Book Review of “Mo Yan Speaks: Lectures and Speeches by the Nobel Laureate from China”

The following is from a review of Mo Yan Speaks: Lectures and Speeches by the Nobel Laureate from China, the latest from the Nobel laureate (translated by Shiyan Xu) in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

His public lectures combine anecdotes from his rural childhood with musings on literary style and namedropping of famous writers (who, with the notable exception of Wang Anyi, are all men). It is this duality of humble storyteller and Nobel laureate that defines the Mo Yan phenomenon, and it is his playful creation and shaping of this persona that make the speeches in this volume so entertaining. […]

Through this cornucopia of Mo Yan performances, the reader gets a strong impression of the multisensory character of his writing. Taking care to engage the whole body, Mo Yan talks of the “literary nutrition” of his childhood, which provided him with the “bellyful of stories” he still draws on today, each of which has a unique “flavor.” Sketching himself as a writer of the people, he lauds the smells and sounds of fiction over delicate and refined imagery: “No prose style, no matter how gorgeous or how precise, can match the lens of the camera. But cameras can’t record smell, or at least not yet. This is the fiction writer’s final domain.” Not only are his narratives brimming with noises and scents (as well as color), he also describes his literary practice as engaging more than the intellectual faculty. In one talk, Mo Yan calls his habit of attending sessions with local storytellers “reading with my ears,” while “writing with my nose” refers to engaging memories through particular fragrances and then distilling them through a process of fictionalization. […]

It is worth remembering that his speeches and lectures are a continuation of Mo Yan’s literary work, creating the character Mo Yan, a likable pow-boy from a rural backwater who made it onto the international literary scene. The most enjoyable aspects of Mo Yan’s writing are its irreverence, its hyperbole, and its blatant fictionalization of reality, which refuse to be contained by the novel form.[…] As another speech reveals, Mo Yan’s tendency to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality has gotten him into trouble more than once […]

Read more of the review “Uncle Tall Tale: On ‘Mo Yan Speaks: Lectures and Speeches by the Nobel Laureate from China.'”

Mo Yan Speaks is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats.

About the author: Mo Yan is the Chinese writer and Nobel laureate whose best-selling books include Red SorghumThe Garlic BalladsThe Republic of WineBig Breasts and Wide HipsSandalwood DeathPow!Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, and Frog.

About the editor: Shiyan Xu is Professor of English at Nanjing Normal University and holds a PhD from Nanjing University. She is Deputy Editor-in-Chief for Chinese Arts and Letters, a journal whose aim is to translate works of Chinese literature and introduce them to the English-speaking world. In addition to several journal articles, her previous publications include The “Weather Vane” of Mainstream Theatre: Study of the Pulitzer Plays in the 21st Century. Dr. Xu also translated Eugene O’Neill’s newest biography Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts (Yale University Press, 2014), which was published in 2018 by Nanjing University Press and won the prestigious Purple Mountain Prize in Literary Translation awarded by the Jiangsu Writers’ Association.

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