Mo Yan [who just won the Nobel for literature yesterday] is one of China’s most celebrated and widely translated writers. Born in the Shandong province in 1955 into a family of farmers, he enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army at the age of twenty and began writing stories at the same time. Since then he has written several novels and story collections, including Red Sorghum, Big Breasts & Wide Hips, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out and most recently, Frog. This week he spoke toGranta editor John Freeman at the London Book Fair, about writing strong women, retaining idioms and puns even in translation and avoiding censorship.
JF: Many of your novels are located in a half-fictionalized town based on your Gaomi hometown, in a way similar to, say, Faulker’s American South. What is it that makes you return to this half-imagined community and does having a global readership alter the focus at all?
MY: When I first started writing the environment was there and very real and the story was my personal experience. But with an increasing volume of my work being published, my day-to-day experience is running out and so I need to add a little bit of imagination, sometimes even some fantasy, in there.
JF: Some of your writing recalls the work of Günter Grass, William Faulkner and Gabriel García Marquez. Were these writers available to you in China when you were growing up? Can you tell us a little about your influences?
MY: When I first started writing it was the year of 1981, so I didn’t read any books by García Marquez or Faulkner. It was 1984 when I first read their works and undoubtedly those two writers have great influence on my creations. I found that my life experience is quite similar to theirs, but I only discovered this later on. If I had read their works sooner I would have already accomplished a masterpiece like they did.