Yan Lianke: ‘The situation for writers in China is complex’ | Books

Yan Lianke published his first story in 1979 at the age of 21, and has gone on to produce a formidable body of work. Some of Yan’s novels have been banned in his native China for their satirical take on contemporary life, including his latest work, The Day the Sun Died, which had to be published first in Taiwan. The novel, about 14-year-old Li Niannian, who tries to save his fellow townsfolk from themselves during one dreadful night of “dream walking”, has been read in the west as a critique of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” of national greatness. Yan has won the Man Asian literary prize and the Franz Kafka prize, has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker international prize, and has been widely tipped for the Nobel. Born in Henan province, he lives in Beijing, where many of his novels are set.

What was the idea behind the novel?
I had experienced some instances of sleepwalking myself, and I kept seeing reports on my phone of other people sleepwalking. The idea for the novel came from this. I wanted to write about people’s inner worlds, and how they might manifest themselves if they behaved according to their innermost, most secret, desires.

Why did you choose a 14-year-old narrator?
A story like this has to have a certain element of randomness and unpredictability, and if a very switched-on adult was to narrate it, it would be much less believable. But by having an adolescent tell the story, one who isn’t very bright, it becomes much easier for people to believe.

If this novel is a critique of Chinese society, as many believe it to be, was it easier for you to write that kind of critique from the perspective of a more innocent, even rather foolish or simple, narrator?
Yes, by choosing a very innocent, very pure voice, I did find it a good way to discuss things in China that are the most difficult, the most complex things to talk about, the deepest reaches of Chinese people’s hearts. And it was by looking at society through the eyes of such a person that I could describe people behaving in the most basic ways, often in very dark ways. But I could also emphasise the occasional blast of the very opposite of all of that, of great goodness.

British critics have read this novel not just as a social critique, but also as a political one, of Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese dream’. The translator of the British edition, Carlos Rojas, suggests this, too, in his introduction. Did you intend it to be read this way?
Actually, when I first read some of the comments by critics here I was really surprised, because that hadn’t been particularly my original intention. I wanted merely, through writing about sleepwalking, to reflect a lot of basic and fundamental truths about the human heart. A direct connection to the Chinese dream was not what I intended at all. It would actually have been rather dangerous for me to go around writing a critique of it – and far too simplistic. My idea had been to use sleepwalking to explore what happens when people have the chance to do the things that they are always thinking about, but which in “real life” are absolutely impossible to do, whether they are evil things or good. It’s about longings that are being repressed.

Part of the nightmare in the novel is that you yourself can no longer write. Why did you put yourself into the story, and does it reflect your greatest fear as an author?
I have that feeling quite often on completion of a novel – that for the next 10 years I’ll never be able to write another book! So the inability to write is always a great fear, I always feel great anxiety about not being able to write again.

Do you feel it a burden, to be one of the most renowned chroniclers of contemporary China?
It’s complicated, because the situation for writers in China is complex, and not necessarily because of censorship. It is true that I have been finding it hard to get my books published in China. But actually that doesn’t matter because, if you don’t have a publisher, you can write whatever you like – and that is a kind of release, a kind of freedom. Actually, writers are restrained by the publishing world – you have to fit in with what they require and if you can’t do that, you won’t get published.

What’s your writing day like?
I have a very organised routine: I get up between six and seven; then I have two to two-and-a-half hours of solid writing of about 2,000 characters. Then, in the afternoon, I maybe meet with friends and have a meal, or I’ll just relax a bit.

What book would we be surprised to see on your bookshelf?
Not one, but I have many folk tales, fairytales, magic tales that you might expect a child of 10 to have! There is also a British author, Graham Greene, that I’m very interested in right now – I’m reading his novel, The Power and the Glory, at the moment. I’m thinking of writing about religious matters and I’m reading a lot of religious writers from around the world.

What kind of reader were you as a child? What books stayed with you?
I didn’t read anything much between the ages of 10 to 20, mainly revolutionary stories. When I left my village at the age of 20, I discovered foreign literature as well as Chinese literature. After I was 20, I had different phases when I liked different writers. I don’t have one great work or writer to accompany me throughout my life, but rather many different ones.

The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.89 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert, Martina Mondadori Sartogo, and Markus Langes-Swarovski Host the Book of Dreams Party in Milan

Milanese aristocratic families are notoriously averse to showing off their possessions, privacy being of utmost importance here, ingrained in a culture of elegant discretion. Yet behind the closed doors of imposing palazzos, one can often find rarefied magnificence and exquisite artistic treasures worthy of the most cultivated, fastidious connoisseur. Case in point was Palazzo Orsi Mangelli, a private residence whose opulent interiors were designed by the inimitable Renzo Mongiardino. The property is rarely open, but last night it welcomed guests for Swarovski’s launch of the Book of Dreams, a publication that reads as a sort of beautifully edited inspirational mood board. It was envisioned by fabulous globetrotter-turned-creative-director Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert, who entrusted Martina Mondadori Sartogo, the brainy beauty behind Cabana magazine, with the book’s art direction.

“Giovanna wanted to give the Swarovski’s famous crystals a sort of ‘obsessive narrative,’ ” mused Sartogo while mingling with the elegant crowd in the residence’s candlelit private garden. “And who better than Cabana to give the Swarovski crystals an interesting, unconventional interpretation? Cabana’s eye is all about obsession; obsession of collecting, of putting together eccentric patchworks of artistic, rare things of different provenance.”

Looking fabulous ensconced in the equally impressive kitchen, glowing like a Swarovski crystal herself, was an expecting Battaglia Engelbert (she’s expecting her first child, a girl). She showed guests a series of inventive table settings, beautifully laid out with Cabana’s tableware collections and generously dusted with sparkling colored crystals. “I wanted something opulent, artistic, and flamboyant!” she quipped. “The book is a visual feast, every page a different dream; we appointed a crew of young creatives to re-create Old Masters paintings with a contemporary spin, blending the crystals into their surreal images.”

Swarovski’s CEO Markus Langes-Swarovski, who masterminded the whole editorial project, took in the setting as he greeted the glamorous guests, which included Anna Dello Russo, Coco Brandolini d’Adda, Roberto Peregalli and Laura Rimini, Luisa Beccaria with daughter Lucilla Bonaccorsi, Linda Fargo, and Laudomia Pucci.

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Meghan Markle launches dream cookbook with Prince Harry by her side – live updates

The Duchess of Sussex has launched her dream cookbook alongside a group of women who were affected by last year’s Grenfell Tower fire. Meghan, supported by her husband Prince Harry and her mum Doria Ragland, hosted a special event at Kensington Palace on Thursday, where she threw open the palace doors to welcome women from the Hubb Community Kitchen.

The Duchess, who is a self-professed foodie, got stuck into the cooking session, helping the women prepare some homemade meals that have been passed down through generations. The cookbook features over 50 recipes from across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Doria, Harry and Meghan, who looked gorgeous in black outfit and blue coat, made their way around the tables of salads, kebabs and other mouthwatering dishes. They were joined by members of the local community, representatives from Ebury Press, Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre and The Royal Foundation.

Meghan provided the foreword for the book, writing: “I immediately felt connected to this community kitchen; it is a place for women to laugh, grieve, cry and cook together. Melding cultural identities under a shared roof, it creates a space to feel a sense of normalcy – in its simplest form, the universal need to connect, nurture, and commune through food, through crisis or joy – something we can all relate to… Through this charitable endeavour, the proceeds will allow the kitchen to thrive and keep the global spirit of community alive.”

Click through to see the best photos from Harry and Meghan’s culinary engagement…

Living the American Dream — in Hiding

Jose Antonio Vargas comes from a family of gamblers, and in his new book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” he’s upping the ante — or maybe, given the current executive’s predilection for travel bans and family separations, he’s going all in. Vargas recalls the enormous wager his family made 25 years ago, when his mother brought him to Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila and put him on a flight to California. He was 12 years old, and he would go to America first. Mama, as he calls her throughout his memoir, promised to follow.

Twenty-five years later, Mama is still in the Philippines, and Jose is still in the United States — no longer based in Mountain View, Calif., where he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents, but traveling around the country as an activist filmmaker and a writer, without a fixed address where he might be apprehended.

In 2011, he was a young journalist with an enviable résumé when he published an essay in The New York Times Magazine that revealed his undocumented status. Immigration lawyers warned him against going public; one called it “legal suicide.” In “Dear America,” Vargas writes that talking to lawyers “made me feel like I was carrying an incurable disease.”

Filipinos living in the United States have a Tagalog term for the undocumented immigrants who go to their churches, live in their communities or reside in their homes: tago ng tago, “hiding and hiding” — T.N.T. for short, like a secret waiting to explode. Vargas’s grandparents, both of them naturalized citizens, expected him to keep hiding until he didn’t have to. The plan was for Jose to find under-the-table work, like cleaning bathrooms at the flea market, so he could save enough money to pay an American woman to marry him. Maybe, his grandmother hoped, he wouldn’t even need to pay anyone, because he would fall in love.

But he wasn’t about to toil in the shadows to marry an American woman; Vargas is gay, and he’s also extremely, exuberantly ambitious. The constant dissembling was unbearable, he explains; he feared losing sight of who he was.

Vargas came out as gay when he was 16. Coming out as undocumented took longer. He wanted to dream big, even when his family was telling him that a life out in the open was not only fanciful but dangerous. “You are not supposed to be here,” his grandfather would remind him.

Jose Antonio VargasCreditElena Seibert

“The dream that Mama, Lolo and Lola had for me was dictated by their own realities, by their own sense of limitations,” he writes, using the Tagalog words for grandpa and grandma. “The America they dreamed for me was not the America I was creating for myself.”

The moments when Vargas describes how profoundly alienated he feels from his own family are the most candid and crushing parts of the book. He admits that he felt much closer to what he calls his “white family” — the caring grown-ups who mentored him in high school; the seasoned journalists who gave him career advice; the generous benefactors who offered him material support — than to the blood relatives who made extraordinary sacrifices in order to bring him to the United States. As a teenager, he could barely bring himself to call Mama in the Philippines. “I couldn’t talk to my own mother while I was collecting mother figures,” he says, in one ruthlessly honest line.

His grandmother and grandfather raised him, but they couldn’t see him. They warned him against taking up too much space, telling their cub-reporter grandson he was “getting fancy now.” In 2008, when Vargas was cited as part of a team for The Washington Post that won a Pulitzer Prize, his grandmother called to say how worried she was. “What will happen if people find out?” she asked.

“Dear America” covers some of the same ground as Vargas’s essay for The Times Magazine, as well as his 2013 film, “Documented.” He details the fake papers his grandfather purchased for $4,500. He recalls how the local library enabled his teenage self to become a connoisseur of ’90s pop culture on the cheap. (What truly mystified him were the cartoons in The New Yorker: “Were they supposed to be funny?”) He briefly recounts the colonial history of the Philippines, first under the Spanish, then under the Americans, as well as the stark betrayal of the 1946 Rescission Act, which reneged on the American promise to offer citizenship and veterans’ benefits to Filipino soldiers who fought on behalf of the United States in World War II.

As a founder of Define American, an immigrant advocacy group, and a regular speaker at conferences and on cable news, Vargas has been living in the public eye for a while now. The weakest parts of the book have him proclaiming a humble altruism that simply doesn’t jibe with the more complicated (and, frankly, more interesting) person he otherwise reveals himself to be.

He describes his 2011 essay in the most noble and exalted terms: “I wrote it because I believed that its journalistic service to the public good was worth more than my personal need for legal protection.” It was brave for him to come forward as he did, but the motivations for putting one’s name to such an attention-getting, incendiary article are rarely so selfless and pristine. For one thing, by making himself so visible he was not only notifying the authorities of his existence; he was also gaining a form of protection by making himself known.

This isn’t to begrudge him any of it. “Dear America” is a potent rejoinder to those who tell Vargas he’s supposed to “get in line” for citizenship, as if there were a line instead of a confounding jumble of vague statutes and executive orders — not to mention the life-upending prospect of getting deported to a country he barely remembers. “I was in a toxic, abusive, codependent relationship with America, and there was no getting out,” he writes. “Who am I without America? What would I be without America?” The terrible irony isn’t lost on him; decades after arriving to these shores, he has yet to breathe free.

Do Babies Dream When They’re in REM Sleep?

In the 1960s, as the journalist Alice Robb explains in her forthcoming book Why We Dream, the psychologist David Foulkes theorized that children seldom remember their dreams before age 9. Foulkes continued his research into pediatric dreaming over the decades and in his 2002 book on the topic concluded that humans are dreamless in their first few years of life.

Just because they can “perceive a reality,” he wrote, doesn’t mean they “can dream one as well.” Instead, he found that children don’t start dreaming until they’re a few years old and can imagine their surroundings visually and spatially. Even then, he argued, the dreams tend to be static and one-dimensional, with no characters and little emotion. It isn’t until age 7 or so, according to Foulkes, that humans start to having graphic, storylike dreams; this phase of life is also when children tend to develop a clear sense of their own identity and how they fit into the world around them.

