Local association PEN of Macau is celebrating this year its 30th anniversary. Writer Rai Mutsu, one of the editors of its homonymous Chinese-language literary magazine, tells mART the story of the group that has been nurturing the city’s literary talent, and shares their plans for the future.
By Sofia Jesus
Poems. Essays. Novels. That is what PEN stands for in PEN of Macau, a local association created in 1987 with the aim to develop the territory’s literary scene. For around three decades, the club and their literary magazine have helped emerge and promote local talent. But they did more than that: they have helped tell the story of the city — even if through fiction.
“We could say that, if we had no PEN of Macau, we would not have a platform for people to record the change of Macau,” local writer Rai Mutsu tells mART. A novelist, poet and columnist, he is a member of the club and one of the editors of the association’s literary magazine PEN of Macau, first published in 1989.
“Macau changed a lot,” he says. And many local writers “have developed the feeling that we should do something in our work to let people think about what we should do for our city”.
He also notes that over the years the association has ” encouraged many young people to write,” like Agnes Lam or Eric Chau.
Rai Mutsu recalls the history of the club goes back to 1985, when there was a seminar and Han Mu, who would be one of the founders of PEN of Macau, “said we needed to create the image of Macau literature”.
After that, the writer explains, the group realised “they needed to have a platform for Macau writers to publish their works,” and started thinking of launching a magazine. The latter — also called PEN of Macau — would first be published two years after the association was created. Ngai Yick Kin — also known by his literary name Tou Lei — was a main founder of the magazine, according to Rai Mutsu.
“Our founders set a very high standard for us,” Rai Mutsu tells mART, showing us the very first issue of the magazine, which included drawings and even some translations. The inclusion of translations, however, was lost after the year 2000, when some of the club’s founding members left Macau — some of them to live in North America. “We couldn’t find people to do the translations,” he says. But this is what he and his colleagues are aiming to recover this year — the goal is to include a section in the magazine that is published in two or three languages.
The magazine started out yearly, but now is published quarterly, Rai Mutsu explains. Its last issue — the one regarding the first quarter of 2017 — is about the cross-over between different arts, he says.
The magazine welcomes submissions of all kinds of literary works, but sometimes they also launch a topic and invite some local writers to develop it. Contributions are mainly from Macau, but the magazine has also invited authors from other regions in the past, as it happened, for instance, in its 55th edition, which included entries from people from Hong Kong and Taiwan born in the 1980s, Rai Mutsu says. All contributors are paid.
Time to write
Keeping the magazine alive has not always been easy, though. Rai Mutsu recalls how around 2005 the team considered suspending the publication. “We were too busy; Macau was under high development.” But despite being difficult to find contributors, as “nobody had time to write,” they kept going, following Macau novelist Eric Chau’s advice — Rai Mutsu recalls he said they should “keep the tradition,” as it was “the work from our founders”.
The situation eventually improved after 2009, Rai Mutsu says. The group tried to find young local writers and developed some promotions. Two years ago, the association teamed up with local director Emily Chan to do some short films aimed at promoting Macau literature — and this is a project that will continue in the future, he hopes.
The association currently has 90 members — “all writers and artists from Macau”.
Recent initiatives like The Script Road — Macau Literary Festival have also helped local authors to communicate further with writers and writing clubs from around the world, he notes.
In the last few years, members of the association have found that local teenagers are “very efficient in their creation,” with writing being one of their means of expression, Rai Mutsu points out. But “they need to read more,” he says, noting their writing is “not very good”. One of the problems, he says, is that teenagers sometimes “can’t find the sources” to choose what to read.
PEN of Macau has been promoting seminars in schools aimed at encouraging youths to read. The work done by schools regarding this matter is “better” than when Rai Mutsu was a student, he admits. But there still room for improvement.
Every year the club attributes a topic for its book review competition targeting secondary school students. This year, he says, they noted “most of the books [chosen for review] were from local writers”. “We are so happy.”
Prize to be enlarged
PEN of Macau has also been attributing the Macau Literary Prize every two years, for works in Chinese language. In the last competition, in 2015, the association received a total of 209 submissions, of which 54 in the fiction category, 64 in the essays category, 73 in the poetry category, and 18 in the theatre script category. “Not bad” for Macau, he says.
“We want to make it larger,” Rai Mutsu tells mART. This year, the competition will also be open to non-local citizens from anywhere in the world and have a new section — children literature. Another section to be included in 2017 is for fiction works with 50,000 to 80,000 words. So far, the latter had been the subject of another prize, attributed every three years by the association — now the club wants to turn it into a section of the biennial prize.
Another plan for this year is to launch a collection containing some of the best works published throughout 60 issues of their literary magazine. According to Rai Mutsu, this work is being put together by Eric Chau.
Rai Mutsu says the Macau government has been providing a “good” support to the association these last few years. One of the ways it does so is by helping them set out booths in literary festivals to promote local writers. It has been the case in events in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China, he says. The help is precious, he adds, as it is “quite difficult” for writers to go somewhere and promote their works. “And we don’t have time to write. We don’t want to do these promotions; we want to write.”
The lack of time is a challenge for writers in Macau, as it is “quite difficult” to be a full-time writer in the territory, Rai Mutsu says. The city’s cost of living is high and local magazines and newspapers don’t pay much for writers’ contributions, so few people are willing to quit their full-time job, he explains. That is why some writers — including him — consider one day moving to Taiwan, where the cost of living is lower.
“Sometimes when you’re busy, even if you have time, your mind is tired; you don’t want to write,” the writer says. Being part of PEN of Macau helps, he adds, as club members usually encourage each other to write even if they are busy. “You should not stop writing. It’s just like a machine: it’s hard do rerun your pen when you stop.”
Another challenge faced by some local writers is a kind of self-restraint regarding what they write about. Rai Mutsu explains that, as some local authors work for the government, “it is hard for you to write”. Some use a different name; others choose to write science fiction or poetry, as a way to address certain social or political issues indirectly. “They get the feeling, but it is hard for them to show it directly.”
Rai Mutsu works for a government department, but he says he does not restrain himself — and he has received complaints from newspapers’ readers for that. But he believes “you should write freely” and is only natural everything around ends up reflected in your writing.
In addition to his contributions for local newspapers, magazines and websites, Rai Mutsu has published two short stories collections, one poetry book and one columns collection. He is currently preparing another collection of short stories.