Translated by Isabelle Li
Australia is the land of fortune for my literary career. My first book in English, Northern Girls, was published by Penguin Books Australia in 2012. It has been included in their China Library series and published again this year. I was fortunate to participate in the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival, and it was the best attended, most enthusiastic literary event I have ever experienced. I almost felt I had become successful and famous. But I knew it really represented the Australian people’s love for art and literature, for reading, and their warmth and friendliness. It will take a long time yet for Chinese literature to be truly understood, accepted, and loved by the Western readers.
Not long ago, an American literary agent told me that it was extremely challenging to sell Chinese literature in the international market. Even for the Nobel laureate Mo Yan, his book Frog, up till now, had sold less than 1,000 copies in the US. I was astonished. Such a low number of sales is incredible. Of course, I don’t plan, and have no means, to explain why it has been like that. For the current condition of Chinese literature on the international stage, which I understand only at a distance, I feel deeply saddened and disheartened.
Death Fugue’s publication in Australia by Giramondo, a publisher renowned for its dedication to pure literature, is of very special meaning to me. Giramondo didn’t conduct an evaluation of the market, it didn’t consider commercial profitability. Judging the novel entirely on its literary merit, the publisher felt Death Fugue was valuable, and well worth introducing to English-speaking readers. It is the good fortune of the writer, but also of the reader, that there are publishers like Giramondo, who stand by pure literature, and that there are outstanding translators like Shelly Bryant. Because of them, people are able to understand the diverse cultures and literatures from different countries around the globe, and exchange their thoughts, feelings and opinions on books and writers.
I had always been confident in my writing, but I was feeling anxious then, worried that I might somehow let the readers down. I wanted to hear more feedback, critique, even just the simplest expressions: we like it or we do not like it. I also read some reviews in English. They were sincere, objective. They pointed out the book’s strengths and disappointments, and discussed the courage and imagination in its writing.
My writing doesn’t require a soldier’s valour in charging the enemy line and shattering the enemy position, and I don’t think of it as risky. I’m just writing literary fiction, and I focus on the aesthetics of writing, literary skill and purity of intent, and strive to explore the spiritual world of my characters. In Death Fugue, which focuses on a poet called Mengliu, who has turned away from his writing after his experience of political upheaval, I intended to portray the poet’s inner conflicts, entanglements and pain, and to depict how he constructs a new life after his beliefs and ideals have collapsed. In this novel, I continually push language to its limits, set up metaphors and pursue their implications, and intoxicate myself (I have to admit) with a multitude of rich and colourful expressions. Different from all my other work, I wanted in this novel to showcase literary language and imagination in the fullest possible way. Before I came to Australia, the organiser of my tour told me there would be reading sessions. So I reread Death Fugue, to choose the sections for reading. To speak frankly, I felt bewitched, as if was reading the work of a stranger. I am not sure I could reproduce this kind of writing again.
Hemingway said that a finished work is a dead lion. For myself, I hardly consider whether the book is a lion or an elephant. I always quickly bury myself in creating new work. Only when I have to speak of it, do I think about whether the beast is carnivorous or herbivorous. But, talking too much about my past work still makes me tongue-tied and my mouth dry. It’s obviously not appropriate to eulogise oneself, and because one can’t see the flaws in one’s own work, it’s hard for one to be self-critical. All in all, when talking about one’s own work, one’s attitude must inevitably be ambivalent.
I jumped over the firewall in order to read Australian sinologist Nicholas Jose’s review of Death Fugue on the internet. I shared it on my Weibo page, and a reader took the initiative to help me translate it into Chinese. I will now quote a couple of excerpts from Nicholas Jose’s review, so everyone can have a rough idea of the book’s content and style of writing. Jose writes:
Death Fugue depicts a world of deforming power and abused desire collapsing under the weight of hubristic self-creation. Grotesquerie, lyricism, anomie, cool humour and ironic grandiosity play together in a fugal manner, now andante, now scherzo, always returning to the vision of doom from which this world is in flight. While Celan may be Sheng’s reference point, a closer affinity is with the chronicling of disintegrative excess that overflows its bounds in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) or in Joseph Roth’s manic prose or, in a quite different context, in the work of Philip K. Dick. Plenty of Death Fugue is gorgeous, overwrought or tongue-in-cheek, as it bleeds into soft porn and sci-fi at the edges. Much of it has a shocking immediacy, especially the scenes at the Square, rendered in subtly attentive prose of gripping power.
The writing is sometimes quivering, feverish, wild, given to pursuit of similitudes in a Chinese style that is here more yin than yang. Compare, for instance, Mo Yan’s grounded animal earthiness in Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (2006) with Sheng’s flickering, code-switching image-making in some of the most intense passages of the book, where it is as if a fox spirit from Strange Tales from Liaozhai Studio has taken over the writing. These stylistic excesses have the effect of dizzying and unsettling the reader, especially when they are interspersed with grand, abstract inquiry. Such writing can be understood in terms of a prismatic changing of positions, where nothing is fixed. In this, it revels in the looser protocols of Chinese fiction, whether romance or erotica.
