Sunday, November 30, 2008

Rubbing shoulders with Artists

Oh’, I explained to Zadie Smith ,' it’s not difficult but it can be tedious; you just have to keep slogging away, without much progress.’ Zadie had been expressing her admiration for anyone who learned Chinese. Her large brown eyes swivelled towards my classmate, who piped up. ‘And then one day, it suddenly clicks and you get a breakthrough’. Zadie nodded as if she knew exactly what we meant, then laughed and said she’d stick to Italian, as that was difficult enough for her. Remembering my manners, I asked what she was working on at present and learned she’d been awake until 4am finishing a talk she had to deliver in New York the next day. As she moved off, I explained to my friend that the life of a successful writer involved a lot of time-consuming publicity.

Three of my Chinese classmates and I were in a tiny back room of Probsthains bookshop, tucking into refreshments at the launch of a Chinese woodblock exhibition. I was eating sandwiches because I was due to meet R at Cineworld later.

As I reflected on the consolations of obscurity, a Chinese guy with a pony tail squeezed passed. Surely, my friend said, he must be Ma Jian, author of the Chinese novel ‘Red Dust’ .

I asked the He Weimin, the woodblock artist, if he could effect an introduction. We’d talked to him earlier, a very modest young man currently enjoying a residency at the Ashmolean in Oxford. He was pleased that I knew Harbin, the city where he was born. Although he didn’t know the suspected author, he went over and said something. The pony-tailed one began to laugh uproariously and told us he was an artist, but not a writer. That’s another launch in the pipeline, then.

'Long hair and a pony-tail is more or less a sign of artistic non-conformity with Chinese artists, I said to my friend.

More about the artist and images of his work here:

More about Zadie Smith:

An Interview with Ma Jian

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