Zhou Jianing on Contemporary Chinese Narratives

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Chinese writer Zhou Jianing about the influence of Japanese literature on contemporary Chinese authors, her interest in urban narratives, and the disorientation that comes with writing in a rapidly growing society. She also describes translation as a peaceful language practice devoid of ego and her experience translating into Chinese the works of American authors like Flannery O’Connor, Jeanette Winterson, Alice Munro, and others.

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Zhou Jianing 周嘉宁Interview Transcript



I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.


Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.


The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.


This episode of Origins features Chinese writer Zhou Jianing.


Merrill: Zhou Jianing is a fiction writer and translator from China. She has published seven novels and two short story collections, as well as Chinese translations of major English language writers, such as Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates. Her most recent novel In the Woods was published in 2014. We are recording from the University of Iowa on Monday, October 24, 2016 when we had the chance to sit down with Jianing, who is here as a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency. Welcome.


So the first thing I want to say is, you grew up in Shanghai, and published your first book when you were only twenty years old. What drew you to writing at such an early age?


Zhou: Yes, it is actually is a long story because when I was nineteen, I won a literature prize for teenagers. So after that a lot of publishing house contacted with me, and they want to publish my short stories or novels, but at that time I have no idea what literature is. What is a novel, what is a short story…totally know nothing. And I think for them, they have this commercial purpose, maybe. But anyway, I had this opportunity, so I started writing as a teenager. Yes, but I do not want to admit that I published my first book at a very early age because I think it is until I was thirty, or maybe twenty-eight, that I started to know what literature is, at that age.


Merrill: You, in a recent IWP panel discussion about world literature at the Iowa City Public Library, you said, “Chinese youth are the first generation to be born in modernized cities. They started to emphasize the value of beauty, writing about boring everyday life and enjoying a free and useless spirit. Living in a stable and relatively affluent life has encouraged many young people to long for a perpetual teen spirit. The reason they like the Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami is probably because he has somehow maintained the status of a young person. This is exactly what Chinese literature is missing.” So, I wonder if you could talk about the influence Haruki Murakami has had on Chinese literature and on you in particular.


Zhou: Yes, because I think when I was young, like when I was in my twenties, a lot of friends say, “We love Murakami a lot.” But now, they just deny that. They cannot admit that they love Murakami when they were young, but I still, I admit that. I have to say that maybe now, I still love him.


Merrill: What was about his writing that you love so much?


Zhou: Because at that time, you know, in Chinese literature, especially contemporary literature, we have nothing about city life or urban life. Because most of the older generation, they grew up in the countryside, or in the village, so –


Merrill: Or went back there during the Cultural Revolution.


Zhou: Yes, yes, of course it’s like that. But in my generation, our lives are different from them. I think in some ways, I can say that. Yeah, so we can only find these feelings, emotion, common feelings in Japanese contemporary literature. So at that time, Murakami is like oh, he is so different from all these Chinese writers. Yes, it’s like that.


Merrill: And could you talk a little bit more about the idea that Chinese literature could benefit from, as you say, staying young? What does that mean?


Zhou: Because I think in Chinese contemporary literature, the mainstream of the writers, they are so obsessed with misery. And also we have this, I think in our language, or the theme of our contemporary literature has this revolution tradition –


Merrill: Yeah.


Zhou: Maybe I can say that, yes. And the people like to write this very grand theme, big topics.


Merrill: So if Mo Yan [IWP ‘04] writes about the history of modern China – that seems like the grand theme, right?


Zhou: Yes. And I think they are very…how to say…ambitious. Yes, but I think it’s a good thing. But for the young people, like you’re just seventeen or eighteen, and you think these kind of things, you are obsessed with misery, then with just this grand theme, I don’t think it is quite a good idea for young people. So I think maybe we should find some brightness and lightness in the writing. But we cannot find these themes in Chinese contemporary literature, so we go to Japanese contemporary literature to get some balance.


Merrill: Ah, I see. Do you look to other literary traditions besides Japanese to find that balance? Or is it really more Murakami?


Zhou: Maybe the whole world now, the young generation, they are looking for something, but it’s not like that. I think some part of them, they are looking for this lightness and some part of them they are going to this very political or because global and political something, they are related together.


Merrill: Yeah. I ask because while you have written already nine books of your own, you’ve also translated many contemporary American and English writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O’Connor. And I wonder how the work of translation differs from your own writing and if it has influenced your own writing, translating Flannery O’Connor, for example.


