An author-itarian China
Yan Lianke tells Ysabelle Cheung he’s not afraid of being punished for his works – but he does need a neck brace to get the job done
The last time we saw mainland Chinese author Yan Lianke in Hong Kong, his neck was ensconced in a thick medical brace which prevented him from turning his head more than 10 degrees in any direction. This was in March, the night before the Man Asian Literary Prize dinner, with Lianke being one of the seven honoured authors in the final shortlist. A day later, he lost out – Kyung-sook Shin scooping the award – but on this night he spoke to all and sundry through his translator about his works. He’s impossible to understand unless you’re well-versed in the colloquial vernacular of his hometown province, Henan. But, once you do tune in, the author, whose works have been banned in China, is an intriguing character.
Lianke has just returned to the fragrant harbour to speak at a Foreign Correspondents’ Club lunch entitled: Why Isn’t China Producing Great Literary Works? And we’re there to hear his thoughts. “You are the masters of the language,” he says. “And I am but a servant.”
After his public talk, we’re given a room in the FCC to speak to the controversial writer privately. For someone who has won numerous foreign prizes and whose works have been translated into dozens of languages, he exudes an affable humbleness that perhaps reflects his upbringing. Growing up as a child in poverty-stricken Henan, he was enlisted in the army and eventually rose through the ranks as a propaganda writer. He then left and started to write his own literature.
Those who have read Dream of Ding Village (the Man Asian shortlisted book which also missed out on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few weeks ago) will know that it doesn’t shy away from issues of political corruption. Just like Camus’ The Plague, corruption manifests itself in the very real form of a life-draining disease, one that bleeds into every household, both low and high society. But, surprisingly, Lianke offers a very different perspective: “Dream of Ding Village transcends politics, unlike Serve The People (another of his works), which was too close to politics. It’s like jumping a hurdle. If you’re too close to the pole, you can’t go over it. Ding Village dealt with the human side of the story, the people and the relationships.”
Lianke, born in 1958, spent months researching the novel, visiting the tiny village near Henan perhaps 10 times to understand the stories of the sufferers who lived there. Initially, he had wanted to write two separate books: one focused on documenting the reality of life in the village and another entirely fictional one. But he discovered the former novel was not a feasible project to undertake. “It’s not the job of a writer to tell the truth, to reveal the darkness,” he says. “That’s the journalist’s job. And because of self-censorship I decided not to write the first book. It would never be published.” So there it is: self-censorship – overlooked in his earlier works but implemented in Ding Village. He says: “After Serve The People, I had a very bumpy journey. I had to stop writing about things like that. I aim to be a good writer, not a good politician. And, anyway, I wanted to express concerns about the people.”
So, a Chinese writer with some strong views. But does Lianke fear punishment? “No,” he says. “I am just a writer. My writing transcends politics. I am not a politician.” But then the neck brace – or absence of – rears its ugly head. Has he always worn it to relieve the aches and pains of writing? “I write about 2,000 characters every day for two hours,” he says. “I have a lot of problems with my joints, my back and my eyes, and I’m very far-sighted so I have to put a piece of wood in front of me and then I write on that piece of wood. Every day I have to put a brace on my neck to make sure my back doesn’t hurt too much from the writing. Sometimes I do this for 10 or 20 days and my back can’t take it any more.”
“It isn’t a choice. I have to do it,” he says. We’re not sure if he’s still talking about the brace or his writing but this much is clear: Yan Lianke is the master of his own language. And long may that continue.
Dream of Ding Village is published by Constable and Robinson, priced $108.