Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hong Kong Literary Festival

With Cheryl Tan at the Hong Kong Literary Festival
This weekend I went to City University in Kowloon Tong for two writing workshops as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. The workshops were taught by Cheryl Tan, author of A Tiger in the Kitchen and Fuchsia Dunlop, author of numerous Chinese-food-related books, including Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper. It was inspiring to see two women, both journalists, who have turned their passions into admirable careers. In addition to the speakers, I got to meet some cool local writers and catch up with some of my writing friends in the audience. Here's some of what I learned:

Cheryl Tan on mining your family history for stories

Cheryl Tan is the author of a family memoir about how she got to know her Singaporean relatives, and her grandmother in particular, by learning to cook their food. A New-York-based journalist, Cheryl facilitated the workshop by sharing her own experiences and asking members of the audience to talk about what they want to write. She gave practical suggestions for how to get your family members to open up, especially if you want them to reveal the true, sometimes unsavory stories. Some of her tips:
  • think about family members as characters so you can describe them with the necessary distance and accuracy
  • do activities together (such as cooking) to trigger memories
  • ask to see old objects
  • if necessary, play relatives off each other to get a more accurate picture of past events, and then use both accounts
  • make sure your relatives know you will be writing about them so they don't feel betrayed
On memoir writing in general:
  • clean structure is vital, especially when dealing with many characters
  • find a universal feeling or theme that people will understand
  • think about the "newspaper angle" of your story to find what will actually compel people to read it
  • for big projects, approach the story as a series of magazine articles rather than 80,000 words
  • use a present frame for a past story
  • remember that every story you include has to further the narrative
  • remember that the story has to be interesting for someone who doesn't know the people involved
I'm currently revising my Hong Kong travel memoir in preparation for a round of queries, but I'm already looking ahead to my next project. At some point, I would like to write about growing up in a homeschooling family of nine children. My HK book deals with the events of one year and one unconventional love story, so it was relatively easy to structure. With so many characters and such a large time frame, the task of writing about my family is quite daunting. This talk helped me start to narrow down the best way to approach the story.

Fuchsia Dunlop on food and travel writing

Fuchsia Dunlop, a Brit who grew up in Oxford, is one of the most prominent Western women currently writing about Chinese food. She trained at a cooking school in Chengdu, and has since published both cookbooks and travel memoirs of her experiences as a Western woman cooking and eating her way through the wide world of Chinese cuisine. She, too, is a journalist, and she had both encouraging and practical words for writers who are interested in food and travel. Her tips:
  • find a surprise angle to set yourself apart
  • trim excess material (you can practice this by writing for publications with space restrictions)
  • always have a selling point
  • write a blog, both for practice and exposure
  • you have to put in the hours before you'll be able to write the beautiful, spontaneous things
  • always maintain your integrity
Fuchsia's passion for her subject was evident. She encouraged her audience to do what interests them without certain pay off. Although she admits she spent many years writing broke, it has been well worth it in the long run.

Both writers urged their audiences to blog, but they also got me thinking about pitching more pieces to newspapers and journals. While I'm editing my Hong Kong travel memoir, perhaps I'll work on a few short pieces before I jump into my next book-length project.

Are you going to any of the HK Lit Fest events this year?


  1. I love this! I've read Fuchsia's food memoir and actually met Cheryl in Chicago last year! Love the photo of you two! Their advice sounds great and is something I need to keep in mind as I, too, am in memoir revisions.

    Your family story about homeschooling sounds fascinating and so pertinent to families these days. (I know many people who would love to read it, too.) Enjoy the lit fest. I look forward to reading about it here!


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