By Karen Zhang
There is a well-known lyric in China: “The east is red, the sun rises. From China arises Mao Zedong.” On October 11, 2012, when the Swedish Academy announced that the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature is Chinese writer Mo Yan, my mind immediately brought up the tune. Yet, we should change the lyrics to “The east is red, the sun rises. From China arises the first Nobel Laureate of Literature.” Less than half an hour after the announcement from Stockholm, Mr. Mo’s works were sold out at China’s major online book sellers.
Like many Chinese, I haven’t read any of Mo Yan’s novels. My knowledge about Mo is limited to the movie Red Sorghum based on his novel by the same name. Born and raised in the countryside of northeast China, Mo writes about ordinary rural life, which resonates with me deeply. I am crafting a novel that takes place in a Chinese village. As a writer learning to write in my second language about my motherland, I have so many questions for Mr. Mo. First and foremost, when he started his first book, did he find it hard to get it published?
Over the past few months, I’ve been looking for literary agents in the U.S. to represent another manuscript of mine: a memoir. I am experiencing the long waiting time for responses and the rejections that every published writer says is a rite of passage. I see my literary path chilled but with a glimpse of hope. That glimpse of hope comes from my dedication to writing.
During my search for a break-out for my literary career in America, one thing I notice is that American publishers seem to care a great deal about sales. Chinese publishers may publish a book for the sake of literature. Like Mr. Mo said in an interview after the Nobel Prize announcement, as long as you render human truth, friendliness and beauty in the work, the Western readers will echo with you. His point soothes me.
By far, Mo Yan is not the most popular novelist in China, in either in the book market or in reputation. But his works which combine hallucinatory realism with folk tales, history and contemporary life in China are undoubtedly the epitome of rural Chinese life. I thank him for rendering these elements of traditional Chinese life as urbanization in China grows rapidly. This is what Chinese characteristics should mean — not tearing down old houses for new skyscrapers, not replacing natural habitats with parking lots, not dumping away folk culture for modernity in the name of keeping pace with times.
Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize tells me that Chinese literature does not need to cater to the Western audience. If it’s good work, it will be well received anywhere. For American publishers, perhaps they should not neglect the art of literature while focusing so much on sales.