act of doing is impossible to find.
Ou Ning: Our writing about sex are mostly from abroad. It’s very heavy-taste; there is gang bang and bestial sex. Our stories are classic.
John Freeman: There is no such thing as polite literature. It should reflect the range of human experience. It should use language that we use. If we’re outside smoking a cigarette I would use the work “fuck” – it has be able to offend us as literature. Otherwise it’s just a thing that won’t let us tell ourselves.
Ou Ning: When we talk about Ha Jin and Yiyun Li: it’s all about their stories, not their language. How’s their English, John?
John Freeman: Ha Jin is… a very good writer (laughter from the audience). He speaks very roughly. He uses dirty words when the microphones are off. But he writes with a beautiful combination of rough and beautiful language. Yiyun Li is very influenced by William Trevor and Alice Munro, who believed in the supreme grasp of compressing life into one short story.
Ellah Allfrey: I want to ask a question as well. Chutzpah! picks the pieces it wants translated. Not in terms of language, but in terms of story or something else, is there anything that is not translatable?
Ou Ning: There are many works we can't translate. But our book review section has introduced some explicit works, like House of Holes. When we choose writing we are concerned about the newest writer. We have a book reviews section that pick up books from Paris and New York.
A video of the talk can be found here