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The Performance of Fiction: An Interview with Can Xue

By Porochista Khakpour

Can Xue’s novel Frontier, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, and with an introduction by Porochista Khakpour, comes out March 14 from Open Letter Books. 

Can Xue is the greatest living writer on earth, I’ve often said. And I am the luckiest living writer on earth for being not just a fan but the friend of the greatest living writer on earth. Can Xue often emails me with talk of literature and politics, checks up on my social media outlets to see how I am doing, offers all sorts of health advice (we are both chronically ill), and sometimes just drops a simple hello from Beijing. I had read her for years before meeting her—at first, thanks to stumbling on a story of hers in a Daniel Halpern international literature anthology, The Art of the Story. Soon I realized that Bradford Morrow had published her in Conjunctions for ages and I went back through the issues. (Years later, I got a job as writer-in-residence at Bard College and he became my colleague.) Everything I read I fell in love with, even as it was always over my head on some level; I’d never enjoyed feeling so inadequate more than when reading Can Xue! But I’d also feel her work deep in my body and soul, in a way I’d never quite experienced with experimental writing, art that often only fed the top layer of my brain. The experience of reading Can Xue cannot be compared to any other reading experience.

Then when I served on the Neustadt Prize jury in 2015, I finally had direct contact with her, as the Neustadt Prize—what some call “the American Nobel”—requires that we notify who we nominate (of course, she was my nominee). Can Xue was most excited about the part of the prize that involved coming to the United States, where she feels her best readers are. In the end, she was a close finalist but didn’t win—and so we decided to figure out a way to arrange for her to visit the States anyway. I helped organize a tour for her, which would include her ever-adoring tailor husband, Lu Yong (it would be his first visit to the States). The tour this past fall was an enormous success: a whirlwind of excellent talks in Chinese and English, huge crowds and long lines of scholars and students, endless Q&As, never a boring meal all over the country, and conversation-packed walks through several cities. (Walking with Can Xue through Central Park and then spending a day with her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art might be one of the highlights of my life!) At Bard and MIT and the Asian American Writers Workshop—the events I worked on most closely—students are still talking about her visit. When I ask them what touched them the most during her talks, their thoughts mirror mine: how she never tried to write creatively until she was thirty, how she endured the horrors of life in the labor camps during the Cultural Revolution that interrupted her education at age thirteen, how she refuses to revise her work and believes in the performance of the first draft, how she holds on to optimism and a belief in the future while also revering the riches of past (modernist writers, canonical philosophers, iconic artists of ages ago)—and how she is so transcendently alive. Truly, her laughter can fill a room with light just as her intellect can set pages on fire.

With six novels, fifty novellas, 120 short stories, and six works of literary criticism and commentary—only a fraction of which have been translated in English—as well as a 2015 BTBA Award in 2015, Can Xue should be more well-known, greatest living writer that she is.  But while she might not be a household name, she is no secret in the literary world either. She counts among her fans the late Susan Sontag and Robert Coover, as well as John Darnielle and Eileen Myles—and I discover many more every time I speak of her publicly. I wrote to my friend Eileen about her recently again and she had a few words to say: “Can Xue walks an urgent and excited line between reality and fantasy, legend and presence, politics and surrealism. The moment I picked up her work I felt like I had found a friend and an inspiration. Her feminism is in the gut of the work and in the uniquely radiantly mad mind. It feels like work that had to be written. Like we have to take our suffering and our precious time and infuse it with magic. I’ve learned so much from her.” Indeed, we are all her students. The following interview was conducted over email over the course of months and is a fairly typical interaction between this master and this apprentice, creator and reader, icon and fan, two writers and two friends.


Porochista Khakpour (KP): I’ve had the great honor to write the introduction of your new book Frontier (pictured left). I wonder if you could tell us where you first got the idea for Frontier. The origin story of this tale, the genesis of this project, very much interests me as I consider this the most mysterious of Can Xue’s work!

Can Xue (CX): I think this is a very good question. Let me explain how I create and build up a novel. It’s a long journey, a special kind of journey that is realized through my continuing performances. It’s impossible for me to “have an idea” for a novel before the novel is being created, step by step, through my daily improvisational performances until it is finished at last. Because when I am writing, what I depend on is mainly the performance of my body, not just my thinking. In my view, the performance of one’s body is much more difficult than the thinking that occurs in one’s brain. You can’t know the meaning of your words and sentences before they are actually written down; you can’t know even after that. I usually know the “meaning” several months after I finish a novel. In the process of the writing, all you need is a strong passion and firm resolution—a resolution of performance. Of course, this sort of creation also needs a powerful original force to sustain it from start to end.

