This is the first Nobel literature award that China can openly celebrate. The only previous Chinese writer to receive the literature prize was Gao Xingjian, but he had moved to France by the time he won in 2000. The Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo have won Nobel Peace Prizes, but both those awards infuriated Chinese officials and strained relations between Beijing and Norway.
Over the past 25 years, Mo Yan (born in 1955 as Guan Moye) has been writing brutally vibrant stories about rural life in China that flout official Communist Party ideology and celebrate individualism. He also flouts literary conformity, spiking his earthy realism with fantasy and hallucination. Luckily for American readers, the majority of his flamboyant novels are available in translation, and a new one is forthcoming with the appealing title “Pow!”
Like many in his generation, Mo Yan experienced a tough upbringing: Born on a farm, he worked in a factory before joining the army, where he began writing. After that, he became a teacher in the People’s Liberation Army’s Cultural Academy and published his first novel in the early 1980s. His second novel, “Red Sorghum” (1986), was adapted for film by director Zhang Yimou.
Mo Yan’s American translator, Howard Goldblatt, describes the Chinese writer as a quiet and thoughtful autodidact. “He’s very socially aware, and he’s got a strong social conscience,” Goldblatt said by phone from his home in Indiana. “He’s very interested in Chinese society, in its good and bad forms. Controversy rages around him, but it no longer bothers him. He must have so much going on in his head that he doesn’t have time to deal with the outside world.
“Like everyone else writing in China, he knows the rules,” Gold-blatt said, “and the rules are flexible enough that he can write about anything so long as he doesn’t touch the three T’s: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen.”
After publishing translations of five novels by Mo Yan, with two more coming soon, Goldblatt describes the writer’s work as Dickensian. “He’s bawdy when he wants to be. Big and bold, lots of adjectives, and long sentences. The visuality is incredible. When he describes a scene, he does it with every tool in his box. He turns things on their head and makes them be something they could never be in real life. In Mo Yan’s hands, even the most horrific scenes have a great beauty to them.”
A sense of Mo Yan’s work emerges from the titles alone: “The Garlic Ballads,” “Explosions and Other Stories,” “The Republic of Wine,” “Shifu: You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh,” and “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” (all published in the 1990s).