Interview: Sheng Keyi

5

January 8, 2013 by markstani

Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Her main character, Qian Xiaohong, is an unforgettable creation: a brazen and free-spirited teenager who is determined to fight the grubby assumptions of low-level Chinese bureaucracy head on. More than an ebullient character study, it’s also a novel that digs right at the heart of China’s clumsy lurch into capitalism. Here, in an exclusive e-mail Q&A made possible by Abi Howell at Penguin China, the author explains her motivations for the book, and what’s coming next. (Note: I’ve left in the pre-translated Chinese characters. I trust they adapt correctly).

Qian Xiaohong is an extraordinary creation, both triumphant and tragic. She must have been so much fun to work with?

我写过很多很多的人物,最喜欢钱小红这个角色,甚至是这个角色的性情与个性特点,无形中催使我使用一种充满幽默感与喜剧色彩的语言风格。她是那种在逆境中永不低头的小姑娘,浑身充满力量。像《乱世佳人》中的斯佳丽,我记得她在家乡战争过后的废墟上挖萝卜的,她给自己打气,“明天又是新的一天”,她发誓以后决不再让自己挨饿受苦。很多年前读到这一幕,我热泪盈眶。《北妹》中的钱小红就是这样的一位女性,坚韧,永不失希望。

I have created lots of characters, and of all of them I like Qian Xiaohong the most because her temperament and personality pretty much forced me to write in a style full of sense of humor and comical flavor. She is a young girl who, full of power, never gives in to adversity, just like Scarlett in Gone with the Wind. I remember that Scarlett, digging for carrots in the post-war debris drove herself on by telling herself that “Tomorrow is a new day” – she swore she would never starve or suffer again. My eyes were brimming with tears when I read this scene many years ago. Qian Xiaohong, the main character in Northern Girls: Life goes on, is this sort of woman – who has a tenacious character and never loses hope.

How did you get the idea for the novel, and did you always intend for it to work out the way it did?

应该说跟我的生活环境密切相关。比如乡村的人物,比如在深圳都市里看到的无数像钱小红这样的女孩,她们仰望繁华都市的高楼大厦,置身在这么现代化的地方,无论多么艰苦,内心始终有一种单纯的快乐,因为这是一个缔造梦想的城市。有很多机遇象鸟一样的天空中飞。如果你得是个好的猎人,有一杆好的枪,你很容晚就打中一个。如果不是,你就得不断努力。这本书基本上是钱小红在奔跑,是她在一路带动作者前行,带动读者奔跑。

I should point out that the idea is very closely related to the environment I live in. Qian Xiaohong, a character who comes from the countryside and is working in Shenzhen to make a living, dreams of living in a modern metropolis. No matter how difficult life is for her, she still feels happy at heart because this is a city that could make her dreams come true. There are a lot of opportunities there just as there are many birds flying in the sky. It’s easy to shoot one if you are a good hunter with a good gun. If not, you’ll have to work harder. This book is basically about how Qian Xiaohong is struggling for a better life on her road forward.

Was much, if any, of the novel borne of personal experience?

我有在医院工作过一段时间,负责计划生育政策以及计生知识的宣传。那是一座妇儿医院,我每天看到的都是妇女、婴儿和产妇。那是世界最柔弱的一面。我也听医生谈论一天做了多少例结扎手术,数字越大越荣耀。我看到那些正常的妇女,结扎完从手术室出来,变成病人。我对这个世界充满了困惑。我在童年的时候,看到女人生完孩子都要去挨刀子,我很害怕,发誓永远不要生孩子。

I worked in hospital for a period of time and was responsible for publicizing family planning policies and related information. It was a hospital for women and children. Every day all I saw were women, babies and women about to have babies. That was the most vulnerable part the world. I often heard doctors bragging about how many tubal ligation operations they had performed in a single day. Of course, the larger the number was, the more glory they would feel. I saw with my own eyes that those normal women became patients after having the operation. I feel that the world is full of confusion. When I was a child, I was so scared to see a woman being cut by a knife after giving birth to a child that I swore never to have a baby.

