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APR . 13 2018
Peking University, March 28, 2018: The 11th “Australian Writers’ Week” was held at the New Building of PKU’s School of Foreign Languages on March 16th under the theme “Australian Literature in the Global Context of Multiculturalism.” The event was co-sponsored by the Australian Studies Centre of Peking University and Australian Studies Centre of Tsinghua University, in cooperation with the Australian Embassy. Mr. Richard Flanagan, winner of the Booker Prize for his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Ms. Alexis Wright, winner of the Miles Franklin Award for her book Carpentaria, were invited to present as representatives of contemporary Australian writers.

The writer’s week was planned by Professor Liu Shusen, the president of Australian Studies Centre of Peking University, who also delivered a speech during the opening ceremony. He pointed out that for the past ten years, the Australian Studies Centre of Peking University has been collaborating with the Australian Embassy to host the writers’ week. Tens of Australian writers, including Mr. Thomas Keneally, the author of Schindler’s List, have come to Peking University furthering partnership between the two countries and promoting the Australian studies at Peking University. Additionally, he also emphasized that the main reason for launching the Australian Writers’ Week is the belief that cultural communication can enhance understanding between Chinese and Australian people. He noted that this not only composes a significant part of civil diplomacy but is also a great foundation of the bilateral relationship between China and Australia. This year, “Australian Writers' Week” was also a component of the 120th anniversary of Peking University.

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Professor Liu Shusen delivering his speech

After the opening ceremony, Professor Liu introduced the presenters including the visiting Australian writers and scholars on Australian literature studies from Peking University, Tsinghua University, Renmin University of China, and Beijing Foreign Studies University. Mr. Zhou Xiaoping, a well-known Chinese-Australian painter, also attended the opening ceremony as a guest.

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The opening ceremony

The Australian Studies Centre was initiated by Professor Hu Zhuanglin, a senior professor of Liberal Arts at Peking University. Professor Hu has been working on research related to Australian languages and culture and is one of the founders of Australian studies in China. As a tribute to Professor Hu, the Australian Studies Centre of Peking University has created an annual outstanding translation award named after his name to promote Chinese translation in Australian Studies and to encourage translators in this field. Professor Liu announced that the 2018 Hu Zhuanglin Award for Outstanding Translation was open for applications.

The first activity of the writers’ week was a deep conversation on the relations between Australian literature and multiculturalism. During the conversation, 
Ms. Wright talked concisely in Aboriginal dialects. Mr. Flanagan seemed to be inarticulate at first, while he gave an eloquent, knowledgeable and impressive speech to all the listeners later.

Professor Wang Jinghui, executive president of Australian Studies Centre of Tsinghua University opened the discussion with questions as the guest host. Her questions concerned the significance of reading Australian literature for Chinese readers, the relation between Christianity and Aborigines, and the messages in Carpentaria. Ms. Wright expressed her surprise on the translations of her works into a number of languages as well as their popularity in various countries, and greatly praised the charm of Australian literature, which includes not only Aboriginal content but also multiculturalism.

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Conversation between Professor Wang and Ms. Alexis Wright 

On the question of the conflict between Christian and Aboriginal cultures, Ms. Wright answered that the Aboriginal people have a spiritual connection with their lands and an open mind to merge the powers of different cultures. However, since the Aborigines don’t have a government, they can’t decide whether Christians can build churches in the reservations, which makes the problem very complicated in reality. On the message of Carpentaria, she said that she hoped the words in Carpentaria were loyal to her country and homeland, and she wanted the characters in her works to show the strength of Aboriginal people. Her answer earned a big round of applause.

Professor Zhao Baisheng, a senior professor in Australian Studies Centre of Peking University, had a conversation with Mr. Richard Flanagan and captured the audiences’ attention. Professor Zhao raised his questions on the content of Mr. Flanagan’s works, including his illustration of Qin Shi Huang. Mr. Flanagan first said that he was honored to come to Peking University to see so many outstanding scholars and students. He also encouraged Chinese students to read Australian literature, for, like China, Australia had also been colonized. Compared with China, an ancient country, Australia is a young state whose history of colonization ended in 1948. Although the publishing history in Australia is more than 200 years, real Australian literature did not take form until the 1960s. Before that, Australian writers need to go to the United Kingdom and the United States for their careers.

According to Flanagan, who is very proud of Australian culture, Australia also has one of the oldest civilizations in the world. European colonizers used to try to destroy Aboriginal civilization, only to find out that they were changed by the Aborigines. He also thinks that the history of Australian literature is faced with unprecedented chances and exciting possibilities: “We are the witnesses of a new culture, a new nation, and a new society.”

From the perspective of world literature, Professor Zhao raised a series of questions to Mr. Flanagan. The first question was a discussion of writings and local features. Like many famous writers, Flanagan set the background of many of his works at a rather remote and small place and his hometown: Tasmania Island. Flanagan said that it is all writers’ challenge to illustrate a world from a grain of sand, therefore local features must have something to do with their literary works. The grain of sand is the land which bore and bred the writer. All great literature starts with a margin, and literature itself refuses to stand on the center. Therefore, literature is the most democratic art, who speaks truth to power and the relationship between power and crime, which is much clearer when observed from a marginal area. Flanagan also emphasized that literature is an invitation to dreams, and the responsibility of a great author is to help readers rediscover a place.

Questions followed about the theme of multiculturalism during the writer’s week. The two writers did not limit their answers in Australian literature, but copiously quoted and referred to the essences and values in the global context of multiculturalism. Students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, Renmin University of China, and Beijing Foreign Studies University also asked many questions. A PKU Ph.D. student majoring in world literature asked Ms. Wright about her opinions on readers’ complaints on the difficulties when reading her book. Ms. Wright answered that she knows it well because the world she depicts itself is very complicated. Also, she likes to challenge herself in her writing, and the challenge is one of her Aboriginal national traditions. Flanagan also supported her passionately. 

Another student asked Mr. Flanagan a question about his prize-winning book The Narrow Road to the Deep North: Why and for what does this novel include so many sexual descriptions? Mr. Flanagan said that sex is firmly combined with human beings and humanity as an indispensable and important part of life. As for some criticism from his readers, he quoted Goethe’s motto “it is easy to denounce a great work but difficult to announce a small one”. Naturally, comments from the readers include both positive and negative ones, therefore the most important thing for a writer is to follow his or her own compass.

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Mr. Richard Flanagan with students

In the last minutes of the Q&A session, Professor Wang Jinghui and Professor David Walker, a famous Australian Scholar, made brilliant closing statements. Professor Walker has been working at Australian Studies Center of Peking University from 2013 to 2016. He expressed his gratitude to Professor Liu Shusen and praised the students’ questions and writers’ answers. He also spoke highly of the value and meanings of the writers’ week in many aspects of China and Australia and stressed that literature should play a significant role in the liberal education at universities.

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Mr. Richard Flanagan and Ms. Alexis Wright presented Australian Studies Centers in four institutions with their works

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Group photo of guests, scholars, and students from Australian Studies Centers

Written by: Hu Yue
Edited by: Zhou Yijing, Erin Dunne
Source: PKU News (Chinese)

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