Zhou: Yes, they are totally different. I mean translation and writing, they are totally different things for me. Because when I translate, I hide myself. Because I think as a translator, I am just helping other writers to transfer their language into my own language, and to benefit my, our Chinese readers. It is like that. So this is not my work at all. And my ego is disappearing during the work of translation. I do not show any of my own personality in the translation work. For me it is more than a practice of language, so it is totally different from writing. And I am very, how to say, peaceful when I’m doing translation work. But when I am writing, I am very anxious. I don’t know how to deal with myself, because I can feel my ego when I am writing and I can feel my personality. I don’t know whether it is good or not, and these kind of things make me very anxious. Of course translating influences my writing a lot, but mainly in the aspect of language.


Merrill: So is it a kind of relief to go from writing your own work to translating, and then to go from the anxiety to the peacefulness?


Zhou: Yes, it is, but I love writing more than translating. Because for me, I cannot feel that I am really working in translating. But if I am writing, I can feel that I am working on something.


Merrill: Yeah, yeah. Are there certain writers who have been more difficult for you to translate than others? If so, how, why?


Zhou: Yes, it is. For example, the first book I translated is a novel by Jeanette Winterson. Her language is totally different from my own language, and her writing style is just the opposite of mine. I don’t know why the first book I translated is hers. It was so tough for me, and I spent I think one year just translating. After that I only choose these writers’ whose language style is similar with myself.


Merrill: And then has any translation influenced you to write in a different way, or to take on a different kind of subject?


Zhou: Yes, of course. Especially, I think they influence me in the language, not in the other kinds of things. Because for me, translating is really a practice for language, and it can purify my own Chinese language. Because I have to choose words very carefully when I do translation. I have to compare the very small differences between two Chinese words. So after that, I think I got a big improvement in Chinese language. And also because the language of Chinese contemporary literature, they have this, as I told you that they have this revolution tradition. So sometimes the language has a tendency to be cliché.


Merrill: Bombastic, right? Yeah, yeah.


Zhou: Yes. So I have to fight with these clichés all the time. But if you are not careful enough, these things are like in your mind, because the whole environment in China, the language environment in China, they are just like this. So I have to be very careful and when I am doing the translation, it is like I am doing a purification of my own language.


Merrill: Purification, yeah. You also founded the Chinese literary magazine, New Writing. That’s another way to have an influence on contemporary literature. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your intended audience. And how would you describe the magazine and its mission?


Zhou: Yeah, because I established this magazine with my best friend Yueran [Zhang Yueran, IWP ’11]. You know her, yes? Because she has been here five years ago. Yes, we established this eight years ago. At that time, I think, we think, the whole literature environment is not good enough, and we want to give a platform for the young writers to show their works. Because young writers at that time they have we do not have a lot of magazines, literature magazines, which is very popular for the common readers. Because we have a lot of literature magazines that belongs to the writers association, but they do not, how to say, they do not sell in the market.


Merrill: This is the Chinese Writers’ Association, which is a semi-official government organization.


Zhou: Yes, yes it is. So we want to, we hope that we can have a magazine that is independent from them. So we began to do this. Until now, we have published I think twenty-one or twenty-two issues. But this year, we kind of stopped doing this. I think it’s because, both of us, I mean I and Zhang Yueran, we changed a lot during these eight years. And our opinion about writing, about our country, about the whole literature scene, we have gotten though a big change. Maybe this is the time to stop and think about what is the next step, because the whole literature environment in China also changed.


Merrill: How would you describe that change?


Zhou: It is very, very hard to describe it in few sentences. I think I feel a little bit disappointed. Yes, disappointed. So, right now, I do not know what we can do. Yes, it is like that. I am very confused, I cannot just describe it in a few words. Maybe I can write a very long article to say this situation.


Merrill: So you often write about your family and friends, and I wonder how those close to you respond when they see themselves in print?


Zhou: Actually my close friends they never read my works. And a lot of my friends, they don’t even know that I’m a writer, because I, we don’t talk about these kinds of things. Because for me, as a writer is not that important. I just want to hide my identity. I do not want to let my friends know what I am writing about. As for my family, yes it is a problem. Because these short stories, actually I wrote them at a very young age. The writing sample, I wrote them maybe eight years ago. At that time I really looked to people around me. I think it is hurtful for my family, especially my parents. But they are very good; they have never talked about these kinds of things with me. They just pretend that they have never read my work. But I know that they read it. So sometimes I think as a writer, maybe writers are selfish. And yes, writers are so selfish.


Merrill: The American novelist John Irving said, “If in a first novel a writer does not upset his or her parents, then they really are probably not writing very well.”


