Chinese writing on stage

Nation's rise leads to interest in full spectrum of work, people in field say

June 22, 2008|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,special to the sun

China's role as a seat of civilization has often been ignored by the West, which has focused more on Egypt, Rome and Greece. But China's sudden rise as a world economic power cannot be ignored.

China is the new economic black.

China's prominence on the global stage has, not surprisingly, brought more than just the cut-rate items sold at Wal-Mart to America. Economic power breeds cultural interest. Just as Indian writers saw attention focused on them in recent years as India made its presence felt as the world's largest - and growing - democracy, now Chinese writers find themselves showcased as China joins the United States and India as the world's mega nations. Fiction and non-fiction works by Chinese writers are flooding the marketplace - and garnering critical acclaim as well as intense reader interest.

When Gao Xingjian, then 60, became the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 after decades of prolific work as a writer and world-renowned translator, many Chinese writers hoped that the breadth of Chinese writing would finally be noticed in the West. It seems that at last it has.

Diana Szu, associate editor of Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin's Press, has focused her attention on books by Asian writers in recent years and says she is not surprised that works by Chinese writers have been catapulted into the literary spotlight.

"There is always a fascination with a culture you're not familiar with or don't understand," Szu says. "This current uprise in Asian literature is part of that. It's also part of a trend in general. It's not just China - India and other countries in Asia are on the rise, too."

Szu notes that as these countries become bigger players on the world stage, Westerners will be ever more interested in exploring the culture and history of these countries and knowing more about how their citizens think and feel. She believes the complexities will lure and intrigue American readers.

Steve Forman, senior editor at W.W.Norton, brought the controversial memoir by Kang Zhengguo, Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China , to publication last month. "Confessions is a book that goes against the grain of the easy memoir," Forman explains.

Forman says what will be emerging, along with novels and cultural perspectives on China, will be books deconstructing the political schematics of the past 60 years. Kang Zhengguo's memoir is indicative, Forman says, of what Americans will be seeing from Chinese writers exploring their own experiences in the context of China's cultural and commercial revolutions.

"Most of the books coming out on China these days reflect that element - the new power of China," Forman asserts. "But a book like [Kang's] is more about the politics of what led to where China is now. It provides a really fresh reading of those years under Mao and after."

Szu agrees that readers are accessing the full range of Asian writing. "There are two general areas these books are coming from," Szu explains. "One is from writers based in Asia writing about Asia there. Then there are Asian-American writers writing about their experiences as immigrants and outsiders. A lot of this writing is a search for self-identity. We have to remember that for a very long time books on Asia and Asian-American experience were written by non-Asians."

The importance of Asian writing has been underscored, says Szu, by the establishment this year of a key literary prize for Asian writing, by the Man group, which offers the Man Booker Prize. The Man Asian Prize is for the best Asian novel unpublished in English.

"It's extraordinary," Szu exclaims. "It really goes to the heart of it - mitigating the exoticism and opening up the realities of a different and very real cultural experience. People used to just think Joy Luck Club when they thought of Asian books, but now I think that was just a beginning. Now we are exploring and going deeper and introducing subjects Western readers hadn't thought about before. It's very exciting, and definitely more than a trend."

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the award-winning history "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is at work on a novel about Trotsky in Mexico.


"Beijing Coma"

By Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

Farrar Straus Giroux / 592 pages / $27.50

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