(Part 1 here.)
SB: While writing The Garlic Ballads, Mo Yan said the main motive came from a fourth uncle from around here.
GMX: My fourth uncle was a production team leader, the son of my third granduncle. My grandfather’s generation had three brothers – the oldest was a landlord, the second brother was a middling farmer, and the third brother was quite poor.
So my fourth uncle was my third granduncle’s second son, and he was team leader all the while, and Mo Yan worked with him since when he was about ten. He took very good care of Mo Yan. At the time he had just been contracted, the farmers’ morale was very high and life was getting better. And there was a sugar plant in Gaomi, one of the larger sugar plants in the north, and he was contracted to drive oxcarts and deliver beets.
So they were about seven or eight li from the sugar factory, and there was a commune secretary’s driver – the secretary was building a house, the driver was delivering bricks, he was drunk and was driving without a licence, and he ran over fourth uncle and killed him along with his ox. The matter went unresolved for a long time, and eventually they paid three thousand yuan as compensation.
A human life, an ox’s life, for three thousand yuan.
I was in Hunan then, and was furious when I heard about it. The two of us wanted to go back and sue, bring a proper lawsuit. But a lot of people came to dissuade us, and the commune also sent people to lean on us.
My father also said, as one family we shouldn’t be ruining two families’ livelihoods. Even if they caught the driver and sentenced him, it wasn’t going to bring our uncle back, so what’s the point? Just forget it.
So this was the true story, and in The Garlic Ballads the fourth uncle was delivering garlic instead of beets.
SB: What are your views on the created landscape of Gaomi in Mo Yan’s works?
GMX: Well, the real Gaomi wouldn’t have a desert, and it wouldn’t have tall buildings either – it’s all villages. In the story there’s everything – tall buildings clustered into a city, there’s forests, there’s lakes – he wrote in whatever he needed, really.
SB: When you saw the Northeast Township of Gaomi as written by Mo Yan, were you shocked? Or was it quite understandable?
GMX: Some parts I could relate to very intimately, such as in A Transparent Carrot, the worksite – you just walk up from here and cross the river – the moment I read that story I knew that was the worksite he was writing about.
Of course, it doesn’t look as impressive as it did then, since at the time he was a kid following the others to work. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of the story was definitely of home – the atmosphere and environment were very intimate, and the characters even more so. For some of the character he simply used their names – whether their real names, or their nicknames – he wrote them into the story, straight from real life.
SB: This prize, when it was awarded – just the day before, your father and you, and your second brother too, all seemed to think it would be impossible for him to win.
GMX: It wasn’t that we thought it was impossible. We just felt that it would be great if he won, and even if he didn’t, that was okay.
I did have a premonition about the Nobel prize. I felt Mo Yan would eventually get it, but not quite so soon. It wasn’t impossible to win; I feel his approach to writing and literature was a global amalgamation, which you don’t see in other countries.
SB: When Oe Kenzaburo, another Nobel laureate, came to Gaomi, how did that visit go?
GMX: He spent the Chinese New Year’s Eve at our old place, and on Chinese New Year he had dumplings. The first and second day there were lanterns all along the river, and finally the county leadership received him for a dinner, and then took him back to Qingdao.
He once said, Mo Yan will get the Nobel by 2015, and I’ll come back when that happens. Oe is quite pleasant when it comes to China; he, and Haruki Murakami as well, they believe the Diaoyu Islands actually belong to China.
SB: Oe is quite a rigorous, serious man.
GMX: He really looks like Lu Xun [a famous 20th century Chinese writer]. I took one look at him and said, ‘Mr. Oe, you really look like a Chinese writer.’ And he said, ‘it’s Lu Xun, isn’t it?’, and I said yes.
SB: How do you explain the creative process behind Mo Yan’s work?
GMX: It seems to be an innate imaginative ability; I’m afraid this isn’t something that can be nurtured.
SB: When you first read Mo Yan’s work, could you understand his creative vision?
GMX: Yes, quite, and I could relate to it too. There were commonalities.
SB: What sort of commonalities?
GMX: It’s an eye for the things others don’t notice. Like in A Transparent Carrot, he wrote about the sound of a hair falling being audible – I definitely could relate to it and feel how real it was.
This is from personal experience – it’s a bit embarrassing, but I didn’t make the secondary school entrance exams after I graduated from primary school. Back home my father was very angry, and he had me go into the fields alone to remove beans in the summer. Mother would bring me food; I wasn’t allowed home in the afternoon.
So in those endless fields – first maize, then sorghum, then beans – it was like having fallen into a well. At noon, when everyone else went back home, there was absolutely no one, just a few insects singing. And you could really hear the sound of a falling hair.
SB: Your father was very strict towards Mo Yan too, even after he became famous.
GMX: Yes, he was always saying, no matter what your achievements, never become arrogant. Don’t throw your weight around. Keep a low profile in life.
We all feared him, including my sister. When we were kids the pressure of life on him was too great, our social class was a bit too high and we weren’t even Party members. He was always the accountant in the production brigade, and he had to count even a five-cent ballpoint pen. He’d only dare buy the pen if the brigade secretary signed off on it. So how was he supposed to be pleasant to the family? He’d scold and beat us all the time.
SB: You mentioned how the Guan family, in your ancestral records, had quite a few people good at the humanities.
GMX: Well, there’s Guan Zhong 管仲 [Chancellor of the State of Qi, 6th century BC], the famous chancellor. There’s also Guan Lu 管路, who was very skilled in the Yi Jing [Book of Changes]. During the Ming Dynasty, the Gaomi Guan clan produced two imperial scholars, and during the Qing Dynasty we produced five. So the literary heritage runs pretty deep.
SB: Chinese these days like to flaunt their ancestral records as a point of pride.
GMX: Well, you can’t go around recognising ancestors willy-nilly. If they’re obviously not your ancestors, you can’t just acknowledge them.