The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to 57-year-old Chinese novelist Mo Yan.
The Swedish Academy praised Mo’s “hallucinatory realism,” saying it “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” Mo’s books include “Red Sorghum”, which was adapted for the silver screen in 1987, “Big Breasts & Wide Hips”, “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out” and “Frog”.
The World’s Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad says officials in China celebrated the news, though reactions overall were mixed.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. So, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature goes to “hallucinatory realism.” Actually, it went to Chinese writer Mo Yan, who was praised by the Swedish Academy for his hallucinatory realism merged with folktales, history and the contemporary. Mo Yan is not a household name on this side of the globe, so it’s a good thing that we’ve got The World’s China correspondent, Mary Kay Magistad on hand to tell us more about the author.
Mary Kay Magistad: Mo Yan is actually a pen name with means “don’t speak.” His real name is Guan Moye. He’s 57 years old. He’s originally from the eastern province of Shandong. He grew up as a farmer. He joined the People’s Liberation Army after living through the Cultural Revolution, and it was actually while he was in the PLA that he started to write. He’s written prolifically, books like Big Breasts & Wide Hips, Republic of Wine, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out and the book that probably Americans know best would be Red Sorghum, which is made into a film by Zhang Yimou and got wide circulation around the world. His style tends to be sort of magical realism. He has one novel where it opens with the protagonist being burnt to a crisp and he goes on to become an animal and to live out his life in a different form. He has talked about how in his province when even before he was born, one of the things that sort of inspired him to take this sort of approach to things was the actual attitude of farmers when they saw new things come into their realm. For instance, back in the late 19th century when there were German colonialists really in the port city of [inaudible 01:43], they built a railway through Shandong. And he said the farmers laid out black beans and straw because they figured that’s what the train would eat and they were trying to lure it away from the tracks onto their field because bandits in the area had said that the engines were made of pure gold. These are the sorts of stories that he has said stayed with him and that he wrote about and embellished into a fuller form of magical realism in his novels.
Werman: Now, if Mo Yan’s pen name means “don’t speak”, what does that mean, that he’s a literary fire brand in China or that he’s kind of an obedient party loyal?
Magistad: That’s such a good question and people have very different views on the answer to that. Mo Yan is with the China Writers Association. He’s actually the vice chairman. This is a government organization. He did not say anything when Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo being a dissident who’s imprisoned for having called for democracy and free expression in China.
Werman: Right, he won the prize in 2010.
Magistad: But Mo Yan’s writing has been restricted within China at different times. He has written critically about society in different ways, but he knows where the lines are and he very cannily stays just within them. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Chinese state run media celebrated. In fact, CCTV, Chinese Central Television broke into its regular broadcast to say you know, the first Chinese national has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which is technically true, but in fact there was a Chinese writer, Gao Xingjian who won the Nobel Prize for Literature years ago, but at the time he was living in exile in France. So the Chinese government isn’t claiming his as their own.
Werman: Right, and that’s a markedly different reaction from Chinese media to his winning the prize for literature than say the reaction to Liu Xiaobo winning the peace prize in 2010.
Magistad: Which was to block all mention of the peace prize, to cutoff imports of Norwegian salmon and to let Norwegian diplomats in China twist slowly in the wind for months afterward.
Werman: So what about Chinese people, the average people on the street, what’s been the reaction from them to Mo Yan winning the prize for literature?
Magistad: Well I would say that it’s still somewhat early. It’s only been announced a few hours ago. Judging from Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, there were comments that have great respect for him, he’s a great writer, he deserves it. There were other comments from both writers, and poets and literary critics and just people who follow the writing of different Chinese novelists who said you know, the Nobel Prize for Literature shouldn’t go to someone who compromises. And in fact, a couple of people pointed out that there was a rather controversial project a while back where a hundred different Chinese writers were asked to write in their own penmanship a speech that Mao Zedong had given about the role of Chinese writers in a communist country and in communist China, and that is to serve the party. Mo Yan participated in that and wrote out a paragraph of Mao’s speech. Now, some people say he does what he needs to do to be able to continue to write what’s important to him, and other people say he compromises too much.
Werman: How well known is Mo Yan in China?
Magistad: Mo Yan is very well known. He is one of the better known novelists in China, both in Chinese and also in translation. He has a translator who has been working with him over the course of years and has translated five of his novels. In fact, that translator, Howard Goldblatt has said affectionately about Mo Yan, he never met an adjective he didn’t like. And he said you know, a lot of translators would take those out, but I make a point of leaving them in because they’re so descriptive and they’re so colorful, and they really add to the imagery that he tries to build in his novels.
Werman: Mary Kay, thank you.
Magistad: Thank you, Marco.
Werman: The World’s Mary Kay Magistad speaking with us from Beijing.
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