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 English. We can talk all day about the challenges of converting regional Yunnan dialect into approachable English prose — and we did — but it’s a pointless argument because very little of this has been done and none is planned. When you think of art in China, you have to think of the massive titanium sieve that is government censorship. On one side, you have traditional and modern soap operas, formalist poetry, novels written by government officials (imagine that Paul Ryan decided he would try his hand at slipstream fantasy), towering works, lesser works. And then you have the sieve, and only the most State-agreeable art finds its way to light. Keep in mind, we’re still talking works published in Chinese. Publishing houses that are not supported by the government are generally either stopped by the government or watched so closely that all hands are tied. At the delegation banquet, we meet a writer who published an independent Chinese literary magazine that was incredibly popular in country until it was shuttered. “For unique Chinese reasons,” he says with a sad smile.
Chinese artists find themselves regarding a giant fence. On one side, the easy life of neutered pap. On the other, a difficult road, where you might be banned from returning to your homeland, as in the case of Gao Xingjian, or barred from leaving a cell, as with Liu Xiaobo. And then there’s that slim space in the dead middle of the fence, where careful writers like 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan wrap their work in Party-defying layers of satire and myth. Mo Yan is so committed to straddling the fence that he often comes off as pro-censorship; to Granta, he said, “Limitations or censorship is great for literature creation.” Nobel Prize laureate Herta Muller called Mo Yan’s Nobel win “a slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights.” Also worth noting: he is a vice chairman of the Chinese Writers’ Association, the very group I sit across from at that banquet table.
The stakes on free expression are very real. The visual artist and dissident Ai Weiwei was jailed for 81 days in 2011 with no word to or from his family, including his elderly mother, on a nebulous charge of “economic crimes.” Ai Weiwei, whose previous visual and performance works included requesting information from the government, most notably the names of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, is still barred from leaving China. (Needless to say, I don’t feel comfortable naming most of the writers I spoke with. They’ve built careers and lives around careful maintenance, and I’m not at all interested in challenging that.)
What do you do when artists around you are being jailed for their art? If you have a family that depends on you, it might make the most sense to either stop making art or become a government employee. One of the writers leaned over to me one night during one of the large, shared dinners. “My life is better than yours,” he said. He sounded not like he was bragging, but rather stating a fact. And he had a point — he and his family enjoy health insurance, he is paid a healthy wage and no longer holds a day job, he doesn’t have to worry about providing for his mother or his wife or child. All he has to do is create fiction that the government deems nationalistic, inoffensive, fit to publish. I asked him, quietly, so the government employee taking our picture couldn’t hear: “Wouldn’t it be better if you could write whatever you want?” I asked in sincerity, but he looked at me like I’d offered him a dead bird.
Issues in translation become so much more fun if you’re a dissident. In 2011, Ai Weiwei created a near-nude photograph of himself. The translation reads, “Grass mud horse covering the middle,” but sounds similar in Chinese. To native speakers, the difference is subtle but clear — the translation of the latter reads, “Fuck your mother, Communist Party Central Committee.” I don’t dare ask our host writers about Ai Weiwei while I’m in country. Later, I learn that their vehement claim that humor isn’t respected in Chinese writing is contradicted by Mo Yan, flirting with censorship for work like “Big Breasts and Wide Hips,” as well as writers like Wang Shuo, Lu Xun, Qian Zhongshan, and Han Han.
On our last day together, I proposed to my favorite novelist that we work together with her good English to create a literal translation of some of her flash fiction pieces. Feeling a little high on my abilities, I suggested we could potentially find a publisher in America to put out a collection, separate from all government intervention. She shook her head, considering some of the new English idioms she learned that week. “Publication in English is reserved for the big cheeses,” she said. Back home, I sent her an email, talking about the Olympics and my post-China food poisoning, adding as a calculated afterthought that I recently watched the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. She responded: “Ai Weiwei is now one of the artists who are in the forbidden list of official censorship. So I envy you because you can still know what he is doing but I can’t. Would you please tell me something about him?” I couldn’t tell how much she had to pretend she doesn’t know in order to fly under the email censors. We went back and forth about Ai Weiwei’s bogus tax evasion charges for a few messages before her account went silent for months. I started doubting the security of my own email connection. Do I have a file in some central office in Beijing? Am I being watched? This is what a culture of censorship can do to you, even after a few weeks.
Back at the banquet meeting, the writers shift uncomfortably in their formal clothes. Wang Anyi is given a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead in a Chinese translation, which she gracefully accepts. She turns the book over and lays it down, and then notes, in an aside that seems directed more to her translator than the group, that American readers are not as interested in Chinese writers as Chinese writers are interested in Americans. She says that as soon as a book is published in America, Chinese writers have access to it. Intellectual writers in China are raised on foreign milk, she suggests, citing Stephen King and The Hunger Games. She asks us what we think of Ha Jin, and when one of us offers his nervous opinion, she frowns. The American writers insist that we are interested in our Chinese counterparts, that we would have loved to read the work of the people sitting at the table with us, but that translators in Chinese academia on both coasts have some trouble getting over the language barrier, that literal English translations are often created to serve the aims of American academics looking for certain tones and topics. After ten days in country, with the full might of the American government presumably somewhere on our side, none of us dare say the word “censorship.” I think of John Updike, who wrote in 2005 that “free spirits in China are still short of enjoying free speech.” I wonder how many in attendance, American and Chinese alike, were truly free spirits. Who among the American writers I know, given the opportunity for comfortable government employ, would risk their lives and livelihood to write an experimental short story? Would I?
At one point during one of the work sessions, one of the Chinese writers mentioned what they called a classic text of warring states in China, something everyone should know. I asked for the spelling so I could look it up later. The translator labored for a while and then showed me his notebook, with the title written in traditional Chinese characters. It looked beautiful, but he took the page back before I could pass it along to the English translator. My memory, inarticulate, recalls the graceful lines and whorls of the foreign words I could appreciate but never duplicate. I still wish I knew what they meant.