Posts Tagged ‘Nobel’

Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian in Paris: “I hate Chinese food most.”

Monday, December 6th, 2010

A "global citizen" who eats Japanese

Liu Xiaobo‘s Nobel Prize in literature is not the first award to a Chinese writer.  That honor went in 2000 to novelist, playwright, critic, and painter Gao Xingjian, who emigrated to Paris as a political refugee in 1987.  Now, he says, “I live in Paris, but eat Japanese food almost every day for my health.”  The 70-year-old writer adds, “I hate Chinese food most.”

Excerpts from Akihiko Shiraishi‘s interview in today’s Asahi:

On nationalism and the writer:

Nationalism isn’t necessarily pushed on the people by the powers that be. Nationalism can bubble up from among the people themselves, as did Japanese militarism during World War II. That war was not caused by the emperor alone. The Japanese people themselves were caught up in their nationalistic frenzy. Mao Tse-tung was responsible for the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, but the Chinese masses were also guilty of irrational behavior. We all need to become more aware of this sort of insanity inherent in human nature. And perhaps literature can help there.

On his play, Escape:

Q: You then dashed off the play Escape. The story revolves around a young man, a young woman and a middle-aged intellectual who escape the massacre at the hands of the military and hide in an urban warehouse. But in the end, they are all killed, aren’t they?

A: I wrote it at the request of an American playhouse. But when I sent my finished manuscript, they asked me to rewrite it and include an “American hero” in the story. I refused. Even some of my pro-democracy activist friends in China got on my case because I didn’t give them the hero they wanted. After the publication of “Escape,” I was dispossessed of my home in China, purged from public office, and expelled from the Chinese Communist Party. I became a bona fide fugitive.

Q: But your play wasn’t a denunciation as such of the Tiananmen protests. It dealt with a theme that is universal–how people act in extreme circumstances.

A: I wrote a tragedy of contemporary people, not a political drama. There is no mention of China or Tiananmen. Just like in any classic Greek tragedy, I tried to depict the difficulties of human existence itself. The play has since been performed around the world, including Japan. When it was recently staged in Slovenia, one local reviewer said, “This play is about our very history.”

On Chinese culture:

Q: Soul Mountain, which you published in 1990, chronicles your spiritual odyssey when you traveled deep into the Chinese hinterland. The work left a lasting impression on me, especially your depictions of quaint villages of ethnic minorities and sensuous folksongs sung by village elders. Am I correct to assume that China, in your mind, is a conglomeration of these diverse cultures, rather than a nation-state?

A: That is exactly my understanding of Chinese culture. In China, the history of emperors has been recounted as China’s legitimate history. But aren’t there also other histories? I always asked myself. While traveling along the Yangtze river, I collected many old local poems and mythical folk tales, including those of the ethnic minorities. This made me realize that there is no single source of Chinese culture, but that Chinese culture is a composite of diverse ethnic and regional cultures. This revelation deepened my understanding of ethnic and cultural diversity, and freed me from thinking of China as a monolithic state.

“I will embrace you with ashes”: Liu Xiaobo, the Writer

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo: "Visible and invisible prisons"

Two writers were awarded Nobel prizes this year — but only one of them won for literature.  In the brouhaha over his Nobel prize for peace, it’s easy to forget that Liu Xiaobo is a writer. Kind of a twofer, with Mario Vargas Llosa.

Liu Xiaobo is a writer, of course, but what kind of writer? From what I could glean on the web, he appeared at first to be a writer in the way all academics are writers.  His essays,  Critique on Choices – Dialogue with Le Zehou and Aesthetics and Human Freedom earned him glory in academia. The former critiqued the philosophy of a prominent Chinese cultural philosopher Li Zehou.

Then I found this from NPR over the weekend:

Mr. Liu is 54, a writer who became a dissident because, as he said, “an honest writer must live by his words.” In his essay, Philosophy of the Pig, he praises ordinary citizens who challenge China’s totalitarian rule, and castigates intellectuals who, he says, “feel brave because the government lets them write about sex, incest and human defects. In China, everybody has the courage to shamelessly challenge morals. Rare are those who have the courage to challenge reality.”

"A hard stone in the wilderness"

He was jailed after saving hundreds of lives in Tiananmen Square.  After his release 20 months later, he said, “I hope to be a sincere Chinese intellectual and writer. This can put me back into prison—which is what happens to people like me in China.”

