Nobel Prize Saturday: an interview with Mo Yan’s older brother

(Disclaimer: Again, translation for personal use and edification only.)

Another year, another Chinese Nobel Lit laureate! Well, the previous one (Gao Xingjian, in 2000) is technically French by now, so I guess this is the first one. Guan Moye 管谟业, better known by his pen name Mo Yan 莫言 (which means ‘don’t speak’ in Chinese) has been famous for quite a while in China; one of his novels, Red Sorghum, was adapted for film by none other than Zhang Yimou, a directorial debut and breakthrough work at the same time.

Sina Books did an interview of the author’s older brother Guan Moxian, and given the occasion I thought I might do a little translation of it. (Original interview, in Chinese, here.) The interview’s pretty long, so I’ve broken it into two parts.

Sina Books: How much older are you than Mo Yan?

Guan Moxian: Exactly one cycle, 12 years; I’m a goat and so is he. I was born in ’43, he in ’55.

SB: How far apart were each of your siblings?

GMX: I was three years older than the second sister, who was four years older than my second brother. There’s five years between the second brother and Mo Yan. There was a child between them, but he died after just a few days. In our village it wasn’t bad to have 5 surviving kids out of 10.

SB: My maternal grandmother was the only surviving sibling of her family; everyone ahead of her died.

GMX: I had an older sister who died early too. Those were tough times, a pregnant woman wouldn’t get anything nice to eat. If you had a fierce mother-in-law, you were really finished.

SB: You’d be back in the field in days.

GMX: You’d be back in the field right after labour. You’d be on the field right up to the moment of birth itself; you’d rather just have the kid on the floor and keep on working. Those were tough times.

SB: So when did Mo Yan start working?

GMX: He went to the cotton processing plant only in ’72. He was a teenager then.

SB: Was it a village-run plant?

GMX: Not the village – it was a county-run plant, where the commune was based. My uncle was the chief accountant in there, so strings were pulled, but it was seasonal work – if there was work you did it, if not you went home.

The wages were a few yuan a day; part of the pay was used to purchase work points for the production team, but you got to keep the balance, a few tens of yuan.

SB: So why was it considered a pretty modern job?

GMX: It was a very enviable job. Most of the farming families in the village would be overdrawing their work points every year, since food was rationed according to family size. If you didn’t have enough work points to redeem your rations, you would be overdrawn, and you wouldn’t get a cent from your year’s work.

That job, however, got a monthly wage, more than ten yuan a month: that works out to a hundred or two in a year.

SB: So he wasn’t required to turn that over to the family?

GMX: He did turn most of it over to the family, he kept a yuan or two for himself.

SB: Nowadays everyone says Mo Yan was a naturally gifted writer, so what are your views on this gift? Where did it come from? Was it just from some of your workbooks from college?

GMX: The area around Gaomi, where Mo Yan grew up, belonged to the Qi (Shandong) culture, the DNA of this culture runs very deep, passed down through each generation. My grandfather’s generation, they were always telling stories, plenty of stories about ghosts and demons; they were full of those tales.

We probably all got an inclination for literature because of these tales.

SB: Some critics have said that his style (hallucinatory realism) very much resembles Latin American literature. Do you reckon it actually comes from the Qi culture you referred to?

GMX: Whether it was Marquez or Hemingway, he never properly read their works – he’d read them once and throw them aside. The chairman of the Gaomi area research association raised a point about Mo Yan’s genius, his hard work; and that Mo Yan was of Gaomi, and also of the world.

Some genius is necessary in this area, powers of observation and imagination – especially imagination.

SB: When was the first time you read Mo Yan’s writing? Did it leave any impression?

GMX: I was working at Changde in Hunan when he wrote his first letter to me.

SB: You were teaching secondary school then?

GMX: Yes, I was teaching language. Those days, the class struggle was especially fierce. Ever since the Yan’an Incident (referring to the 1941 Yan’an Rectification Movement), the literary scene… you could see the revolution criticising you, so I told you [Mo Yan, presumably] not to do this, it’s too risky… I was a humanities student, and I didn’t dare write a word. I started writing essays only after ’87; I didn’t dare write anything before that. If your writing concealed the truth, you would be dissatisfied; but if it revealed the truth, it gave them leverage over you.

Later he began to publish his works.

SB: When was that first publication?

GMX: 1981.

SB: Conditions were more favorable then.

GMX: It was after he began publishing in Baoding, and especially after he began teaching at the PLA Academy of Art and Literature, that he really understood what literature was. He didn’t finish primary school, but at Baoding he was teaching college – they were all college graduates who joined the armed forces – he joined their political classes and caught up on his Marxist-Leninist thought.

I said, if you want to get into literature, then you need to catch up on the classics. These few years have been all right, he has indeed learned quite a lot.

SB: At the Nobel Prize press conference, Mo Yan said that this should be the season when red sorghum could be seen, but not any longer.

GMX: People stopped planting red sorghum a long time back. Sorghum tastes quite awful, so it has little use other than for making liquor.

SB: When was sorghum planted here?

GMX: It was quite widely grown before the 1970s, and especially in the early ’70s. The commune leadership here introduced a multi-spiked sorghum from Hainan, it would produce many spikes from a single seed, like barley. It was awful to eat, like stone; steamed buns made out of sorghum flour were hard enough to kill a dog. Just like a stone.

SB: So sorghum was only around for some decades.

GMX: It was just for making liquor. But the whole sorghum plant could be used. What the people from Gaomi called the ‘upright stem’, which was the upper portion of the straw, was used to cover steamed dumplings. And you would strip the stem to weave mats.

That’s what sorghum was really planted for, those things, and also for making brooms.

(Part 2 here.)

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One thought on “Nobel Prize Saturday: an interview with Mo Yan’s older brother

  1. Pingback: Nobel Prize Saturday: An Interview with Mo Yan’s older brother (Part 2) | Vacant Mountain 空山

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