Interviewing Can Xue is a surreal experience. The Beijing-based author, whose books flip the reader between their darkest nightmares and life’s everyday mundane, laughs merrily throughout, sometimes struggling to answer the question through her giggles, and often refers to herself in the third person.
Can Xue is a playful pseudonym in itself. The name translates as both 'dirty snow that refuses to melt', and 'the purest snow at the top of a high mountain'; just one of the many contradictions in the avant-garde author and her fascinating (and often intensely weird) works.
In her most recent novel Frontier, the scenes shift in a heartbeat between utopia and dystopia, set around the everyday life in frontier outpost 'Pebble Town'. The book requires a lot of concentration, but that’s the point – Can Xue wants her readers to have to work for it.
Whether you’re a convert or a critic of her books, she is beyond question a remarkable woman. Born as Deng Xiaohua, Can Xue had her education cut short after elementary school when her parents were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Despite this, she taught herself English by listening to the radio, has written six novels, 50 novellas, 120 short stories, and was once described by American writer Susan Sontag as the Chinese writer most worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Your style of writing is certainly unique. How do you describe your own works?
I see writing as a performance. My writing is my performance, a performance of freedom. I think the best readers should take part in my performance, and have his or her own performance with Can Xue. The readers of my books must be very familiar with modern writing, with philosophy, with literature. Those are the readers I attract.
Is it true that you write stories without making any edits?
From the beginning to the end, I never make any changes. Every day I write more, but once it’s written, I don’t change it anymore. My manuscripts are very clean and clear, and very fast because I don’t spend a lot of time editing and rewriting. I sometimes write reviews of my own novels – yes it’s true! [laughs]. The author must be a reader also. Usually I keep my work for several months or several years, then I will come back to read it.
Every time I read my stories or my novels, I find new meanings I never thought of when I was writing. Perhaps because my personality is always changing too – I am not the same person I was when I wrote it.
Where do you think you fit in the Chinese literary landscape?
I think Can Xue is completely unique compared to other Chinese writers. I am ahead of the times. At the moment, there are no writers like me in China. But in the ’80s, the generation of Can Xue, there were several writers who had similar styles. Now, they’ve all changed or disappeared. This style, my style, is much more difficult than their style nowadays – they took the easy way. I worry about China’s literary environment. I feel there is no hope.
A lot of your material is pretty dark. Are you a positive person in real life?
I think I’m both very optimistic and pessimistic, just like my pen name. I think my novels are mostly optimistic. I think readers can see my books are both optimistic and pessimistic – but you have to be a good reader and pay careful attention! [roars with laughter].
Frontier by Can Xue is available on amazon.cn for 127RMB.
By Helen Roxburgh