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2016 Man Booker International Q&A: Yan Lianke

By Eric M. B. Becker

Yan Lianke was born in 1958 in Henan Province, China. He is the author of many novels and short story collections and has won China's two top literary awards, the Lu Xun in 2000 for Nian, yue, ri (The Year, the Month, the Day) and the Lao She in 2004 for Shouhuo (Pleasure). Lianke and his translator Carlos Rojas are shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for The Four Books

Words Without Borders (WWB): Tell us about how you became a writer. Was it a vocation, an accident? How has your relationship to writing changed over time? Have your goals and objectives changed throughout the years?​

Yan Lianke (YL): When I initially started writing, I had a very clear objective—which was that I wanted to use my writing to escape the countryside and find a job in the city. After the Cultural Revolution, I read a Chinese revolutionary novel, and I later heard that it was as a result of writing this novel that the author was assigned a job in the provincial capital. This gave me a sudden inspiration, and I thought to myself, “Oh, so writing can help you get to the city! Then why don’t I write a novel?” I therefore started writing my own works. Of course, the failures that resulted from this writing project can be easily imagined, though my faith in my ability to use writing to escape the hunger and poverty of the countryside never flagged. Furthermore, I ultimately did in fact succeed in using my writing to be appointed a cadre in the army, and in this way was able to escape the countryside and enter the city. However, as I gradually gained a better understanding of life, reality, and fate, I became increasingly uncertain why I wanted to write. If I am asked now what drives my writing, I would point to feelings of fear and betrayal—these being feelings that I can grasp in the midst of my uncertainty, and which have never left my side. It is because of a feeling of fear and also betrayal that I have persisted in my writing. I am referring to a fear of power, of reality, of meaningless life, and even of the inevitability of death, and precisely because I fear all of this, I therefore hope to be able to use my writing to resist and betray it. I hope to betray power, reality, and meaningless existence; and I even hope to betray literature itself. Therefore, if I’m asked what drives me to write, I’d have to say that it is fear and betrayal.

WWB: How do you see your writing within the larger context of your country's/language's literary tradition? What influences/writers/groups of writers there do you draw on, or what literary currents does your work disavow?​

YL: I don’t pay much attention to Chinese literary history, because Chinese literary history is full of biases and distortions. A volume of literary history is inevitably a volume of ideological history. However, I have a lot of respect for many premodern Chinese authors and literary works, such as Tao Yuanming’s fable “Peach Blossom Spring,” and famous novels such as Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber. From the modern period, there is Lu Xun. I have always said that Lu Xun makes up half of my soul. Meanwhile, two works that I categorically reject are the Ming dynasty novels Romance of Three Kingdoms and Water Margin. Although these works are conventionally regarded as two of China’s four great master novels, I nevertheless find them to be full of deceit, violence, a disregard for human life, and an idolization of imperial power. I often think that if we don’t excise these two culturally corrupt works from the canon, China’s cultural blood will have no hope of ever becoming clean and noble. 

WWB: What's your favorite book from a literary tradition other than your own and how has it influenced your writing?​

YL: I believe that an author’s literary tradition should never be limited to works written in his or her own language, and instead works in other languages should also be part of one’s own literary tradition—such as nineteenth-century Russian novels, or those twentieth-century Western classics that we know so well. In fact, the influence of Western literary classics is perhaps particularly important for an author of my generation. But if I were asked about the influence of other literary traditions from within China itself, I would say that what has been particularly influential for me has not been fiction but rather local dramas. I’m from Henan province, and there are more than thirty different kinds of local dramas from Henan alone, though only a handful of these have had a particularly large and long-lasting influence. I have always been fascinated by these sorts of local dramas, and therefore when I write, I always strive to incorporate into my fiction a sense of rhythm and rhyme that I borrow from these dramas. In addition, China’s folk traditions and myths also have a very direct influence on my writing. 

Yan Lianke's responses translated by Carlo Rojas. 

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: An excerpt from Yan Lianke's novel "Serve the People" (WWB's January 2008 Issue)

Read WWB's MBIP Interview with Yan Lianke's translator Carol Rojas

More interviews with 2016 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators

Published Apr 6, 2016   Copyright 2016 Eric M. B. Becker

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