Last night Mo Yan – the author of Red Sorghum, Big Breasts & Wide Hips, and Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out – became the first Chinese national author to win the Nobel Prize for literature in its 111 year history. The Swedish Academy awarded Yan the world’s most prestigious literary honour for his merging of ‘folk tales, history and the contemporary’ with ‘hallucinatory realism.’

The prize, bestowed by the Swedish Academy to ‘the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ is generally awarded for a writer’s entire body of work rather than a single novel. It is also the richest literary accolade, with prize money worth almost $A1.2 million. 

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Yan has a style described as ‘Chinese magical realism’ and has been compared variously to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Faulkner. He gained widespread fame with his 1987 novel Red Sorghum, which was translated into several languages and later became an award-winning film. Its fictional setting, ‘Northeast Gaomi County’ based on his hometown in Shandong has been compared to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha as an equally vivid and significant literary landscape.

Speaking in Shandong following the announcement, Yan told reporters ‘I am very happy. I was having dinner when I received the news. I was surprised.’

‘My works are Chinese literature, which is part of world literature. They show the life of Chinese people as well as the country’s unique culture and folk customs. Meanwhile, my novels described human beings in the broad sense. I wrote in the perspective of a human being. These works stand beyond regions and ethnic groups,’ Yan said.

‘Mo Yan’ is not his real name, but a pen name meaning ‘don’t speak’. Born Guan Moye, Yan chose a pseudonym when writing his first novel, which he explained in an interview was partly a product of the time and political climate in which he grew up:

‘I was born in 1955. At that time in China, people’s lives were not normal. So my father and mother told me not to speak outside. If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and I did not speak. When I started to write, I thought every great writer had to have a pen name. I remembered my mom and my dad telling me do not speak. So I took Mo Yan for my pen name. It is ironic that I have this name because I now speak everywhere.’

The meaning of Yan’s pen name has become ironic not only in his ability to ‘speak everywhere.’ The Wall Street Journal reports that Yan has run into controversy in recent years for failing to use his high profile position as a respected writer to push for greater freedom of expression in China, drawing strong criticism by Chinese human-rights activists.

In an interesting interview, Yan discusses the importance of censorship to art, telling Granta magazine, ‘actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation.’

Yan’s position as the first ever Chinese Nobel laureate is a significant achievement for an award that has tended to favour European authors. Four of the past five awards went to European writers – with last year’s prize won by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Though Yan is the first Chinese citizen to take out the prize, Chinese-born Gao Xingjian who won in 2000, is a Chinese emigre to France and French citizen.

The Swedish Academy is famously secretive about all aspects of the awards. Judges’ reports are kept under lock and key for half a century, and code names as well as fake book covers are used to prevent any leaking of names prior to the announcement. Indeed, nominees’ names are never revealed, and because of this, many rely on bookies sites such as Ladbrokes for odds on who might be in contention for the awards.

Potential nominees for this year’s laureate included Alice Munro, Thomas Pynchon, Phillip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Dylan, William Trevor, Ian McEwan, Peter Nadas, Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood. The most widely touted favourite before last night’s announcement, however, was Haruki Murakami.

Amongst the Australian authors believed to be in contention were Les Murray, Gerald Murnane, Peter Carey, David Malouf, Tim Winton and Anna Funder.

In its 111 year history, Australia has won the Nobel Prize in literature just once, with Patrick White receiving the honour in 1973.

— Image source

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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