An interview with Can Xue

Dylan Suher and Joan Hua

Photograph by Lu Yong

The Chinese avant-garde writer Can Xue aptly describes her fiction as a performance. Reading her fiction is like watching modern dance: like an unfolding gesture out of Merce Cunningham or Butoh (her favorite), her sentences evolve towards unpredictable, pointed conclusions. Her stories often suggest a hidden, underlying narrative—a logic of movement that dictates the actions of the players on the stage. Her characters, with their constantly shifting motives, are expressly not rounded. They are personae, masks made to articulate whatever philosophical proposition or aspect of the psyche the performance currently demands: the little boy who secretly breeds a brood of snakes in his stomach in "The Child Who Raised Poisonous Snakes" or the wormlike humanoid who lives underground and burrows up, towards the unknown surface, in "Vertical Motion." Chief among all the personae is Can Xue, her nom de plume. Can Xue (whose real name is Deng Xiaohua) frequently refers to herself in the third person (as she does in the interview below) and even writes reviews of her own novels, as if her protean, dreamlike visions originated outside of her.

Can Xue carries on with her individual performance indifferent to those critics and readers who seek to classify and explain her. Her family was labeled "Rightist" and persecuted intensely by the Communist government; her social background barred her from any formal education. She nonetheless emerged during the literary flowering of the 1980s known as the "High Culture Fever" as a member of a pack of fiction writers (including Su Tong, Mo Yan, Yu Hua, to name only a few) whose works challenged the orthodoxies of social realism through formalist experimentation and vivid imagery of the body. But unlike her contemporaries, who sought out an untainted primitive past or aimed to record the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, Can Xue has no interest in Chinese folklore or politics. The bold innovations of her oeuvre—executed in a colloquial yet writerly style that emphasizes the rapid shifts in space and narrative logic—surpass the experimentation of her Chinese contemporaries. In fact, her creations are sometimes even more adventurous than those of the Western modernist writers she so admires: a long list of stated influences that includes Kafka, Borges, and Calvino. The literary journal Conjunctions has frequently featured her work, and she has won the admiration of many Western writers—Robert Coover called her "a world master" and Susan Sontag declared her the one Chinese writer worthy of the Nobel Prize. She continues to stand apart from her fellow Chinese writers. As others identified with the Chinese avant-garde have since shifted towards more accessible forms of realism, Can Xue has stubbornly, movingly continued her individual performance: composing challenging experimental work.

In this sense, Can Xue's writing is nothing less than an existential struggle. The high stakes of her gambits can be found on display in her short story, "Snake Island," in which a man returns to his rural hometown after thirty years, to find that he recognizes nothing and nobody and that his family is nowhere to be found. Near the end, a villager summons him into battle. Snake Island, he explains, is divided in two, between the living and the dead, and the living must fight with the dead for territory. This is Can Xue's neverending struggle as well: to write against the death of the soul, and to fight for an authentic life. The struggle never ends; the performance continues.

The following interview with Can Xue was conducted in Chinese via email and then translated into English.

Dylan Suher

You've switched English translators over the course of your career: the first three collections of yours translated into English were done by Ronald R. Janssen and Jian Zhang, while the most recent three have been translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. What is your relationship with your translators like: is there a collaborative process? What skills and qualities are necessary, in your estimation, for someone to be able to translate a Can Xue story?

I'm friends with all my English translators. Altogether, I have five English translators: Ron Janssen and Jian Zhang (who translate collaboratively), Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping (who translate collaboratively), and Annelise [Finegan]. Starting in the 1990s, I put my all into studying English and managed to achieve a certain level of skill with the language. Ever since Karen and Chen Zeping took over translating my work, I've insisted on reading their translations (and later, Annelise's translations) and offering the translators my opinions. Can Xue's works are truly exceptional; I feel that the most important skill my translators can have is to read the original intensively, thereby having a thorough grasp of the deep underlying humor and general feel of the language in my works. How precisely they express something in their translations is closely connected with their power to feel and their ability to grasp logic, because these kinds of fictions have already surpassed the profundity of philosophy. It is most difficult to properly convert one language into another. Within Chinese, meaning is buried deep, and the language emphasizes subtleties of feeling. English is more direct and emphasizes clear distinctions. It's really difficult to grasp that "degree" of translation.

