Profile: A Chinese Novelist Is Found in Translation

The line between unfettered self-expression and maintaining a readership in China is one Mr. Xue has been walking since he made his literary debut in 1989 with “Desertion,” about an amateur philosopher’s Kafkaesque efforts to quit his government job. A month after he published that first novel, he joined in the protests in Beijing and Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. He recorded his response to the suppression of protest in Tiananmen Square, and elsewhere in China, in a novella titled “December 31, 1989,” which captured the mood of dejection among his intellectual friends and was published in magazines in Taiwan and Guangzhou.


“The reaction to its publication was very severe,” Mr. Xue recalled as he sat on the balcony of his apartment in a high-rise overlooking Montreal’s Mount Royal Park. “They never came to me personally, but they came to my friends. They tried to shut down the magazine I had written for. I still don’t know who ‘they’ were. Somebody, a friend, told me I should not write any more. For my own benefit. Those words were very important for me.”

For five years, Mr. Xue refrained from publishing under his own name. He returned to school, earning a doctorate in linguistics at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. The few stories he wrote were published under a pseudonym.

Mr. Xue’s literary rehabilitation came in 1997, by which time he’d found a comfortable position teaching Chinese literature at Shenzhen University. “Desertion,” ignored by reviewers when it was published, won a major award in Taiwan, and a leading critic in Beijing counted it among China’s most important philosophical novels. By then, however, he had already decided to move to Montreal.

“I could see what was happening in China,” he said. “At the high point of my writing, I had to hide myself. Even after that, the conversation with publishers was not comfortable.”

Mr. Xue enrolled in literature courses at the Université de Montréal. A period of extraordinary productivity followed, during which Mr. Xue’s reputation in his homeland grew, but he remained almost unknown to readers outside of China.

“I marginalized myself,” Mr. Xue said. “Voluntarily. But I remained an essential writer on the literary scene in China.”

According to Michael Berry, a professor of contemporary Chinese cultural studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, “It makes sense that Xue wants to be removed from the cacophony of changes happening in China every day. The outsider perspective living in Montreal lets him explore opinions a writer in China wouldn’t dare to touch upon.”

Initially a safe haven in which to write, Montreal has become a home for Mr. Xue and he’s excited about the public attention and awards he’s received in his adopted country. In April he accepted the Diversity Prize at Montreal’s Blue Metropolis Festival for the English translation of his short story collection, “Shenzheners,” which is modeled on James Joyce’s “Dubliners.”

Mr. Xue’s long expatriation in Montreal has also increased his confidence and fluency in English; he rewrote many of the passages in “Dr. Bethune’s Children” for the English translation. The growing recognition of his work in Europe and North America also means that opportunities for self-expression, as well as his literary future, will no longer depend on being published in China. Yet he worries that one day his voice will no longer be heard there.

“In this materialistic era, I believe literature is more crucial than ever for the conscience of my motherland,” Mr. Xue said.

On his balcony, Mr. Xue opened a parcel that had just arrived in the mail, one he’d been awaiting, he said, for a quarter-century. It contained three hardcover copies of a new Swedish translation “The Empty Nest,” his fourth novel, first published in 2014.

“When I was at my lowest point,” said Mr. Xue, “after I’d been told I shouldn’t write any more, a friend told me, ‘Don’t worry, in 25 years you’ll be published in Stockholm.’”

With a slight smile, he added: “I guess that day has come.”

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