Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
“One day of cold doesn’t freeze three feet deep.”
After reading through all the available interviews with the Chinese author Can Xue (pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua), the novelist Porochista Khakpour wrote in summation, “All that opposes my training, my literary culture, and even my gut instincts as a writer lives in her self-presentation. Here is the writer as true iconoclast, the uncompromising original.” Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
I’ve had the absolute joy of corresponding with Can Xue for the past half-decade, sharing drafts of translations and discussing all the peripheral details of publication; her kindness was a constant as her novel The Last Lover made its gradual way into English. In a way, I suspect she and I know each other better through her writing and my attempts to render it in English than through our actual correspondence. I have come to share, along with many other readers, the confidence in her writing she demands in this brief manifesto on experimental fiction and the conversation that follows. For intrigued readers, Can Xue’s body of work in English is substantial, including several story collections and two novels from among the hundreds of short stories, novellas, novels, essays, and criticism published in Chinese over her thirty-year career.
A Short Piece on Experimental Fiction
by Can Xue
In the deep layers of soil beneath the desert, there are nameless little creatures industriously plowing through the earth. These animals, who have never before appeared on the surface, eat the soil. The orientation of their plowing is vertical, only they do not see the direction they are going with their eyes, eyes atrophied long ago. Their vertical motion is in tune with the rhythm of the earth. They use their bodies and minds to conform to this rhythm of nature. This scene is the image of the soul of my art, as I described it in one of my short stories.
A perceptive foreign reader pointed out that all of the landscapes depicted in my stories are landscapes of the creative process itself. Readers like this one undoubtedly have creative potential. And this implies that reading my fiction requires a certain creativity. This particular way of reading has to be more than just gazing at the accepted meanings of the text on a literal level, because you are reading messages sent out by the soul, and your reading is awakening your soul into communication with the author’s. Contact between souls is possible; that is my conviction. My writing always penetrates into deeper and deeper layers. These works are the product of solitary exploration, and at the same time they are also the product of communication. These two opposing activities are unfolding at the same time, because we, as human beings, are the highest order of spiritual beings on the planet, and communication allows us an unparalleled, expansive vision. In the darkest of places, in times of danger, when it is difficult to make any progress, mother nature’s distant call reaches our ears, permeating our bodies and minds. In comparison to the short stories I wrote in the past, these strange tales may be even purer, they may possess an even more universal meaning and approach even nearer to the core. They take place in a region that borders on death, revealing a resolve to stake everything on this one attempt without turning back. What my stories suggest is that people can live inside of art.
Everyone knows the experiment in fiction I have been conducting for over thirty years has been an experiment without an escape route. Within China, there are a very small number of people engaged in this kind of literary practice, which must be due to its difficulty. Trying to write such stories means adding difficulty on top of difficulty, because you have to “give up.” You must have the willpower to imprison yourself for years and years, so that your spirit will not disperse, so that your body will not be listless. I present my stories to readers who care about the literature of the soul, and I do this in order to be an example, to give those lonely spirits more faith in me, and to make them participate bravely in this exercise that is strange beyond all imagining. In an era that overflows with material desires and abandons matters of the spirit, people who concern themselves with the life of the soul, without wavering, are the prophets of the age, conscious that the duty they bear is what nature expects of them. Whether you are a writer or a reader, only originality and innovation are essential.
One day of cold doesn’t freeze three feet deep, as the saying goes. Most of the readers who have confidence in my writing can experience the revelations of these pieces. Will my new works lead a few more people to move forward with me? I want to imagine so. If this happens, it will be the greatest happiness for an artist of my age.
Annelise Finegan Wasmoen So, you’ve said that readers of your fiction need to be creative, and this reminded me of a review of The Last Lover, in which Larissa Pham described her experience of reading the novel: “It seems impossible that I could crawl so deep within this novel and have everything remain the same.” By the end, she writes that the book is “like a puzzling dream one returns to again and again.” Are the feelings that Pham describes similar to your experience of creativity?
Can Xue Yes. I think her reading is promising, even enterprising. She has boundless prospects as a reader. But I think she should have continued unearthing the depths of the novel, and not quit at the level of “a puzzling dream.” Most of my readers stop at the level of “dream reading,” which is still a conventional way of reading. I’ve learned that the kind of literature I write belongs in a category with Calvino, Borges, Dante, Kafka, and writers like them. My literary works are the same as theirs: every piece has a solution, a taut emotional logic. With literary developments today, the time for unraveling the mysteries of these authors’ works has come. And I’m a reader, too—I’ve written six books that decipher the enigmas found within the works of the authors I just mentioned—and the feeling Pham describes is the first stage of perception we feel when we enter a work of fiction. When I’m reading one of Calvino’s novels, I press ahead into its core, and the feeling of a dream completely disappears. I see the composition of the author’s soul, or maybe of my own soul, and I can explain how this structure and the text relate in clear terms. This kind of communication between souls is a staggering shock. I stand at the bright center of the universe. Of course, it’s incredibly hard to do this. It requires training in both literature and philosophy, and even more importantly, it requires scrutinizing the original text in the same way as a work of philosophy.