You're a remarkably prolific writer, having written over a hundred short stories and dozens of novellas and critical essays. Yet only a fraction of those works have been translated into English. Are there any works of yours that have not been translated that you would like to see translated?

At present, two of my full-length novels have already been translated. And it was recently announced that the latest [translation] of my novella The Last Lover, which is currently still being edited, will be published by Yale University Press in the spring of 2014. Dozens of medium-length and shorter works have been translated into English. I estimate that some 13 million Chinese characters of my works have been translated—is that really a small amount? My output is very consistent, and that's very difficult for a writer to do. My wildest dream is to get all of my works published in the United States.

With regard to your writing process, you've said in interviews that your writing comes from your subconscious, and that a good writer should not know what he or she is writing. What do you think of when you begin a story?

The subconscious by itself is actually not the deciding factor; every individual has a subconscious. The key lies in whether you can unleash it to create. Here there is a complicated mechanism, and I can only explain it from the vantage point of philosophy and art. In five or six years, I plan to write a book, Philosophy of Art. In that book, I'll elaborate my thoughts on these issues based on my experience practicing art and the fruits of my intensive research into Western philosophy. I've already been writing for over thirty years, and the writing method I use is precisely the creative method of modern art: Reason monitors from afar. Emotions are completely unleashed. I turn towards the dark abyss of consciousness and plunge in, and in the tension between those two forces, I build the fantastic, idealist plots of my stories. I think that people who are able to write in the way I write must possess an immense primitive energy and a strongly logical spirit. Only in this way can they maintain total creativity amid a divided consciousness. In China, I have not seen a writer who is capable of sustaining that kind of creativity for many years.

The structure in your work can be so difficult to discern—both in terms of narrative structure and in the way the images connect to one another—that it's hard to imagine just how you shape your stories. How do you edit a Can Xue story?

I never edit my stories. I just grab a pen and write, and every day I write a paragraph. For more than thirty years, it's always been like this. I believe that I am surrounded by a powerful "aura," and that's the secret of my success. Successful artists are all able to manipulate the "balance of forces"—they're that kind of extraordinarily talented people.

When you say above that "every day I write a paragraph," do you mean you write your stories sequentially, from beginning to end? Or that you write the paragraphs and later arrange them together?

All my stories—my novels, my novellas, and my short stories—are written sequentially, from beginning to end. I never arrange them together or put them in a different sequence. My manuscripts are extremely clean—I very, very rarely correct even a single word.

A few questions about images and themes that recur throughout your work. The concept of space is always contested in your writing: your stories depict impossible spaces (the apartment in "A Village in the Big City"), spaces that shift dimension and physical realities over the course of the story (the environs of the hut in "Homecoming"), and nebulous spaces (the darkness in "In the Wilderness" or the underground in "Vertical Motion"). What interests you about the manipulation of space in fiction?

Only a writer that possesses a high degree of rationality can break through conventional space and enter into a primitive and purely fantastic landscape. Dante, for example, is that kind of writer. The landscape of hell is suffused with longing and power. Those mighty awakened souls win their own space through the struggles of life and death. As soon as the struggle ceases, that space immediately disappears. This is the creative mechanism that I spoke of in my response above. A writer exhibits her vitality through unfamiliar space.

Your writing often depicts grotesqueries, bodily disfigurement, and outright violence. This is a quality it seems to share with works by other writers identified with China's avant-garde school of the 1980s. Specifically, the imagery in some ways resembles the early works of Yu Hua, which you have called "the first Chinese works that can truly be said to belong to modernism and to have substance." How does your approach to writing about violence compare with the approach taken by the other avant-garde writers and how do you yourself feel about depicting violence in your work?

Writing violence for the sake of violence is vulgar and tasteless. I am not like some Chinese writers, who get a thrill from the simple depiction of violence. That's called acting out a perversion; there's no substance to it. In a select few of Yu Hua's early works, he writes violence in a very remarkable manner, for example, the works in his collection Mistakes by the Riverside. I even wrote a review of that collection. But he has several stories where he writes violence and there is no substance to it. His self-awareness when creating is not strong. A few of Mo Yan's depictions of violence are really warped, of low character. What does it mean to say something has substance? It is to say: your depictions of violence must have form, must have a sense of metaphysics to them. Just like the images in Dante's hell, they must depict the true struggles deep within the soul. Readers read the terrifying images in Dante, but those images push those readers to yearn for their purest ideals. Your question lumps my writing together with other writers of the eighties, which shows that you haven't entered deeply into Can Xue's works—you need to put more effort into reading!

