A Chinese novelist talks to Jeffrey Wasserstrom, introduced by Amy Hawkins
My uncle, Xue Yiwei, is a Chinese novelist. Having moved to Canada in 2002, his translated works include Dr. Bethune’s Children, an epistolary novel addressed to Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor in wartime China, and Shenzheners, a collection of short stories inspired by James Joyce’s Dubliners but set in Xue’s hometown of Shenzhen. Xue thinks that his latest novel, King Lear and Nineteen Seventy-Nine, is the one that he was born to write. It tells the story of “the most extraordinary peasant” in rural China during the Cultural Revolution, whose love of King Lear leads him to a participate in a production directed by a visiting British poet-scholar (apparently William Empson was a prototype). The novel takes in all of Xue’s interests: Chinese culture, the interchange between “high” and “low” culture, and the role of the individual in the capricious tides of history. As relations between China and the West grow ever more tense, Xue imagines a world in which the flow of knowledge across borders is harmonious.
He started thinking about the book (which is currently being translated into English) when he was just eight years old and found a copy of Shakespeare’s tragedy in his grandfather’s desk. His grandfather lived a life of almost Shakespearean drama himself, from working with the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, being branded as a landlord by Mao Zedong to being finally rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping. Such a trajectory is common in recent Chinese history. In this interview with historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom – who in turn introduced an interview I did with mu uncle that appeared in the LARB China Blog, a precursor to the China Channel, several years ago – Xue talks about the varied people and works that have inspired him, from Lao She to James Joyce. – Amy Hawkins