Crossover Artists: Writing in Another Language
SHAN SA: I apologize, first of all, for my accent. It’s a really horrible, Chinese-French accent because I’m Chinese and I’m living in Paris now and I’m writing in French. I want to share with you my experience on that literary emigration from East to West. I have to first confess that when I was a teenager, I really despised Western culture. My parents went to France, and my father was a professor in a Paris university. He told us about the splendor of Paris and how great French literature is. I was a teenager; I rebelled against that idea. I despised Balzac and Zola and how boring they were. I focused all my free time after school on classical literature, which is so beautiful, so powerful—that is, the literature that China that has gathered from five thousand years like a treasure. It was like a huge ocean that I spent all my time swimming in. It was a very important time for me because when I left China, I had read all the classical novels and I knew the famous Tao Dynasty poems by heart. But now I’ve forgotten them because I have all this language mixed in my mind. Even though I didn’t understand it totally, I really was deeply in love with my Chinese culture.
I left China when I was almost eighteen, and decided to begin a new life in the Western world after Tiananmen in 1989. I arrived in Paris without knowing about French culture because I had refused to see it when I was a child. I didn’t speak French at all. I spoke English, which helped me learn French very quickly. I will always remember my first lesson in French philosophy. My teacher said, “Descartes said, ‘Je pense, donc je suis,’ ” I think, so I am. For Chinese people, and for Asian culture, the human being is a part of the universe. The thinking machine is the universe; the cosmos is not a human being. We’re only a small part of it. Why is it such a hopeful pretension to say that the world is inside our minds, and that because we think, there is the world?
While I made progress in my French, I studied philosophy, but it took a very long time for me to understand “I think so I am.” When I started writing French, four years after my arrival in France, I very fortunately met the French painter Balthus and stayed at his place for two years, working as his secretary. I wrote my first novel in French in the afternoon. His place was a very peaceful chalet in the mountains, and I really had time to read, to visit the beautiful, rich French literature. I fell in love with Flaubert, Maupassant, Madame de Lafayette, and I discovered the difference between Chinese literature and European literature.
The difference is like in painting: In the traditional Chinese way, painters draw the contour, the line. The landscape comes from the few colors but with the simplicity of the lines. Chinese poetry is a work of the imagination. In the traditional European way, painting is laying a base of colors; you use more colors, you get the contour; you can make a portrait, a landscape. It’s a totally different direction of expression.
Asian poetry is about suggestion. We never describe inner voice and consciousness because consciousness doesn’t exist in our tradition. We believe that there is a life after life; we believe in reincarnation. But there is not this kind of space inside the individual. All is about cosmos and collectivity. As a Chinese poet, I won’t say “I hate” or “I love” or “I’m angry.” I will say, “I look at the cloud passing in the heavens. I look at the tree and the seasons are changing.” Those natural landscapes, the feeling that a tree, a flower, the daylight can give me, expresses my emotion. That is the Chinese way to express the individual. The European way is more direct.
When I started to write, I had to find my French, which was an invented language, and I was aware that I was walking on a path where nobody had been. No one could tell me, “That word is good” or “that word is bad,” because when I use a French word, I have my Chinese literariness and I have my Chinese judgment of this world. I wrote my novel. People loved that first version because it was Chinese, not French. Then I corrected it. I think I rewrote it twenty times. I think that is the only way I could learn French—by writing, by touching the words, and then by judging them myself. Now with my fifth novel coming out in Paris in September, I can say that I really know about every word, like so many individuals whose faces I know—I know how they smell, their perfume, how to put them together.
I think writing is a gesture; it’s inventing another language. Every writer has his own language. Writing is quite complex work; it’s work like a composer’s. It’s the music of the voice, different voices. A very powerful novel is one that has very powerful music. It’s like the work of a painter. With a painting, you have to choose the frame and you have to choose the beginning and end. That is the painter’s work and his genius. A writer has to choose pace and a time when the novel starts and when it will be finished. A film director has complex talents because he has to mix music, colors, actions, and the stories together. The writer is a strange animal who has to think about everything and do everything. Writing in another language is just the path but not the place where we want to go, and the place where we want to go is the place of our dreams, the place that everybody wants to go: a place of passion and truth and life and death.