You expect a real partnership with your readers. You have said that they need to be well-read enough in modernism to understand your writing technique, and willing to make the effort to understand the deep structure of your work. Considering that you expect such a high level of engagement and response on the part of your readers, what is your personal relationship with your readers like? Do you notice a difference between the response of your Chinese readers to your work and the response of foreign readers to your work?

I often interact with my readers in China, and quite a few interviews with me have been published. And I'm also on the Web, communicating with netizens. I also frequently critique my colleagues—I've offended almost all my fellow writers and critics. However, I still must persist in speaking reason and I must maintain my critical position. China has more than a few Can Xue fans, but overall, Can Xue's era still hasn't arrived, because her works are too ahead of the curve, and don't conform to commonplace, habitual aesthetics. So I must continue to do the steady work of bringing my writings into existence. Chinese readers and foreign readers should have about the same reaction to my writing. Because my subject matter is universal human nature—the original face of nature.

What do you mean when you say "subject matter is universal human nature—the original face of nature"? We see nature frequently appearing in your stories as an adversarial force that drives self-discovery (the sea in "The Lure of the Sea") or as the truth of life, hidden just below the surface (the spring in "The Spring"). In your interpretation, what is the connection between the images of nature in your stories and your feelings about nature?

According to my worldview, the relationship between man and nature is that of having the same structures and sharing the same flesh. Nature is the highest form of existence. At some periods, She inevitably gives birth to things that occupy the same rank as mankind, so that through them, She may display her own essence. But I am not a pantheist: I feel that this state of affairs is the result of nature's structural function itself. Mankind shoulders the mission that Mother Nature has endowed to it (that is to say, nature demands that mankind realize and manifest her goals through creativity), and thus, we can conclude that mankind presumably shares the same kind of structural function as nature. They can only exist as the children of nature, with the same body as their mother. Because I believe in nature (as a Chinese person, this is very natural), in my writings, existence and nonexistence, the spiritual and the material, speculative and material thought, this shore and the opposite shore—all are unified together as they repulse each other. The opposing forces are locked in a life and death struggle, yet in the midst of that struggle, they achieve a balance and a harmony. In this aspect, my ideological system is very much opposed to Western culture. Although, of course, my worldview was gradually formed through my own exhaustive study of Western culture.

Next year, Yale University Press is putting out a translation of a critical piece you wrote on Kafka, a writer about whom you've often written, and with whom you have long been fascinated. Your view of Kafka strikes us as unusual; you've said that Kafka's works "signify an incomparable tragedy, but are also suffused with a pleasant freedom. This is like the whole of the experiences of K, the protagonist of his novel The Trial. There is mystery, terror, alienation, and yet his every action originates from a primitive instinct and a sublime will." What experiences or influences have shaped your views of Kafka?

My interpretation of Kafka is indeed unusual. The main reason why my critical work on Kafka is a breath of fresh air to readers, I think, is that I have incorporated Eastern elements into my understanding of Kafka's work. The religiosity of Westerners caused Kafka unending misery and drove him to an untimely death. I must say, to a certain degree, these living conditions diminished his creativity. On the other hand, my worldview, which combines the cultures of the East and West, enables me to regard the mundane world with an open mind and to endure this profound black comedy. Therefore, when I interpret The Castle and Amerika and other such acclaimed works, I emphasize the vitality in them, the primitive, rebellious revelry, and, above all, the vigorous meaning of life contained within. I believe I have in this respect surpassed existentialism and am proposing an artistic philosophy with a Chinese color to it. I can write this kind of criticism because I investigate the artistic philosophy shared by Kafka, Dante, Calvino, and artists like them. I have only achieved my current breakthroughs by applying my thirty-some years of creative experience to writing critical essays. I have not only written books of critical work on Kafka, but I have also analyzed Dante, Borges, Calvino, Goethe, Shakespeare, and other such masters—altogether producing six books of criticism.

Could you speak a bit more about what you term "the religiosity of Westerners"? What do you mean by "religiosity," and how did this religiosity "diminish [Kafka's] creativity"?

