Beijing International Book Fair starts on 31 August featuring The Netherlands as the Guest of Honour. Eric Abrahamsen, manager of paper-republic.org interviewed me about the status quo of Chinese literature on the international market.
EA Can you first briefly describe your background, and what you do now? How long have you been in the Netherlands, what language do you write in, who is your primary audience, and how much contact do you have with China now?
J O’Y Obviously I was born and raised in China, in the South-western city of Kunming, the place I return to more often in my novels than in physical reality. Whether my birthplace has anything to do with the fact that I’m now working as a writer/visual artist I’m not sure, however, certain memories have seduced me into this unpractical profession. Until today they still haunt me, and prompt me to pick up my pen and brush each time for the sake of remembrance.
On 26 August 1986 I took the daily train around noon to the eastern coast, where I was going to spend the following four years as a college student at the University of Amoy. I recall the exact date and time, because my father gave me a watch when he and my mother came to see me off at the station. The watch had the shape of a cute panda bear; I guess he forgot I was not a little girl anymore, or at any rate I was on the brink to leave them forever in preference of the big, wide world ahead. Which I did. Shortly after the military crash on the Tiananmen Square, I left for Europe to study at the University of London. After that I landed at the University of Leiden via an exchange program to study Japanese language and literature, for which I was granted a scholarship to study in Japan. When I returned, I travelled through Europe for any work I could find…This is the short version of my “date with fate”.
I publish in English, Dutch and Chinese.
EA Could you tell me in general terms how you think Chinese literature is received in the Netherlands? Which books/authors are recognized, if any? Do authors ever appear there for events or tours?
J O’Y I think that the Dutch are curious people, and on the average well-eduacted. They read Chinese literature in order to “learn” something about the country and its people and culture, as this is the tendency of a general public outside China, including — sadly — literary critics. This, let’s say, approach refuses to take a literary work seriously and reduces its author to the level of a documentalist. I mean, do we read Shakespeare because we want to learn about England or Danmark in a certain period of time? Literature is something else, and demands the imagination from the author as much as from the reader. If Chinese literature is not freed from the yoke, it will never get anywhere. Unfortunately, the average attitude is encouraged by publishers who keep feeding the market with the same different.
EA Do you believe that literature is a primary means for Dutch people to understand China?
J O’Y Literature adds to reality; books are humanity in print. And don’t forget: when a writer writes, he INVENTS.
EA Is Dutch interest in China primarily focused on economics and politics, or is there interest in its culture?
J O’Y Without being cynical, business is something the Dutch and the Chinese share in common. However, trade will also bring things other than money, as it has throughout our history. Think of the Silk Road, the oldest trade route linking East and West.
EA Do you think a book fair is a viable or useful means of creating cultural contact between two countries?
J O’Y The intention is there, but I have to say there is too much politcs going on behind a pretty facade, inevitably. For Heaven’s sake, we are dealing with the Chinese authorities, what do you expect!
***An extra note: Dutch authors, whose books are heavily or not heavily censored in Chinese translation happily accepted the “linguistic” prescription because they are made to believe “it’s their culture”, and becaue it is CHINA.