Mo Yan Speaks—On politics, literature, translators, and more

Most English readers became familiar with Mo Yan after he was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature—with this prize, however, came assumptions, based on a poorly translated remark, that the writer was silent against the status quo and thus complicit with it. His latest book Mo Yan Speaks shows, however, that, far from being silent, Mo Yan has spoken at great length about many topics. Below are five excerpts in which the writer discusses the Cultural Revolution, fiction, translators, his influences, and the relationship between politics and literature at length.

On the Cultural Revolution

Although the dark times of the Cultural Revolution ended more than twenty years ago and “class struggle” as we called it ceased, fear still lingers in the hearts of people like me who grew up during that era. Every time I return to my hometown and I see the people who used to oppress others, even though they are all smiles with me now, I still can’t stop myself from bowing at the waist, head down, heart full of fear. When I pass the building where people were once shackled, I still shiver, even though the building is now condemned and crumbling to the ground, ready for the wrecking ball, and even when the day is warm…

On Fiction

Writers have to activate all their senses, including taste, sight, sound, and touch, as well as other mysterious senses absent from the usual list. This can give your fiction the breath of life. A story is not just lifeless words but a living thing with smell, and sound, and warmth, and shape, and feeling. When we’re just learning to write, we often face the problem of having a true story, with very real interest and complexity, yet when we write it down, it feels false, totally lacking in the power to move us. And some of the best stories, in contrast, are obviously fictional creations by an author, but they still move us deeply. Why? I think the key thing is that telling a true story makes us forget we are creators, so we forget to activate our senses of smell, sight, and hearing. But fictional works by great authors feel real to us because the authors write with all their senses activated, their imaginations soaring to create strange and novel feelings.

On the Importance of Translators

Translators have an enormous impact on literature, for if there were no translators, the very term “world literature” would merely be an empty placeholder. It’s the creative labor of translators that allows for the emergence of literature’s worldliness. Take away the labor of translators, Tolstoy’s books would belong only to Russia; take away the labor of translators, Balzac would be only France’s Balzac; take away the labor of translators, Faulkner would belong only to Anglophile countries, and García Márquez only to the world of Spanish. In the same way, without the labor of translators, Chinese literature would not be accessible to Western readers. Without translators, literary relationships across the world would not exist.

On His Influences

This was also the period [early in his career] during which I came to perceive a serious problem: namely, the need to struggle free, to get out from under the shadows of García Márquez, Faulkner, and a handful of other Western writers because I could not be satisfied with imitating them. The influence of these Western writers was visible in only a small portion of my works, but critics and readers thought my works to be in large part authentic Chinese fiction—regardless, I still knew the formidable scale of their influence. García Márquez had roused those parts of my mind that were inherently similar to his mindset. But a writer’s influence is like a pigment with an extremely strong, pervasive power; even those parts of my innermost being that were my own, distinct from García Márquez’s, were dyed his color. I published an essay in a 1987 issue of World Literature, which was more or less about evading two burning blast furnaces. What I meant was that García Márquez and Faulkner were the two burning blast furnaces, and I was an ice cube. If I got too close to them, I would melt, evaporate.

On Politics and Literature

To be a writer, to be a citizen, you cannot live on the moon. Everyone still lives in a certain country, in a certain social environment. As a person, you are subject to the conditions of your environment as administered by society. Your personal life will inevitably be affected, either directly or indirectly, by politics. Some may render current events directly, through either rhapsodic praise or bitter criticism, taking an intense approach to meddling in reality. But I think we must set our gazes a little further off instead of shortsightedly pursuing instant gratification. We must leave room for more objective, flexible forms of literature that keep far away from the realm of politics.

Mo Yan Speaks is available in paperback and various e-book formats. Order at the Cambria Press website.

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