Here I am referring mainly to a sense of "original sin." A sense of original sin was in the background of both Kafka's personal life and his literary creativity, so some people believe that one can use existentialism to explain his writings. My critique seeks to pry him apart from existentialism; rather, I analyze and write about Kafka's exuberant creativity, his passion for the mundane world, and about his pagan rebellion against the religiosity that suppressed him. I write about his strong individuality, which led him to bring his primitive creativity (squeezed out by reason) to the fore. But Kafka's performance in real life was far weaker than what he demonstrated in his creations. He was always on the edge of being swallowed up by original sin, and he feared quotidian life, which he always wanted to escape. On this point, actually, he is in line with existentialism. The incessant guilt that came from his religious consciousness finally conquered his primitive life force; the friction within his own soul dissipated all of his vitality. His letters and diaries always show that he was a "germophobe"; a man who could not bear the vulgarities of life; a man who strived every day to be a "good person."

To shift to your influences: You have declared yourself as thoroughly opposed to postmodernism, and prefer to describe yourself as a modernist writer. What does the idea of modernism mean to you?

Postmodernism smashes structure, but establishes nothing. It therefore belongs to a transitional phase of literature and philosophy. Now that phase has already passed, and the things that were being advocated then are no longer relevant to the present. The ultimate mission of mankind only consists of being constructive and creative. As the children of nature, each one of us must exercise our own creativity, so as not to fail to meet the expectations nature holds for mankind. In this respect, modernist literature does a better job than postmodernism, and is therefore more closely aligned with my worldview. Without exception, modernism pursues the ideal, regards creation and invention as the most noble values, and truly loves quotidian, mundane life. These are all essential elements for constructing the future spiritual kingdom.

Are there contemporary artists working in other media whose work you find inspiring or admire? What contemporary artworks most closely parallel your own approach?

All modernist art (including literature) is performance art. These artworks are all demonstrations of artists standing up to survive. I like many forms of art—classical music, modernist painting, and modernist dance can all deeply move me. Pieces of classical music—by Bizet, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Bach, and others—are all true demonstrations of modernist performance. The Bible and the Divine Comedy are also brimming with modernist elements, and they are far more powerful than so-called postmodernist literature. With respect to modernist painters and sculptors, my favorites are Van Gogh, Dali, Munch, Miro, Bosch, and Giacometti. My favorite dance is Japan's Butoh (the Ankoku-Butoh movement).

You have famously described your work as a "foreign plant growing in the soil of five thousand years of history." You often talk about the "foreign plant" but only very seldom discuss the "soil of five thousand years of history." What are your Chinese influences? "Tales of the strange?" Perhaps the poetry of Li He or Li Shangyin? How does the "soil of five thousand years of history" nourish your work?

We must first clarify this idea—what is Chinese culture? The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the way we interact with each other, romantic relationships, sense of languages, ways of speaking—do these belong to culture? Are we immersed in 5000 years of culture? As a purely modernist artist, would I have more profound, more deeply felt feelings toward Chinese culture than the ordinary person? I have read some of the pieces of Chinese literature that you mentioned; nevertheless, with the exception of Dream of the Red Chamber and some Tang poetry, the others cannot touch my soul. The essence of Chinese culture that I contemplate is the potential force of ideas like "the unity of heaven and man." In the past 5000 years, our people have not been conscious of this power, because we have been isolated and closed to the world, and we lack a spirit of independence. Yet we are supposed to have this power—an ethnic group that has existed for thousands of years must possess some eternal elements. If you don't develop these elements, however, then they will forever remain in darkness and never see the light of day, which also means they will never be able to truly exist. My method is to use Western culture as a hoe to unearth our ancient culture, so we can realize its proper value. Western culture has been "divided" for thousands of years. I want to now join the two shores—earth and sky, the material and the immaterial—and combine them into one. And for that task, I have some advantages: namely, the nourishment and enlightenment I receive from 5000 years of history.

In the preface to your work Mind Report, you speak of "liberating the soul" of your readers. You've also written that the artist should "give the reader the possibility of unlocking the gates of their personal hell and freeing their long-imprisoned spirits." Many of those ideas remind us of the discussions around literary revolution and literary reform held by the writers and thinkers associated with the New Culture Movement; your "gates of hell" seem closely related to Lu Xun's "iron house." In what ways is the mission of your work aligned with theirs, and in what ways does it depart?

