By Ling-Mei Wong
Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian spoke about his work and identity on Jan. 3 at the Westin Copley Hotel.
Gao, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner for literature, launched his book “Aesthetics and Creation” at a reception welcoming him to Boston. He also spoke at two sessions for the 128th MLA conference held at the Hynes Convention Center.
Gao was born in 1940 during the Japanese invasion. He studied French in college and became a translator. After writing several plays in the 1980s, he moved to Paris in 1987.
“When I heard the report about Tiananmen Square, I knew I couldn’t go back, so I began my life abroad,” Gao said.
“Gao Xingjian is the perfect author to include in this series of ours,” said Victor Mair, general editor of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, which published Gao’s new book. “First of all, he is a sinophone in the strictest sense of the term. He’s a writer and speaker of Chinese, and an émigré and author. But we must also remember much of what he wrote in his oeuvre is written inside of China.”
The book explores Gao’s rationale for his work as a novelist, playwright, artist and filmmaker. “He has written in many genres and that is what this book is all about,” Mair said. “It is about the craft of a writer and the aesthetics of a painter.”
The life of an exiled writer gives Gao a unique perspective. “I have two lives. One is in China and then there was a quarter of a century in Paris,” he said. “The second half of my life has been spent all over the world. Life has many things that are unexpected and unpredicted.”
Gao is now a French citizen and has not returned to China since 1987, apart from Hong Kong and Taiwan. “I identify myself as a citizen of the world,” he said. “Artists have no boundaries.”
Gao’s plays were criticized and banned in the 1980s. In the wake of criticism and his father’s death in 1981, wanted to write a book for himself that was not for publication.After a misdiagnosis of lung cancer in 1983, he embarked on a 10-month journey along the Yangtze River, which became the basis of his semiautobiographical novel “Soul Mountain.”
“The fate of a book is unimaginable, just as a person’s fate is,” Gao said. “I could not have imagined how far-reaching ‘Soul Mountain’ would be.”
“Soul Mountain” was published in Chinese in 1990 and translated into English in 2000. The first run of 2,000 copies only sold 196 copies, 50 of which were purchased by Gao. Today, the book has been translated into 40 languages.
Gao’s English translator is Mabel Lee of the University of Sydney. “The wonderful thing about translating Gao Xingjian is learning. I knew nothing about European literature or painting,” she said. “I found it wonderful to translate these things from his wonderful mind.”
While Gao’s work is banned in China, he transcends national borders. “China no longer defines me,” he said. “I am not just a writer, but a painter and director.”
This post is also available in: Chinese