Q&A: Nobel winner has his say

  • Article by: JOHN FREEMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2012 - 4:37 PM

Mo Yan began as a farmer and rose to become China's most celebrated writer.

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Chinese writer Mo Yan attends a press conference in Gaomi, his hometown, in east China's Shandong province Friday Oct. 12, 2012. Nobel Prize for literature winner Mo Yan has expressed hope that China's imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo will regain his freedom. Chinese calligraphy at right reads "all rivers run into the sea" meant to describe something as all encompassing. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

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Mo Yan is one of China's most celebrated and widely translated writers, and on Wednesday he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Born in Shandong province in 1955 into a family of farmers, he enlisted in the People's Liberation Army at 20 and began writing stories. Since then, he has written several novels and collections, including "Red Sorghum" and "Frog." He spoke recently about writing strong women characters, retaining puns in translation and avoiding censorship.

Q Early novels like "Red Sorghum" seem to be more historical or even considered romances, whereas in recent times your novels have moved to more contemporary settings and themes. Is that a conscious choice?

A When I wrote "Red Sorghum," I was less than 30 years old. At that time my life was full of romantic factors when considering my ancestors. I was writing about their lives but didn't know much about them, so I injected many imaginations into those characters. When I wrote "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out," I was over 40 years old, so I have transformed from a young to a middle-aged man. My life is more current, more contemporary and the cutting throat cruelty of our contemporary times limits the romance I once felt.

Q You often write in the language of the local Laobaixing, and specifically the Shandong dialect, which gives your prose a flinty edge to it. Does it frustrate you that some of the idioms and puns might not make it into an English translation?

A I used quite a substantial amount of local dialect, idioms and puns in my earlier works because at that time I didn't even consider that my work would be translated into other languages. Later on I realized that this kind of language creates a lot of trouble for the translator. But to not use dialect, idioms and puns doesn't work for me because idiomatic language is vivid, expressive and it is also the quintessential part of the signature language of a particular writer.

Q Many of your novels have strong women at their core. Do you consider yourself to be a feminist, or are you simply drawn to write from a female perspective?

A I admire and respect women. I think they are very noble and their life experience and the hardship a woman can endure is always much greater than a man. The strength that this brings is something we can't imagine. In my books I try to put myself in the shoes of women, I try to understand and interpret this world from the perspective of women.

Q 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, allow a writer to express their deepest concerns without resorting to polemic?

A 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.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta, which published a longer version of this interview.

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