I still take Mr. Lu Xun's attitude toward foreign culture as my model. That sort of mentality—open to the world, but free from self-abasement—is exactly what we Mainland literary figures lack. I have already spoken enough on this issue. I only want to add this: Mainland China's literary climate today is far bleaker than it was in the 1930s and '40s. My mission is precisely to fight against today's literary circles, to carry forward the Lu Xun spirit, and to leave young writers a glimmer of hope. China's present-day literary circle consists of a few self-interested cabals. Young writers who show the slightest hint of gutsiness lose any chance of advancement and are left to fend for themselves.

You grew up in a China that, influenced by Marxism and other radical Western ideas, isolated itself from the outside world. During those decades (the 1960s and '70s), you read a fair amount of foreign literature, Marxist philosophy, and Western history, encouraged by your ostracized "Rightist" parents, who had deep roots in the Chinese Communist movement. How have you negotiated the ironies and discordances of your influences in your writing?

I never base my writing on concepts; I base my writing on feelings. Obviously I have concepts, and I am even willing to call my pattern of cognition "rational intuition." This is because my sensibility eventually congeals into reason. As I said above, what I portray are the contradictions and struggles in the depths of the soul and the landscape of life of an artistically refined human. My starting point is the impulse of life; the impulse for freedom in the depths of the mind. It is just such a mechanism: you have an impulse, then, in the midst of tension, the landscape takes shape. When you stop, then the landscape disappears. I have sufficiently absorbed Western ideology during my many years of reading, yet my creative mechanism is fundamentally a Chinese type of subversive mechanism. Of course this is closely related to my life trajectory. I am a Chinese person in love with Western culture.

At this point, you've had a very long writing career—you've been writing for more than thirty years, a period in which China has changed dramatically, and the market for writing in China has almost completely transformed. And yet, your writing style seems to remain remarkably consistent. How do you yourself feel your writing (or your writing process) has changed over the past thirty years?

The small changes within Chinese literary circles in the past few decades can hold no significance within the several thousand years of literary history; these changes have had absolutely no influence on my writing. My writing shifts gradually. What it obeys are the laws inherent in my creative process—an evolution, a gradual, continuous revealing of new life. I whole-heartedly detest writing to follow the crowd; I have always been incompatible with the Chinese literary world.

You believe that your works can only be properly understood by each reader as he or she struggles to find meaning in the process of reading, and you often encourage readers to look harder and find their own answers to the questions they have about your work. But judging from the volume of interviews you've done alone, you're astoundingly generous with your time, accessible to readers, and willing to receive questions. If interpretation of your work is such an individual process, a process that requires an investment of energy by a patient reader, where do you think the utility of doing interviews lies?

My work belongs to an especially advanced kind of literature, far more ahead of its time than Kafka was to his readers in his day. Furthermore, I myself believe that I am a writer whose sense of reason and originality are equally, extraordinarily strong—I have published many volumes of criticism. After I have finished my novels, following an idle period, I come to grasp their essential structure. Other writers are seldom equipped with this ability. Therefore I not only critique other classic writers, but I also critique my own finished novels. To think that writers cannot critique their own novels is an outdated belief. In the development of contemporary literature, cutting-edge products are drawn into experimentation. They tend to merge with philosophy, and can even achieve an effect that philosophy cannot. As an experimental novelist with a strongly philosophical temperament (my method being "experimenting on myself"), I have the capacity to analyze my own work. I suppose there's no need for controversy there? Everybody can present their own interpretation!

I believe that, in the coming era, all pioneering artists will become interpreters of their own work, and in the wake of that wave, interpretation will become a common practice. Won't that be good news for the wider audience? If the eyes of the readers are open, and their curiosity is piqued, they may become eager to add their own interpretation to the work they are reading, or even to the fiction that they themselves write. In this way, every piece of writing would turn into a site for experimentation, and—through the process of interpretation—people would endeavor to create anew. I call this sort of interpretation the extension of writing. The realist approach to reading—the passive admiration, standing at the outside and uttering a few exclamations at the mystery of literature—is inadequate for dealing with experimental works like Can Xue novels. Every reader must stand up and perform in order to enter the realm of experimental literature.