Having waited 20 years for his books to be published in his home country, Chen Xiwo refuses to compromise. In a country that he believes has “no hope”, because democracy can only come with a revolution, he says authors need to write the truth. To do otherwise, is wrong. And giving the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan sets a “bad example” for others.
By Luciana Leitão
Chen Xiwo is one of the most polemic authors in Mainland China and one can easily understand the reasons — he writes mostly about sex, approaching topics such as homosexuality, incest and sadomasochistic practices. In an interview with mART, on the sidelines of The Script Road – Macau Literary Festival, the author says that, even though his books keep being banned or revised, he doesn’t really care — he knows it might be “very dangerous”, but he will continue to write exactly what he wants in Mainland China, without compromising.
Having grown up during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution [a political movement, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, that occurred between 1966 until 1976] shaped his will to go against what is established. “My father was chased. During that time, I didn’t have a father,” he says. When the Cultural Revolution ended, he was a survivor. “I was taken cared of by my grandmother, I was never taken cared of by my parents.”
By then, he was a teenager, divided between what he had done during the Cultural Revolution — “I also joined a group and supported it” — and his disapproval of the movement once it was over. “There was kind of a conflict in my mind.” He started writing, to express himself.
Once the former leader of the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping, assumed power and opened the country to the outside, Mr Chen was optimistic. “I believed China could change.” Soon, after 1989 — the year of the Tiananmen Square student protests that resulted in the death of hundreds of civilians — he realised the opposite. “China is going backwards,” he says. And that is reflected in all his work. “All my novels reflect the real China.”
Disappointed with the path China has taken, Mr Chen says there is no hope. “Everybody wants democracy, but there’s no way to get there without a revolution,” he states. His revolution comes in the form of writing without compromising.
It took him 20 years before he could be published in Mainland China, but his work managed to be acknowledged in his home country. His novel Exile won the eighth HuangChangXian Literature Prize, while books such as Irritation helped him get the fourth Fujian Flowers award for outstanding literary works.
Mr Chen says giving awards is part of the Government’s strategy. “That book [Exile] was very calm and gentle, in comparison with others,” he says, adding: “In China, they try to calm authors by giving you some award — the Central Government loves giving some public office post to authors, for example.” But it is “impossible” to calm him. “I’m too offensive. I won’t change my way.”
And, despite knowing that his books will have to pass by censors, Mr Chen doesn’t allow himself any kind of self-censorship. “Most of the authors [from China] will self-check. I don’t. I will write whatever interests me.” He realises his work is “totally offensive”, but he doesn’t care. “I write for myself — and when the readers feel the same, we are in love.”
One thing he knows: there are no guidelines or rules in what concerns censorship, because censors are people. “If they feel it’s offensive, you might have to take it out. In my work I explore sex between girls, boys, mother and son, fathers and daughters, even sadomasochism [practices] — that’s too repelling and not allowed,” he explains. Yet, sometimes he finds spaces to breath. “Somehow, I have the space to get the job done. I manage to have that place for me to breath.”
For instance, he recalls the case of I Love My Mum, in 2007, in which the author sued the Fuzhou office of China Customs after they confiscated the Chinese version. The story features a tale of murder and incest and has been translated into English. “Customs took it to the censors, but I sued them — the story was published [in a magazine] for some months,” he says, adding: “After a while, the magazine was withdrawn from the market.” But for him, what counts is that, in between the discussion between censors, government and editors, he still managed to get some time to show his work to the public. In addition, his work The Book of Sins, translated into English, which is a set of seven novellas through the landscape of sexual and political deviance, caused an international uproar, after the author sued the Chinese government for banning it.
Still, despite the difficulties, he wouldn’t think of moving abroad. “As a writer you really mean something when you write in your own country, to your people. It is meaningless when you write outside — it only has meaning when you stay in China, even in jail,” he says. And if one day he is arrested, he will still insist, because that is his “spirit”.
Given that he is considered one of the most outspoken writers from Mainland China, he admits it may be “very dangerous” to talk as freely as he does. But, for a writer in Mainland China, Mr Chen believes it is wrong not to tell the truth.
On the same day author Mo Yan, who is considered aligned with the Central Government, won the Nobel Prize, in 2012, Mr Chen was giving an interview, saying: “This is a very bad example for Chinese authors — it signals that if you compromise with the Government, you will get an award.”
He doesn’t criticise Mo Yan’s work, which he actually thought was good, but his compromises in life. Actually, Mo Yan’s work was initially different, more “offensive, touching the points of what China truly is”. But he has changed. “He is calmer and more gentle than before. Now, he is a very important person in China, he cannot write like before.”