Christmas Blog December 2018

I was in Hong Kong recently and found it to be a lively place with a cultural scene that combines East and West. In literature in particular, there is a great interest in books, mainly fiction, not just from Asian writers but Western ones also. The annual Hong Kong International Literary Festival invites famous European and American writers to talk at it.

In part this is because Hong Kong has a legacy of British rule and thus is more Western orientated than other parts of Asia, and also in part because almost everyone is educated in English and fluent in the language. I had a meeting with a colleague in the University of Hong Kong and while walking along a corridor noticed a poster for book club with a difference. In this club the members read aloud from novels and comment is passed by their fellows. In this case, they were having a competition to judge who was the best at reading a passage from a novel. The guest judge was Seulmi Lee, a well-known writer. Perhaps that is something we might start here!

I mention all this as a preface to saying that in media and cultural circles in Hong Kong there is a lot of concern that the Communist government is tightening its grip on the Special Administrative Region (as it is officially known), restricting freedom of expression and clamping down on dissent. The Hong Kong International Literary Festival made headlines this year because of the treatment of Ma Jian, a writer from China now living in exile in London. Ma Jian’s books are banned in China, but he was invited to appear at the  literary festival. However his two speaking events were cancelled by the Tai Kwun arts centre, where the festival is held.  The festival organisers, who had nothing to do with the cancellation, with some difficulty, found an alternative venue.

Another event that raises concern is the closure of the People’s Bookstore, a tiny shop in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district, which was one of the last sources (and best known) of literary contraband in the city, that is books banned in China. The closure follows the disappearance and detention of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015, who were linked to the Mighty Current publishing house that produced critical books about China’s leadership. The range of books banned on the mainland includes topics such as politics, religion, and sex.

Such occurrences should remind us to value the freedoms we enjoy in the West, no matter how much we may complain about the state of the arts. That is why we should enjoy the freedom to read what we want and to subscribe to magazines that are free to publish what they want. Christmas is the perfect time of year to support and promote such endeavours. Giving a book for Christmas is a great way to nurture a love of literature and, in the same vein, buying someone a gift subscription to a literary magazine is a great way to spread the word about the benefits of reading and of broadening horizons. A magazine, like Books Ireland, through its reviews and profiles, can introduce a booklover to a new author or genre that they might not try on their own. So this Christmas, don’t forget a Books Ireland subscription when drawing up your Christmas present list.

Happy Christmas and Best Wishes for the New Year,

Tony Canavan,


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