Interview with Can Xue from the Reykjavik International Literary Festival

Last week I had the opportunity to interview Can Xue as part of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. We ended up writing out our interview ahead of time, so I thought I would share it here. Enjoy!

Born in China, where her parents were persecuted as being “ultra-rightists” by the Anti-rightest Movement of 1957. As a result, her father was jailed, her mother and two brothers were sent to the countryside for “re-education.” Can Xue was raised by her grandmother, suffered from tuberculosis, and faced a series of hardships.

In 1983, she began writing, and here first short story was published in 1985. After that, there’s been no looking back, and, according to Wikipedia, as of 2009 she’s written three novels, fifty novellas, 120 short stories, and six book-length commentaries. Of these, six books have appeared in English translation—Dialogues in Paradise, Old Floating Cloud, The Enbroidered Shoes, Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories, Five Spice Street, and Vertical Motion—with Yale University Press publishing another novel next year, and a critical piece on Kafka.

Can Xue’s prose has attracted a lot of attention from writers and critics, including such great American writers as Robert Coover and Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions magazine, which has published a number of Can Xue’s stories—the first two people to mention Can Xue’s work to me. Her reputation has continued to grow, recently attracting high praise from The Mountain Goats frontman, John Darnielle, and being the featured author in the forthcoming issue of Music and Literature.

Frequently characterized as “avant-garde,” Can Xue’s writing operates under its own logic, a unique overlapping of images that explode “conventional” storytelling approaches, instead creating a sort of shifting landscape that forces the reader to engage closely with the text.

For example, here’s a bit from “Vertical Motion,” the title story of the collection that we published:

We are little critters who live in the black earth beneath the desert. The people on Mother Earth can’t imagine such a large expanse of fertile humus lying dozens of meters beneath the boundless desert. Our race has lived here for generations. We have neither eyes nor any olfactory sense. In this large nursery, such apparatus is useless. Our lives are simple, for we merely use our long beaks to dig the earth, eat the nutritious soil, and then excrete it. We live in happiness and harmony because we have abundant resources in our hometown. Thus, we can all eat our fill without a dispute arising. At any rate, I’ve never heard of one.

The mixture of Can Xue’s beautifully strange prose with such complex structures is the main reason so many writers and critics are intrigued, and frequently obsessed with, her works.

Chad W. Post: I want to talk more about Can Xue’s aesthetic beliefs in a bit, but for now I thought I’d start off with a few simple, scene-setting questions. First off, what made you decide to become a writer?

Can Xue:I decided to become a writer when I was thirty years old. But I think before that I had been preparing for this, actually, since I was three years old. I still remember those things which happened when I was three and four years old. At that time I always made stories up in my heart about people, about animals, about plants around me—simple stories, happy stories, exciting stories, even horrible stories. But all these stories had good ending. Sometimes these stories lasted several days, even longer. And in all these stories, I was a leading role. I loved to make up my own stories. But I didn’t get any chance to publish any thing until I was thirty, when my preparation was complete. After the situation in China changed, all the literary things happened to me naturally. I have been like an erupting volcano ever since.

Another factor made me decide to become a writer, I think, was because of the circumstances in China. I was born in fifties, that was an idealistic time—people in China were very poor then, almost no one could pursue material wealth. My parents were firm communists, their hearts were very pure. So, in my family, the only thing that children could pursue were spiritual things. I remember the most enjoyable thing in my life was reading. I read and read, never stopping until today.

CWP: I could make some pretty good guesses about this, but what authors to do see as influences on your work?

CX: In my younger years (from thirteen to twenty-five), I loved Chinese writer Lu Xun and Red Chamber, the ancient novel. And I also loved Russian writers—Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and so on. In the late seventies, I got ahold of some western classics, and I was so deeply engrossed by them! I think the authors I loved most are these: Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Kafka, Goethe, Borges, Calvino, Bruno Schulz, and Rilke’s poetry.

CWP: Over the past thirty years you’ve generated quite a number of pieces, ranging from critical essays to novels to novellas to short stories—how are you able to produce so much? Or, more to the point, what is your writing process like? (I read the interview in Asymptote, and the bit about not editing your work, and your amazing output, reminds me of Cesar Aira.)

CX: Maybe my writing process is unique. Everyday I write a page. I just get my pen and a notebook, sit down and write for an hour. Then I leave it as it is. I never have a structure in my mind beforehand, and I never revise my fictions—both short ones and long ones. This is how I write my fiction. For thirty years, I write almost every day, even during festivals. I had never been to a festival. That’s why I have produced so many works.

CWP: For a lot of readers your works can seem “challenging,” at least at first glance. Do you have advice for readers who are first approaching your work?

