Chun Sue is one of the many contentious authors to arise from the strictly censored literary scene in modern Mainland China. She has published several books, but her most recent novel Light Year American Dreams achieved less media attention than her debut, Beijing Doll, which was published around the world. Beijing Doll was translated into English by Harold Goldblatt and published in the West in 2004. She wrote this work when she was a mere seventeen years old, and although this becomes clear upon reading about the teenage angst and self-revelation, her raw talent is obvious. It is as though whilst the character goes on a journey of teenage self-discovery, albeit without a clear aim, Chun Sue is learning her own literary path.
Semi-autobiographical, we are offered an insight into the repressed nature of a teenage girl’s life in Beijing, of the desire to rebel manifesting in minor acts such as hair dying and listening to rock music. Any teenager, in any country, feels such desires. Books have been written about adolescent emotions of confusion, rebellion and identity for many years, and the diary form of Beijing Doll for me recalled J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Although the teenage melodrama and angst is not original, her ability to turn a phrase is very impressive for such a young writer. She speaks of her love as “like birds soaring up from a thousand peaks.” This is obviously the English translation, and as I could not read the original I cannot say what was lost in translation. Certainly a lot relies on the translator, to express both her style and the cultural differences.
However, what makes this book particularly interesting is the fact that an expression of these feelings, and particularly Chun Sue’s very open discussion of sex, drugs and anger, caused the book to be banned in Mainland China. Our notion of freedom of speech is simply not the same. This is what makes the literature itself so violently rebellious, as the author’s desire to speak out loudly becomes greater when confronted with rules and regulations which attempt confine their own thinking: the narrator says of her school, they were always taught “obedience, yes; explanations, no”. We can see similar issues of censorship and fights for freedom of speech in 1950s USA under McCarthy, with writers being ‘Blacklisted’ for works which, in a revealing flip of the coin, were deemed to have communist affectations. Again we see radical politics repressing creativity and freedom of speech, which then drives the most creative to voice their dissent further. Self- expression becomes all the more important. The youth of China, the middle class generation from which Chun Sue comes, is a modern example of this. Beijing Doll joined part of a whole genre of ‘cruel youth’ novels coming from China, alongside Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby, making Chun Sue a representative for her generation, becoming the first Chinese author to appear on the cover of TIME magazine.
Chinese literature is a very hot topic at the moment. The censorship laws are seen from Western perspectives as restrictions of human rights, and the debate was brought to the forefront when China was named guest of honour at the London Book Fair this April. The authors who came to speak were chosen from a committee which included China’s General Administration of Press and Publishing, the body who censor and ban works. People have spoken out against this, saying that the presence of China at the fair was Communist propaganda, and that it cannot be a true cultural exchange considering the great writers who have been excluded. Liu Xiabo, writer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner was imprisoned for his views, and to many it seems wrong that Britain is now shaking hands with the censors, those who banned his works among many others. On the other hand, this could be seen as a platform for further understanding the situation and being able to develop a relationship that would be beneficial to such writers. It would indeed be unfair to deny acclaim to Chinese authors purely on the basis that their government does not ban their works.
In light of this, Chun Sue’s presence at Durham Book Fair is particularly exciting and current. Despite the fact that her book was banned, she is coming to Durham with the support of the British Council and the committee working as part of the China Market Focus 2012 cultural programme which made them guest of honour at the London Book Fair. I for one am interested about this development, and her thoughts on it. She will be taking questions from aspiring writers, but also about what it is like to be a writer in China- it is worth going along just to ask her about the realities of the censorship laws, and how they are seen from within China by the citizens, rather than from our western democratic standpoint. She will be speaking at 11am on Tuesday 30th October at the Oriental Museum- visit the Durham Book Festival website for more details.