The Nobel Prize in Literature recently awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan has created such an uproar that the merits of his writing seem to have been lost in the commotion. Taking center stage are cries about the political implications of honoring a member of the Communist Party and questions about the party politics of the writer himself. Then there are the financial questions: How will China best cash in on Mo Yan? The mayor of Mo Yan’s hometown wants to create a “Mo Yan brand,” and there is talk of turning his hometown Gaomi into a theme park.
Seven years ago I interviewed the future Nobel winner, and I have an entirely different take on the current debate. It was September 2005, and I was writing for a magazine based in Hong Kong. Mo Yan’s brilliant epic Big Breasts and Wide Hips had just come out in English; I was certain that he was destined for greatness and must be featured. And while my magazine was more interested in articles on designer-clad, diamond-encrusted socialites than culture, I continued to push for the story, paying for my own flight to Beijing, intent on meeting the author of that wild ride of a novel.
In person, Mo Yan had the well-fed look of someone who has seen too much starvation and famine to diet for fashion. He laughed easily, but his smiles were rare. There were smiles all around, though, on the faces of the staff vying to serve him coffee in the Beijing hotel lobby. Who would have guessed, in a country as vastly populated as China, that an ordinary-looking writer would be as recognizable as a pop star or actor?
Our conversation about his novel turned immediately to politics. It became clear that Mo Yan’s relationship with Communist Party policy is infinitely complex. He said that if he had written the same book 20 years ago he might have been shot, adding that he does not take political sides in his novel, but tries to “treat all as human. I want to show the real China and real life. It seems that [my book] is about a village, but it is actually about China’s history. In this book I want to cover every critical issue of the last century.” Speaking about his future works, his face darkened as he mentioned the unknown consequences he always fears they could provoke. “A writer without controversy is not a good one. A book without controversy is not a good one, either.”
After the interview, I visited a sun-filled Tiananmen Square. When the changing of the guards began, I was singled out by an official and loudly berated, a club waved in my face. Uncomprehending, I did not move until a girl beside me pushed me down and whispered that he had said I was too tall and blocked the view of people behind me. Forced to the ground in the shadow of Mao, I started to understand the enormity of the task Mo Yan has set for himself, which in his words is “to cover every critical issue of the last century.”
Now, however, many are denouncing Mo Yan’s win. Dissident writer Yu Jie says it is a victory for the Communist Party, and the American educated artist Ai Weiwei paints Mo Yan to be a sellout. Even the 2009 Nobel literature laureate Herta Müller calls it a “catastrophe.”
I disagree. To write such compelling fiction featuring current government corruption, inhumane policies, and the country’s bloody history without being jailed, censored, or having to leave his native villagers and country in favor of citizenship abroad, speaks to the deep level of artistry in Mo Yan’s novels and his commitment to his adoring Chinese public. Moreover, the clout of his Nobel now permits him to vocalize opinions that have hitherto only been possible through the veil of his writing. This makes his pen name, translated as “don’t speak,” even more of an irony.
But, be assured that none of this current debate can really be affecting Mo Yan all that much, given his stance that controversy is the mark of good writing. By his own standards, he has proved himself a tour de force. I just worry where he will write his next novel once Gaomi is turned into a theme park.
Anna Schonberg ’95 has a master’s in East Asian studies from Stanford and currently lives in Los Angeles.