Su Tong speaking at the 2010 Shanghai International Literary Festival, March 13.
Having earlier attended Tess Johnston’s session, I return to Glamour Bar to hear from acclaimed Chinese author Su Tong (苏童). It’s 5 p.m. and the floor is packed. People are reading from his works that have been translated into English, such as “My Life as Emperor,” “Raise the Red Lantern” (also known as “the one that Zhang Yimou made into a movie”), and his 2009 Man Asia Literary Prize winner, “The Boat to Redemption.”
Su Tong appears on stage with moderator Didi Kirsten Tatlow and his translator, Tina Chou. He has a pensive expression on his face, or maybe he just doesn’t like the bright lights on him. Wearing glasses and comfortably dressed in a sweater, jeans and loafers, he certainly looks like a serious prize-winning author.
The talk starts off with a short introduction. Su Tong was born as Tong Zhonggui in Suzhou in 1963, before the Cultural Revolution; choosing his pen name, he took “Su” from the name of his hometown. Growing up, he only had four books that were hard to read because they were written in traditional characters. Instead, he read the walls of his house, which were covered in newspapers.
That earlier zeal for reading has paid off – aside from his novels, he’s written over 120 short stories which are extremely diverse in setting. Although Su Tong has often repeated that his work is not set in any particular time period as “determining the accuracy of events places too great a burden on you and on me,” we can suss details from his writings that place them in eras ranging from Imperial times, to the Republican years, to the Cultural Revolution, the period he grew up in which has left impressions on his memory and greatly influenced his work.
Su Tong’s 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize winning book.
Childhood is a theme in today’s talk, no doubt because Su Tong often goes back to his own. When Didi asks him to talk about his earlier days, he reminisces about growing up on the street, not in a home. This street, Xiang Chun Shu, often recurs in his writing. Life was mysterious back then, he feels – he was the youngest of four children, and they rarely studied, instead roaming the streets searching for mischief.
He talks about how repressed their youthful hormones were at the time, and that emotions were expressed through violence. His brother was feared as a good fighter, while he, confined by severe illness, was merely an observer who soon began to get lost in fantasies and imagination – a curse back then, he now thinks of the illness as his “sweetest misfortune,” early training for his career as a novelist.
Despite being sickly, Su Tong says that at moments, he too was rather wúliáo, getting up to no good. Everyday, he enjoyed watching a man in a green cap cycle by. This man seemed to learn to one side, resembling a turtle; thus, young Su Tong would shout “Turtle!” at him when he rode by. One day, finally fed up, the man chased Su Tong into someone else’s home. Why this reaction? “You can’t call a man ‘turtle’ in Nanjing,” laughs Su Tong. “That term refers to a man whose wife is cheating on him.” An interesting word for cuckold!
After a broad discussion of “The Boat to Redemption,” Su Tong humorously mentions that Chinese authors don’t seem to be able to write past the age of 50. He suggests they are “less healthy” than their Western counterparts: “Joseph Heller wrote a masterpiece in his 80s! I was impressed,” he says reverently. He jokes that he has to produce more works now while he still can (he’s 47). Later, an audience member tells him that popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami has decided to run a marathon every year to help him through the lengthy process of writing novels. Su Tong laughs at this, and says he can’t do marathons (but kudos to Murakami).
Didi asks how China’s rapid physical changes affect one’s memory. Su Tong suggests that memories are very much alive despite reality’s constant flux. He talks about trying to find his childhood street in Suzhou, only to realize it had been torn apart and rebuilt as a bus route. While nostalgic about this place that remains vivid in his imagination, he is not completely against change – the country needs to prosper, he says, and this involves “giving up” certain things.
However, he stresses the difference between “giving up” and wanton destruction in the name of profit. In Shanghai, the Bund is the only part of the city that he remembers from childhood visits. Su Tong makes a joke about how “China” can be read as “chāi nǎr” (which means, “where to tear down?”). From Shanghai, to the loss of his street in Suzhou, and the construction work around his current home at Xinjiekou in Nanjing, chāi nǎr? has become a sort of beat in his life, a mantra associated with China’s fast-paced development.
The Shanghai Literary Festival continues until March 21. Still haven’t been? See here for info on upcoming speakers and events.