In the eight years since you wrote the novel, how has the character of Qian Xiaohong – and girls like her – evolved?

这本书写作是2002年,出版是2004年。钱小红这个人物被广大的读者所喜欢,当我和读者一起不断回顾钱小红这个形象时,她的性格特征比我当时写的时候更清晰更明显,我越来越喜欢她。她是鲜活的。她的生命力渐渐在阅读她的人身上产生影响。

This book was written in 2002 and published (in Chinese) in 2004. Many readers like the character Qian Xiaohong. When I look back at Qian Xiaohong along with my readers, her characteristics have become even clearer than when I created them. I find that I like her more and more. She is a vivid character and her life story gradually affects her readers.

It must be very tempting to revisit the character in the future?

暂时还没有比较成熟的考虑。如果续写,会是一件非常有意思的事情。

I haven’t really considered it for the time being. But I think it would be very interesting to do.

What are you working on now?

我在写一部长篇,今年6月开始的,写得比较慢。主角依然是女性。她们一个乡村家庭里的姐妹,一个连考几年都没考上大学,只好揣梦逃离乡村;一个冲破僵死多年的婚姻,因为年纪不轻,又无生存能力,进了城只能在不同男人的怀里流浪;一个上了很好的大学,因为兄长死于政治事件,当了一名勇敢的新闻记者,不断地挑战追求社会真相的难度……

Actually, I’m writing a novel, which I began in June last year. I am writing it quite slowly. The lead roles are female again and they are all from rural families. The first, having failed to pass the college entrance exams over and over again has to flee her village. Another who is divorced, not exactly young, and is unable to support herself has to depend on men for a living. The third, who has gone to a good university, becomes a brave journalist and works to challenging the difficulty of pursuing the truth after her elder brother dies in a political incident…

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5 thoughts on “Interview: Sheng Keyi

  1. Tony says:

    Great interview Mark – and nice to see the original answers there too!

    • Kimchi says:

      I love your interview Mark,

      authors like Sheng Keyi, Shin Kyung Sook (Man Asian Literery Prize winner for 2012)
      are great because they are writers fighting and struggling on their road.
      You can feel it reading their works.
      Life was not easy for them. They are writing from personal experiences, from situations seen from their own hard life.

      Sheng Keyi early education was not good (that’s so important especially in Asia).
      “No Books and even blank papers was hard to find”.
      Later Sheng Keyi was dealing with temporary residence permits (which is a real nightmare!), fired from temporary jobs … with little freedom about “where to go and what to do”.

      Few great authors with big empaty can write like this … from imagination or taking knowledge reading many other books.

      Born in a mid or higher income environment, vacation here and there, bachelor at this University, masteral abroad etc.taking a nap on a sofa reading whatever you like, meditation’s: it’s all served on a golden plate (not unique anyway)
      … first love, one job another better, friends to hang out etc..
      (no offence just to give you a comparison).

      But learning from real life and having the chance to put it on paper (with time constrains, money problems -it’s a so rare achievement-) it’s MAKING these 2 female authors and their works.

      Because if you are writing from your heart … the message is touching and universally recognised even when filtered through a capable translator.
      It’s a literature able to move our souls and we are craving for such moments and sensations.

      .

  2. markbooks says:

    Thanks Tony, hope it makes sense. And thanks Kimchi – a lovely post, and I agree with everything you say. You have certainly shed some light on the book’s origins. I hope more people decide to read it.

  3. Shelly says:

    I’m so glad you did this interview, Mark. I’ve become a great admirer of Sheng Keyi since I first encountered Northern Girls. I’m hoping we’ll see more of her work in English in the very near future, including both long and short works of fiction.

  4. […] as an e-book so I’ve added it to my wishlist to keep watch for a physical copy. Mark has an interview with the author on his site which is worth reading […]

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