Ma Jian Interview
By: PP Wong
“Great art can only be achieved when artists speak the truth, and give full expression to their view of the world.”
In 2011, the critically acclaimed author Ma Jian was banned from returning to his homeland, China. Through exploring dark and political themes in his work, the author inspires Chinese writers to always write from the heart. In an exclusive interview with BW Ma Jian draws on his wisdom and horrific experiences to encourage new writers to be brave. He talks candidly about censorship, writing from the heart and the importance of writers within oppressive societies.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
My favourite book as a child was Journey to the West - it was the first novel I read. I loved the monkey, Sen Wukong - his rebellious spirit, his ability to change into anything he liked at will, from an insect to a house. To me, he represented freedom.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
I’d like to be a lion, and experience what it’s like to have no predators.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A pen knife and a boat.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Loyal, stubborn, adventurous.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Why do you write?
I write from an inner need to express my view of the world, to reveal what seems to me a truth or to expose what seems to me a lie. I need to fix my memories, experiences and thoughts onto the page, and to give them some kind of meaning. If I don’t write, I feel I’m not fully alive.
You are currently banned from entering China. In hindsight, if you knew that your books would prevent you from returning to China, would you have not published them or even changed some of the words?
I don’t regret publishing any of my books. I might wish now to change a few words, but only for literary reasons – not to appease any censor. Writers must write what they feel compelled to, with no thought of the consequences. If they fear what a censor might say about their book, they’d be better off not writing it, because fear is the greatest enemy of creativity. If fear isn’t banished from the act of creation, it will seep into every word of the novel and destroy it.
The Chinese authorities have never told me why they’ve refused to let me back into China for the last two years. It could have been a book I wrote, an interview I gave, or something else. When I last asked the Chinese Embassy for a reason, they simply told me that my visa application had been rejected because ‘it had not been approved’. All I could do was laugh.
To be subjected to exile for no valid reason is a violation of my human rights. Of course, not being able to return to my homeland has been devastating for me. But I would rather live in exile than have to stop writing the books I want to write.
In The Dark Road you cover the important topic of forced abortions and sterilizations due to China’s one child policy. Why did you choose to cover this topic?
The inspiration for this book came from witnessing the birth of my daughter, Bella. She came out into the world still encased in a white caul, looking like a mysterious visitor from another planet. I had an overwhelming sense of the sanctity of birth and the miracle of life. In the months that followed, I couldn’t help contrasting the fortunate fate of my daughter in England to the very different fate of millions of baby girls in China who have been forcibly aborted by the state or abandoned at birth by their parents. The One Child Policy has not only proved to have been unnecessary and misguided, it has inflicted on Chinese women the most abhorrent abuses imaginable. I wrote The Dark Road to express my rage, but also to celebrate the simple and universal human desire to raise a family and live in freedom.
What do you think the solution is for China and its controversial one child policy?
I agree with many Chinese demographers in believing that the policy should be scrapped. The unforeseen problems it has caused - ageing population, shrinking workforce, growing gender gap – threaten China’s future growth and social stability. It’s unlikely China would experience a sudden population explosion if the policy were repealed – most Chinese families would not want more than two children. And it’s been proved around the world that as countries develop and become more educated and urban, the birth rates naturally decline. It is far more humane and effective to encourage small families by giving financial rewards rather than penalising ‘unauthorised’ births, or subjecting women to forced abortions.
What advice would you give to a writer who is fearful of the repercussions for writing truths that their society or government would not be supportive of?
My advice would be that when they write, they should not lie to themselves. Great art can only be achieved when artists speak the truth, and give full expression to their view of the world. When writers start to censor themselves, or avoid topics that in their heart they long to address, they would be better off not writing at all, because the words they produce will be as contorted and shackled as their minds. To a writer who is afraid of repercussions, I would say: hide in a mountain shack or leave the country, but write the book that you want to write, and be confident that, whatever dangers you may face, the tyrannies that wish to silence you will be short-lived, but the literature you produce will be eternal.
Some people might argue that democratic countries such as the USA and UK have just as many if not more problems than China. So, do they really have a right to judge how China runs? What do you think about this?
It always angers me to hear Westerners say, ‘We have no right to criticise China – just look how corrupt and oppressive our governments are.’ First, every person on this planet has the right, and indeed duty, to criticise any government of any nation that oppresses its own people. Secondly, it is absurd to equate the many failings of Western democracies with the catastrophic and barbaric crimes committed by China’s Communist Party against its people for the last sixty years. If these Westerners were to spend just one week in China, they would soon realise the very real difference between a democracy and a tyranny. China may soon overtake the West in terms of material wealth, but while it still denies its citizens the fundamental right to freedom of expression, it should not be deemed worthy of the world’s admiration. I love China – its people, not its government. I would return there tomorrow if I could, because, despite everything, I am an optimist - I believe in progress, and I believe that sooner or later China will change.
You often talk about why censorship in China is an evil that has to be erased. Are there circumstances in which you think censorship would be justified?
Having grown up in a totalitarian system, I am against censorship in all forms. Freedom of expression is an inalienable human right. But this human right comes with responsibilities: in exercising the right to speak one’s mind, one should not say anything that negates the humanity of others.
Your partner Flora Drew translates your work. It must be great working with someone who gets the heart of what you are trying to say. How did you meet?
We met in Hong Kong in 1997, on the night of the Handover of the territory to Chinese rule. I had been based there for ten years, and Flora came to interview me for an American news programme. After the interview, I gave her copies of my books. Two months later, I moved to Germany, and she came to live with me. We now live in London with our four young children.
Words have the power to change the world. In your lifetime, which books have been “life changers” for you?
Marx’s Das Kapital, which was required reading when I was an adolescent, was the first book to change my life. I was utterly taken in by its philosophy. Then my ideas began to change when I read the classics of Chinese literature (Journey to the West, Water Margin, Three Kingdoms), and the world of the imagination was opened to me. In my twenties, when Western literature found its way back into China, I read books that have had a lasting impact on me: Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. They allowed me to discover a world outside China, and to look at China through new eyes.
Some writers choose to live their lives simply. They write books, keep out of the public eye and don’t get involved in politics. Do you think it is important for authors to use their platform to help fight against ills in society?
In the West, writers have the luxury of being able to ignore politics if they wish. But in China, politics is everywhere, it infringes on every aspect of life, from the most mundane to the most intimate. To ignore politics in China is itself a political act. Lies form the fabric of society. A Chinese writer can choose to either perpetuate these lies, or to expose them. I believe that it’s important to expose them, and to illuminate the parts of society that the authorities wish to keep hidden. There is a long tradition in China of writers who side with the oppressed rather than the oppressors – ranging from the Tang Poets to May Fourth writers such as Lu Xun. In a country governed by lies, writers have a duty to tell the truth.
What is the next mountain that Ma Jian is going to climb?
My next novel will be about China, but I would rather not give any more details until it’s finished. What I can say, though, is that for me writing a novel is not like climbing a mountain. It’s more like tumbling down a mountain and falling into a crevice. In that difficult, dark space, I live with my characters for several years, and strive to find a way to get out as gracefully as possible. So the joy of finishing a novel, for me, is not the elation of reaching a mountain peak – it’s more like the immense relief of extricating oneself finally from a deep abyss. BW