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2017 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Yan Lianke

By Eric M. B. Becker

Yan Lianke and his translator Carlos Rojas were longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for The Explosion Chronicles

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: I began writing creatively about forty years ago, when I was sixteen or seventeen. At that time, my greatest dreams were to fill my belly, escape the countryside, and move to the city. After hearing about an author who, as a result of writing a novel, was able to relocate from the countryside to the provincial capital, I decided to start writing in the hope that I could do the same. After writing continuously every night for two or three years, I managed to finish a novel that was almost 300,000 Chinese characters long. This work was never published, and instead my mother eventually used the paper as kindling to light her stove.

Each stage of my writing career has been driven by a different objective. When I was young, I wrote because I wanted to escape the countryside, but later I began to write for money and reputation. After that, I became motivated by that “reality that cannot but be spoken, and which cannot but be written,” and currently I write because I feel that if I don’t, I’d have no way of determining whether I am dead or alive. In short, the reason why I write is to prove that I am still able to speak and breath. 

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?

Yan Lianke: I don’t trust Chinese literary histories, because they tend to be highly artificial. Literary histories are all very ideological, and are not primarily informed by literary or literary-historical concerns. Even histories of classical literature sometimes cannot escape the influence of ideology and power, while histories of modern and contemporary literature may be viewed as little more than literary histories of power, or literary histories informed by power. This is why I don’t put much stock in these so-called literary histories.

Of Chinese authors, a premodern figure who I have found particularly influential is Wu Cheng’en and his novel Journey to the West. When it comes to the modern period, the author who has been most influential for me is Lu Xun. As for what literary currents I disavow, I would say it is the tradition of “Chinese-style realism” that, to this day, continues to dominate Chinese authors and Chinese literature. This Chinese-style realism not only brings harm to literature itself, it also harms the reading and growth of countless generations of children. 

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

Yan Lianke: I don’t necessarily have a favorite book, but from other literary traditions I particularly like myths, folk stories, and local drama. These myths and folk stories include Greek and Roman myths, and folk stories from various different cultures. Furthermore, I often view the Bible and the canonical texts of other religions as a combination of myth and folk stories. As for drama, I am primarily referring to Chinese local dramas. China has more than thirty different local drama traditions, each of which has a completely different culture and flavor—and my own writing is deeply informed by these local dramas.  I should specify, however, that these myths, folk stories, and local dramas do not enter my fiction directly, but rather they subtly permeate my stories and my language like drizzle and a breeze. 

Yan Lianke’s responses translated by Carlos Rojas.

Read an interview with Carlos Rojas, translator of The Explosion Chronicles

Read more interviews with 2017 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators

Read an excerpt from Yan Lianke’s novel Serve the People

Published May 1, 2017   Copyright 2017 Eric M. B. Becker

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