The World Of Can Xue
By Uma Anyar
How many Chinese women writer’s have you read this year? If your answer is few or none, then may I introduce Can Xue, whom I discovered at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival this past October. Can Xue is the pen name of Deng Xiaohua. She is an avant-garde writer whom Susan Sontag has said is the one Chinese writer most worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Can Xue is a well-chosen nom de plume as the term refers to opposite aspects of the same thing. It can be interpreted as the stubborn, dirty snow left at the end of winter on sidewalks and roadsides or the pure remaining snow at the peak of a mountain after the rest has melted. Uniting opposites in one story is a clue as to how one might approach reading this compelling and challenging writer. Books that are currently available in English translation include Dialogues in Paradise (1989), The Embroidered Shoes (1997), Five Spice Street (2009) and Vertical Motion (2011).
Her latest book, published in 2014, is The Last Lover. Can Xue has referred to herself as, “an experimental novelist with a strongly philosophical temperament”. It is this philosophical aspect of her work, coupled with fantastical characters and situations that make her writing difficult for some readers and thrilling for others.
She is influenced by Kafka, Borges and Calvino. Can Xue delves into, “the dual nature of the world” as subjective and objective, self and other. She calls her writing performance art. She goes to her desk, picks up the pen and writes. “I do not plan, I do not know where I am going to end up. I write for one hour then I stop. I put the pen down.”
Some critics have not known what to do with her work. Some male reviewers have tried to interpret her work by psychoanalysing the writer, others see it as political allegory, (Can Xue denies this), while yet other critics have suggested she was plain insane. But that was around 2002; since then her work is reaching readers outside China and she has been praised for the careful precision she uses to create such a strange, unsettling effect on the reader.
Childhood experiences play an important role in forging our adult personalities. Can Xue’s life was strongly affected by the Anti-rightest Movement of 1957. Her father, an editorial director at the New Hunan Daily News, was condemned as an Ultra-Rightist and was sent to reform through labour, and her mother, who worked at the same newspaper, was indentured to the countryside as well. Because of this family catastrophe during the Cultural Revolution, Can Xue lost her chance for further education and only graduated from elementary school. Largely self-taught, she loved literature so much that she read fiction and poetry whenever she could. In her younger days, she read classical Western literature and Russian literature the most. They remain her favourites today. Can Xue has studied reading and writing in English for years, and she has extensively read translations of English literature.
She published her first story in 1983 and despite ridicule and silence from critics she has continued writing. I think that her pen name encapsulates her sense of tenacity and persistence. This quality is an aspect of a heroic nature.
Our interview with Can Xue follows:
What made you decide to participate in the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival?
I had known that Bali and Ubud were very famous for their beautiful scenery, special local customs and delicious food. These are among my most favourite things in life. So, although I have serious rheumatism, I plucked up my courage, and took the long trip to Ubud with my husband … After we arrived at our wonderful hotel at the top of a mountain, we were sure that this would be one of our best trips. Actually these days spent in Ubud will turn into a sweet dream [when] we are back in China. One night in Ubud, my husband and I walked outside and we heard a cry from a mysterious bird, and saw big bright stars. Those stars were so big! We had not seen stars so big for many years.
How did you find the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival? And, how is the UWRF different from writers’ festivals in China, such as in Beijing?
I think the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival is the best that I have been to. And it’s very different from Beijing’s writers’ festival. The reasons for this are: firstly, Ubud is a very simple, clean, virtuous, and ‘free’ mountain district, full of smiles, and the food here is so delicious and dainty. On the other hand, Beijing is not suitable for a writers’ festival any more nowadays. As you know, it has very dirty air, and suffers from extreme dryness in autumn and winter (caused by heavy traffic, and coal burning). Secondly, the sponsors and Festival staff really understand literature and art. I saw that when many authors arrived to Ubud (great authors and ‘small’ authors), each of them found their friends, they were very happy. Actually this sort of festival promotes an artist’s confidence in literature. During the festival, we met a lot of literary people talking energetically in the restaurants, coffee bars, and gardens. The readings and the interviews were amazing, and always caused an outburst of enthusiasm. All of these factors make people truly believe that literature is the most important thing in life. Thirdly, Ubud is inhabited by beautiful people, who have their own original and beautiful art. When you see them and hear them, you naturally think of the origin of ‘Beauty’ and sense the mysterious nature of literature and the arts, which most of us has forgotten a long time ago. I think the festival gave me a terrific impression of the sense of Beauty.
You have described your work as ‘Soul literature’ or ‘Life Literature.’ Would you please elaborate on this idea?
My writing is a very special sort of writing. I call it, “experimental writing” or “soul writing”. It means that you experiment in order to know how big your spiritual tension can be, how high you can scale the heights of art. My ‘experimental writing’ is different from the most of the Western experimental writing. Because, even though my plots, dialogues, and backgrounds are grotesque, even unimaginably queer, my language is very honest and straightforward. I think maybe the reason for this is that the stories I tell are the common stories of mankind. Some of which we have forgotten long ago, some of which we just don’t remember that they are our own stories. So people (whether they are Easterners or Westerners) always say that Can Xue is very difficult to understand.
Some readers do find your work difficult to read. Do you think writers write for their audience of readers or strictly for themselves?
Yes, my work is very difficult. In some way it’s similar to philosophy. Nowadays, high literature and philosophy mingle more and more with each other. I write for the special readers who are very sensitive to spiritual things. Although their number is very small I’m always sure that my work is very important for humanity. Can you imagine that mankind could live on the earth without philosophy?
Yes, I can imagine it but I would not like to be in such a world. Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure meeting and conversing with you.
Revisit Can Xue’s in-conversation in the Audio section of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival website: www.ubudwritersfestival.com