Nobel-Winning Chinese Writer Inspired By Faulkner

Chinese writer Mo Yan is the 2012 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The 57-year-old writer has been compared to — and was inspired by — William Faulkner because of the way Mo creates an imaginary place and characters out of his hometown. He is a state-approved writer but some say there are subtle layers of social commentary in his writing.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. This year's Nobel prize for literature was announced today. It went to Chinese writer Mo Yan. The Swedish academy praised what it called Mo's hallucinatory realism. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Mo's work is also brutal, raunchy, funny and, unlike many Nobel literature laureates, relatively well known.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Mo Yan is probably best known for writing what would become the movie "Red Sorghum."

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUMPET BLOWING)

ULABY: It was for many, their first look at Chinese cinema when it came out in the U.S. nearly a quarter century ago. It starts with a marriage party in the late 1930s. A poor but beautiful woman is being carried in a red-draped litter towards the old, rich, leper she's being forced to marry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RED SORGHUM")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: "Red Sorghum" is like so many works by Mo Yan. Dense, sprawling, influenced by everything from folktales to William Faulkner, and passionately concerned with the dramas of ordinary people. Howard Goldblatt is Mo's primary English translator.

HOWARD GOLDBLATT: He's very sensual. Lots of color, lots of smells, lots of sounds. He loves music, he loves the sound of trains.

ULABY: Mo Yan is a pen name that means don't speak. Mo used to talk to himself as a child and his mother used to silence him. Goldblatt says Mo grew up in a peasant family in a rural part of Shandong province.

GOLDBLATT: He left school at the age of 10, and his education was pretty much his grandfather and uncles back in this impoverished coal mining village who told stories. And he listened and absorbed them and then began to read and read everything he could.

ULABY: Mo joined the army and that let him go to college. He's written more than half a dozen novels all set in or near a fictional version of the rural area where he was born. The latest deals with China's one child policy and its consequences.

GOLDBLATT: And so he writes about an aunt of his who was, in fact, a barefoot doctor and then became a doctor herself, who was present at the birth of thousands of children over the years. But also present at the deaths of thousands of fetuses that were, in terms of policy, aborted. And he writes about that in very, very sharp critical, socially conscious ways. But, spins a wonderful yarn about this woman and her relations with a lot of things, including the title "Frogs."

ULABY: Howard Goldblatt reads from his translation of a section of "Frogs" recently published in the magazine Granta.

GOLDBLATT: Moonlight reflected on the water around her. Shimmered like glass. The croaks of toads and frogs sounded first on one side, and then on the other, back and forth like a antiphonal chorus. Then the croaks came at her from all sides at the same time. Waves and waves of them merging to fill the sky. Suddenly there was total silence. Broken only by the chirping of insects. Auntie said that in all her years as a medical provider traveling up and down remote paths late at night, she'd never once felt afraid. But that night she was terror stricken.

ULABY: It turns out Mo Yan is afraid of frogs. In a Granta podcast from the London Book Fair this year, he said censorship is a fact of his literary life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MO YAN: (Through translator) Many approaches of literature have political bearings. For example, in real life, there might be some sensitive issues you don't want to touch on. I think writers can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world. So actually I believe censorship is great for creating literature.

ULABY: Mo has got a bad rap from some dissidents says Howard Goldblatt, but...

GOLDBLATT: He's not an accommodator, he's very comfortable in his role as a writer. He tries not to be political. But he's not about to stand up and thumb his nose at people who have the power of perhaps life and death, but certainly to keep him from writing any more. Without writing, Mo Yan himself feels that he simply wouldn't exist.

ULABY: Mo's name's been mentioned as a possible Nobel laureate for years. And the 57-year-old author, whose first memories include starvation, has joked he'll use the prize of over $1 million to buy rice. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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