He is, of course, in jail again.  His wife, the painter, poet, and photographer Liu Xia, said to Deutsche Welle:  “I can only visit him, bring him books and write to him. They have allowed him to read and write for a year now. And he’s been allowed to see the sun twice a day for a year and a half. He is also allowed to go outside and move around – one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon.”

Liu Xiaobo‘s tireless work for human rights in China has rather overwhelmed his writing.  But I daresay every writer would rather be known for his writing, rather than for doing time.

So this, from NPR.  It’s a letter to his wife, Liu Xia, written last year from prison:

Sweetheart … I am sentenced to a visible prison while you are waiting in an invisible one. Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars, stroking every inch of my skin, warming my cell, letting me maintain my inner calm, magnanimous and bright, so that every minute in prison is full of meaning.

Given your love, sweetheart, I look forward to my country being a land of free expression, where … all views will be spread in the sunlight for people to choose without fear. I hope to be the last victim.

I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.

(Finally, I found more of his writings here.)

Breaking news from Néstor Amarilla in Asunción: All is forgiven!

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Virility and grace

For nimble thought can jump both sea and land.” A few short hours after I posted my apology for inadvertantly giving Néstor Amarilla a sex-change operation, I received this gracious email from Paraguay, under the subject line “Apologies Accepted”:

Señora Cynthia,

My U.S. representative just passed me the link to your blog and I read your apology, which wasn’t necessary, but thank you anyway for bringing back my virility.

Saludos desde Asunción.

Néstor Amarilla

Thank you, Señor Amarilla!  Good luck on the Nobel thingumme!  I very much look forward to reading your plays!  In translation … alas! (I know, “kill me, kill me…“)

Néstor Amarilla, the Invisible Man, and Joseph Brodsky’s “quiet Swedish joke”

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

It’s Nobel week, and the discussion of potential winners is becoming feverish.  At the Stanford News Service, we quietly prepare in case someone from the home team gets the honor.  Each day, we take turns waking up at 2 a.m.

If it’s one of our own, we haul ourselves out of bed, call the others, and ambush the unsuspecting winner in the pre-dawn haze, commandeering his cell phone for the duration.  We begin preparing press conferences, writing a profile, arranging interviews, acting as chauffeur and bodyguard — and, of course, feeding food to the new Nobel laureate, his or her family, the media, and ourselves. (You can read an abbreviated description of the chaos in “Dad, some guy is calling from Sweden,”  recalled by Stanford physicist Robert Laughlin‘s longsuffering wife Anita in Reindeer with King Gustaf: What to Expect When Your Spouse Wins the Nobel Prize.)

I will be waking up for the literature and the peace prizes. But I have wondered, during this sleep-deprived week, whether perhaps they should combine the two:  Ted Gioia alerted me to the possibilities, with the  Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

"Kill me, kill me"

Usually, however, I get to roll over and go back to sleep.  Stanford has yet to bag a Nobel in the humanities.  (Berkeley is ahead with 1 — Czesław Miłosz.)  Unless Tobias Wolff or Eavan Boland get lucky, I will only be suffering minorly from sleep deprivation.

Since Ladbrokes’ announcement on Wednesday, it’s interesting that the discussion in the blogosphere so far has obsessed on the surprising emergence of 79-year-old Tomas Tranströmer as a frontrunner, and then gnashed over the usual American lineup of Oates, Updyke, Pynchon, & co. — see the New Yorker blog piece here.

Everyone seems to be overlooking the equally unexpected development at Ladbrokes: the appearance of Adam Zagajewski in the #2 spot — which we discussed here.

Perhaps the world has grown tired of Polish winners — let’s see, there’s Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1905 (Susan Sontag called him “the worst writer in the history of the world” — but I haven’t read him), adyslaw Reymont in 1924, then Czesław Miłosz in 1980, then Wisława Szymborska in 1996 (the last time, incidentally, a poet was awarded — the Nobel “poetry drought,” too, has been making news).  Not bad for a small nation of 40 million Polish-speakers.

My apologies, Señor Amarilla

The Literary Saloon, however, notes in its interesting discussion here:

“Zagajewski’s leap in popularity is obviously what jumps out here — but another eastern European-linked author (and yet another Polish poet)? Still, this is one of the biggest shifts in odds from one year to the next, and worth noting.”

Meanwhile, Tranströmer … I’m not familiar with his oeuvre, but I recall Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky dedicated a poem or two to him.  I can’t find it in my Collected.  Help me out anyone?  Elena?  Lora?

