What does it mean to leave your country but keep its language?
Xia Zhou (夏周) is a Chinese writer who studied multimedia design in Australia and currently lives in the US and writes in Chinese. His works, including “The Crown-wearing White Cockatoo” (戴王冠的白鹦鹉), focus on the life and growing pains of China's younger generations. A number of Sinophone authors live outside of their country and produce works in Chinese or in foreign languages, such as Ha Jin and Guo Xiaolu. Global Voices interviewed Xia by email to find out what motivates him to continue to write in Chinese while living outside of China.
Filip Noubel (FN): You belong to the younger generation of Chinese writers. How do young people in China consume literature?
Xia Zhou (XZ): It is often said that younger generations read less books, and that even fewer read literature. With the popularization of the internet and mobile devices, there are more “bowed heads” on the subway, but fewer people read holding books in their hands.
At the same time, young people now have more and more means of entertainment. In addition to reading, there are movies and games. Of course, I think excellent movies and games are inseparable from the foundation of literature. We have also seen many literary works being adapted to the screen. China's Four Classics have been continuously adapted into various works. In addition to those, other literary genres, such as JK Rowling‘s “Harry Potter” and Tolkien's “Lord of the Rings” series, also started as novels before eventually becoming popular cultural brands. On the other hand, we have not stopped creating more immersive and interactive narratives. From 2D to 3D, we have even developed Virtual Reality/Alternative Reality and other devices to help us tell stories. When I went to Universal Studios to take the Harry Potter tour, as I moved on a roller coaster, and with the sound of the picture, I felt like I was not only walking into the story, but becoming part of it.
FN: Whom do you regard as key Chinese writers?
XZ: This is a more difficult question to answer. I think writers of the Republic of China period are more representative, such as Lu Xun, Zhang Ailing, Lin Yutang and others. As a representative of the May Fourth New Culture Movement, Lu Xun published his first vernacular novel “Diary of a Madman” and it played an important role in the transition from classical to vernacular Chinese.
Generally speaking, Lu Xun's works are known for being very critical. As he once said, “studying medicine cannot save Chinese people,” he thus abandoned medicine and followed literature, criticizing the feudalism of the Chinese social system at the time. He explored the weaknesses of human nature through writing, including the famous “The True Story of Ah Q” that created the cult quote of “acting weak is reasonable.”
After the May Fourth New Culture Movement, Chinese literature entered a stage of Europeanization. Lu Xun himself also said he was influenced by Western literature, and by a certain amount of Western medical knowledge. In fact, Lu Xun's “Diary of a Madman” is to some degree inspired by Gogol‘s “Diary of a Madman.”
FN: You are Chinese, you write in Chinese, and you live in the US. How do you manage this multi-faceted identity? Is there a global Sinophone literature scene today?
XZ: I studied design in Australia and the US, and I need to use English to communicate in my daily life. Chinese is my mother tongue, and I like its unique beauty, so writing in Chinese seems natural to me.
Regarding overseas Chinese literature, I am currently hosting the “Overseas Chinese Novels Express” column of the famous literary magazine “Yalu River” in mainland China. So indeed what does it mean to treat overseas Chinese novels as its own literary category?
When I read overseas Chinese novels, apart from the difference in style, I can still feel they share similarities in terms of character. In those past few years living overseas, I have met many outstanding Chinese writers. Most of them have jobs, so being a writer is more an identity than a profession. For those authors who do not make a living from writing, it is not impossible to try writing in foreign languages, as some are very good at it. Being outside of China, this Chinese-speaking circle is relatively niche and does not belong to mainstream literature. So what keeps them from giving up writing, or from writing in Chinese? In my communication with them, I feel that they have an obsessive love for their mother tongue. Chinese underlines the beauty of implicitness, while English is more focused on logical and orderly elaborations. Those two emphases are different.
After talking about language, let's talk about subject matter. Overseas Chinese-speaking writers benefit from their own cultural background and have a relatively broad global perspective. Their stories often take place abroad. Through different life situations, they reflect on the fate of overseas Chinese or immigrants in foreign lands, and describe how they interact with local people in an unfamiliar environment.
On the other hand, although it can help you fit into a specific category faster, being defined by the label of “overseas Chinese-speaking writer” confuses people. For writers back home in China, such writers belong to the outside world, yet in foreign lands, the same authors are not classified as local writers. In such a dilemma, Chinese writers may encounter problems of identity and cultural self-definition—this is indeed a big problem for immigrants, and a very common question. But when novelists write, they focus more on the narrative itself, rather than on labels . We also sincerely hope to find readers who like our works, so when it comes to collecting material, we inevitably fall into a contradiction: should we be loyal to our hearts, or cater to readers? In this context, stories by overseas Chinese have a notch, because we are not only participants, and observers, but also recorders.
FN: How would you define your own writing? What motivates you to write?
XZ: My current works are mainly short stories, but also a few poems. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to study in Australia, get some practice in the UK, travel to Japan, vacation in Korea, and study in the United States… These experiences have broadened my horizons and inspired me to create my first collection of short stories called “The Crown-wearing White Cockatoo” (the story takes place in Shanghai, Sydney, New York, London, Tokyo, Seoul). In my works, I focus more on young people of the same age, students who study abroad, and immigrants who settle overseas,
Another feature of this collection of prose is that it was inspired by the concept of the movie universe. I like this way of constructing a complete world view in a story, so the idea of creating a “novel universe” was born. In my book, I created a character called “Mr. Bai”, who is the incarnation of Bai Wuchang, the messenger of hell in the Chinese tradition. The prototype for him is ,the yellow-capped white parrot that is common in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. I use parody to combine Mr.Bai's role with the legendary Bai Wuchang. Whenever a character in the book encounters death or an accident, he reappears as a the third person, to convey viewpoints that the writer is not comfortable expressing himself.