AFW You refer to your three decades of writing as “an experiment without an escape route,” but there are many writers in China who started out writing avant-garde fiction and now write in a conventional realistic style, perhaps because the experimental road proved too difficult. So I wonder why for you there is no escape route, no turning back?
CX In China, there are only a few other authors who write experimental fiction like mine. The works that critics call avant-garde aren’t experimental literature. Most of them are just improvements on literary realism. In my mind’s eye, experimental fiction is the highest level of literature, the exploratory team advancing ahead of philosophy; it’s a kind of literature-philosophy that transcends philosophy. The authors of this kind of literature, beyond the four just mentioned, include Shakespeare (most of his tragedies), Cervantes with Don Quixote, Goethe with Faust, and so on. Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina both have the basic elements of experimental literature. The writing of experimental literature requires a great gift, because these works describe composition itself, and it takes a special ability to make out the structure of the soul (which is also the structure of both literature and philosophy) from the diverse confusion of human affairs. Some people only have a very short period out of their entire life when they can devote themselves to this kind of work, after this they retreat to a form of literary expression that is easier to understand. This is also why artists who retreat are better received, because there is a tendency in human nature toward inertia and relaxation. The majority of people are passive when they read. For a writer like myself, abandoning my high standard would be equivalent to the death of the soul. For the moment, I’m very happy to be writing, and I have mastery of my stories.
AFW In translating your fiction, I always sense the freedom and openness of your writing, the way the narratives transition according to their own inner logic, but, at the same time, are driven by this mastery of writing: compulsion and control at the same time.
CX I’ve been studying myself for a long time. I’m a thorough dualist, and I maintain that material and spiritual existence are both equally significant: all of nature is the agreement reached by their contention; our bodies, too, are the merging of soul and flesh into a smaller nature. When I am writing, “material thinking” is a horse charging ahead, untamed, fearless; while “dialectical thinking” is the rider, holding firm, and full of hidden schemes. My writing is the collaboration of both at a deep level. The horse charges ahead, heedless of everything, and the rider tries desperately to check it. But the rider’s aim is not to calm the horse and make it gallop along its regular course. Instead, he’s urging it to rebound in another direction, to charge ahead even more heedlessly. The collaboration between the two can give birth to a beautiful pattern. By studying literary classics (the works of Dante, Shakespeare, Kafka, etcetera) I’ve discovered this pattern in both philosophy and literature, and I’ve also found it in my own works. I think that for high-level readers, works like these should produce a shock, and an enthusiasm for participating in creation. I take an extremely negative view of Western theories of the irrational in literature. Abandoning reason could never achieve what my literary works do. In practice, every day, I use the method called “the cunning of reason” in philosophy to produce literary works.
AFW In your novel The Last Lover, the characters Lisa and Maria try an experiment in bringing their dream worlds into contact, “to see if we can communicate with each other in our dreams.” Is this kind of experiment analogous to your experimental writing?
CX You’re right, Maria and Lisa’s experiment is an experiment to carry on “material thinking.” They want to see how great a capacity to love they have. But this isn’t what the Western theorists call an expression of the irrational; it’s going on a “new long march” in the manner of Can Xue, a new long march that has a direction, that has a goal. An unswerving descent into the interior, a free motion that partakes of logos. So long as there’s still life, and breath continues, this free motion will not end, because we humans are the only animal in nature with an awareness of freedom. Yes, my experimental writing is a kind of new long march, and also a free motion that has passed through many hardships on behalf of an ideal.
AFW Recently I had the opportunity to teach your novel The Last Lover in a world literature survey. I worried at first that the students would find the novel too difficult, but it turned out to fit in perfectly with the other books assigned: selections from Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Federico García Lorca’s surreal Poems in New York, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. The students were fascinated by the story of Joe and his mania for reading, as well as the theme of the inner long march. One of the students asked me about the way the novel ends. She thought that the long march was a way of talking about a journey toward self-discovery or self-knowledge, but she didn’t understand why Lisa and Maria’s long march ends in a graveyard. What would you have told her?
CX Your student is very smart! Her question is a question that the author asks herself. Today, in an age when the emotions of modern humans have developed to a comparatively advanced stage, the goal of perfect romantic love, with the soul and body as one, seems to grow more and more remote. This is because people place ever higher demands on their emotions. The two activities of love and art follow the same pattern. It’s exactly like the scene I just described: if the pull of love were fully expressed at its greatest peak, it would lead toward death, with the horse and rider together in a death-defying performance. The author raises a question, but she is not able to state the answer right away. Her answer will be found in the next piece of writing, because this solution is a new creation. If your student wants to find the answer to the question “what would happen if the long march continued?” she should read the third novel in the series—Love Stories in the New Millennium (the first was Five Spice Street)—because the answer is in that book. The long march leading to a graveyard in this second novel, The Last Lover, doesn’t really mean dying: it’s the death-defying performance of the anxiety of love reaching its peak. This kind of performance should be filled with energy, and with competition between binary oppositions, in order to rise above a hopeless impasse. So there are many various ways of representing this performance, many of them strange beyond all imagining.
