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MLF Chapter & VerseMLF Chapter & Verse

The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Adam Marek and Diao Dou

Young Digital Reporter Calla Randall learns that surrealism is a game with rules to follow – and occasionally break – at a jolly afternoon with writers Adam Marek and Diao Dou 

AIDS and the Black Death still exist. There are treatments for both, but no cure yet for AIDS. In one of my favourite Adam Marek stories set at a children’s party, a Tamagotchi pet toy is ill with AIDS.

I can imagine what it’s like to wait on the adult sidelines – frustration, boredom, a transitory happiness in witnessing happy responses to some silly party games once enjoyed (I’ll admit to still having an appetite for occasional Pass the Parcels). I’ve heard about awkward attempts to make connections with other parents when the only thing in common is your children. In writing the surreal, the ordinary reality of a boring birthday party is set adrift by something odd, like a diseased Tamagotchi character.

At the Manchester Literature Festival event  at the International Anthony Burgess Centre,  Marek referred to Comma Press editorial guidance on avoiding indulgence in the surreal by restricting instances to one per short story. Countering editor Ra Page’s provocation that the author’s intention was to ‘induce a sense of literary queasiness’ Marek preferred a wish to feel unsettled, to sit in a comfortable armchair ‘with a rat nibbling at my ankles’. There were references to Frank Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where a man is transformed into a grotesque insect, but crucially, said Adam Marek, that story is not about the surreal change in itself, but the consequences for the man’s ordinary life as a result of the transformation.

One audience member asked whether we had lost our ability to understand absurdity because it’s no longer part of everyday life – particularly targeting under-25s. I’m under 25. I like the surreal. Another person asked how much the authors’ ordinary lives were brought into their surreal stories. Marek used the analogy of introducing a speck of dust (a small speck of his personal life) into his stories, allowing a snowflake to form around it and at the same time camouflaging the connections with reality. This is also the art of writing the surreal. Authors like Diao Dou and Marek make the ordinary extraordinary, but the ordinary isn’t replaced in the process. The two exist side by side.

Most surprising of all was the authors’ ability to create a jolly occasion. Their style was buoyant, amicable, and mostly accessible. In his reading, Diao Dou made the convincing sha-sha-sha sound of cockroaches skittering and chewing as they cast ‘an enormous black shadow that dimmed and blurred the lamplight of Zhangji from that day on.’ And Marek put his finger on the power of humour, describing it as ‘a device that allows you to transplant any idea. With a sugar cube of humour, you will like it.’ They both made us laugh, in spite of the dark and surreal elements in their work.

Diao Dou’s chosen story was displayed clearly on a screen behind the podium, enabling the audience to hear the animated delivery, enjoy the distinct and emphatic hand gestures, and access the words in English. The author explained that his purpose was to ‘bring the joy to the audience and my readers’. Spring, a university student, kept a calm and positive demeanour while translating the Chinese author’s responses on the hoof, scribbling them in graphical shorthand.

Diao Dou told the audience without apology: ‘I wanted to raise a concept of ugly. The best person in a group could remove the ugly, but the rest of the people who make up that company make a piece of that ugly.’ By batting such puzzlements back to the audience, we were all united for a spell, like participants in an ordinary but surreal birthday celebration. Marek’s parting shot clinched it: ‘Being open to the surreal is being open to ambiguity. People who enjoy short stories don’t need everything tying up.’ Count me in.


Image: Jon Parker Lee