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  • My American Books
  • Mo Yan
    Translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin (bio)

Mo Yan, which means "don't speak," is the pen name of Guan Moye. He was born in the Shandong town of Gaomi in 1956, the son of peasants. His childhood was characterized by bitter poverty and constant hunger. In 1976 he was admitted into the People's Liberation Army (pla), where he served until 1997, when he accepted a position in the editorial offices of the Beijing Procuratorial Daily. He graduated from the pla Academy of Art and Literature and received a master's degree in literature from Beijing Normal University. His novels include Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads, Thirteen Steps, The Republic of Wine, and Big Breasts and Wide Hips. He is also the author of novellas, short stories, essays, and film scripts. Red Sorghum, a film based on Mo Yan's novel of the same name, won the 1987 Golden Bear Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and received critical acclaim in both Asia and the West. Mo1 Yan's novels and stories have been translated into more than a dozen languages. The following talk was given at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, Colorado, in March 2000.

My first novel translated into English was Red Sorghum. Before it was rendered into English, it was made into a movie by China's renowned director Zhang Yimou and won a major prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. The novel became famous because of the movie. In China, when my name is mentioned, people say, "Oh, Red Sorghum!" Forgive my immodesty, but, as a matter of fact, Red Sorghum evoked strong reactions in China before it was made into a movie. So Zhang Yimou benefited from my novel, and then my novel benefited from his movie.

I wrote Red Sorghum when I was still at the PLA art college. It was the early 198Os, the so-called "golden age of contemporary Chinese literature." An enthusiastic readership inspired writers to become passionate about literature. People were no longer content to create or read stories written in traditional styles. Readers demanded that we be more creative, and we dreamed of nothing but becoming more inventive. A critic quipped that Chinese writers were like a flock of sheep being chased by a wolf—a wolf whose name was Innovation. [End Page 31]

At the time, I had just crawled out of mountain ditches and didn't even know how to use a telephone, let alone possess any knowledge of literary theories. So the wolf of innovation was not chasing me. I hid out at home, writing whatever I felt like writing. Now that I have some rudimentary knowledge of theory, I realize that slavishly following trends is not true innovation; real creativity is writing honestly about things you're familiar with. If you've had unique experiences, then what you write will be unique. And being unique is new. If you write something different, you will have developed a unique style. It's like singing: training can change your technique, not your voice. No matter how diligently you train a crow, it can never sing like a nightingale.

In other talks I've given, I've brought up my childhood. While city kids were drinking milk and eating bread, pampered by their mothers, my friends and I were fighting to overcome hunger. We had no idea what sorts of delicious foods the world had to offer. We survived on roots and bark, and were lucky to scrape together enough food from the fields to make a humble meal. The trees in our village were gnawed bare by our rapacious teeth. While city kids were singing and dancing at school, I was out herding cows and sheep, and got into the habit of talking to myself. Hunger and loneliness are themes I've repeatedly explored in my novels, and I consider them the source of my riches. Actually, I've been blessed with an even more valuable source of riches: the stories and legends I heard during the long years I spent in the countryside.

In the fall of 1998, when I visited Taiwan, I participated in a...