AFW Did you know that a lot of people have asked me whether I changed the names in The Last Lover? They think I made Chinese characters into American ones when I translated it! I’ve been really surprised by the resistance some readers seem to feel to how the novel draws its characters from many different cultures, and also to the novel’s Western setting. As if that was somehow stranger than the surreal transformations and metamorphoses that take place in the imaginative world of the novel. Do your readers in China ever respond this way? You often describe your literature as belonging to a world network of literature rather than to the Chinese literary scene, so it seems natural that some of your fiction would be set outside of China. The Last Lover, for example, begins in Country A, an unnamed Western country, and by its end several of the characters have journeyed to the East, to Country C and other places.
CX (laughter) Do they really think that? It reveals a narrow worldview—one that’s only willing to read literary works from a single perspective, plus it’s an extremely passive reading. This way of reading is a form of inertia, and not suitable for reading my fiction. I’ve said that my writing portrays the essential qualities of humanity, or the essential qualities of nature, and this type of literature does not have national borders, because as humans, we are essentially all the same. It takes creative potential to read this literature. It’s not for the lazy. In China, the same thing is happening. The majority of readers criticize me for using a Western or foreign setting to write a novel, saying I do this in order to “cater to Western tastes.” Their scope of reading is too narrow; they don’t know that many classic works of literature, ones that have influenced our literature for generation after generation, used foreign settings. The Last Loveruses an imaginative setting in order to create a distance from surface reality, as well as to show the eagerness of the author’s longing for communication, and also to reveal a concept of love as transcendent and free idealism.
AFW I guess I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that seems to be popular in writing programs—that you should write what you know, write about your own life and experiences. But there must be some autobiographical elements in your fiction.
CX Those writing programs and workshops probably teach students the basics of writing “realistically”—the rule of describing the surface, of conventional appearances. My writing is not about that kind of thing. I want to portray human possibility, that is, am I, as a human, able to love? Able to create? I let the pen walk ahead of my dialectical thinking, launching a more primitive “material thinking.” My creation is like this: it’s the most modernized activity between spirit and matter—the two contend and merge at the same time. For example, the story you translated for Music & Literature, “Dust,” is a hymn to material thinking. I write about the essential freedom of human beings and of nature. This is my unique realm, as well as the realm shared between me and the classic authors I often mention. Of course, it’s also a sphere my readers and I have in common. Based on the situations I’ve observed, the creative writing programs and workshops at many American universities are as conservative as the literature departments in Chinese universities. It’s impossible to learn the secret of becoming a good writer there. I believe that if students care passionately about literature, it would be better to study on their own—to read classic literature and philosophy as if their lives depended on it. The kind of literature I write has nothing to do with the techniques of realism, it merely correlates closely to the human ability to create or to love. If it’s necessary for the workshops to exist, they ought to cultivate their student’s creativity.
AFW You’ve spent a lot of time in the United States, when you were on a book tour in 2008 and when you were at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. What did you think of the literary scene in America in comparison to the current situation in China?
CX In my opinion, the development of world literature and philosophy is at a low point. Extremely few works of literature or philosophy have appeared recently that have the power to shake me. The issues with the American literary scene are similar to those of China’s literary scene: inertia and conservatism. The vast majority of authors are trying to preserve tradition, rather than create new traditions. This is what tradition is like: if you try to follow it, if you try to defend it, you instead lose it little by little. If you rebel against it, if you throw it away, you discover you have, in the best way possible, inherited the finest aspects of it. I am not at all embarrassed to believe that it is Can Xue, and not Mo Yan or others like him, whose work has inherited the best of the Chinese literary tradition since The Dream of the Red Chamber. Conservatism and the atrophy of creative ability are also among the issues for American authors. It’s already reached a point where alarms should go off. This is probably a corollary to the flattening and weakening of human nature within a commercialized society. And the source of the problem for Chinese authors is that the outdated traditions are too formidable. Authors lack enough individuality to resist tradition, and the result is the same flattening and weakening—they cannot reach a state of freedom.
AFW I’m about to start translating another one of your novels, Love Stories in the New Millennium. It’s a very different book than The Last Lover. Do you have any advice for me in approaching this new novel? What was the reaction when it was published last year?
CX Since it was published last year the book has been selling well. But there are very few people who dare to write down their responses in reviews after reading it. Based on my calculations, there are only two reviews altogether. But I wonder, if this book is worthless, why so many people are buying it! I check the bookstore online every day, and apparently there are still a lot of people buying the book now. I think that even though not every reader can completely understand this novel, the plot is unique and engaging, and the humor is one of the novel’s strengths. Maybe readers are thinking: I’ll buy it and then see, I’ll read it slowly, read it again, and I’ll be sure to understand it a little better, because Can Xue is an author who has literary prestige. That’s what I want to think. I already said, in answer to your earlier question, that this book is the answer to that final question raised in The Last Lover. Readers can discover through reading this book what innovative new performances our contemporaries give when love is forced into a dead end. Those methods I mentioned earlier resemble both the creation of love and the creation of art. I have always equated these forms of creation.
Annelise Finegan Wasmoen is an editor and a literary translator. She is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.