Chinese Whispers


Anjum Hasan in Caravan:

WHEN MO YAN WON the latest Nobel Prize for Literature, I was struck by a curiosity that the prize is perhaps meant to trigger: I hadn’t read Mo Yan and was wholly ignorant about contemporary Chinese fiction. So I ordered his novella Change (2010) from Seagull Books. The title had been put out as part of their ‘What Was Communism’ series, with a cover designed in-house that prominently mentioned the win. Change (and Mo’s Pow!, also published by Seagull) turned out to be the only examples I could find of Chinese fiction independently sourced and published in India. Most Chinese literature available to us, I discovered in the coming months as I looked for more to read from that country, travels here through Western channels—either reprints of Western editions or these editions themselves, priced for Indian markets.

This is to be expected, given that American and British publishers are the source of virtually all the international fiction we read in English. We’ve grown used to discovering first the Russian writers, then the Latin American, and lately the African via Western selections and translations. This traffic is so old and so commonplace it doesn’t surprise us. Yet it’s worth wondering why two countries that share such a long border and seemingly many a cultural trait, not to speak of being gripped today by similar economic and social upheavals, can only access each other’s novels based on the tastes, fashions and economics of Western publishing.

It could be argued that the nationality of a book’s publisher has no effect on the reader’s experience of the text. This may be true: that Western publishers are the gatekeepers of what we read from China doesn’t change our way of reading, but it does exert a considerable influence on what Chinese fiction gets widely circulated in the English-speaking world. Pankaj Mishra wrote in these pages three years ago, in his essay ‘National Identities and Literature’, of his hope that “one day soon a Chinese novelist aspiring for an international reputation will be able to steer clear of the misery of the Cultural Revolution or the massacre in Tiananmen Square (perennial publishing favourites in the West).”

This tendency (to write what the West expects and recognises) as well as its constant accompaniment (the anxiety that writers are pandering to Western expectations of a country’s literature) are all too familiar to us in India. Both are blind allies, the tendency as limiting as the anxiety is counter-productive. Yet they both also open up interesting questions. How, for instance, has the English-speaking West come to have such a large stake in the translation and transmission of Chinese literature, or in giving Indian literature in English global currency?