Urbanatomy interviews Peter Hessler about the writing life and his new book Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory:
Favorite Chinese writer?
I’m not really qualified to answer this, in the deep cultural sense, in terms of bringing some real historical perspective to it. I wish I read Chinese well enough to appreciate the ancient poetry, which I sense is the strongest part of the literary tradition. And I never studied Chinese culture, language, or literature in college or grad school, so my reading has been sporadic. I admire what Ha Jin has done – he’s created a strong, distinct voice, making art out of some troubled times. I’ve read Li Yiyun’s first story collection and I liked that.
I have of course spent a lot of time in contemporary China, as well as in Chinese schools, and I think it’s a very difficult culture for a writer. It’s hard for Chinese to write about what’s happening nowadays, especially in fiction. Many of the best fiction writers are exiles, and they’ve had that status for a while, so they can’t write about the past decade with much accuracy. And the writers who are currently working in China are limited in many ways. There is of course the political issue, censorship of various forms, and this issue tends to get the most attention. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the main problem. There are a lot of cultural elements that also make it hard for Chinese writers. For one thing, educated Chinese traditionally look down on the farmers and the working class, and they don’t have much interest in that world. They tend to be engaged much more by ideas than they are by individuals and stories. I think this is one reason why we see so many allegories in Chinese contemporary fiction, and it often makes for very heavy and boring reading. Why aren’t the Chinese novelists spending time with migrants, with factory workers, with entrepreneurs, and bringing their stories to life? That’s where the energy is nowadays in Chinese society. You would expect that today’s climate would result in a kind of naturalism, the type of writing that developed in the West during the 19th century. But it hasn’t happened, and I think one factor is the gap between educated Chinese and the rest of society.