Still, in recent years, there’s been growing scientific recognition of  babies’ capacity to “know, observe, explore, imagine and learn more than we would ever have thought possible,” writes the UC Berkeley child psychologist Alison Gopnik. Insight into the science of dreaming has also evolved, with the body of research broadening and challenging some of Foulkes’s conclusions. In 2005, for example, The New York Times published a Q-and-A with Charles P. Pollak, the director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Yes, as far as we can tell,” he said when asked whether babies dream, noting that “it is a well-based inference” that they do so during the phase of sleep characterized by rapid eye movements, or REM.

REM sleep is when most dreaming occurs for humans. During this phase, the body becomes immobile and breathing and heart rate become irregular. According to Kelly Bulkeley, a psychologist of religion who studies dreams, REM sleep is also believed to help people consolidate their memories and mentally digest them, though sometimes in strange and seemingly illogical ways. Research dating back to the 1960s on the purpose of REM sleep for babies in particular has found that it supports brain development, helping infants to convert their experiences and observations during conscious hours into lasting memories and skills. Perhaps that’s why babies experience much more REM sleep than adults do—about half of babies’ sleeping hours are spent in REM sleep, compared with about 20 to 25 percent for older humans. “The commonsense view,” as a result, “is that yes, babies are dreaming—they just don’t have language to be able to communicate that,” Bulkeley says.

Those who dispute the idea that babies dream, according to Bulkeley, often point to the fact that the visual images humans create in their brains during sleep are informed by their waking realities. That’s partially what Foulkes may have been getting at: Since babies have such little emotional and sensory experience to draw from, there’s not a lot of material to transform into a dream. But Bulkeley cited evidence suggesting that dreams serve at least in part as the body’s instinctive mechanism for protecting itself from hypothetical dangers. “The biological function of dreaming is to simulate threatening events, and to rehearse threat perception and threat avoidance,” wrote the Finnish neuroscientist who first advanced this theory, in 2000; in “our ancestral world,” he concluded, short life spans and constant danger made this dreaming mechanism advantageous.

This New Book Writes About People That Not Many Others Do

Abdullah Khan (47) was helping his younger brother study for his exams, when he first chanced upon a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Khan was flipping through the groundbreaking dystopian allegory when he discovered that Orwell was born in Motihari—a sleepy town and capital of Bihar’s East Champaran district—which also happened to be where Gandhi kickstarted his Champaran Satyagraha, and 50 kms from where Khan himself lived for a good part of his childhood. “Maybe that’s when I first thought of becoming a writer too,” he says. “Orwell didn’t influence my writing as much as he made me wonder if I, a country bumpkin, could be a writer too.”

Abdullah Khan

Earlier this month, Khan came out with his debut novel: Patna Blues set in the 1990s, drawing to some degree from Khan’s own background, culture and life. To know where the narratives intersected and where they diverged, we got on a call with Khan.

Fiction: Khan’s novel is many things at once. You could read it as a simple, sweet yet heartbreaking coming-of-age story of a lower middle-class Muslim boy based in small-town India—a setting not abundantly found in Indian writing in English.
Reality: Khan grew up in a sleepy little village called Pandari. He was educated for most of his school years in madrasas or Islamic seminaries, as also Hindi- and Urdu-medium school. He moved to Patna when he was in Class XII. “When I landed in Patna, it was a mythical city for me,” he says. “The best thing about it was the continuous supply of electricity that allowed me to study, and running water.”

Fiction: Khan’s story could also be a narrative of what it means to be a Muslim in a post-Babri era. When his protagonist, Arif, falls in love with a married Hindu woman who is also older than him, his primary anxiety is not to do with unrequited love but how its exposé would shame his family. When he fails an exam, he wonders if he’s not been passed because he is a Muslim, while rioting mobs make a couple of appearances through the book too.
Reality: “When I moved from Bihar to a town in Uttar Pradesh and then other places, I would be asked ridiculous questions like whether my father had married four times. When I then moved to Mumbai, I had to move around for almost 10 days to look for a house. Some would tell me straight-up that they were not comfortable with me renting a place because I am a Muslim, whereas some would make up some excuse. Once, when I was passing through Ayodhya for work, there was a big conference of Bajrang Dal or VHP members, and some of them had closed around our bus. I was immediately scared about what would happen if they asked my name. Thankfully, they didn’t.”

Fiction: Almost at the very start, you come across Arif penning some lines in Urdu poetry as an impulsive response to seeing a beautiful woman. You find Urdu couplets in the inner pages too, reminding you of Arif’s background and cultural reference points.
Reality: A madrasa education with Urdu as the primary language means Khan is well-versed in the language even though he “can’t dare write in the language in which so many talented people write”. When in college, Khan used to write poetry but what inspired him to go long-form was Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize win for The God of Small Things. “The day her inspiring interview was published in a magazine was the day I started writing.”

