Refuses to Melt": A Conversation with Can Xue
Chinese author Can Xue (whose real name is Deng Xiaohua) is the only woman associated with the male-dominated avant-garde school that emerged in China around 1985 and includes such authors as Mo Yan, Yu Hua, and Su Tong. Born in Changsha in 1953, Can Xue suffered when her parents were condemned as ultra-rightists in 1957. Through the Cultural Revolution period, she was raised by her grandmother and was often on the brink of starvation. Can Xue's formal education ceased after just completing primary school.
Formerly a tailor by trade, Can Xue only began to write fiction seriously in 1983. A prolific writer of short stories, novellas, novels, and critical commentaries, Can Xue's first Chinese work was published in 1985. The English version of Dialogues in Paradise (Tiantangli de duihua), translated by Ronald R. Janssen and Jian Zhang, appeared in 1989, followed by Old Floating Cloud (Canglao de fuyun) in 1991 and The Embroidered Shoes (Xiuhua xie) in 1997.
I interviewed Can Xue at her home in Changsha on June 8, 2001. Her street was teaming with a kaleidoscope of vendors selling gaudy fabrics, shoes, and groceries, along with the standard family restaurants and bicycle carts streaming in every direction amidst the occasional cars and cabs. I instantly recognized the spirited woman on the sidewalk, as she sheepishly smiled behind thick-rimmed glasses. Though almost fifty, she has a youthful spunk, beaming and bubbling with timid laughter as she shook my hand and greeted me in fluent English. She graciously welcomed me into her humble apartment, where her sleek editor joined us for the interview. Following our conversation, we all feasted on a delectable lunch prepared by Can Xue's husband.
Laura McCandlish: How do you feel about your English translated works?
Can Xue: Translator Ronald Janssen may have misunderstood some aspects of my writings, putting too much emphasis on their social and political elements by linking my work to recent Latin American fiction. Scholar Jon Solomon far better comprehends the inner abstract worlds of my works, as well as Jian Zhang, my other translator.
LM: You've mentioned Franz Kafka as one of your major influences. When did you first read his work? Which works specifically?
CX: 1983, when his works were introduced to China. I especially enjoyed The Castle. His early works are more immature, like The Metamorphosis. I also wrote an article on "The Great Wall" in my critical collection on Kafka, entitled The Castle of the Soul. Also, I like Amerika and The Trial. Most Chinese critics wrongly claim Kafka writes of realism and anti-capitalism, but I read his stories as literature of the soul. I have also written a critical commentary on Borges's work.
LM: Right, Jorge Luis Borges is also often mentioned as your other key inspiration. What other works have affected your writing?
CX: Dante's The Divine Comedy. He was also translated in the early 1980s. Chinese focus too much on realism and politics in his works, where he's really more religious. I'm currently writing a commentary on The Divine Comedy.
LM: Do you feel most Chinese critics misunderstand your writings?
CX: I differ from their points of view. Lots of them hate me, or at least they just keep silent, hoping I'll disappear. No one discusses my works, either because they disagree or don't understand.
LM: Is Chinese criticism still male-dominated and traditional? You know the critic Lu Tonglin, who speaks of your "doubly-subversive position" in even the male-centered avant-garde tradition?
CX: Yes, Lu Tonglin is my friend. She's at the University of Iowa. In 1992, their International Writing Program invited me to speak in the United States for three months. I visited around fifty universities: Harvard, Berkeley, Minnesota.
LM: Can you explain the criticism Lu Tonglin suggests that you face as a woman writing in contemporary China?
CX: For a distinguished woman writer in China, the writing profession is very strange because the mainstream criticism is from traditional culture, man's culture, so they can't understand an individual woman's style.
LM: Are you currently recognized as a professional writer?
CX: Now, yes, though the government is changing the system, now only choosing writers with real talent. I was recognized in 1988. Before that, I really had to struggle for money-working as a tailor. Now my husband runs the tailor shop, so I can write everyday from morning until night, even on festivals, beginning each day with a morning jog before writing. Professional or not, for a good writer, the main pressure must be internal.
LM: What about writers like Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, whose work has been banned?
CX: I have his book Soul Mountain, but I haven't read it. His work seems very naïve and only average in style.
LM: You both seem to write a sort of "literature of the soul." Why have his works been more widely denounced than yours?
CX: He's more realistic and political. Many officials probably hadn't even read Gao's works before they were banned. My literature belongs to select readers. Maybe after two or three decades, I'll have more readers, but it's too early now.
LM: It's unfortunate because you really do hold such a unique spot in current Chinese women's literature.
CX: You've read Wang Anyi's works then. I don't agree with the traditional nature of Wang's works, but she is my good friend. Of course, most writers like her works-she's one of the most popular in China. Wang is safer in her writing, but it's not necessarily a good thing to please everyone.
LM: Yes, I spoke to her at the Mao Dun Prize last fall. We discussed feminism in China and the "women writing beauties" like Mian Mian and Wei Hui.
CX: Yes, some of their works are good. They write of some very personal things. (Laughs, implying sexual content)
LM: How do you feel about being labeled a "woman writer"?
