Nobel and Booker prize winners 2012


There has been a celebration of authors in the past couple of weeks with a few notable prize-winners announced.

First up: Chinese writer Mo Yan has won the 2012 Nobel prize for literature.

If you haven’t heard of Mo Yan, you’re not the only one. I vaguely remember seeing translations of his works in mainstream bookstores, but now I bet the books are really going to start hitting the shelves after this announcement came out last week. It’s nice to see a Chinese author win the Nobel prize, and it makes me wonder if this will start a new wave of Chinese writers, the way Salman Rushdie influenced a whole generation of Indian English literary authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. If so, I’d be pretty keen on this as it would open up a whole new aspect of literary novels. I love books where you not only get an awesome read, but an insight into other cultures, like with authors like Ekaterina Sedia, Tea Obreht and Ben Okri. I have a love/hate perception of China, and regardless of my opinion on the way it deals with issues like human rights, there is so much richness and diversity in this country’s culture that is just screaming out to be incorporated in fiction in a way which hasn’t been utilised since Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. I think the last book I read that had a Chinese setting was Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann, which offered an intriguing peek into the world of Chinese artists in modern China.

Culturally-skewed books, however, are an entire debate unto themselves. While Rushdie did pioneer the English-Indian literary move, there have been those who feel English-Indian literature is now more or less wholly characterised by themes like hybrid language and magic realism. So in a way, English-Indian literature ends up becoming the monster that ate itself and getting trapped within its own stereotypes. What do you think?

Like Rushdie, Mo Yan’s writing is characterised as magic realism meets historical fiction. In one way, this can be a good thing – China has so many rich mythic and religious traditions that have managed to survive even the Cultural Revolution – think stories like Journey to the West and a pantheon of divine beings such as the ever-mischievous Monkey God, the historical Justice Bao Zheng, the Goddess of Mercy and so on – and it would be great to have books exploring these stories. Mo Yan himself incorporates this in his Nobel Prize winning book, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out,¬† about a wealthy landlord who was killed in Mao’s Land Reform Movement of 1948, in the grand tradition of Buddhist reincarnation, was brought back to life first as a donkey, then an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey, and finally as a ‘big-headed boy’. Mo Yan has also made use of China’s rich history, from the Cultural Revolution and the Boxer Rebellion, in his books from Red Sorghum to Big Breasts and Wide Hips to The Republic of Wine. So it’ll be interesting to read his books and see what he comes out with next – and also to see how his laureate will now inspire a new wave of Chinese authors or English translations of Chinese authors.

However, what can be a blessing can also be a curse. I’m half-hoping that Mo Yan’s success doesn’t now make every Chinese author or author of Chinese descent feel they should capitalise on this success by writing near-identical books following exact themes or guidelines to make it big in the writing world. Diversity and originality is the key!

Mo Yan is a nickname, chosen by the author, and it means Don’t Speak – a reminder to himself not to be too outspoken in China, a country not known to take too kindly to outspoken artists and writers. His win sparks more debate and questions about what it means to be an artist or a writer in China – or in any other country where there is strict censorship on any sort of creative output. His own compatriot, the dissident artist Ai Weiwei has labelled Mo Yan’s win “an insult to humanity and literature.”

So is an artist’s work diminished by their willingness to comply with their home country’s censorship limits? Mo Yan’s imagery is powerful, there is no doubt about it, but is the published version much dimmer than a possible original version that might have taken place had Mo Yan been writing, say, in the freedom of knowing that he could not be jailed for anything he said? And what does this say about the continual struggle of Chinese writers and artists in a country where voices range from meek silence to fiercely outspoken dissidence? Where do you draw the line? And who is fit to do the judging? What do you think?


In a less controversial setting, Hilary Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize for the second time – this time for her new book Bring up the Bodies, the second in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, and the follow-up to Mantel’s first Man Booker win, Wolf Hall.


While I love the story of Tudors, English aristocracy, Henry’s six wives and anything Anne Boleyn, in later years, I’ve never felt the urge to read any English historical novels, not even Philippa Gregory’s intriguing fictionalised drama, The Other Boleyn Girl. I have, though, seen the Hollywood dramatisation of The Other Boleyn girl, starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. Though Gregory’s account has been criticised for not being historically accurate, it offers one of many intriguing insight into the woman who is Anne Boleyn – and Mantel offers another view with Bring up the Bodies. Anne Boleyn, despite all her faults and virtues, is one of the most fascinating and audacious women in history, not to mention the mother of yet another fascinating woman, the Virgin Queen Elizabeth.

It’s kind of a nice change seeing the authors that are winning prizes these days – Mo Yan, a Chinese author and Mantel, a female author. It feels a little bit like diversity coming back into the fold of novel-writing, and deservedly so. What do you think about that?


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