The effort to find it sent me back through my own Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, where I retrieved this nugget from 1975, during a Q&A after a reading in Iowa:

An acquaintance of mine, a Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, who has been, in my view, real botched up by Robert Bly (Laughter), once said that your attitude toward a translator sort of goes through three stages.  First you trust him, and he kills you.  The second time you don’t trust him and he kills you just the same.  The third kind of attitude involves certain masochistic traits in you.  (Laughter) You say ‘kill me, kill me, kill me …’ And he kills you. (Laughter) It’s not my joke… it’s a quiet Swedish joke.” (Laughter)

Mea culpa:  In my earlier post, I had identified Néstor Amarilla as “she.”  This photo contradicts me.  Given the recent choices of Bjørg-the-Cyborg, I still wonder if they’ll award the darkest of dark horses.  Literary Saloon says “there is no way this very young author can take the prize” — calling him “ridiculously young.”  Probably right.  The site suggests Bella Akhmadulina. as a dark horse alternative.

A Swedish award for a Swede? Ladbrokes has spoken…

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

79-year-old perennial Nordic bridesmaid

Tomas Tranströmer is the odds-on favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Ladbrokes has spoken, putting his chances at 5 to 1.  However, Bill Coyle at the Contemporary Poetry Review states the problem this way:

Every year, as the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature approaches, partisans of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer hold a collective breath, hoping against hope. A win for their man is unlikely for a number of reasons. One is the residual fallout from 1974 when the Swedish Academy gave the prize to two of its own members, Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson. Both were fine writers, but the appearance of nepotism was impossible to avoid. No Swede—no Scandinavian—has won the prize since.

Reuters observes that “Poetry dominates the bookmakers’ list” and that “American writers set to be overlooked again” — unless, of course, you consider perennial American Nobel bridesmaid Joyce Carol Oates, ranked #12, or perennial groomsman Philip Roth, at #15.  Thomas Pynchon is #16.  Note that none of the Americans are poets.  At least not primarily.

Does Bjørg-the-Cyborg pick the winners?

“Tomas Transtromer must surely be in pole position,” said David Williams of Ladbrokes. “He’s long been mentioned for the prize and we feel his work finally deserves this recognition.”  Probably an indication he won’t get it.  (You can read a few of his poems at The Owls website here.)

There’s an obscure Paraguayan playright — Nestor Amarilla — rumored to be shortlisted.  No one’s ever heard of her, which would be in keeping with recent prizewinners.  Do I sense another wicked Ted Gioia parody coming?  Read his “Shocking Revelation: Nobel Lit Prize Has Been Picked by a Robot since 1994!”  (His slightly more sober “Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe” here.

The man in the #2 favorite spot leaves me with divided feelings — it would be nice to see Polish poet Adam Zagajewski bag the prize — but the award has a way of turning lives upside down. (Read An Invisible Rope for some firsthand stories about what it did to Czesław Miłosz in 1980.)  I remember Zagajewski kindly serving as my sherpa in literary Kraków — and, well, I’m selfish.  Which is to say, I would miss his friendship.

I reviewed his book for the San Francisco Chronicle (and no, I didn’t write the headline) — I’m chuffed that it inspired Kay Ryan to write to the newspaper:  “It was a thrill to read Cynthia Haven’s brilliant review the poet Adam Zagajewski’s book of essays, A Defense of Ardor, in this past Sunday’s Book Review. Almost never do I come across something about poetry that has the sting and bite of poetry in it.  Zagajewski comes straight through Haven’s elegant and deeply informed prose.  More of these brainy reviews please; more Cynthia Haven, please.”  I hope they published it.  I honestly can’t recall.  Oscar Villalon sent it to me.  God knows one gets enough slaps and punches.

I also profiled Adam for the Poetry Foundation magazine here — an article that still gets a lot of hits.

I remember meeting Adam for tea in Krakow’s main square, and being thrilled by the squadrons of pigeons.  Adam assured me loftily that they were very stupid creatures.  And, as a newcomer to his town, he showed me the Jagiellonian University,  as the light was fading…

"Only others save us..."

When I asked him about the future of poetry and poetry-lovers in the world of tweets and sound bites he said this (which didn’t make it into the final cut of the Poetry Foundation article):  “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

I keep this on my desk:

Only others save us,
even though solitude tastes like
opium. The others are not hell,
if you see them early, with their
foreheads pure, cleansed by dreams.

— Adam Zagajewski, “In the Beauty Created by Others”