You were a painter before you became a novelist. What steered you away from art towards writing?
As a child, there were no paintings in my home, no books. But when I was six or seven, I discovered, four doors down from us, a community art centre. It was only for adults, but I’d sneak in through the windows and steal pots of paint. First, I’d just smear the colours over my face and scraps of paper; then slowly I taught myself to paint apples, horses, boats. From then until the age of 30, I painted every single day.
During the Cultural Revolution, I painted huge propaganda portraits of Mao and the Revolutionary Heroes on street hoardings and factory walls. In the 1980s, my painting became more abstract and impressionistic, and I began holding clandestine exhibitions of my works in my one-room shack in Beijing. In 1983, the police arrested me for ‘Bourgeois Liberalism’, and I decided never to paint again. I travelled around China for three years, and began to write.
As a young man you worked in a propaganda arts troupe, for a watch mender and in a petrochemical plant near Beijing – what did this teach you about writing?
Performing with the propaganda arts troupe taught me about blind faith, and the power of totalitarianism – how it can take hold of a person’s mind. At the time, my love of Mao was absolute and sincere. My first job as a watch mender taught me how to take things apart and put them back together, and the importance of minute details: important skills for a novelist.
In the petrochemical plant, I did the photographs for all their advertisements, and discovered the importance of timing and of capturing a moment. In my writing, I’m always thinking about time, about the difference that a minute, or even a few seconds, can make on how an event unfolds.
Your 1986 book Stick Out Your Tongue gave a candid portrait of Tibetan culture. How do you think it would be received in China today?
I wrote Stick Out Your Tongue after I returned from Tibet at the end of my long journey through China. I was a Buddhist at the time, and had travelled to Tibet on a sort of pilgrimage. The book was about my loss of faith, my feelings of emptiness. It was about Tibet as a state of mind. It was also about the plight of women, and how in any oppressed society, it is always the women who are most oppressed. If the book were to be published in China today, I wouldn’t change a word, but I have no idea how it would be received.
Since then you’ve tackled many taboos in your work – racial tensions, the one-child policy, political repression. What taboos should writers in China be addressing today?
Writers should look at society head-on, and have a viewpoint. They should know which side they are on. They should hunt out those forbidden places that are shrouded in lies, and find hope within the darkness.
How long have you been denied entry to the Mainland and what do you miss most about China?
I haven’t been allowed back into China since 2011. After weeks of pleading, they finally let me return to Shandong for a few days to bury my mother’s ashes, but I haven’t been allowed back since. They’ve never given me a reason… What I miss most, apart, obviously, from my family and friends, are Shandong fish dumplings.
You once said in an interview with The Daily Beast, that each of your books begins as an image you can’t get out of you mind – what was the image for The Dark Road?
The image that inspired this book was the sight of my daughter emerging into the world with an angelic smile on her face, as though she were a visitor from some much happier realm. In that instant, birth seemed like a form of death, or banishment from a better place. At the same time, I was struck by the miracle of the event: how, during birth, one body is transformed into two.
Which work are you most proud of?
Probably my novel Sihuo, which literally means ‘death-life’, or the state of limbo that Buddhists believe the soul enters after death. It was published in Hong Kong 12 years ago, but hasn’t been translated into English yet.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on three books at the moment: a novel, some short stories and a piece of non-fiction. I need to focus on one and finish it.