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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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…