Sydney Writers Festival: Ye Xin discusses ‘Educated Youth’

Educated Youth by Ye Xin was originally published in China in 1991. The first English translation has just been published by Giramondo Publishing (translated by Jin Han). Ye Xin spoke at Chatswood Library on 19 May as part of the Sydney Writers Festival.

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Ye Xin with translator Jing Han discussing Educated Youth at Chatswood Library as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival

It was an interesting experience to attend a literary event in Sydney where over half of the audience was non-European and where non-Chinese speakers had to rely on a translator to follow what was going on.

In retrospect, however, the real surprise was just how rare this experience is. Australia is a linguistically diverse continent – in the late nineteenth century there were approximately 250 indigenous languages or dialects in use around the country (and despite the best efforts of Australian governments over the last 116 years many of these languages are still spoken) – and to our north there are millions of people whose native language is not English. Yet our literature is still predominately an English language literature – work written in or by Australians, even in other European languages, still ranks as curiosity rather than part of the mainstream.

This maybe slowly changing Owl Press, which has been around since the 1990s, publishes writing by Greek Australians and Spinifex Press, is celebrating 25 years of publishing this year, has also been active in publishing and translating the works of women writers from around the world and has an Indian publishing program that stretches back 24 years. We have also seen publishers like Vagabond Press embrace writing from around Asia and the Pacific over recent years as it attempts to include Australian writing in a wider local literary context. Giramondo have also been active in expanding their publishing program beyond the English centric borders of Australian culture and their latest publication, a translation of Ye Xin’s 1991 novel Educated Youth, is further evidence of this.

Ye Xin spoke about his novel at Chatswood Library last Thursday as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival. Through his interrupter he described the main themes of the novel, the “educated youths” or zhiqing, high school graduates who found themselves separated from their families and sent into the country side as part of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Xin, who was one of the zhiging, explained that many of them embraced the change with revolutionary zeal as they felt that they needed to be “re-educated”, others simply “went with the flow”. As the years passed many married, had children and settled down. Then when Mao died they were suddenly free to return to the city under certain circumstances. Only unmarried zhiging were allowed to move back. Many simply abandoned their families, or found means to quickly divorce and flee. Years later, however, the children they left behind began travelling to the cities to look for their parents, many of whom who had married and started new families.

Considering it is now 50 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution the publication of the English translation of Educated Youth is a timely one and Ye Xin’s author’s talk raised a number of issues for both the Chinese and non-Chinese members of the audience.

 – Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his own work has ben published in numerous journals both in Australia and overseas. His latest collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February.

Educated Youth is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/educated-youth/

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