Mo Yan, 2012 Nobel Prize Winner, Was Here
It happened in early 1997, as I recall, when I was running Author Series here at the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library, as it was then known.
I received a call from Greg Gatenby, a friend, yes, but more importantly, a pioneer in the area of literary programming. For it was Greg who invented the Harbourfront Reading Series, and its sibling the International Festival of Authors, the first ever of its kind in Canada. Greg Gatenby brought to his festival and his series a kind of elan, a flair, that is unmatched today. There was vision there.
Greg needed a venue to feature the Chinese writer Mo Yan, completely unknown to Canadian readers at the time, even though his work had already been published in English translation, and his novel Red Sorghum, adapted to film, was widely distributed in North America.
Gatenby had the generosity of spirit to think of his beloved Metro Library (he gave it much grist in his Toronto: A Literary Guide) as the perfect spot for a writer who he, even then, spoke about as slated to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
"Okay, Greg," I said, "let me ask and I'll get back to you within the hour." It didn't take much convincing my Manager at the time, who lent her full support to the event. It was a classy gig, "exclusive" (read: there were very few of us in the audience). Pre internet, pre social networking, it was not easy to get the word out on such short short notice and convince the mainstream media that the library's featuring of a Chinese writer was worth their while covering.
So the Toronto Reference Library holds within its walls the lovely echoes of Mo Yan's voice reading in Chinese, with an actor reading in English for him. How lucky for us.
As we mark the occasion of Mo Yan's Nobel Prize, it is important to celebrate those who, like Greg Gatenby, have a knack for seeing beyond the hype and recognize the value of good writing, those who work to build community locally, in order to open our hearts and minds to the larger world of international literature in translation.