CX: Of course I'd rather be known as a writer first, but it's not such a problem for me because many people don't know that Can Xue (my name meaning "the dirty snow that refuses to melt") is a woman's name.
LM: How do you feel about feminism being applied to your works? What are the conceptual differences between Chinese and Western feminism?
CX: I've read a few articles on feminism, and I think some conception of feminism is good for China. In China, feminism is really misunderstood. According to some female critics, all women writers are feminist. (Laughs) In 1998, there was the Conference on Women in Beijing, where almost every woman writer was given an award, though most are very traditional. Only a few write of more Western-influenced feminist thought.
LM: I would put you in the later category, with the individual, anti-traditional style of your writing. Also, you often depict dominant female characters.
CX: The most important thing is that I write from the unconscious. In China, from ancient times until now, there's never been a woman writer who has written in my style. Some male authors and critics have become angry. Most male and some women writers take offense to my irrational style. This is my main difference from other Chinese writers.
LM: What other writers have had an impact on your ideas? Also, what is your relationship to magical realism?
CX: On magical realism, I think Borges is a magical realist, but none of his works are about the real world. He writes of an eternal world, his own world, a soul world. I think even in other countries, few people understand his works. That's why I wrote my critical commentary on him.
LM: How do you feel about Garciá Márquez's work?
CX: Oh, I don't like him very much. I've only read a few of his shorter works.
LM: Does magical realism describe the dream-like realities created in your stories?
CX: That's Garciá Márquez more. He writes mostly about the outside world. But I'm not that kind of writer. I'm not as interested in the external world. I expel all outside forces in my works.
LM: By expelling all outside forces in your works, there must be an unconscious political statement in this act, though I know you've said you aren't a political writer?
CX: There's no political cause in my work. In my younger days, I believed that if you wanted to change the world, you must change your soul first. The novella Yellow Mud Street was my first work, so it's not very mature. I hesitate in this work. Some material came from the outside world in Yellow Mud Street, but I think my depiction of the internal world also appears in this early work. The character Wang Ziguang's name means "first light," representing the eternal world. Through Yellow Mud Street, I realized my real purpose to write literature of the individual.
LM: How do your individual works relate to modernism?
CX: My works do belong to modernism, but I was also influenced by earlier writers, such Cervantes's Don Quixote. I've read some Virginia Woolf, such as The Waves. I'm not so interested in postmodernism, rather more in classical literature. Modernist ideas really began in ancient times, like in Dante's works. Also, I read the Bible as literature. I look to the wisdom of the past. I don't care for contemporary American literature. (Laughs) I like my works much better. I prefer nineteenth-century American writers, like Emerson. Today's American writer seems very superficial.
LM: Have you had any problems with censorship?
CX: (Laughs) It's very stupid, but yes, last year Yellow Mud Street was deemed not suitable for publishing in Beijing and recalled, because they thought it was anti-government. Though the government does allow more freedom now. You can publish almost anything but the obviously political statements, like "down with Jiang Zemin."
The most important thing is for me to write dances from my heart. I'm most afraid of self-censorship-that I myself will control my writing. Of course, I am very hated by the Chinese government. My memoir piece "A Beautiful Day in the South" was also banned, but it wasn't written against the government directly. I write against the authoritarianism of traditional Chinese culture, and the government happens to be from that culture. The current leaders are just like those from ancient times. It keeps getting worse and worse. I hope to change young people's conception of this culture.
LM: Do you have a young readership?
CX: Yes, my hope is to reach those under thirty. I show my young readers a beautiful soul world that is much more important than the realistic world. There is another world parallel to this harsh reality, and this dream world is much bigger and deeper. From ancient times until today, Chinese culture has lacked the spirit of self-realization. China is a big country, so old ideas aren't thrown out easily. One of the most important things was to get Western thinking into China. I have a foreword in one of my books in which I wrote: "My works are like a plant. My ideas grow up in the West, but I dig them up and replant them in China's deep ground, a rich five thousand year history." My works aren't like those from the West or from China but are my own plant, my own creation.
LM: Describe your battle to write unconscious fiction.
CX: I think I write with the most feeling in contemporary Chinese literature, as I release my reason and senses into unconscious writing. When I write, I always imagine a person behind me, editing my words. This person controls my writing, so I think all of my work is from this conscience. It's always one very abstract person in my head. I battle with my self and the characters in my works.
LM: How autobiographical is your fiction?
CX: In very deep layers, all of my works are autobiographical. But if you wanted to point to specific details, no, that would be a mistake. I write more about my spiritual experiences, like Kafka. Or in Dante's Inferno, every character represented Dante's soul more than a specific political or historical commentary. I identify with Dante's supreme devotion to his craft, where his religion and art became one.
LM: How do you connect to other aspects of ancient Chinese culture, such as Daoist ideas of yin-yang?
CX: I believe the darkness breeds the light. Every human is a sinner. We all have the potential for good and evil, darkness and light, for beautiful yet complicated stories. But Chinese culture comes from my heart. I was born here. I live here, so I don't need to consciously learn what comes from my heart.