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The author of The Shortest History of China, Linda Jaivin is one of Australia’s most versatile writers. Her work spans history, biography, memoir, travel, humour, eroticism, social issues (her novel The Infernal Optimist is set in an immigration detention centre), China studies, literary translation and cultural commentary. Her first novel, Eat Me, was a bestseller here and translated into more than a dozen languages abroad. She has been a frequent guest on television and radio and wrote and presented a Radio National Earshot program on the subject of privacy called Nothing to Hide and a four-part series on the state of arts criticism in Australia, Situation Critical, for RN’s Arts Hub. As an Australia Reads ambassador, Linda proudly champions books and reading. She also mentors emerging writers through the Australian Society of Authors and is an editor of the China Story Yearbook, produced by the Australian National University Centre for China in the World and a film translator, subtitling Chinese films including Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine and Wong Kar Wai’s Grandmaster and Zhang Yimou’s Hero.
The Shortest History of China will also be published in the US, UK and in a number of translations including Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, Greek and Bulgarian.
What other jobs have you had?
I’ve been a journalist and China correspondent (for Asiaweek magazine in the 1980s, and later as a freelancer), a textbook sub-editor (for the Oxford University Press in Hong Kong) and an interpreter/translator (Chinese/ English). In the distant past, while at university, I worked in a petrol station/garage pumping petrol and as the mechanic’s assistant, and in high school I had part-time jobs typing manuscripts and as a hospital file clerk.
What themes are recurring in your work?
Themes that recur in my work include that of social justice; female desire, strength, and confusion; the importance of culture; and social and political marginalisation (a broad theme that includes the voluntary marginalisation of the artist, the de facto marginalisation of the independent single woman and the unwanted marginalisation of the refugee). China is a subject that much of my work deals with, and the setting for two of my novels, as well as three works of non-fiction, the memoir-biography hybrid The Monkey and the Dragon, the Cityscope series book Beijing and The Shortest History of China (May 2021).
What have been the highlights of your career?
It was very thrilling when my first novel, Eat Me, became an international bestseller – it was surreal to be doing a book tour in France where, following a television appearance on a popular show, people recognised me on the street. I felt honoured when The Monkey and the Dragon was named as a ‘notable’ entry by the judges of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Prize and similarly, when my novel The Infernal Optimist made the shortlist for the ASL Gold Medal in 2007. Being awarded UNSW Literary Fellow in 2004 was another highlight, as was the invitation to deliver the prestigious Morrison Lecture at the ANU in 2011. I have worked on an opera in Beijing with a well-known Chinese opera composer, and that was very exciting, too, even if the opera never made it to the stage for a number of reasons beyond either my or the composer’s control. I really enjoy broadcasting as well and count as a highlight the two radio documentaries I made for Radio National. I am also constantly thrilled when I get to work on the subtitles for a good Chinese film; it’s very satisfying knowing that my translation will be a bridge between the film and foreign audiences. Every so often I have had commissions from Qantas’s inflight magazine, and they have sent me to some pretty fantastic places as well.
What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about the importance of creativity in life; about learning foreign languages; about reading and writing; about the importance of art and culture. I’m passionate about seeing young people with creative talent realise their potential. I’m passionate about social justice issues including the treatment of refugees and the need to address climate change. I’m a passionate feminist who wants to see all women everywhere realise their potential, be freed of the threat of male violence and harassment and achieve genuine equality in all spheres.
Books and reading are my passion and have been since I was a young girl. I thought that when I grew up I’d become a librarian and be among books all day – later, I worked out that I could write books, and that seemed like an even better deal.