Thursday, March 10, 2011
HKILF: River Town to Open Roads with Peter Hessler
Last night I attended my first Hong Kong International Literary Festival event. It featured American journalist Peter Hessler, author of RIVER TOWN and ORACLE BONES, talking about his newest book: COUNTRY DRIVING. As a festival volunteer I held the enviable post of "author escort." It was my job to meet Peter Hessler and take him to the speaking venue at the Duke of Windsor building on Hennessy Road.
He was tired, having just arrived from the US the night before with his wife (author Leslie T. Chang) and nine month old twins. We hailed a cab in Mid-levels and talked about Hong Kong and the areas we are from back in the States. In an odd way I felt like I already knew him; I had finished reading his travel memoir less than 24 hours before. The thing that struck me most about Peter Hessler was that he seemed genuinely interested in asking about me, how I ended up in HK, and even my opinions of education in Hong Kong. Demonstrating interest in other people seems to come naturally to someone who writes about people so sincerely. I could easily see why his subjects felt comfortable telling him about their lives.
When the event began I stood in the back and listened to the talk. Hessler was at ease in front of the audience, cracking jokes and showing jaw-dropping pictures of the Chinese landscape. COUNTRY DRIVING is about a series of roadtrips along the remote stretches of the Great Wall during which Hessler stopped to pick up rural hitchhikers and talk to people in the villages.
China is in a state of constant change, and Hessler witnessed firsthand the rapid migration of millions of people from the villages to the cities. The majority of the migrant workers on the move were women, all searching for a better life in the big factory cities. These were people with very little exposure to the outside world who were about to jump headlong into the progress machine of modern China. Hessler saw the evidence of a break-neck rate of change everywhere, from the modern roads to the cell phone carrying villagers to the brand-new factory towns standing empty as they waited for occupants.
At the end of the talk Hessler fielded questions about the reception of his books in China, where they have only recently been available in translation, as well as questions about the changing state of the journalism industry. He said that he thought books would endure, but was less optimistic about the future of newspapers and many magazines. He said he couldn't offer much advise to young writers who are uncertain about the industry, except to say that he learned the most about being a writer from his time in the Peace Corps. Studying literature at Princeton and Oxford paled in comparison to studying people in a remote river town in China.