The drawing: Nobelist Novelist Mo Yan, big in China, gone global.
This drawing of Chinese novelist Mo Yan, the new Nobel laureate for Lit., was made for the just released book of interviews by Granta editor John Freeman, How to Read a Novelist (he meets 55 writers; see Oz review). The nom de plume, Mo Yan, as everyone now knows, means Don’t Speak.
Freeman: “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 characterisation, allow a writer to express their deepest concerns without resorting to polemic?”
Mo Yan: “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.”
“Bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world” — a good credo. I’ll need to rectify the situation and read some of his books; the closest I’ve come was the movie of Red Sorghum by Zhang Yimou, a vanguard offering from the 5th Generation New Wave. It was bold, vivid and somebody’s heavy duty real world — a ravishing old school epic, full of broken hearts and molten sunsets.
Of course, the Nobel is no guarantee of anything but politics; see the sharp piece by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker. But Osnos also notes a simple truth: “Mo Yan’s win is significant for China. It recognizes a life of writing in a difficult place to be a writer, and, one hopes, it will combat some of the paranoia and victimhood that some Chinese intellectuals still feel about their stature in the world.” Writing in authoritarian countries comes at a serious price.
As Mo Yan says: “A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.”
“Hide in their rooms.” That’s another kind of credo. It reminds me of a remark by a dissident Polish writer (can’t recall name, maybe Tadeusz Różewicz?) about life in troubled times: “Stay close to the ground, like a stone.”
Update: Have just taken out The Garlic Ballads (still banned in China I think, cos it’s a true story of a village rioting against the govt) and have just read an excerpt from his most recent novel Wa (Frog) on the Granta site. A very lively bit of social post-realism (yeh, I just made that up; this is the preferred term), scabrous and salty in that contemporary Chinese way of bitter fun. An old woman narrating — certainly no toadying to officialdom here:
You know the hospital director, that ungrateful bastard Huang Jun … Just who do you think dragged that little shit – they called him Melon Huang – out of his mother’s belly? Well, he spent a couple of days in a medical school, and when he came out, almost as stupid as the day he went in, he couldn’t find a vein with a syringe, couldn’t locate a heart with a stethoscope … So who better to appoint as hospital director!