I thank Mr Jose for his generous praise. In his essay, he refers to a few Chinese writers’ works. His familiarity with Chinese literature and the depth of his understanding are remarkable. He recognised many latent thoughts in my novel. No doubt, his interpretation has enriched the work itself.
Last month, I had a discussion with a Chinese friend working in the publishing industry about the publication of a short story collection. She said none of my later works surpasses Northern Girls, and furthermore, that my recent novels, such as Death Fugue, and a new novel Barbaric Growth, seem to be deliberately trying to pander to Western readers. My friend’s misunderstanding gave me a warning. With hand on heart, I interrogated myself. I don’t understand the West and the Western reader’s reading tastes. What I write, is what makes my blood bubble and boil. As the years advance and one’s exposure to readers increases, a writer’s vision and consideration inevitably undergo changes. I came to the world, but not to pander to the world. I write, but not to pander to the reader.
Let’s change to a different angle to interpret the word ‘pander’, which in Chinese literally means ‘meet and match’. It is possible to see an allusion here to the phrase ‘knowing me, knowing thee’ in Sunzi’s The Art of War, which suggests that if you understand yourself and you understand your opponent, you will never be defeated. ‘Knowing you’ implies recognising your opponent’s position, its supplies, strategies, battle psychology, and even the weather, the topography, and the mood of the soldiers, in order to formulate a winning strategy. In my view, to really conjecture, then ‘meet and match’, the Western reader’s psychology and the Western market, is an area of study in itself. For someone to say, ‘I’ll write a bestseller,’ ‘I’ll write a popular book for the West,’ as if she’s massaging the readers under his fingers, is superficial and brash. On the one hand, the writer will have overestimated her own ability; on the other hand, she will have underestimated the reader’s intelligence. I also don’t believe that Western readers only read Chinese literature because they’re seeking novelty, as some Chinese have come to believe. It’s very difficult for the readers from mainland China to gain access to Death Fugue. Once a book has anything to do with taboos, it is categorised and labelled as a matter of course. This is the grievance of Death Fugue. Regrettably, people’s interests and concerns over the background of a book are always greater than their concern for the literature itself.
Although some consider that touching on taboos means pandering to the West, I don’t think that writing that does not touch on sensitive territory is spineless, or is pandering to the authorities. I forget which Western writer once said, a soldier is born to charge the enemy line and shatter the enemy position, but a doctor, rather than shouldering guns and marching to the battlefield, can make a far more valuable contribution by staying behind the lines and healing the injured. So some writers in this world are doctors, and some others, soldiers. Likewise, I don’t subscribe to the idea that literature must pry into politics, or alternatively, must stay away from it. Any concerns arising from the writer’s heart, with which she has imbued great passion, should never become a minefield to be avoided or a self-imposed prohibition. Any deliberately constructed confinement will cause damage to literature. I also don’t believe that only by crashing onto a stone could an egg realise its value. Eggs don’t have to break to be commendable. Bear in mind, some eggs can hatch chickens, and sometimes, the chickens can bring about more meaningful outcomes than mere brokenness.
That’s why we love Orwell, Zamyatin, Solzhenitsyn, and at the same time, we love Márquez, Proust, Faulkner, and so on. A writer’s temperament influences her creative style, and those masterpieces that are engraved in our memories, that have enduring sales, and that are borrowed repeatedly from the library, are precisely those that do not draw any boundaries. To whom did those writers pander? García Márquez even said, he first started writing just to prove to a friend that writers could emerge from his generation, and he didn’t care about readers, but only wrote for three or five good friends, to gain their admiration. Edgar Allan Poe said he didn’t care whether his work was being read by his contemporaries or posterity. He could spend a century waiting for a reader.
I’ve travelled to a few countries, and engaged in different levels of communication with the people there, discussing my life, my writing, and my novels, presenting a Chinese writer’s thoughts, concerns, anxieties, her perceptions of the world, and her opinions of her society. Of course, I don’t really understand people from other nations, but on the other hand, I don’t think they are extraterrestrial beings. There are certainly significant cultural differences, but our human nature is the same. I believe all people in the world share the same yearning for love, they object to injustice, applaud kindness, and condemn cruelty. To use the language of Confucius, everyone has in their heart the possibility for kindness, morality, graciousness, and wisdom, which means the heart for compassion, the heart for remorse, the heart for tolerance and the heart for seeing right from wrong. Death Fugue tells the story of a poet’s painful struggle with desire, despair and hope, after his warm and passionate nature was extinguished during a massive political catastrophe.
I am not a poet, but I imagine I am a poet, my heart burning with never diminishing fire, nourishing fiction with truth.
This is an edited version of a speech given by Sheng Keyi at the University of Western Sydney on 14 August 2015.