Mo Yan is one of China’s most celebrated and widely translated writers. Born in the Shandong province in 1955 into a family of farmers, he enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army at the age of twenty and began writing stories at the same time. Since then he has written several novels and story collections, including Red Sorghum, Big Breasts & Wide Hips, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out and most recently, Frog. This week he spoke to Granta editor John Freeman at the London Book Fair, about writing strong women, retaining idioms and puns even in translation and avoiding censorship.
JF: Many of your novels are located in a half-fictionalized town based on your Gaomi hometown, in a way similar to, say, Faulker’s American South. What is it that makes you return to this half-imagined community and does having a global readership alter the focus at all?
MY: When I first started writing the environment was there and very real and the story was my personal experience. But with an increasing volume of my work being published, my day-to-day experience is running out and so I need to add a little bit of imagination, sometimes even some fantasy, in there.
JF: Some of your writing recalls the work of Günter Grass, William Faulkner and Gabriel García Marquez. Were these writers available to you in China when you were growing up? Can you tell us a little about your influences?
MY: When I first started writing it was the year of 1981, so I didn’t read any books by García Marquez or Faulkner. It was 1984 when I first read their works and undoubtedly those two writers have great influence on my creations. I found that my life experience is quite similar to theirs, but I only discovered this later on. If I had read their works sooner I would have already accomplished a masterpiece like they did.
JF: Early novels like Red Sorghum seem to be more overtly historical or even considered by some as ‘romances’ whereas in recent times your novels have moved to more overtly contemporary settings and themes. Is that a conscious choice?
MY: When I wrote Red Sorghum I was less than thirty years old, so I was quite young. At that time my life was full of romantic factors when considering my ancestors. I was writing about their lives but didn’t know much about them so I injected many imaginations into those characters. When I wrote Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out I was over forty years old so I have transformed from a young to a middle-aged man. My life is different. My life is more current, more contemporary and the cutting throat cruelty of our contemporary times limits the romance that I once felt.
JF: You often write in the language of the local Laobaixing, and specifically the Shandong dialect, which gives your prose a flinty edge to it. Does it frustrate you that some of the idioms and puns might not make it into an English translation or are you able to work around that with your translator, Howard Goldblatt?
MY: Well, indeed, I use quite a substantial amount of local dialect, idioms and puns in my earlier works because at that time I didn’t even China has progressed but progress itself brings up many issues, for instance environmental issues and the decline in high moral standards. consider that my work would be translated into other languages. Later on I realized that this kind of language creates a lot of trouble for the translator. But to not use dialect, idioms and puns doesn’t work for me because idiomatic language is vivid, expressive and it is also the quintessential part of the signature language of a particular writer. So, on the one hand I can modify and adjust some of my usage of puns and idioms but on the other I hope that our translators, during their work, can echo the puns I use in another language – that is the ideal situation.
JF: Many of your novels have strong women at their core – Big Breasts & Wide Hips, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out and Frog – do you consider yourself to be a feminist or are you simply drawn to write from a female perspective?
MY: First of all, I admire and respect women. I think they are very noble and their life experience and the hardship a woman can endure is always much greater than a man. When we encounter great disasters, women are always more brave than men – I think because they have their due capacity, they are also mothers. The strength that this brings is something we can’t imagine. In my books I try to put myself in the shoes of women, I try to understand and interpret this world from the perspective of women. But the bottom line is I am not a woman: I’m a male writer. And the world I interpreted in my books as if I were a woman might not be well received by women themselves but that is not something I can do anything about. I love and admire women, but nonetheless I am a man.
JF: Is avoiding censorship a question of subtlety and to what extent do the avenues opened up by magical realism, as well as more traditional techniques of characterization, allow a writer to express their deepest concerns without resorting to polemic?
MY: Yes, indeed. Many approaches to literature have political bearings, for example in our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that they do not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation – making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation.
JF: Your last book that was translated into English, a very short memoir, Democracy, narrates the end of an era within China from your own experiences as a young boy and man. There are some melancholic tones about it, which coming from the West is to some degree a surprise: we often believe ‘Progress’ with a capital ‘P’ always means betterment but your memoir suggests something has been lost. Is that a fair characterization?
MY: Yes, the memoir you mention is full of my personal experience and my daily life however it also presents something imagined. The melancholy tone you talk about to is indeed very accurate, because the story features a forty-year-old man thinking back on a youth that is now gone. For example, when you were young you were probably once smitten with a certain girl but for some reason this girl has now become someone else’s wife and that memory is indeed rather sad. For the past thirty years we have witnessed China undergoing dramatic progress, whether it be in living standards or in intellectual or spiritual levels of our citizens; the progress is visible but undoubtedly there are many things that we are not satisfied with in our day-to-day life. Indeed, China has progressed but progress itself brings up many issues, for instance environmental issues and the decline in high moral standards. So, the melancholy that you talk about is for two reasons – I realize that my youth has already gone and secondly I worry about the current status quo in China, especially the things I’m not satisfied with.
JF: What will be your next book in English?
MY: Sandalwood Penalty.