Zhou: This is interesting. Yes, uh-huh. But I think my parents are very good because they just hide their feelings and they keep this distance from me. I think it’s very hard for them to do that, to keep the distance from their child, especially in China. Usually we are very intimate, how to say, intimate with the family. But they kept distance from me and my work. Yes, it’s hard, but they really do a very, very good job.


Merrill: In the story, “Let Us Talk About Something Else,” you depict a writer struggling to find a story to write while her peers are already finding publishing success. How do you deal with the pressure to produce new work, and is there a story you haven’t yet been able to write?


Zhou: I used to be very anxious about writing because I think I was influenced by these Chinese writers because they are so ambitious and all of them want to write something very big, and they want to win a prize, something like that. But this year, especially these two years, I don’t know why, but I just changed a lot. I am not that anxious anymore, and I don’t feel that my identity as a writer is important anymore. I think writing for me is just a solution to clear out my confusions about myself and also about the whole world. But it is just a solution. If I can figure these things out by other ways, maybe just reading, it is okay for me, if I just stop writing and I just read or I write some academic articles, not such creative, it is also it is also okay for me. So creative writing is not that important. When I think like that, I just stop anxious. Yes, I think it’s good. And the stories, yes, there are lot of stories I haven’t, I cannot write right now. For example, I am thinking of writing a story about young people from a very small town in China and they moved into a big city like in China, because there are a lot of young people in the recent ten years that moved from a small town into Shanghai or Beijing, and they faced a lot of problems. In some aspects, it is very easy to write, because I have got a lot of friends they are like this. But now I still am so confused about the whole situation, about how China will be in five years, and why is this young people nowadays they are like this? And I am so disappointed about this whole situation. But I think if you want to write a novel, the most important thing is not to express your disappointment or express your confusion. I have to figure something out that I can, I have to get some opinion on this kind of things. But now I am just so confused about this whole situation. So I need time to think, maybe more reading, I don’t know. Maybe more talking with people.


Merrill: But do you find in the act of writing that you are able to figure some of these things out?


Zhou: Yes, because for me, as I said, the writing is just a solution.


Merrill: It’s a solution, yeah, yeah.


Zhou: So I use this to clear myself, because my mind is like tangled or something. Something like this. And China, it is really too big. Yes, so all the things is all the things are very complicated in my country. I cannot just give a very simple opinion about these things, yes.


Merrill: So before we wrap up our conversation, I wonder if you could talk about what you are working on now? What solutions you are finding on the page these days here in Iowa City?


Zhou: In Iowa City, I cannot write. But I am translating Alice Munro’s short story collection.


Merrill: Ah…Which one?                                                                                                    


Zhou: Friend of my Youth. I am just doing this, and also I am thinking of several short stories, because a novel is too hard for me. Yes, because if I begin to write a novel, I have to have one year, or two years preparation for a novel. So I am still thinking of the next one.


Merrill: And on the way to the next novel, you write stories.


Zhou: Yes, yes. I think short stories, are like, they are like steps.


Merrill: On the way to the novel.


Zhou: Yes, yes.


Merrill: And what are you reading these days besides Alice Munro?


Zhou: I bought some books by Henry James because I have never read the English version of Henry James.


Merrill: Any inclination to try to translate him into Chinese?


Zhou: I think I will stop translating in the next two years, because I want to read more and translating is consuming of time and energy. Yes, but we have got some translated versions of Henry James, but they are not good enough. I hope that there are other translators can do the job. Because there are so many translators in China if not. English is a big language, so yeah.


Merrill: But he will be difficult to translate, all those long and complex sentences, right?


Zhou: Yes, yes. He will be.


Merrill: Do you have any recommendations for our readers, writers that you think our listeners should know about?


Zhou: For me, if people ask me to recommend a Chinese contemporary writer, I will recommend the science fiction writer. His name is Liu Cixin. The title of his novel is Three Bodies. [The Three-Body Problem] This is my favorite because I don’t quite like other contemporary writers except Ge Fei. Ge Fei is also my favorite, but I have no idea whether his English translated work would be as good as the original one.


Zhou: But as for this Liu Cixin, I know this English version is even better than the original one. Because the translator is called Ken Liu. Ken Liu is also a science fiction writer and he also won the Hugo Prize, and he is very good and his language is even better than the original one.


Merrill: Well then that’s a great recommendation. Thank you so much for making time for us today.


Zhou: Thank you.                                                                                                  



The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu


Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available April 15, 2017 on iTunes where I talk with Singaporean writer Tse Hao Guang.


Additional Information

Zhou Jianing
March 15, 2017

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