The poetry of suffering

By Zhou Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-2-6 5:03:01

Social media catapults farmer to overnight fame

Yu's manuscripts piled up on her writing table. Photo: CFP

Yu (center) cooperating with the manager of a film on a possible project. Photo: CFP

Ever since Yu Xiuhua, a farmer and poet with cerebral palsy, published her daring poem Travelling More Than Half of China to Sleep with You last November and had it forwarded by Poetry Periodical in WeChat, she has travelled a bumpy road to fame.

Dozens of journalists have swarmed to her village in Hubei Province to interview her in the hope of finding out how a woman from the countryside was able to shake up the world of poetry in such a short span of time.

Since shooting to fame, she was able to publish her first book of poetry last week after 16 years of writing, before she was appointed by local authorities as deputy chairman of Federation of Literary and Art Circles at Zhongxiang city. She has been hailed by the media as China's Emily Dickinson. Some are astonished by her amazing ability to craft words, some have raised doubts about her creativity, while others are curious about how overnight fame has changed her life.

While her journey has been incredibly dramatic, Yu herself seems fairly indifferent to it.

"I feel nothing has really changed much," Yu told the Global Times, speaking in her usual low, indistinct voice. She bluntly requested not to talk about her personal life, but when she starts to talk about poetry, one can hear the excitement in her voice.

While the media portray her as "China's Emily Dickinson," her most widely distributed poem on WeChat shows something quite different. "There is virtually no difference between me to sleep with you/And you sleeping with me/It's no more than a collision of two bodies/Composing a force under which the flowers blossom." It could be a combination of both Chinese poet Hai Zi and American singer-song writer Janis Joplin.

"Poetry writing, whatever you write about, needs constant practice. Nobody was born to be a poet. Poets write until a moment when words come out naturally," Yu said. 

Words burst from the body

"For 38 years, this body has undermined me, we have leaned on each other, hated each other," she wrote in her blog.

She walks clumsily and talks haltingly. Yet she is keen on the physicality of language. Unlike the sentimentality and melodramatic softness of many established poets, the words Yu uses are brutal, free, vivid, angry and violent. Writing poetry is a natural physical impulse for her. She writes of body, of marriage, of sex, of the soul.

More than 30 years of sickness has forced her to face a crippled body and stuttering tongue, but during her interview with the Global Times, she showed a sense of humor and optimism. " I believe what I am writing about is the truth from me. I'm trying to let it out."

For her, writing is not just a mental exercise, it is also an absolutely physical experience.

"Her poems, among contemporary Chinese poems, is like putting a murderer among a group of respectable ladies - everybody else wears fancy clothes, puts on make-up and perfume, and readers can't see a single bead of sweat. Only she is desperately struggling. Her words are obviously bloodstained," said Liu Nian, an editor in China's most eminent poetry magazine, Poetry Periodical.

A mom with a son in college

The village of Hengdian, Hubei Province, where she was born in 1976, is an image that constantly appears in her poems. "This damned place" is how she frequently describes this village. "Who can tolerate such a fate! In such a place, in this kind of life, you want to fly, but you can't fly." 

Her village is surrounded by hills, field and ponds, a desolate place where you can walk for miles without meeting anyone else. Because of her disability, she can't work in the fields, and makes a living by raising rabbits at home.

She had an arranged marriage to a migrant worker from Sichuan Province who is 13 years older than her and is now doing construction work in Beijing.

"What local villager would want to marry her then?" her father Yu Wenhai told Tencent News, "I was just hoping she could have a man who was honest and hard-working."

However, Yu is dissatisfied with her marriage.

"There is no love in it. This is not the kind of life I want. We used to quarrel frequently. Now, we don't really talk with each other," Yu told Southern Metropolis Daily.

She has a son who is now 18 years old studying at a university in Wuhan. She is proud of her son, and used to be known at her village as "a mom with a son in college."

The Internet is her only link with the outside world. In 2008, she started to publish poems on local Internet chat rooms, where she would submit and discuss poetry with online friends.

Then, fame and fortune suddenly came.

After millions began reading her poems on WeChat since last November, she was invited to read her work at China's prestigious Renmin University of China in January and been featured in People's Daily and other national media. Her first book of poetry was published last week, and the second is on the way.

This fame has also brought financial benefits - A businessman who sells tofu at her village donated 10,000 yuan ($1,600) to her, and insurance companies provide her free health packages. Her home is scheduled to be renovated by the city this year. As of February 5, her blog at Sina has been visited more than 1.6 million times.

The biggest change is the status she has now gained as deputy chairman of Federation of Literary and Art Circles at Zhongxiang city. She told reporters that she received a call from the chairman one day before the election to inform her that she was "to be elected" as deputy chairman.

"I just want to write poems, my poems. These poems are not written by Yu Xiuhua the cerebral palsy sufferer, or Yu Xiuhua the farmer. It is by me."

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