CX: Yes, I always give advice for readers when I publish my works. In my mind, my ideal readers are these: those who have read some works by the modernist writers, and who love metaphysical thinking and material thinking—both capabilities are needed for the reading of Can Xue.

CWP: Before getting more deeply into your aesthetic beliefs, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the literary scene in China. From an American perspective, it’s always been a bit difficult to get a handle on what’s going on in contemporary literature, although with Mo Yan being awarded the Nobel Prize, and websites like Paper-Republic starting up, that’s starting to change. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another Chinese writer writing anything like you do. What is the writing scene like in China these days? How has it changed over the past thirty years?

CX: A good question. I also think that the Chinese know much more about America and the West than you know about China. In China, in the early eighties, a group of young writers studied western literature quite deeply, and these western classics opened their field of vision. They produced quite a number of good works. Can Xue was one among them. The group are all born in fifties or sixties—a very idealistic group. That was a literary era full of hope. But since the nineties, almost everybody in this group has changed their mind. They felt that they had had enough the West, and now want to return to their own tradition, which is much greater than the Western tradition. So their works, except a very few writers, have become more and more traditional, more and more readable. People welcomed this great regression. But I think this returning is the death of a language and a soul. Because our own cultural tradition has not got enough strength to support a new writing, the only way to develop it is by blood transfusion. I think as a Chinese writer, I should criticize my culture severely, only having done so, I get the possibility to develop it.

As for my own writing, the readers in China think that I’m very difficult but unique among Chinese writers. I dare say, no fiction writers in China has studied the Western literature and Western philosophy so exhaustively like Can Xue.

CWP: Although there are a lot of pieces of yours that have yet to be translated into English, you are one of the most translated Chinese writers, with books published by Northwestern, New Directions, Yale University Press, and Open Letter. How did you first get translated, and what has this process been like for you?

CX: That’s a long story. In 1986 in Shanghai, a student gave two of Can Xue’s stories to Ron Jansson, my earliest translator. He read the stories and decided immediately to translate them into English. He did the work with a Chinese colleague, Zhang Jian, and got more stories and two novellas published—three books altogether.

In the mid 1990s, Ron Jansson got very ill, so my English versions weren’t published in the United States continuously. Then Karen Gernant found Can Xue and she got in touch with me. Karen, along with Chen Zeping, have done a lot of work—also three books, including Vertical Motion from Open Letter and Five Spice Street, a novel published by Yale Press. Also a libretto for an opera performed in Germany, and some essays. They are continuing their translating now. I think Karen is a talented translator, and she and I have a lot common topics in literature.

Recently, Yale Press has found a new translator for Can Xue—Annelise, a young woman. She’s translating my new novel—The Last Lover. I’m very happy to get these precious friends in the United States!

CWP: Do you work closely with your translators? I believe that your forthcoming Yale book is being translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, a young, extremely talented translator—how did she end up working with you?

CX: Yes, I work closely with Karen, Chen Zeping, and now, Annelise, I read their translations, and give my comments. Yes, I also think Annelise has a high talent for languages. Sometimes her English translation is better than my Chinese original!

CWP: OK, this a very long intro into a slightly different part of the conversation, so bear with me. I want to first read a bit from your afterword to Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories:

The particular characteristics of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.

I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventions, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Since writing this, has your approach, or thinking about your aesthetic changed at all?

CX: Basically, my stance, my way, and my thinking is always the same. But I’ve developed a lot since that time. My new thinking is that my experimental fictions have the same core as Western Philosophy. And in a sense, these kind of works are a new development to Classical Philosophy. Now I’m trying hard to open up a road for Western Philosophy, which has come to a standstill for many years.

CWP: In reading the recent Asymptote magazine interview a few things struck me, namely that when you talk about your aesthetic or the reasons you write the way you write, or the way that readers can only properly “understand” your stories is by struggling to understand them, your focus seems to be mostly on the process of creating and the creative process of reading. For me, this ties in with a comment you made about your fiction being “a performance.” In what way do you see your fiction as a performance? How does this relate to your view of yourself as an “experimental” writer?

CX: Yes, I think that you are absolutely right! You understand Can Xue very well. In the nineties when I studied Western literature, I found a metaphysical structure in these writers’ works: Borges, Kafka, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, Calvino, and so on, even in the Bible. According to this structure, you can read their works as the process of creating and reading. Very few writers have this talent. Meanwhile, I found that Can Xue’s works had the same structure as these writers. And I felt that it was not painstaking, it’s an natural thing like giving birth. But why do all these first-rate writers have a same structure? After a hard and long period of studying, I have understood that the structure is just the structure of Great Nature, of course, it is also the structure of humanity. I expect that for great times to come to us, we artists should give performances, waking up people’s souls, I feel it’s a very urgent thing to do. This kind of literature actually means that one stands out, acting one’s own being. That’s why I said it was a performance.

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