By Sharon Kwok and Tom Bannister
Mo Yan, 2012 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who “with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary”, delivered a lecture titled “Storyteller” yesterday at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. The writer told three personal, cryptic stories that appear to be in response to criticisms leveled at him:
The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face; he wiped away mud and grime, stood calmly off to the side, and said to the crowd:
For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these.
Even though I would prefer to say nothing, since it is something I must do on this occasion, let me just say this:
I am a storyteller, so I am going to tell you some stories.
When I was a third-grade student in the 1960s, my school organized a field trip to an exhibit of suffering, where, under the direction of our teacher, we cried bitter tears. I let my tears stay on my cheeks for the benefit of our teacher, and watched as some of my classmates spat in their hands and rubbed it on their faces as pretend tears. I saw one student among all those wailing children – some real, some phony – whose face was dry and who remained silent without covering his face with his hands. He just looked at us, eyes wide open in an expression of surprise or confusion. After the visit I reported him to the teacher, and he was given a disciplinary warning. Years later, when I expressed my remorse over informing on the boy, the teacher said that at least ten students had done what I did. The boy himself had died a decade or more earlier, and my conscience was deeply troubled when I thought of him. But I learned something important from this incident, and that is: When everyone around you is crying, you deserve to be allowed not to cry, and when the tears are all for show, your right not to cry is greater still.
Here is another story: More than thirty years ago, when I was in the army, I was in my office reading one evening when an elderly officer opened the door and came in. He glanced down at the seat in front of me and muttered, “Hm, where is everyone?” I stood up and said in a loud voice, “Are you saying I’m no one?” The old fellow’s ears turned red from embarrassment, and he walked out. For a long time after that I was proud about what I consider a gutsy performance. Years later, that pride turned to intense qualms of conscience.
Bear with me, please, for one last story, one my grandfather told me many years ago: A group of eight out-of-town bricklayers took refuge from a storm in a rundown temple. Thunder rumbled outside, sending fireballs their way. They even heard what sounded like dragon shrieks. The men were terrified, their faces ashen. “Among the eight of us,” one of them said, “is someone who must have offended the heavens with a terrible deed. The guilty person ought to volunteer to step outside to accept his punishment and spare the innocent from suffering. Naturally, there were no volunteers. So one of the others came up with a proposal: Since no one is willing to go outside, let’s all fling our straw hats toward the door. Whoever’s hat flies out through the temple door is the guilty party, and we’ll ask him to go out and accept his punishment.” So they flung their hats toward the door. Seven hats were blown back inside; one went out the door. They pressured the eighth man to go out and accept his punishment, and when he balked, they picked him up and flung him out the door. I’ll bet you all know how the story ends: They had no sooner flung him out the door than the temple collapsed around them. [Read full transcript of speech here.]
At an earlier press conference, Mo Yan explained that people express their opinions about the society through stories, and that the best stories enable each reader to see themselves within the stories.
“Storytelling is a human nature. We grow up listening to stories, and become the ones telling stories when we are grown up. But when storytelling turns into a career, the objective is not merely to entertain others,” he said. “[A storyteller] will also have to use his stories to praise truthfulness, kindness and beauty; and to reveal and condemn falsity, evil and ugliness. That is why storytelling is a very serious matter. There is a lot of room for imagination in stories.”
He also mentioned that he had no pressure writing his speech, which was completed in two days. “It is impossible for a writer to cover everything in the world in a short lecture. Therefore I simply speak the truth in my lecture, and I managed to finish writing my speech in only two days.”
AFP ran a report that described some of the reactions to Mo’s lecture, quoting a Beijing intellectual as saying:
“This is the first time that a non-dissident Chinese has won a Nobel prize, so it is not Mo Yan’s fault that the state media is praising him”
Artist Ai Weiwei tweeted about the lecture:
“Mo Yan’s talk about story telling is about covering things up and hiding, it was powerless, disgraceful, a betrayal and a sellout.”
Poet Ye Du said:
“In the last few days, he has defended the system of censorship… then in his lecture he talks about story telling — to use a Chinese expression, he is like a prostitute insisting her services are clean,”
“As far as an assessment of him, in literature he has some merit, but as a living human being, he is a dwarf.”