The Bookworm Literary Festival 2016: Catching Up with Beijing’s LGBT Community
2015 was so tumultuous for Beijing’s LGBT community that this year’s Bookworm Literary Festival devoted a panel to the recent trials and triumphs of the movement, which have ranged from short prison terms for feminist activists to successful lawsuits against the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT). While last year’s LGBT-themed panel discussion Rainbows in the Night: Chinese Contemporary Queer Writing and Filmmaking focused on China’s limited avenues of artistic expression, this 2016 panel was a more humorous, anecdotal affair that not only yielded moments of great hilarity, but emphasized how far this community has come in a relatively short period of time. Moderated by documentary filmmaker Fan Popo, this panel highlighted inroads that Beijing’s LGBT movement has made with regards to getting its message through mainstream media channels while noting the difficulties it still faces as a result of social discrimination.
At the time of the previous year’s panel, Wei Tingting was under police detention – along with her comrades Wu Rongrong, Wang Man, Zheng Churan and Li Tingting – for planning activities to celebrate International Women’s Day. Charged with “picking quarrels and creating a disturbance” she spent 37-days in a detention center in Haidian District where, in what was jokingly described as “a Chinese version of Orange is the New Black”, she met her current girlfriend while undertaking the menial tasks that are required of prisoners. Wei explained that, as a student of anthropology, she turned her time behind bars into an academic exercise of sorts by talking to her fellow inmates about the circumstances that had put them behind bars while also providing sex education. Since her release, Wei has produced the documentary We Are Here: LesBiTrans in China (2015) and traveled to India to meet activists there over the course of a month.
Popo’s struggle with the system in 2015 revolved around the ‘banning’ of his documentary Mama Rainbow (2012) which concerns six mothers from all over China who share their experiences of coming to accept their gay children. The film was suddenly removed from such mainland China streaming services as Youku and Tudou, with website representatives claiming that the censorship board had officially asked them to take down the content. Fan went through official channels to get an explanation, only for SARFT to claim that a removal document had never been issued. Still, the result of this investigation meant that the filmmaker could insist that his work be made accessible online. Aside from his legal wrangles, Fan has kept busy on the festival circuit, collaborating with LGBT-themed events in Myanmar, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Indonesia.
Although 2016 marks the 15-year anniversary of the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the Chinese Psychiatric Association, the LGBT movement still remains relatively isolated. Ying Xin, executive director of the Beijing LGBT Center and co-curator of the China Women’s Film Festival, discussed the marginalization that exists in the community itself as a result of its various factions and social groups. However, she was also keen to point out that it had also received support of late through collaboration with academics, lawyers, and media partners to not only counter long-term prejudices but also recent troubling stereotypes formed through economic perceptions, such as “gay people are rich.” Social media and smartphone technology have made it possible for the community to establish a digital presence in areas where many people still rely on state-run news media for information, while LGBT leaders in provinces like Hebei and Hunan are reaching out to laborers and migrants in order to educate a transformative society at grassroots level.
The panelists expressed a mutually realistic attitude towards the challenges ahead but were sufficiently buoyed by recent developments to make this a largely optimistic update on a movement that is aiming to become less disparate and more united in its sense of purpose.
One of the hottest tickets of the festival was a moving conversation with North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee, whose memoir The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Tale (2015) recounts her escape from the oppressive communist regime and subsequent efforts to help her mother and brother flee to the South via China. Lee provided a hair-raising account of evading the authorities in China while expressing frustration that the PRC supports North Korea and has a policy of returning defectors rather than treating them as refugees. A tourist agency that specializes in trips to Pyongyang is located just over the road from the Bookworm, but Lee made an impassioned plea to a riveted crowd that they should not book a package as to do so only serves to financially support a morally corrupt government that maintains power through brainwashing and cruelty.
Memory was a reoccurring theme of this year’s festival but was discussed in especially illuminating fashion in the panel Writing Place. Japanese novelist Keiichiro Hirano, CHA: An Asian Literary Journal founding co-editor and poet Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, and Lithuanian poet Mindaugas Nastaravicius ruminated on what it means to write about a particular place in what started as an intriguing panel discussion but soon became more of a writer’s workshop with the audience present as a ‘fly on the wall’. Hirano’s subtly captivating short story The Bees that Disappeared can be read online at Granta magazine.
As around 100 events were held at the Beijing Bookworm alone (with related activities taking place in Chengdu, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Suzhou), these reports have only been able to cover a fraction of this year’s program. However, it is hoped that this coverage has provided a sense of the diverse scope of this year’s festival, which was another unreserved success for the Bookworm team.