Thursday, February 9, 2012

Chinese Writer Yu Hua on His Biting Essays in "China in Ten Words"

Newark Star-Ledger

November 27, 2011
Yu Hua is one of China’s most prominent writers, author of the modern classic novels “To Live” and “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant,” which examine the horrific abuses in Maoist China and the corruption of the present day.

In his sublime essay collection, “China in Ten Words” (Pantheon, 228 pp., $25.95), Hua explores his often spartan childhood during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s and the rampant corruption of modern China. Hua starts each chapter with a thematic word. In “Reading,” Hua looks at the period after most literature had been burned by zealots. In “Writing,” he reads sexually explicit posters that attacked local “fornicators.” In “Leader,” he remembers the absurd Maoist cult of his childhood. In “Bamboozle,” he turns his intellectual guns on the present-day culture of lies and swindles that threaten to undermine Chinese morality and social order. Hua’s account is a readable and engrossing look at the perils China faces, with deep roots in the trauma of the past.

Hua, 51, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from the Pomona, Calif., office of his translator, Allan Barr.

Q. You address the tortured history of the Cultural Revolution and the greed and corruption of modern China with mostly amusement, but write about moments of sheer horror without editorializing. How did you create this voice?

A. Because this is a work of nonfiction, my approach to writing it was different from my novels. I considered the importance of keeping this book grounded on a realistic level. Rather than making a polemical case, I felt it was more important to tell a vivid story and then let the story speak for itself, rather than to add a layer of commentary.

China-in-Ten-Words.jpgQ. During the Cultural Revolution, you grew up in a China almost completely stripped of literature. How did you cope with this?
A. A lot of real literature had been burned by the Red Guards in bonfires. All that was left was the poetry of Chairman Mao and the works of a writer named Lu Xun. When your reading is limited to the works of two writers, it is very dry, arid and unappetizing. We were terribly keen to read other books, but the few remaining books had been read by many people and were missing many front and back pages.

Q. Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, you and your friends became street toughs, harassing people who were selling cooking oil coupons on the black market. In one case, you mercilessly beat a young farmer. How do you view this attack 35 years later?

A. Often, people don’t have ideas of their own and are very affected by their environment. I was proud back then to be catching people who were selling coupons. I look back at (the beating) as very shameful. It was part and parcel of living in that society, where the environment shapes your values.

Q. You have quipped that “revolution” in the modern China means evictions and greed. There is now tremendous wealth and tremendous poverty in China, with little sympathy for the 100 million destitute Chinese. What warnings do you have for the new China?

A. These trends are all effects of what happened in 1989. In the wake of the suppression of the democracy movement, efforts at political reform came to a standstill, whereas economic reforms and changes accelerated. In a society where there is a lack of political transparency and an autocratic control of resources, there are bound to be all kinds of abuses that take place against that backdrop. Chinese society is like a huge box of explosives, a bomb waiting to go off. All that is missing is the fuse that would lead to detonation. There are two roads for China — democratization or revolution. Democratization should be the better one, because it will be incremental. Revolution would create disruption and turmoil.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Charles Shields on the Complex and Tortured Kurt Vonnegut in "And So It Goes"


In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, a science-fiction writer named Kurt Vonnegut published a surreal novel named “Slaughterhouse-Five,” based on his experiences surviving the firebombing of Dresden during World War II and satirizing the absurdity of war. The book made Vonnegut, a grizzled journeyman writer pushing 50, into a “counterculture guru” and one of the most famous authors in America.

In his scintillating biography, “And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life” (Holt, 528 pp., $30), the writer Charles J. Shields follows Vonnegut’s path from an unhappy childhood in Depression-era Indianapolis to the horrors of World War II and his struggles as a writer. Writing the first Vonnegut biography, Shields adeptly sifts through a mountain of material and interviews with Vonnegut’s family, friends and rivals to create a complicated portrait of an impoverished hack writer who became a prominent author and national cult figure. Vonnegut was a crank, was principled, and was both a miserable father and an inspiring teacher, while being battered by lifelong depression up to his death in 2007. Shields argues persuasively for Vonnegut’s place in the American literary canon.

Shields, 60, is the author of “Mockingbird,” his acclaimed biography of the novelist Harper Lee. He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by phone from his home in Barboursville, Va.
Q. Why did you decide to write a biography of Vonnegut?

A. I was in college in the late 1960s. I was draft eligible. The Vietnam War was going and “Slaughterhouse-Five” broke over like a storm. All of a sudden, there was a book that reflected our bewilderment and disorientation, and confusion over our duty. We were required to sign up for the draft, but we would say to each other, “Would we fight? And for what?” The book addressed all that.
I was surprised that there wasn’t a biography. Vonnegut had been writing for 50 years and had 14 books in print. What man was behind these books?

Q. You explore the many layers to Vonnegut’s personality and his hypocrisies. What did you find?

A. His kids often said that he could be a cruel and scary father. Vonnegut was a man who was an aggrieved person. When I first interviewed him, I was amazed that Vonnegut, who was old enough to be my father, had such issues with his own long-dead father.
Vonnegut was forever on the cusp of full adulthood. That is why he related so well to his readers.
When I met people who knew Vonnegut, I felt like I was getting reports on different people. One person would say, “He was so witty and asked me about my writing.” Another would say, “I think he was loaded during his lecture.”

Q. Mental illness and depression play a big role in this biography. How?

A. Vonnegut was both intrigued and deeply worried about mental illness. He thought it might have something to do with creativity. When he finally went in for counseling, he said to his son, “I hope they don’t talk me out of being creative.” Vonnegut was also worried about passing it on. He saw both his mother and son crack up. He wondered: Was it a curse or a gift?

Q. You had great access, interviewing five of his six children and dozens of other people, but his son Mark stopped you from quoting Vonnegut’s letters. Why?

A. I never got a reason. The word that came down was just “no.” It might have been because Mark Vonnegut had an unsatisfactory relationship with his father. He might not have wanted to open old wounds.

Q. How do you view Kurt Vonnegut after writing about him for five years?
A. Kurt? I’m very fond of him. I admire his devotion as a writer. Most people in his situation would have given up. What he did was an inspiration, and he might inspire other writers, showing you have to pay your dues.

Please check out my interview with Kurt Vonnegut's son Mark on his memoir that came out in late 2010: