MO Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, is hailed as a writer who merges hallucinatory realism with folk tales, and the past with the present. Since he published his first novel Falling Rain on a Spring Night in 1981, Mo has again and again expanded the breadth and depth of the narrative of Chinese stories, from his earlier works Red Sorghum, to Life and Death Are Wearing Me out and Frog, then to his recent writings such as A Gorgeous Robe (play script) and Seven Stars Shine on Me (poems).
His works often spark controversies, but have never disappointed the readers. Unlike many of his predecessors, Mo remains active in the literary world after receiving the Nobel Prize. He is showing infinite vitality, just like the figures in his books.
“The Mo Yan that we are familiar with is back, as aggressive and powerful as he has always been,” critics commented.
Where does Mo’s energy come from and how will he use it? How many unknown but fascinating stories are still hidden in Mo’s hometown, Dongbei Township in Gaomi, Shandong Province, which he said was as small as a stamp? What is the distance between our imagination and the inner world of the novelist harking from lands of the ancient kingdom Qi? With these questions in mind, I, a novice in literature, sat down with Mo Yan, a master of the field, for an interview.
Seeking Broader and Universal Significance
Gong: You said the works of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are your favorite. It seems to me that contemporary Chinese writers appreciate Western and Latin American literature more than Japanese literature, which is much closer to our culture. Why is that in your opinion?
Mo: I think it might be a misunderstanding or incomplete understanding by the media. In fact, since the 1980s, writers of my generation have attached great importance to Japanese literature and read a lot of Japanese works, which have had great influence on us.
It can be said that my eureka moment in literature came when I read Yasunari Kawabata’s books. One winter night decades ago, when I was reading a line in his book Snow Country about a big Akita dog licking hot water in a pool, I thought I saw the scene with my own eyes: a snow-covered street, a steaming pool beside the street, and a big black dog with its tongue sticking out, licking the water.
This is not only a picture, but also a melody, a tone, a perspective of narration, and the opening of a novel. I was thrilled, like feeling the touch of a girl that I had long admired. I suddenly realized what a novel was and what and how I should write one. Before that, I was unable to find suitable stories or find my own voice. This line in Yasunari Kawabata’s novel was like a lighthouse in the darkness, illuminating the path ahead.
Yasunari Kawabata’s Akita dog made me realize that dogs could enter the world of literature, and so could hot water. Ever since, I have never worried about not finding sources for my novels.
Gong: Some people have said that the new significance of literature is to explore the infinite possibilities of writing. That’s what the Italian writer Italo Calvino did in his writing. Is there any connection between this layer of significance and magical realism in your opinion?
Mo Yan at the premiere of a Chinese opera adapted from his novel Sandalwood Death on June 24, 2017.
Mo: Magical realism is indeed exploring the infinite possibilities of writing. On the one hand, it depicts magical scenarios, and on the other hand, it reveals social problems. Italian literature also influenced me a lot, through writers such as Italo Calvino and Alberto Moravia, and those before them. An Italian translator told me that my novel Red Sorghum was very much similar to The Leopard, a book by a Sicilian novelist which also tells stories of a family. I found the book, read it and realized that it was about the history of a place, and the rise and fall of a family there. Calvino is influential in China. I’ve read some of his books such as Our Ancestors, IL Barone Rampante, Invisible Cities, and The Cloven Viscount. The Cloven Viscount is really mind-opening. Calvino was so free in writing that his works encompass all that we formerly thought was impossible to be presented.
Gong: Compared with Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is better-known to the Chinese public. I think what makes them different is that Calvino was influenced a lot by Italian folk tales. Did the two writers affect you differently?
Mo: I found Calvino’s novels highly inspiring. I wrote a book entitled The Herbivorous Family, which was influenced by Calvino. In studying writers like Calvino and Marquez and their depiction of real life, we can find great inspiration. They don’t observe or portray life in the conventional realistic manner, but instead by the exaggerated approach of fairy tales and magic stories, taking one point in life to extremes and thereby discovering tremendous resources of writing, or in your words, infinite possibilities.
If we write about our life as faithfully as the recording of a camera, it is likely that our writings will be the same. Writers from industrial sectors write about nothing but industries, and farmer writers only write about the countryside. But Calvino and Marquez opened up a broader horizon for writing. A writer could write about a certain aspect of life even if he knows little about it. The key is not to write in a photographic way but to use imagination, exaggeration, and distortion in the observation. Magical realism, in a nutshell, is to reflect reality in a magical way. Magic is the means, and reality is the purpose.
Gong: Speaking of exaggeration and distortion, I think your novels, Joy and Ball Lightning, are perfect examples of this. I am really impressed by the birdman in Ball Lightning. Does such an exaggerated imagery have any basis in reality?
Mo Yan at an event in Jinan, Shandong Province in 2017.
Mo: I indeed used exaggeration in Joy to some extent, which, however, still lays in reality. And I am quite familiar with the life I depicted in the novel.
