She's got issues
Yan Geling has a gift for creating complex female characters, and her latest work is no exception, as Karen Ma explains
AFTER YEARS OF roaming, Yan Geling is turning her focus back to China.
A Shanghai native, Yan spent most of the past 15 years in the US writing about the immigrant and displacement experience, her output including the critically acclaimed Lost Daughter of Happiness.
With her latest novel, Dijiuge Guafu (Between Famines and Lovers), however, Yan turns a literary spotlight on her native China. 'There are some stories writers feel they have to get out of their system,' says Yan. 'This is one of those stories I feel I must write in my lifetime.' She expects to devote her next three or four books to stories she has always wanted to write about China.
Between Famines and Lovers - released in Chinese by the Zuojia Chubanshe publishing house in March - is set in 1940s China and based on events that took place in a small village in Henan province at the peak of China's land-reform movement. It follows Wang Putao, an uneducated young widow originally bought as a child-bride by a landlord family. Somewhat dim-witted and seen as politically backward by her peers, she proves her strength of character by saving her father-in-law from execution - hiding him in a potato cellar for two decades.
Wang is more than a cardboard do-gooder. In keeping with Yan's preference for strong, multi-dimensional female characters, Wang seeks out moments of pleasure in a series of liaisons even as she protects herself and her beloved father-in-law from famine and other disasters.
Despite her Shanghai roots, Yan is no stranger to rural China. Raised in Anhui, she joined a People's Liberation Army dance troupe when she was 12, requiring her to travel frequently in the countryside. Her 1998 novella, Celestial Bath, made into the award-winning film Xiuxiu the Sent-Down Girl under the direction of Joan Chen Chong, was set in Tibet and inspired by her extended visits to western China. Yan says she first heard about Wang through her own relatives in the late 70s, when the Chinese government was rehabilitating landlords and rich peasants persecuted during late 40s.
'I had been haunted by this story ever since I heard it,' she says. 'We grew up believing in a certain ideology, which had involved great sacrifice by the whole nation. I take it as a writer's mission to look into this ideology, examining what it has done to [people's lives] and to human nature.'
As strong as the story was, it would take decades and several moves before she would sit down to write about it.
Yan left China for the US in 1989, shortly after a divorce, and studied creative writing at Columbia College, Chicago. Over the years, she wrote more than a dozen novels and short stories, many inspired by her experience as an immigrant.
Yan, who now lives part of the time in China and part overseas, says her American experience gives her a fresh perspective when writing about China, and the struggle between individuals and political masses and between human lives and abstract ideals.
Like many who lived through the Cultural Revolution, Yan's family suffered. Her writer father and dancer mother were sent to the countryside. But Yan says her aim is not to point a finger at the wrongs of the past, but to explore human nature through the prism of an unusual historical period.
One of the main themes of Between Famines and Lovers is the relationship between the short-lived ideals seen in extreme political movements and the broader, more universal truths and moral standards that endure. Wang is seen by fellow villagers as someone who isn't all there. Ultimately, this separation from the mainstream is her salvation, allowing her to avoid political brain-washing, retain her basic humanity, and love and help, at great personal risk, those weaker than herself.
Yan also uses the story to showcase the innate generosity and 'primitive strength' of Chinese women, another important theme. 'Chinese women are the best survivors,' she says with a smile. 'They live in cracks between war and famines and political turmoil. Yet no matter how bitter life is, they always manage to steal some joy.'
In the book, Wang is in love with her brother-in-law but is forced to reject him to protect her father-in-law and keep his hiding place secret. Yet every time she sees him, she's overtaken with desire, barely able to contain herself.
Yan has created many intellectual female characters over the years, including the neurotic heroine of Inner Space (Ren Huan). However, she says she's more drawn to marginalised characters such as Wang and Fusang, a prostitute in Lost Daughter of Happiness, 'whose fearlessness and generosity are really rooted in their very ignorance'.
'Ideas and concepts are dangerous because they can hurt the most,' she says. Notions such as 'you're dirty', 'you're a whore' or 'you've been raped' are based on social values often created by men.
Yan disagrees with the western notion that women are the weaker sex in need of rescue or liberation. 'If women can handle giving birth, what other pain can we not endure?'
In keeping with her new China focus, Yan is set to release The Banquet Bug in July, about an unemployed Chinese factory worker posing as a journalist to enjoy free meals at state-sponsored banquets, only to become hopelessly entangled in a web of corruption. The novel, to be published by Hyperion, is the first she has written in English.
Yan once joked that her English was that of a 15-year-old. She made an early attempt to write in English with Between Famines and Lovers, but gave up after 100 pages, defeated by the frustrations of trying to write such a complex story in an adopted language. 'I felt there was this disconnect between the writing and me when I tried to evoke the smell of the earth in the village,' she says.
Writing in English this time around has brought a certain excitement, she says. The more straightforward plot of her upcoming book was easier to tackle. Yan also credits her American diplomat husband, Larry Walker, who edits her English writing, with helping her feel more confident about writing in English.
'Ideally,' she says, 'I'd like to write alternately in Chinese and English. It's more interesting that way.'