I always think that my writing is somewhat similar to Isadora Duncan’s dance. It’s not something external that gives you an idea about your tale; it’s a body’s passion and resolution that produces an essential movement. So when I am writing, I don’t need inspiration in the usual sense. Because at that moment, I am the inspiration, and I am Great Nature, which, as a Chinese writer, means the ultimate setting in my philosophical and artistic view; a warmer setting than God in the West. My body also becomes the body of Great Nature. As soon as I start the performance, the beautiful pattern of Great Nature gradually unfolds. What I need to do is just concentrate on my acting, indulging in the wildest fantasy. By the end, everything I write down forms that pattern naturally. I know this explanation is still mysterious for readers, but it is a matter of practicing, not just “thinking.” You have to do it very often; then you may understand it step by step. That means that reading works by Can Xue is also a sort of performance.

Before I start a novel, I sometimes say to myself: “I’m going to write a big thing this time. Because recently there are so many things surging and tingling in my dark heart.” Usually whatever I write down first is perfect—I call that “material thinking.”

I always think that my writing is somewhat similar to Isadora Duncan’s dance. It’s not something external that gives you an idea about your tale; it’s a body’s passion and resolution that produces an essential movement.

PK: How do you see this work as fitting into your canon? I often wonder what order you would have readers read you or which books you now favor or how you see them all next to each other.

CX: Actually I view all of my works as a whole that is indivisible. I think my writing can be seen as a tree that is growing continuously all the time. It has its specific pattern in each growing period. Maybe some readers like works that are from an early period, while others like the later ones better, according to their personalities. As for me, when I consider my fiction—a lot of stories and six novels—as a whole, I like to list them according to the time that they were written. Strangely, I feel that each of my six novels is my favorite. Maybe by the time I wrote them, my artistic self was fully mature. From Five Spice Street and The Last Lover to Frontier and Love in the New Millennium, and two others, I think every one of them ranks first in the literary circles of the world. They are so beautiful, and each one reached a higher level of body and spirit. When you list them according to the time they were written, you can see this clearly. So I can’t decide which is best, because each one displays a unique kingdom of beauty.

My performance have never failed me in these long, sustained projects. And Frontier is a mature novel, one of my best. Every time I reread, it gives me new ideas. I view the book as the most successful pursuit of freedom. The border town in the story is not the type that people see or think about in daily life, but a more real small cosmos that is described as an ideal of nature and humanity. I build up the kingdom of freedom, and everything in it (people, plants, animals, and so on) presents an immortal painting. These people force themselves to lead a brave life—a free life that is like always getting ready to fly across an abyss. One thing I would like to share is that the English translation is beautiful and poetic.

PK: What were your influences on Frontier outside of the performance of Can Xue? I think about the animals in particular, and the actual town we have here. If you had to be your own psychodetective, could you say where this imagery came from?

CX: Usually when I work on a big new project, I try hard to exercise more seriously every day (jogging twice a day), and to keep myself in a state of high tension. When I wrote Frontier, I jogged in our community (in 2006, Beijing was not as dirty as nowadays). The sky was so blue; I felt that those trees were spring up freely, and I was melting into the sky, the trees, the grass . . . I call this exercise “drawing information from Great Nature.” After that, the grotesque images will surge out even when I am not writing. Sometimes I write down one or two words as a note, but my writing is an improvisation—the strange animals will come, the plants that belong to a paradise will come too, when I am acting. Because as soon as you launch the mechanism of the paradox of your body, every image evoked is aimed toward freedom automatically. But in my view, to an artist, psychological levels are relatively superficial. The best reader for this sort of fiction should not only look for clues from the field of psychology. They should be more profound and broad. I think all of the clues are in an artistic self. The best reader should draw wisdom and nourishment from literature itself, from philosophy and history, and then build up his modern view of the world or the arts gradually.

My writing is an improvisation—the strange animals will come, the plants that belong to a paradise will come too, when I am acting.

PK: How long did it take to write and what were your habits when writing Frontier?

CX: I took about a year (or less?) to finish Frontier. That was in 2006 (it was published in 2008). I remember how happy I was during that time. The setting of the story seems to be the Xin Jiang province in the northwest of China, although I have never been there. But during that time, my wonderful Xin Jiang remained in the depths of my mind all day long—even I myself didn’t realize it. That was really a fantastic experience.