About the “reality basis” you mentioned, my inspiration came from the village I lived in, Dalan, on the borders of Jiaoxian, Gaomi, and Pingdu counties. In the 1960s, when I was six or seven years old, the village was surrounded by water. It impressed me a lot. I could see a river rolling eastward whenever I opened the window. During a vacation, I woke up at midnight and saw the moonlight coming in through the window. I got dressed, snuck out of the house, and walked along the riverbank. The village was silent, and the river glittered under a bright moon. I walked out of the village and into the field. On my left side, the river was running, while rows of corn and sorghum stretched to the horizon on my right side. Everyone was sleeping, and I was the only one awake. I suddenly felt that I was so lucky. The boundless field, the lush crops, the immense sky and the bright moonlight were all for me. I felt I was great.
Though I didn’t find inspiration in those moonlit nights in my hometown, I did have the experience of looking for inspiration. A good writer may only write about his tiny hometown, or the people and things there. However it is still possible that his works will go global, and be accepted and understood by all humankind, as he has realized before he started writing that his tiny hometown is an inseparable part of the world, and what happens there is a segment of world history.
A good writer is always trying his utmost to give his works broader and more universal significance to make them accepted and understood by more people. This is what I learnt from the American writer William Faulkner and Japanese writers Tsutomu Minakami, Yukio Mishima, and Kenzaburo Oe.
A Strong Desire for Drama
Gong: Your recent drama, A Gorgeous Robe, has received wide acclaim. What do you think are the differences between dramas and novels, and what are the merits of drama in your opinion in comparison with novels?
Mo: Chinese farmers started to watch dramas long before they began to read novels, so dramas have far more influence on them than novels do. Now we can see there are much fewer illiterate people in China, or hardly any. However, about 50 or 60 years ago, most people in rural areas couldn’t read or write. The education that they could get at that time was from dramas. Dramas were the teaching materials for the masses at that time, while the stage was an open classroom. People from rural areas in China got all their knowledge about history, morality, and values basically from watching dramas. That’s why I’ve always paid great attention to dramas.
Dramas and librettos of traditional Chinese operas have had a significant influence on my novels. Modern drama originated from Western countries. It’s a new type of art that was introduced into China after the May Fourth Movement in 1919. When I started to learn to write in the 1980s, my first work was actually a stage play – not a good one. Around 2000, I began to learn to write modern drama. The result was Farewell My Concubine and Jing Ke of Our Age. I was passionate about writing modern dramas at that time, but my creation was often interrupted back then. A few years ago, I started to think that I should continue to write modern dramas. Of course novels have brought me fame, but deep inside my heart, there has always been a strong desire for drama. So after I received the prize, I was wondering if I should write another drama.
As a novelist, I think I should watch dramas every day. Such study is necessary. When I’m writing a play, I feel a symbiotic relationship between me and my writing. In this process, I felt what folk artists would have felt when writing and performing local operas. This enriches my writing experience. Some critics say that the magical, uncanny, and imaginary Dongbei Township in Gaomi in my previous novels became tangible and three-dimensional in the drama A Gorgeous Robe, and that the writer seemingly became a storyteller hidden at the edge of the stage of the secular world, recounting familiar scenes in our life, probing into different aspects of human nature, and looking through changes of this world.
More Social Responsibilities Weighed on
Gong: It was reported that a novel-writing AI robot finished a writing of 120 million words. What do you think of this new form of writing on new media platforms?
Mo: Producing a large body of work in a short time. It’s called AI writing, isn’t it? I have read poems written by robots in the form of Tang poetry. Technically speaking, these writings carry the right rhymes and tonal patterns. However, they have no emotion or personality. Even if a human-written poem has the tonal pattern completely wrong, it is imbued with human emotions anyway, and at least expresses some sentiment.
Gong: Do you think that the advances in science and technology have changed what and how we feel and sense?
Mo: Definitely. I believe that computers and the Internet have changed the way we feel. Our experience on the Internet actually has altered our neurological system. It takes more to feel happy or excited. It is like taking medication. At first one pill works well, but after taking the drug for a certain period, even five or six pills won’t have any effect. Both human minds and science and technology could get out of control. Sometimes advances in science and technology are driven not by human needs but by profits. This has also influenced writers: reducing their sensibility. That’s why I think that there must be a limit for science and technology.
Gong: Is that why you said literature should shoulder due responsibilities?
Mo: In this era, our literature should shoulder great responsibilities to save the earth and humankind. Some fundamental principles need to be conveyed through our literary works. We need to remind the world that heat waves didn’t kill more people than it does today before the air conditioner was invented; people also had great fun in their spare time before the age of TV; and we do not have more useful information in our heads after the Internet became available.
Through literature we need to let people know that the fun of traveling is lost in the convenience of transportation, the joy of correspondence is lost in faster communication. Eating is not as enjoyable as before because of excessive supply, and easy access to sex has cost our ability to love.
Through literature, we need to let people know that we could slow down and take it easy. Don’t go to extremes, and leave something to be done by future generations.
Through literature, we need to let people know that we humans need no more than air, sunshine, food, and water for subsistence, and everything else is a luxury for us.
Will our literature be able to make humans less greedy? My view is pessimistic. Nonetheless, we cannot give up trying.
GONG ZIMING is a young Chinese writer. His magic novel On the Way to Salai has been published by the People’s Publishing House.