On Monday 6 October, English PEN invited members of the press to meet Chinese writer Chen Xiwo and his translator Nicky Harman at the Free Word Centre. Chen Xiwo’s collection of short stories, The Book of Sins recently won an English PEN award for promotion. Chinese writer and dissident Ma Jian, author of Beijing Coma, Red Dust and The Dark Road was also present at the meeting.
Harvey Thomlinson of Hong Kong-based publishing house Make-Do, introduced Chen Xiwo as the first author to be published under his new UK publishing imprint, 46. The new imprint aims to expand the range of Asian voices that reach Anglophone readers and will focus on translated fiction.
Chen Xiwo has been writing for over 30 years. He has written ten books, six or seven of which have been published in China, in expurgated form. The Book of Sins is the first full collection of Chen’s stories to be published in the UK. Chen now teaches Comparative literature in China, but spent ten years studying, living and working in Japan. He counts Kafka, De Sade, Mishima and Tanizaki among his main literary influences.
Nicky Harman was keen to emphasise that Chen is an incredibly moral writer, explaining that the sex and occasional violence in his writing is thoughtful and never gratuitous. His writing is tightly constructed and addresses individual subjectivity, though wider political themes and commentary on Chinese society can be found in his work.
Chen Xiwo was the first Chinese writer to attempt to sue the Chinese government for censorship. His decision to push the boundaries in this way was extremely unusual, as most writers simply agree to write a confession or ‘self-criticism’ when they are accused of stepping out of line. Chen pursued his case as he was keen to see to what extent the laws in China have relaxed since the Cultural Revolution.
Unsurprisingly, Chen’s case was dismissed and it was argued that, as well as being ‘pornographic’, his novels betrayed a ‘national secret’. Despite repeated attempts to find out the grounds on which they had made his work a national secret, Chen was unsuccessful in his attempts to sue the Chinese government. He did, however, see the fact that they even acknowledged the case as a positive sign.
Chen went on to discuss self-censorship in China, and regretted that many Chinese authors are forced to self-censor to avoid confrontation and controversy. He noted that a few authors do push the boundaries and become well known enough online and on the ‘black market’ to acquire foreign publishers and avoid the censors that way. Another of Chen’s books, Immigrants, had been banned in China but pirate copies still managed to find their way into Independent bookshops. In this way he believes it is possible to become a sort of black market ‘celebrity’ author in China, but of course there won’t be any official literary awards coming his way.
Whilst there are occasional hints at liberalisation, Chen feels that the publishing industry in China still faces huge challenges. In the version of The Book of Sins that was published in China, huge swathes of his stories – often his favourite parts – were cut. There are smaller, independent presses that occasionally step outside of State sanctioned territory but they are limited in what they can achieve as they must apply to the State for ISBNs.
Finally, Chen Xiwo commented on the demonstrations in Hong Kong, which he has been following closely. Chen admires the efforts of the activists, but is concerned that fewer and fewer artists and intellectuals are supporting protests – in part due to the financial and material incentives offered for cooperation with the State.
Author Chen Xiwo will appear at several events across the UK this week to celebrate the publication of The Book of Sins:
LONDON – Waterstones Piccadilly, Tuesday 7 October, 7pm
OXFORD – Blackwells, Wednesday 8 October, 7pm
LEEDS – Leeds University, Thursday 9 October, 4.30pm
EDINBURGH – Word Power Books, Saturday 11 October, 12pm
All events are with translator Nicky Harman and publisher Harvey Thomlinson.