April 23, 2009 / 12:13 AM / 10 years ago

Chinese writer finds freedom in English

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - As a dancer with the People’s Liberation Army during the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution, Yan Geling came of age in an era where you had to obey instructions.

A Chinese man reads a book as another walks between shelves at the 'Utopia' bookshop in central Beijing in this March 25, 2009 file picture. REUTERS/David Gray /Files

And as a writer in Chinese in China, she has to do the same to satisfy the censor and get her work published. Which is why Yan says she likes writing in English: it gives her greater freedom.

“My dream is to write with both pens, in English and Chinese. I want to be more truthful and more straightforward when I write in English,” she told Reuters in a recent interview, speaking on the sidelines of an event in Beijing organized by New York’s Barnard College.

“I consider myself as having two selves. One self is Chinese and more delicate, more subtle, in terms of language. But the English self is young and audacious, and I say what I want to say,” the softly spoken U.S.-educated author added.

Yan has won plaudits for books like “The Lost Daughter of Happiness,” the tale of a Chinese prostitute abducted from China to work in the United States in the 19th century.

That book was written in Chinese and translated into English, but Yan also writes in English, as well as rewrites books she wrote originally in Chinese, into English.

“It’s frustrating seeing things lost in translation. Some expressions are just so Chinese, or so English, you have to switch your thinking to English in order to write it with spontaneity and naturally,” she said.

Currently working on a novel in Chinese about a high school student in contemporary China, Yan nods when asked if she feels freer when writing in English.

“The pity is my expression in English is still young and not subtle enough. It’s not quite there. I read English very well, I know what good language is, and I want to reach the level of Nabokov and Conrad,” she said, referring to two novelists whose native language also was not English.

“But it’s frustrating, that you know what good literature is but you cannot get it totally right.”

Yet Shanghai-born Yan is more than a novelist. She is a screenwriter too, most recently working with Oscar-nominated Chinese director Chen Kaige on his biopic of renowned Chinese opera singer Mei Lanfang, staring Hong Kong superstar Leon Lai.

Yan currently lives in Taiwan, an island she loves for its freewheeling openness and censorship-free literary scene.

“It’s such a reader’s playground,” she said of Taiwan’s thriving bookstore scene, which she finds a marked contrast to China.

“They have so many fabulous brand name stores here but they don’t even bother to make nice bookstores,” Yan said, bemoaning China’s lackluster bookshops. “It’s the last priority.”

Editing by Nick Macfie and Miral Fahmy

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