Fiction: Arif’s father is shown as a morally upright sub-inspector who dreams about his son being an IAS officer.
Reality: Art mimics life here, with Khan’s father also being an inspector with the Bihar Military Police. “He was as non-corrupt, and though he wanted me to take up IAS too, I wanted to pursue media studies.” Bihar was, for the longest time, an IAS-producing factory, churning out an impressive number of candidates. “I gave the preliminary exam for it too but thankfully, didn’t clear it. And when I accidentally got an opportunity to work with a bank, I took it up.” Khan now lives in Mumbai with his wife and two daughters, and is Assistant Vice President at Axis Bank.

Fiction: The book is heartbreaking in ways more than one. The struggles to achieve what they set out for are big elements in the lives of Arif as also his brother who everyone thought was destined to be a famous actor.
Reality: Khan’s writing career took a long hiatus during which he got a job with a bank, and got married. It was his wife who then discovered his dream of writing a book and pushed him to realise it. “She almost blackmailed me,” he laughs. “She would step out of home on Sundays and ask me to write all day in peace.” Khan finished the book in 2009, but it would still take him nine more years and 200-plus rejection letters from publishers and literary agents before seeing it published and out in the world.

Fiction: In Patna Blues, political and sociological undertones are everywhere, from ‘love jihad’ to what struggling actors who come to Mumbai go through—though never in a way that they overwhelm you. But more than anything, it all just feels real even though the reality of the reader might be vastly different from that of our hero’s.
Reality: Khan is now working on his second novel—Aslam, Orwell and a Porn Star—that talks about a guy who’s born in the same house as Orwell, and begins to think he is an incarnation of Orwell himself. “This will be a purely political novel. Most Indian writers writing in English try to incorporate NRI experiences. Which is why you rarely find people like me—those from a rural background and coming from lower middle-class families and marginalised—writing in English. But the stories of these invisible people need to be told too.”

Patna Blues is published by Juggernaut (Rs 499)

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Dream Country,’ by Shannon Gibney | Film, Music Reviews

“Dream Country” by Shannon Gibney; Dutton (335 pages, $17.99)

When refugees of Liberia’s civil war began arriving in Minnesota in the 1990s, they encountered the typical challenges of new immigrants, along with some unexpected resentment from U.S.-born blacks.

Minneapolis writer Shannon Gibney’s new novel, “Dream Country,” traces the roots of this conflict, following five generations of one family from a Virginia plantation to Liberia’s founding by freed slaves to a reverse migration 150 years later during the country’s brutal civil war.

The story opens in Brooklyn Center, where 16-year-old Kollie is navigating adolescent turbulence as he tries to find his footing between cultures.

At his large public high school, he’s harassed by black students for being too “jungle.” At home, his parents work long hours at menial jobs and expect him to be a dutiful son. He sees the school’s white security guard brutally beat a black student, while later letting Kollie off with a wink.

When these tensions boil over in a school fight that leads to Kollie’s suspension, his parents decide to send him back to Monrovia to keep him away from bad influences at home.

The narrative loops back in time to Liberia in 1926, where Togar, a member of the Bassa ethnic group, is fleeing from agents of the country’s Liberico-American rulers, who want to force him to work on a plantation off the West African coast.

Dream Country, by Shannon Gibney

A deeper jump in time folds in the story of Yasmine, a freed slave who escapes the antebellum South with her children for what she hopes is a better life in the new colony of Liberia.

The novel comes full circle with Kollie’s father, Ujay, who falls in love with a “privileged indigenous” woman in Monrovia, even as he puts his faith and ideals in a revolution that will spark two decades of civil war.

“Dream Country” is an ambitious novel, tackling colonialism, slavery and racist violence across centuries, and the way that an oppressed group — such as freed slaves — can replicate that oppression in a new environment.

Gibney’s linked stories and movement across time echo other historic epics, such as Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing,” that also attempt to knit a diasporic history on both sides of the Atlantic slave trade.

The challenge of this loosely linked form is that just as readers become invested in one character, the story jumps to another. Some of these jumps feel abrupt, abandoning characters deep into their narrative arc.

But that frustration is balanced by sometimes hilarious encounters with minor characters, such as an old man Ujay tries to brush off before a date at a tea house.

In the end, “Dream Country” asks big questions and exposes new histories as it digs into the complexities of what Gibney calls “the ongoing, spiraling history of the African-African American encounter.”

As one character says, the dreamer is always part of the dream.

©2018 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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