Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Shanghai Literary Festival: Barbara Demick and Siddartha Deb


A few days ago I wrote about the talks given by Michael Dunne and Maria Tumarkin at the Shanghai Literary Festival. On my last day in Shanghai, I also got to listen to Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy about North Korea, and Siddartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and the Damned about modern India. Both of these talks were of particular interest to me because these works fall into the realm of creative non-fiction. Both books are somewhat journalistic, but they rely on the storytelling and characterization skills cultivated by novelists.

Barbara Demick is a career journalist who wanted to create a human portrait of North Korea. She spoke about her desire to breathe life into the stories of famine and starvation through the voices of ordinary North Koreans. As an American, her access to the reclusive realm was limited, so she relied on the accounts of people who had left North Korea to craft her story. She fielded questions about the difficulty of interviewing defectors, who are outliers by definition, to write about ordinary lives. In fact, many of her subjects are older women who may be loyalists, but they leave to seek work in China with the intention of returning to North Korea. Demick believes that China has a unique opportunity to open up the North Korean economy, but there are, of course, a multitude of hurdles to reunification. She is cautiously optimistic about the recent leadership change as people become more hopeful and gradually more aware of the world outside their borders.

Another writer who has crafted a narrative portrait of a country is Siddhartha Deb. He is a novelist who made the crossover to non-fiction in order to write about India Shining, the new, hip, upwardly mobile India. He chose to write his treatment through a serious of character studies. He talked about how he chose people to interview who were both representative of types in modern India and also unique, engaging individuals. He, too, didn't want his book to be too journalistic, and even included himself as a character to retain the novelistic, subjective feel of the narrative. He said it was like living in someone else's novel, but non-fiction also provided a more immediate way of responding to the world.

I found both of these writers particularly interesting as I continue to write from life. My own travel memoir started, in part, as a way of responding to my experiences in Hong Kong. I also wanted to create a novel-like story about an electric, dynamic place while still including my own personable perspective. I like character and plot-driven tales more than journalistic accounts, and I'm learning how to create those stories.

What do you look for in non-fiction? Do you want it to be informative? Entertaining? Literary?

9 comments:

  1. It's great that these authors spoke in English? What a nice opportunity to hear them.

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    1. Hi Harvee. Yes, I'm very thankful that I can find literary events in English here in Asia!

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  2. What do I look for in NF? All three! You sum it up well when you say, "..the realm of creative non-fiction."..."somewhat journalistic, but they rely on the storytelling and characterization skills cultivated by novelists."
    That's perfect NF in my opinion!

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    1. Thank you, Joyce. It's definitely a skill that I admire and am trying to emulate.

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  3. When I read memoir, I'm drawn into the story if the author is honest and tells a good personal story. I don't like to finish a memoir and have questions!

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    1. That's a good point about wrapping up the questions and really giving the whole, honest story.

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  4. Nice post, Shannon!
    I'm a journalist but, like you, I'm really interested in creative non-fiction. I think there is something powerful & beautiful about telling real stories with literary sensibilities. To answer your final question, an ideal non-fiction book would be informative, entertaining & (somewhat) literary. One great example is "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.

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    1. Thanks Audrey. It's definitely a genre I've enjoyed getting to know better. I keep hearing about how wonderful "Unbroken" is. I'll have to get to that one soon.

      I think the literary sensibilities can convey the heart and life of a real story in a way that straightforward exposition can't always accomplish.

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