11 December 12 | Chad W. Post

Mo Yan accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature the other day, giving this acceptance speech:

In the fall of 1984 I was accepted into the Literature Department of the PLA Art Academy, where, under the guidance of my revered mentor, the renowned writer Xu Huaizhong, I wrote a series of stories and novellas, including: “Autumn Floods,” “Dry River,” “The Transparent Carrot,” and “Red Sorghum.” Northeast Gaomi Township made its first appearance in “Autumn Floods,” and from that moment on, like a wandering peasant who finds his own piece of land, this literary vagabond found a place he could call his own. I must say that in the course of creating my literary domain, Northeast Gaomi Township, I was greatly inspired by the American novelist William Faulkner and the Columbian Gabriel García Márquez. I had not read either of them extensively, but was encouraged by the bold, unrestrained way they created new territory in writing, and learned from them that a writer must have a place that belongs to him alone. Humility and compromise are ideal in one’s daily life, but in literary creation, supreme self-confidence and the need to follow one’s own instincts are essential. For two years I followed in the footsteps of these two masters before realizing that I had to escape their influence; this is how I characterized that decision in an essay: They were a pair of blazing furnaces, I was a block of ice. If I got too close to them, I would dissolve into a cloud of steam. In my understanding, one writer influences another when they enjoy a profound spiritual kinship, what is often referred to as “hearts beating in unison.” That explains why, though I had read little of their work, a few pages were sufficient for me to comprehend what they were doing and how they were doing it, which led to my understanding of what I should do and how I should do it.

What I should do was simplicity itself: Write my own stories in my own way. My way was that of the marketplace storyteller, with which I was so familiar, the way my grandfather and my grandmother and other village old-timers told stories. In all candor, I never gave a thought to audience when I was telling my stories; perhaps my audience was made up of people like my mother, and perhaps it was only me. The early stories were narrations of my personal experience: the boy who received a whipping in “Dry River,” for instance, or the boy who never spoke in “The Transparent Carrot.” I had actually done something bad enough to receive a whipping from my father, and I had actually worked the bellows for a blacksmith on a bridge site. Naturally, personal experience cannot be turned into fiction exactly as it happened, no matter how unique that might be. Fiction has to be fictional, has to be imaginative. To many of my friends, “The Transparent Carrot” is my very best story; I have no opinion one way or the other. What I can say is, “The Transparent Carrot” is more symbolic and more profoundly meaningful than any other story I’ve written. That dark-skinned boy with the superhuman ability to suffer and a superhuman degree of sensitivity represents the soul of my entire fictional output. Not one of all the fictional characters I’ve created since then is as close to my soul as he is. Or put a different way, among all the characters a writer creates, there is always one that stands above all the others. For me, that laconic boy is the one. Though he says nothing, he leads the way for all the others, in all their variety, performing freely on the Northeast Gaomi Township stage. [. . .]

My greatest challenges come with writing novels that deal with social realities, such as The Garlic Ballads, not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event. As a member of society, a novelist is entitled to his own stance and viewpoint; but when he is writing he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events, but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.

Possibly because I’ve lived so much of my life in difficult circumstances, I think I have a more profound understanding of life. I know what real courage is, and I understand true compassion. I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent. So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.

Prattling on and on about my own work must be annoying, but my life and works are inextricably linked, so if I don’t talk about my work, I don’t know what else to say. I hope you are in a forgiving mood.

The stuff about his writing, etc., is decent enough, but these few paragraphs towards the end are a bit more intriguing:

The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face; he wiped away mud and grime, stood calmly off to the side, and said to the crowd:

For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these. [. . .]

I am a storyteller.

Telling stories earned me the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Many interesting things have happened to me in the wake of winning the prize, and they have convinced me that truth and justice are alive and well.

So I will continue telling my stories in the days to come.

As is detailed in today’s issue of Publishing Perspectives, the main controversy regarding Mo Yan and the Nobel is his take on the censorship imposed by the Chinese Government. One of the most outspoken critics of Mo Yan is fellow Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, who said it was a “catastrophe” that Mo Yan received the award. From Publishing Perspectives:

Müller went on to criticize Mo for hand-copying a Mao Zedong speech, in which the deceased ruler stated that all art and culture should serve the Communist government, and for doing little to help the plight of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

OK, so onto that Liu Xiaobo bit. This article from The Guardian really brings home this issue:

This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.

He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot. [. . .]

This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.

He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot.

Obviously this is something that doesn’t sit well with most Western liberal, free-speech loving folks. Again, Publishing Perspectives puts this best:

Censorship appears to be simply indefensible, but like many things between East and West, there may be a disconnect. The Chinese themselves prevaricate on the issue, sometimes tolerating dissent so long as it stays on the fringes and does not disturb the masses. When it comes to book publishing in China, the government controls access to ISBNs, printing, distribution…the entire publishing production chain. Independent publishing may be nascent, but it is hardly robust or much of an alternative. Most Chinese authors who wish to publicly criticize the country simply leave (if they can), which in turn opens them up to criticism that they have lost touch about the country and have no authority on which to comment about it. Those who stay, like Mo Yan, make compromises.

Publicly, the Chinese Communist Party says censorship is necessary to govern a sprawling nation. But what goes unsaid is that censorship is also a hammer, one which enables them to beat down opposition and sustain power. After all, knowledge is power and if you control the means of access to knowledge, you control the power. Plain and simple.

So, yeah. What’s curious though is this review of Pow! in which Andrea Lingenfelter complicates the view that Mo Yan is a government stooge:

If this book isn’t a social and political critique, I don’t know what is. The narrator is a child in a man’s body, sexually frustrated, powerless, and poor. Who’s on top in this society? Corrupt village heads and Party officials with their Audi A6s and Remy Martin cognac. The peasants get rich feeding the unseemly appetites of China’s new urban bourgeoisie with bogus and sometimes toxic products, while the countryside itself turns into an abattoir. This is the Reform Era and these are the Party bosses who have guided it. In case we miss the point, the narrator states: “Ugly, snot-nosed, grime-covered children, who are kicked about like mangy dogs” are more likely than attractive and happy children to grow up to be “thugs, armed robbers, high officials or senior military officers.” If China’s leaders and low-lifes are drawn from the same pool, what hope is there?

In the end, hopefully the art transcends the artist? I mean, I do know a lot of artists I’d rather not know, especially since it reflects on their work. And I’m personally still interested in reading more of his works—especially Pow!. That said, this is a blow to the credibility of the Swedish Academy (in my opinion), which is definitely not what it needs . . .

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