Magazine article Humanities

The Real Mo Yan

Magazine article Humanities

The Real Mo Yan

Article excerpt

NEH Chairman Jim Leach interviewed author Mo Yan in October during the Second U.S.-China Cultural Forum at the University of California-Berkeley. At the conclusion of the conference, Chairman Leach and the Chinese Vice Minister of Culture, Wang Wenzhang, signed a memorandum of understanding calling for further bilateral cultural cooperation.

JIM LEACH: Mo Van is a pen name. Can you tell its meaning in Chinese and its meaning to you? Has use of a pen name been helpful as you narrate your own life, as well as the life of your country?

MO YAN: In Chinese, Mo Yan means don't speak. I was born in 1955. At that time in China, lives were not normal. So my father and mother told me not to speak outside. If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and I did not speak. When I started to write, I thought every great writer had to have a pen name. I remembered mom and my dad telling me do not speak. So I took Mo Yan for my pen name. It is ironic that I have this name because I now speak everywhere.

LEACH: Your writing career began right after the Cultural Revolution ended. What did this new period mean for Chinese literary figures and for you?

MO YAN; Without the new period in China, I would not have my writing. The reforms and opening-up that occurred in the 1980s gave me the opportunity to write a lot of books. Before 1980, China's writers were very heavily influenced by Soviet writers. During the 1980s, we were influenced by European and American literature.

From my own perspective., the reforms and the opening-up were great happenings in China.

LEACH: You've sometimes been described as a "magical realist" and linked to people like Franz Kafka. At the same time, you're considered a social realist, which in our country might suggest the influence of William Faulkner or John Steinbeck. Or, would it be better to discuss your ties to Chinese classical works?

MO YAN: I think my style is dose to the American writer William Faulkner. I learned a lot from his books.

[In a speech the next day at the Cultural Forum, Mo Yan elaborated: "In 1984, in the winter, on a very snowy night, I borrowed a book by Mr. Faulkner-The Sound and the Fury. I read a Chinese version by a very famous translator. . . . The stories he wrote were of his hometown and countryside. He founded a county that you can't find on a map. Even though that county is very small, it was representative. That made me realize, if a writer is to establish himself, he must establish his own republic. He created his own county, and so I created a village in the northeast region of China that I based on my own hometown as well and established a realm for myself. After Faulkner, it occurred to me that my own experience, my own life in that little village, could all become stories and literature. My family, people I'm familiar with, the villagers - they can all become my characters.]

But my style combines a lot of different influences.

I grew up in the countryside and lived there until my twenties. Folk literature and storytellers provided a lot of influence. The stories told to me by my grandmother, grandfather, and the old people, and by my father and my mother later became resources.

Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber were classic Chinese books that were a big influence to me, too.

LEACH: My hometown is Iowa City, where you have spent some time. Do you see any comparisons between Iowa City and its surrounding countryside and northeast China?

In your brief time in Iowa City, you left an enclave of literary friends who consider you perhaps the greatest living author in China and quite possibly the world. And so, I want you to know that you have many friends in this very precise region in America.

MO YAN: I stayed in Iowa for two weeks. I knew every street, and I went to every restaurant there. I met Paul Engle and his wife, Hualing Nieh Engle, who is my good friend. …

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