Nobel Prize Winner: Gao Xingjian
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RAY SUAREZ: The most recent Nobel Prize for literature marked the first in the awards history; it was given to a writer working in Chinese. Gao Xingjian is a painter and playwright, as well as novelist. He has been living in France since 1987, and the Nobel Prize only brought fresh denunciation from the government in Beijing. Gao Zingjian’s first work published in English in America is called “Soul Mountain.” His translator for the interview, Mabel Lee, also translated “Soul Mountain” from Chinese. Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, welcome.
RAY SUAREZ: How has winning the Nobel Prize changed your life?
GAO XINGJIAN: (speaking through interpreter) This has had a great impact on my life. I was quite busy before, but it was a very quiet and ordered life. But after the announcement, for four months I’ve been dealing with media all the time. And I have no time for writing. So this is the huge change.
RAY SUAREZ: Is it also a gift at the same time, because it has the possibility of bringing new audiences to your work?
GAO XINGJIAN: (speaking through interpreter) Previously I had an audience and I had readership, but it was very narrow– it was French and Swedish. I had audiences particularly in France, but now suddenly do I have a very huge readership and I have never imagined this would happen to me — that I have this huge number of people reading my books, and that it has made the bestseller here in America.
RAY SUAREZ: One place a lot of your work can’t be read is your homeland of China. Do you think this is a temporary condition? Is this something that’s frustrating for you?
GAO XINGJIAN: (speaking through interpreter) It doesn’t really matter all that much that readers can’t read my works in China. When I lived in China, my works were already being banned and I couldn’t publish. In those days, when I was in China, I was writing for myself, so that’s the process of writing for myself that was the most important thing. But now that I have won this prize, I feel that people in China should be able to read it.
RAY SUAREZ: I ask because you write about a time in the life of your country where you make it very clear that you want to talk about the destruction of the old, the destruction of past, the destruction of history, and people have to discuss that. It’s almost political automatically even if you don’t want to be a political writer, to write about today’s China that’s rushing into the future and trying to forget its past.
GAO XINGJIAN: (speaking through interpreter) The destruction of Chinese traditional culture didn’t start in 1949. It started long before that, with the succession of revolutions. It was particularly bad during the Cultural Revolution, the destruction of traditional Chinese culture. Probably the destruction in the period was worse than it has ever been in any part of China’s history, in the world. I don’t know when China will start investigating that destruction that took place.
RAY SUAREZ: As a writer who in a book like “Soul Mountain” is writing about China, is exile particularly challenging? Will there come a point where you will need to recharge your batteries, be in China again, see it face-to-face?
GAO XINGJIAN: (speaking through interpreter) When I completed writing “Soul Mountain,” I more or less closed the accounts with China for myself. I was 50 years old when I left, so China is already within me. China has since then become more and more commercialized than what I want to know of China. I can’t see what I want to see of China by going back there.
RAY SUAREZ: How about as a translator? Let’s talk a little bit about how difficult it is to render Chinese, given the way it’s organized, given the way a writer like Mr. Gao Xingjian might organize his thoughts, and is it a sort of compromise and negotiation?
MABEL LEE: I don’t think so. I think a lot depends on the actual writing that one is translating. I found his language almost like poetry. His writing is very sparse, very minimalist, and he’s looking at things that are concerned not just very specific culture, but he’s really looking at things that concern human beings. And I didn’t find this difficult. And I found there was a… almost like a thread through the whole thing, even though, as you know, when you read it, lots of things seemed disjointed, separate, completely different from chapter to chapter. But there seemed to be what I’d describe as a chi that goes through it. You know the chi, what holds something together, and this goes right through it I found, and when I was translating, I found that I had to tap in on that. And once it started, I was almost just moving – it was moving me on in a certain direction.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the critical commentary that came after the announcement of the prize made a lot of the fact that you’re the first writer working in Chinese to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Did it mean that ’90s culture has arrived, has a world, as a full member of the world cultures? Did it mean that the West was finally ready to accept the East? What was the significance of this year’s Nobel Prize?
GAO XINGJIAN: (speaking through interpreter) When I first heard that I had won the prize, I thought that it was something for myself, that it was something personal, recognition of my writings. But there is such a strong reaction from Chinese people in particular. It’s been very passionate, overwhelming and passionate, Chinese people from all over the world. So I feel that it’s no longer my own personal thing that it’s transcended being something of my own but that it means something for Chinese literature. And I myself have somehow become a sort of symbol. This was not something that I wanted, but it’s become fact.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you make such a strong point about writing for yourself. It must be tough to recognize that you belong to a billion and a half people, whether you like it or not.
GAO XINGJIAN: (speaking through interpreter) Yes. I do feel uncomfortable in this new role. I don’t think I suit this new role and I’m really anxious to get back to my writing, which is the role I feel is most important with me.
RAY SUAREZ: Gao Xingjian, Mabel Lee, thank you both.
MABEL LEE: Thank you very much, Ray.
GAO XINGJIAN: Thank you.