“Can great lasting literature find a reader in America?” I think so, do you?
“Literature is not a boxing match, though sometimes it can appear that way given the polarizing passions it can generate.” So begins yesterday morning’s Times “View from Asia,” a piece by the reporter Didi Kristen Tatlow entitled “In 3 Awards, 3 Ways of Seeing China.” This is the second and more balanced piece she has published in the Times in a week. Indeed, over the last two months, three Chinese writers have won prestigious international awards, including the novelist Mo Yan (Nobel Prize for Literature), the writer/journalist Liao Yiwu (Peace Prize for the German Book Trade), and the Taiwanese poet Yang Mu (Newman Prize for Chinese Literature), but Tatlow’s piece misses some important opportunities that need to be addressed in one of the few forums where readers have access to such discussions. Tatlow’s piece includes fantastic comments from Hong Kong poet Leung Ping-kwan (a/k/a PK) and scholar Michelle Yeh that go a long way toward complicating the “either/or” nature of her first piece which now rather famously ends with the hyperbolic question, “Can great, lasting literature come from there [China]? The Nobel committee thinks so. Do you?” Tatlow’s more recent piece still gives the impression that Mo Yan’s award was given to the PRC ruling party rather than an author. Tatlow simplifies her discussion of Mo Yan with a single quotation from a government official, and she implies that the other two awards were somehow less ideologically implicated—i.e., awarded fairly. I cannot speak to the selection process of the Peace Prize for the German Book Trade, but as the Juror Coordinator for this year’s Newman Prize, I would agree that the Newman Prize represents an important, transparent international award for Chinese Literature. This award is conferred by the University of Oklahoma (named for Ruth and Harold Newman and established by Pete Gries), where a jury of leading international literary scholars weighs literary merit to find the writer who best represents the human condition in written Chinese (from anywhere in the world). Yang Mu won the award because the jury saw his work as a reflection of these high ideals. What Tatlow did not mention is that the Newman Prize honored Mo Yan in 2008, the year a Newman jury selected him for representing the pinnacle of these humanist ideals.
Now, one week later, it seems as though it has been decided that this year’s Nobel committee has forgone the category of literature and simply awarded two peace prizes. Peace prize winners are heroes (to many though perhaps not all) as their lives reveal brave choices under unimaginable conditions. These choices and their ramifications become public record, and that record is the primary text of their cultural production (their writings, then often become paratexts that derive their import from the centrifuge of their lived experiences).
Novelists and poets, on the other hand, simply are not heroes in this sense, and they receive awards according to the cultural prestige they accrue based on their creative contributions to literature and culture. The Nobel Prize for Literature like the Book Prize, Pulitzer Prize as well as the Newman Prize and the Neustadt Prize (for which Mo Yan was a nominee in 1998), are conferred upon literary merit, an artistic basis that does not diminish Peace Prizes but complements them by way of further clarifying the work (and sacrifices) of political figures (who often are writers and/or orators). Such a distinction is essential and should be vigorously protected at such times as these. The value of literature lies in its innovative, creative labors, and running sensationalist pieces that reduce authors to simplistic pawns in geopolitical chess matches discourage people from engaging this labor (especially when it comes in the form of literature in translation) and this is simply not good stewardship of our common culture. This does not mean that geopolitical conversations should not take place, but that literaturists need to be bolder and assert the importance of the work writers do and why it is deserving of (critical) attention, for authors are linguistic technicians building the languages we need to describe the shifting, multiple worlds around us. I think that moments like these should entice literary critics to engage the public culture more directly and defend not Mo Yan alone, but literature more generally from the grip of language unable or simply uninterested in digging into the work literature is/does.
Chinese Literature Today
University of Oklahoma
Mo Yan 莫言, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, continues to be a topic of conversation. Following yesterday’s posting of “A Westerner’s Reflection on Mo Yan,” here are three other links to the relationship between Mo Yan–and by extension, Chinese literature, if not China–and the world.
Then Julia Lovell, translator and author of The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, weighs in on the political responses in China and the “intellectually lazy … Western observers” in “Mo Yan’s Creative Space.”
Then, looking at Yang Mu 楊牧 winning the Newman Prize, Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 winning the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, and Mo Yan winning the Nobel–all in the space of a few days–Didi Kirsten Tatlow looks at “In 3 Awards, 3 Ways of Seeing China,” quoting observations from P K Leung and Michelle Yeh.
In the zone of rain shadows, at the moment of losing
My winding way, the star is the only guide
Your contemplation is an ocean, you are endless brooding
At night, in the morning, at the moment when mountain shadows
Retreat from my side table, we recall the time before exile
Click here to read all three.
Yang was nominated by UC Davis professor Michelle Yeh, co-translator with Lawrence R. Smith of Yang’s collection No Trace of the Gardener (another volume, translated by Joseph Allen, was published as Forbidden Games & Video Poems: The Poetry of Lo Chʻing [羅青]). The other nominees were Hsia Yü 夏宇, Yang Lian 杨炼, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, and Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, nominated by Jennifer Feeley (U. Iowa, USA), Michel Hockx (U. London SOAS, UK), Wolfgang Kubin (Bonn U., Germany), and Zhang Qinghua 张清华 (BNU, PRC), respectively.
Rare for contemporary Chinese poetry, all nominated poets have single-author collections available in English translation. Coincidentally, three of the nominees–Hsia, Zhai, and Ouyang–have had their only books in English published by Zephyr Press.
“The Pocketwatch,” a new translation of a Huang Chunming story (by Howard Goldblatt)
Translations of Yang Mu’s poetry (by Arthur Sze and Michelle Yeh)
Translations of Ye Mimi’s poetry (by Steve Bradbury)
Dylan Suher essay on Qian Zhongshu, that also serves as a review of Humans, Beasts and Ghosts: The Collected Short Stories of Qian Zhongshu (translated by Christopher G. Rea)
Also see the January 2012 issue for my translations of Xi Chuan‘s “Beast” 巨兽, “The Distance” 远方, and “Poison” 毒药, and hear a recording of “The Distance” read in Chinese by Huang Yin-Nan.
At Modern Chinese Literature & Culture, esteemed scholar Michelle Yeh 溪密 has a review of Dan Murphy‘s translations of Hai Zi 海子 (an early friend of Xi Chuan’s) in the collection Over Autumn Rooftops. A fan of the translations overall, Yeh’s enthusiasm emerges most when she discusses the poetry, as follows:
What readers will find–and enjoy–in Over Autumn Rooftops is a poetry of considerable complexity. Hai Zi draws on a wide range of literary sources: from the Book of Odes and Qu Yuan to Homer and Greek mythology, from canonical works to folk literature. His early poetry suggests influences by his older contemporaries, such as Shu Ting and Duo Duo. His images exhibit a tendency toward the primal (water, fire, sky, earth, fish, bird, seasons) and the sublime (“the king,” God), and he often identifies with village, sun, prairie, and wheat (“beautiful, wounded wheat” , “wheat in despair”). His language is simple yet tinged with mysticism, effortlessly crossing the boundary between the inner and the external world.
Click here or the image above for the review.