IT'S NOT JUST Mo Yan who has to choose his words carefully. All artists in authoritarian regimes face similar stakes, and it’s time that we as an international community of artists start paying attention to those artists and those stakes.
It’s early July in Shanghai, and the room is so warm that nobody takes the lid off their hot tea to sample the brew. A square of folding tables is arranged under a banner which reads, appropriately, A Warm Welcome to the American Writers’ Delegation in English. The same phrase, I assume, is translated into Chinese underneath. I am one of four American writers who, along with four Chinese writers, have been accompanied by a group of government photographers, translators, tour guides, and minders across Beijing and Shanghai in a dual-nation attempt at togetherness. It is one of those times in life when I realize I’m in over my head.
Also at the table: members and related higher-ups at University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, all of whom seem to be old hands at gift-giving diplomacy. The writers, none of us old hands at anything but sitting alone in rooms, shift uncomfortably in long dresses and dinner jackets despite the heat. Wang Anyi, the head of the Chinese Writers’ Association and herself an accomplished writer, sits at the center of the table, looking deadly serious despite bloomer sleeves.
I’m far from an expert on Chinese literature. I came into the country knowing the names of Ha Jin and Ba Jin, and otherwise had only a vague feeling that something was going on. The IWP was founded with the idea that there would be a simple exchange among writers, but the conditions of the program’s State Department grant specified that something more productive take place in our host nations, which meant I and my three fellows (a poet, a playwright, and another novelist) were in for 10 days shepherded by Chinese government employees between two of China’s largest cities, interacting along the way with the four Chinese authors. Together, we visited the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. We ate two out of three daily meals together and spent hours in “work sessions” where we offered one another compliments and platitudes.
At these work sessions, any idea presented was first explained in English and then again in Chinese, three times each, by different translators. We spent a confusing afternoon tackling the concept of translation in Chinese writing, which meant the translators were required to translate translation in translation. I asked if humor was valued in Chinese work. It took some time to gather up a response, but the sentiment was unequivocally negative. I spun my pen idly, wondering what their work was like. One of the Chinese writers, a novelist and short story writer, caught my attention early with her interest in American and Chinese idiom and an easy sense of humor, which apparently contradicted her artistic aims; she joked that the American playwright was even more handsome than Karl Marx. Despite her engaging description of her work, I didn’t get a sense of the prose. Another of their writers, a man from Central China, wrote one of the country’s most popular recent books last year. Despite repeated translation attempts and a Google search, I have no idea what it’s about.
I soon learned that interacting knowledgably with early- and mid-career Chinese writers is difficult, because their work is typically not translated into Eng...read more