Introducing the Hong Kong Review of Books: A Q&A With Aflie Bown

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Earlier this year, two literary scholars, Alfie Bown and Kimberley Clarke, founded the Hong Kong Review of Books, a lively and varied addition to the online publishing scene.  I recently emailed some questions to Bown, whose name should ring a bell with readers of the China Blog due to his recent contribution to it, to learn more about their joint endeavor.  Here are my questions and his replies.

From the Hong Kong Review of Books’ website, I see that you moved to Hong Kong a year ago. What inspired you to start the HKRB

Well that’s quite an easy question to answer. Kimberley and I both work in literature studies and are regular readers of other review of books sites like the Los Angeles Review of Books and the London Review of Books. When we arrived here last year we decided to check out the Hong Kong Review of Books, but when we tried to do this we realized that it didn’t exist! We assumed that a city with such a rich literary heritage as Hong Kong would have already had a site like this and so we just saw an opportunity to create it. There is the Asian Review of Books, which is great, but that is a very different project which focusses on books that are actually about Asia. Everyone seemed very supportive of the idea so we went ahead and launched the site with the simple ambition of proliferating some interesting discussion about radical literature!

What do you hope the Hong Kong Review of Books can accomplish in its first year?  

Well, we are six months old and we are very pleased with our growth so far. We’ve had dozens of contributors including poets, academics, novelists, journalists, and illustrators and we just want to keep growing the site as a platform.

We’ve basically got three main projects. The first and biggest is of course book reviews. We review several books per week, focusing on poetry, literary fiction, and (most of all) non-fiction. We aim for at least 1 in 5 books to be about Hong Kong or China, or to be written by Hong Kong or Chinese authors, but the rest of the things we cover are international. Our reviewers are from all over the world and we leave it up to them to judge what is worth reviewing. Unlike many other review sites, we don’t decide what to cover and nor do the publishers. Instead we invite reviewers to pitch books that they are interested in writing on.

Secondly, we have our HKRB Interviews Series which is our most successful feature because we have interviewed some of the very top philosophers and writers in the world. This is exclusively about ‘critical theory.’ Once per month we interview an author of a new book in theory and philosophy about their work, discussing politics, philosophy, and culture.

Finally we have a new feature, our HKRB Essays Series, which has just launched with essays on the refugee crisis and the singer Prince. We’re hoping to build this a lot more and solicit essays on Hong Kong politics and culture from our many contributors in Hong Kong.

We’re always looking to grow, and if any China Blog or LARB readers want to write for us they should get in touch! Details here.

Part of the mission of the Hong Kong Review of Books is “promoting radical discussion in challenging political climates.” Hong Kong is certainly in its most challenging political climate since the Handover, yet many in Chinese publishing there are shying away from any type of radical discussion. Do you think the English press is held to a different set of standards? Is there any fear that you’ll receive pressure from the Hong Kong government to abstain from controversial subjects? 

Yes, that’s a big part of our mission! This is a great question and, we think, the most important. First we should say the obvious: that the site is all about books. For some people this would be a way of saying that its relatively harmless – i.e. the idea that ‘it’s only books’ – but this is the opposite of what we think. We firmly believe that literature and writing itself is always political. So, in order to be a genuine site about literature and about writing, you would have to be engaged with politics.

By ‘radical discussion’ we mean new and innovative ideas which deal with the difficult times we live in. Like with our reviews, the political content is determined by what our contributors want to write on. We certainly don’t abstain from controversial subjects and we urge our writers to tackle them. As you say, we see Hong Kong as being in a very important political moment in which it is very important to be political and think about the future, so yes, we want to help provide a platform for such discussion.

What are your impressions of the English-speaking Hong Kong literary scene? How does the Hong Kong Review of Books fit into that scene?

We think there is a great literary scene here and we are looking forward to being part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival later this year which shows just how much is already here. We just want to bring all this together and also join it up with other international discussions of literature really. Like LARB, we are a properly international review of books site, but we are also very interested in Hong Kong literature and culture and we want to really bring the two together.

Finally, what has surprised you the most about Hong Kong?

The fact that there was no Hong Kong Review of Books already. We were lucky!

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