In terms of my writing habits, I always write for an hour every day, usually in the morning. Just one thousand words (a page), not more, not less. Because I want to keep my images fresh. I sit down, a pen in my hand, and after one or two minutes, I begin to write sentence by sentence. This acting continues for about an hour; then the page is finished, I stand up, and do other things and forget my writing for the time being. Strangely, there’s no need for me to change anything I have written down. It’s there, neat and beautiful, just like my handwriting. . . This is my habit when I write fiction, and for Frontier, of course, the habit remained the same. Actually, I have not changed my writing habit for thirty-three years!

PK: You often write of surreal realities. “Other worlds,” one might even say, or “dream realities” or the realities of subconscious. But what do you think when the surface is also so surreal? For example, America right now is in chaotic, almost psychedelic, upheaval. What happens when the truth is stranger than fiction? What do you think of Trump and the chaos in America at the moment? I know things have not been easy in China either, but how do you handle it? Do you think much about politics anymore? Do you feel it matters for art? How can readers and writers alike approach this—should we immerse or ignore?

CX: As the saying goes, “onlookers see more than the player.” As an eastern artist and a foreigner who has closely watched the changes in the United States, I don’t think the current situation in the country is that strange. Although American people have a long excellent tradition of democracy, and the system of the country is relatively good, at the same time, the country also has a long conservative tradition. This tradition usually functions as nationalism. For many years the political elite who led the country followed the principle of “political correctness.” They neither really knew their own people, nor understood people in other countries. The only thing they usually did was to hold high the banner of justice for their policymaking. So I think that the phenomenon of Trump is a great explosion of contradictions. It shows that the leaders of the country are more and more out of touch with the American people. They don’t know what people think about, and how they feel about their lives nowadays. And also, the theory the leaders depend on to rule the country, to deal with their foreign affairs, is a very old one that is not suitable for the situations of the world that is changing rapidly.

Because of great disappointment in their leaders, the people turned to Trump—a nationalist, and a conservative strongman—hoping that he would bring a better life for them. “The people get the government they deserve”—this is what happened in the United States recently, I think. Although Trump represents only half of the people. It is a very serious problem, and how to enlighten the masses is still a long tough task before the intellectuals. But first, the intellectuals have to find the right theory, change their outdated worldview, and explore humanistic ways to administer their country and to deal with their foreign policy. In these aspects I think President Barack Obama has done a better job than other leaders. But the time was too short, so he couldn’t change the past during his term.

Yes, I always pay attention to politics. And I feel it matters for art. But as a modern artist, I take a historical perspective to exam events that burst out suddenly. The history of human beings is long; we can’t measure it in a decade or even decades. Historical events are the power source for my creation; I have always been angry or excited for the events. But I think the main duty of an artist is to change the souls and bodies of common people. We must do more work, and enlighten people with our work. Our work is very important to politics in the world—as the events of Trump and Brexit show. Of course an artist is also a common person. If someday people here take to the streets, it’s possible that I would join them.

As a modern artist, I take a historical perspective to exam events that burst out suddenly. The history of human beings is long; we can’t measure it in a decade or even decades.

PK: When you came on your US university tour this autumn, no matter where we were—Bard College, MIT, the Asian American Writers Workshop—I was taken with how much young people loved you. I’ve never seen more young people ask questions and want to simply be around an author. I know you also love your young readers. I wonder if you could talk about who your ideal reader is, as well as why young people matter so much to you.

CX: In my heart, an ideal reader is someone who believes two things—love and creation. Those two things are also the core of my work. Can Xue loves people and the world. Communication is the most important thing for her. And at the same time she pursues a life of creation that is always new, that changes every day; she welcome challenges, and never stays in one place.

Why do young people matter so much for Can Xue? Because they are Can Xue’s hope. The works by Can Xue are the fables of beauty—they may not be realized right away—but young readers will realize them someday, I think. 

Read Kate Prengel’s review of Frontier

Read Can Xue’s essay “‘The Fair-haired Princess’ and Serious Literature

Read Can Xue’s story “The Old Cicada”

Can Xue, meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow, but also pure snow on the top of a mountain,” is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua. She was born in 1953 in Changsha City, Hunan Province; her parents were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and she only graduated from elementary school. Can Xue learned English on her own and wrote books on Borges, Shakespeare, and Dante. Her publications in English include FrontierThe Embroidered ShoesFive Spice StreetVertical Motion, and The Last Lover, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.

Published Mar 13, 2017   Copyright 2017 Porochista Khakpour

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