The dream of Yan

By Vera Penêda Source:Global Times Published: 2012-6-19 11:05:02


Photo: Guo Yingguang/GT
Photo: Guo Yingguang/GT

Chinese writer Yan Lianke belongs to that elite literary class, whose pens have led them down a winding path of both critical acclaim and hardship.

The 53-year-old writer from Henan Province has won two of China's top literary awards; he has received the Lu Xun Literary Prize twice, the first time for Days, Months, Years (Nian Yue Ri) in 1997, and then again for a collection of short stories in 2001. He also got the Lao She Literary Award in recognition of his political satire The Joy of Living (Shou Huo) in 2004.

But it was the ripples from Yan's banned, yet most important work to date, Dream of Ding village (Ding Zhuang Meng), that had him short-listed for international accolades alongside the likes of Indian writer Amitav Ghosh and renowned Italian author Umberto Eco.

Yan lost the esteemed literary award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, last month, to a Holocaust survivor; and he missed out on the Man Asian Literary Prize (MALP) in March, to the first female writer ever to win it.

"Writers are artists not politicians," said Yan, pondering a 30-year career and the state of China's contemporary literary scene. Yan said that he had found an artistic way to break through and tell his tales.

"I'm not afraid and I won't consider whether or not my next novel will be published," he said.

"The silence is intense. Yet even in absence of voices or sound Ding Village lives on, choked by death, it will not die." The beginning of Dream of Ding village (translated by Cindy Carter) is ominous, but it foreshadows a compulsive read; an alarming tale about the trade-off between progress and humanity.

Unlike the gloomy prologue, or his latest salvo The Year of the Stray Dog in the New York Times, Yan was cheerful and expressive at the Thinker's coffee shop in Haidian earlier this month.

"The prizes made me rethink the way I write," he said. "They made me wonder about what my contribution as a writer should be."

From the army to AIDS

Born into a poor family, Yan got his first writing break when he joined the ranks of the army in 1978 as a propaganda writer.

"Writing was not a personal ambition. At that time, one could escape life in the village by publishing a book," he recalled.

For 16 years, Yan wrote "stories about war and the revolution, operas and uplifting articles." He received a degree in literature, and was promoted to a Beijing military unit in 1994.

But then Yan wrote his first novel, Xia Ri Luo (The Sun goes Down in a non-official English translation) about two military heroes who destroy their friendship and reputations by trying to blame each other for the suicide of a young army cook. The novel was banned.

"I read more; I realized what a good book entailed," said the author, praising books such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina as "the sort of books that people needed."

"For a long time I wrote and published to make money; writers wanted to please critics and audiences, they decided what books were good or bad, literature learned how to perform in these conditions. Nobody was really writing about what they wanted to write. I felt there was a kind of literary aimlessness."

Three books followed, as did three bans. His book, To Serve the People, which has a storyline similar to D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, has descriptive sex scenes and the destruction of Mao icons. Serve the People was later translated into English, French and Japanese.

The trio of books culminated with Dream of Ding Village, which is a tale that exposes the AIDS blood-contamination scandal in Henan Province, where selling blood became very common, resulting many getting AIDS due to poor hygiene conditions.

"As a native writer I felt it was my responsibility to record what happened in Henan," Yan said in previous interviews.

Turning over a new page

Yan stepped into fiction. The author admitted self-censoring Dream of Ding Village in the hope an adjusted version would get published. The ploy failed and Yan regrets compromising his dignity.

"I should have written what I wanted from the beginning," he said, glad that the current version of the book will pass to future generations as a loyal account of these disastrous events that took place in China's 21st century.

Yan was pleased with the film adaptation, renamed Till Death Do Us Part, by director Gu Changwei, starring Zhang Ziyi and Aaron Kwok, that was released in China last year.

"Two books awarded and three controversial ones were banned," noted Yan, saying that, in a way, his difficulties pointed him in the direction he should write. "Since Dream of Ding village, I promised myself that I would not pay attention to other opinions anymore," the author said. 

In the book, Yan took the problems of a local community and weaved a story of humanity and politics with universal resonance. "MALP would become a Chinese rather than an Asian award if it had been given to a Chinese writer for the fourth time in a row," he noted.

Despite missing out on the award, Yan is sanguine. He would prefer a prize that acknowledges his works and somehow defines his personality as a writer. "I'd take a prize for The Joy of Living without hesitation," said the author, anticipating the publication of this novel in seven languages, including English, in September.

The soon-to-be-published book focuses on the lives of disabled rural villagers from the 1930s untill now. "The story and the language are more sophisticated, I hope the translation turns out well," Yan said.

A pen for the people

"Zha lie zhi (roughly translated as Tale of a Boom) is about the last 30 years of change, which have transformed China, and the power of the people to make China change," said Yan about a new novel that is in the works. The story will be set in a city much like Shenzhen, that has blossomed from a village to a metropolis.

"I will no longer think about whether a book will or won't get published. I will climb the mountain of creativity as high as I can. I shall forge a social reality between truth and fiction, and set clear goals as a writer; I believe these two elements will give significance to the book even if it is banned."

Yan urged writers to overcome restrictions "with art not politics." It's about freedom of imagination and a spirit of artistic exploration," he said, noting that more opinions are being spread online, and books that are bold in expression are making it to the market.

Yan suggests that writers seize their artistic opportunities. "China is a complex and controversial reality that is currently under the spotlight. Regardless of its contradictions, it's inevitable that it will move forward. Besides, anything can happen in China."

Liu Yixin contributed to this story.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

blog comments powered by Disqus