If your New Year’s resolution is to read more short stories, there’s no better start than Yu Hua’s Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China, a standout collection from an international literary superstar. Yu, who came of age in Zhejiang provence during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, is the author of five novels, six story collections, three essay collections and he’s a contributing op-ed columnist for The New York Times. He is a recipient of France’s Prix Courrier International, Italy’s Premio Grinzane Cavour and Ireland’s James Joyce Award. His work has been adapted, banned and translated into over a dozen languages (Boy in the Twilight is translated by Allan H. Barr).
The stories of Boy in the Twilight are bleakly funny and unflinchingly violent encapsulations of provincial life. One begins: “Kunshan left his house with a toothpick in one hand and a shiny kitchen cleaver in the other. He was threatening to slaughter Shi Gang.” The story is entitled “Friends.”
Yu, who lives in Beijing, answered questions via email about Boy in the Twilight, the importance of reaching American readers and why he writes.
These stories were all written between 1993 and 1998. Have they been published in China? Why did it take so long for this collection to be published in the United States?
These stories have all been published in China, in a variety of literary magazines. Allan Barr actually translated them into English some 10 years ago. My editor at Pantheon, LuAnn Walther, liked this collection and always planned to publish it in the United States, but until now had not been able to find the ideal moment to release the book—between 2003 and 2011 she published five other titles of mine. Since some time has elapsed since the release of the paperback edition of China in Ten Words in 2012, now is a good moment to publish these stories. The English edition of my latest novel, The Seventh Day, is due for publication next year.
The story “Victory” appeared in The New Yorker in August 2013, and you make regular contributions to The New York Times. What response have you received from American readers? Is it important or desirable for you to reach an American audience?
American readers’ response has been very positive—both to my fiction and to the pieces I’ve published in The New York Times. People are touched by my writing and enjoy its humor, as well. The United States is the biggest publishing market in the world, but many American readers are not so interested in fiction in translation, making it difficult for foreign authors to publish their work in America. I’ve been very fortunate to have found a supportive editor in LuAnn Walther. To each and every foreign author an American audience is important, and to authors from non-English-speaking countries, English readers are just as important as readers of their native language.
Much has changed since the 1990s, especially with regards to technology and social interaction. Could the stories in Boy in the Twilight take place in the same way today? Or have these places been touched and altered by the ubiquity of cell phones, etc.?
The stories in Boy in the Twilight are stories of human nature. It’s true that the world is constantly changing and people are changing with it, but there are always some things that don’t change, elements in human nature, for example—whether selfishness and cruelty, or empathy and compassion. There’s a saying in China: “Rivers and mountains are prone to change, but basic nature is hard to alter.” Boy in the Twilight deals with precisely those elements of basic nature that are hard to alter, and so the stories it features could happen just as easily today, and just as easily tomorrow. The precise form or background might be different, but the essence is the same.
Bullying is in evidence throughout the book: Townsfolk taunt a simpleton (“No Name of My Own”) and a meek boy (“Timid as a Mouse”); a bully assaults a man outside the bathhouse (“Friends”); and a fruit cart operator administers a brutal punishment for a comparatively small crime (“Boy in the Twilight”). Why do these characters seek to establish their dominance in these ways? What is the value of that?
There is a critique of Chinese society underlying the pattern you’ve noticed. Our society lacks fairness and justice. Even though our government has always paid lip service to fairness and justice, there’s no shortage of examples of officials or the government itself violating the law, and the corruption of justice is a major problem. The Chinese populace is losing its confidence in the government and in laws, and so to maintain its authority the government depends not on the people’s trust but on an enormous state apparatus. Once the people gradually lose their trust in official authority, they will assert their own authority in their own ways. The characters that you mention who bully and abuse others are all people living on the bottom rung of society; as they bully others, they themselves are being bullied.
Your books, stories and articles are translated into English by Allan Barr. What is the relationship between author and translator? What are the benefits of a continuing collaboration?
Allan Barr is a professor of classical Chinese literature. When he first visited me in Beijing over 10 years ago and told me he was interested in translating my work, I was very intrigued, wondering how a specialist in pre-modern Chinese literature would translate work by a contemporary author like me. He gave me copies of some articles he’d written in Chinese, and I was very impressed by their fluent and graceful language. At first I thought a Chinese friend of his must have helped polish the articles, but over time I’ve come to truly appreciate how good his Chinese is and how sensitive he is to language. Our collaboration over the past 10 years or more has been a delightful experience, and it will carry on into the future. Our close, sustained cooperation has enabled us to understand each other very well and interact in a very relaxed way.
Why do you write? What is your proudest achievement as a writer?
Writing allows me to walk two different paths in life, one real and one imaginary. The most marvelous thing is that as real life becomes more confining the imaginary life grows all the richer, and therein lies my motive for being a writer. As a Chinese writer, I’m aware that fiction is never going to be able to change social realities, but fiction can change a reader’s view of social realities, and for me that’s a source of pride.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.