Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize In Literature Lecture

Full speech on Youku after the jump.

Mo Yan gave his traditional Nobel lecture, “Storytellers,” about 10 hours ago at the Royal Swedish Academy in Stockholm. He was introduced by Kjell Espmark, member of the Nobel literature committee.

Mo’s 32-minute talk has already been translated by the preeminent Howard Goldblatt, here, which you should take a minute to read before letting the news media inundate the conversation with all their cherry-picked selections that fit their narrative.

Some highlights, presented chronologically (cherry-picked by yours truly, so yeah, you should probably just skip this and go read the whole thing):

Mo starts — fittingly and endearingly — by talking about his mother, with a truly contemporary story about how his family had to dig up her grave due to a proposed rail line. The story is imbued with all the details you’d expect from a novelist, leading into memories of how she treated him, her youngest son: “Distinguished members of the Swedish Academy, Ladies and Gentlemen: // Through the mediums of television and the Internet, I imagine that everyone here has at least a nodding acquaintance with far-off Northeast Gaomi Township. You may have seen my ninety-year-old father, as well as my brothers, my sister, my wife and my daughter, even my granddaughter, now a year and four months old. But the person who is most on my mind at this moment, my mother, is someone you will never see. Many people have shared in the honor of winning this prize, everyone but her.”

And this: “I was born ugly. Villagers often laughed in my face, and school bullies sometimes beat me up because of it. I’d run home crying, where my mother would say, ‘You’re not ugly, Son. You’ve got a nose and two eyes, and there’s nothing wrong with your arms and legs, so how could you be ugly? If you have a good heart and always do the right thing, what is considered ugly becomes beautiful.’ Later on, when I moved to the city, there were educated people who laughed at me behind my back, some even to my face; but when I recalled what Mother had said, I just calmly offered my apologies.”

Also, she was illiterate. “My illiterate mother held people who could read in high regard.”

It all leads to the story of how he began as a writer, “It did not take long to find retelling someone else’s stories unsatisfying, so I began embellishing my narration. I’d say things I knew would please Mother, even changed the ending once in a while. And she wasn’t the only member of my audience, which later included my older sisters, my aunts, even my maternal grandmother.”

Comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez are apt. “I must say that in the course of creating my literary domain, Northeast Gaomi Township, I was greatly inspired by the American novelist William Faulkner and the Columbian Gabriel García Márquez. I had not read either of them extensively, but was encouraged by the bold, unrestrained way they created new territory in writing, and learned from them that a writer must have a place that belongs to him alone.”

The only four mentions of the word “politics” occur over the span of two paragraphs: “My greatest challenges come with writing novels that deal with social realities, such as The Garlic Ballads, not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event. As a member of society, a novelist is entitled to his own stance and viewpoint; but when he is writing he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events, but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics. // Possibly because I’ve lived so much of my life in difficult circumstances, I think I have a more profound understanding of life. I know what real courage is, and I understand true compassion. I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent. So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.”

Addressing controversy surrounding his selection, and what will inevitably be the most oft-quoted part of his speech: “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.”

Forget about everything else for one second — if you’re a fan of stories, just scroll down to the very end and read the three stories that finish the speech.

And finally, last words: “I am a storyteller. // Telling stories earned me the Nobel Prize for Literature. // Many interesting things have happened to me in the wake of winning the prize, and they have convinced me that truth and justice are alive and well. // So I will continue telling my stories in the days to come. // Thank you all.”

p.s. Mo wore a Mao suit. Surely he’ll choose something different for the actual ceremony, then?

    5 Responses to “Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize In Literature Lecture”

    1. King Baeksu

      “So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.”

      And yet by giving the CCP a free pass since the announcement that he had won the Nobel Prize, Mo Yan has allowed his work to be dragged down to the “base” level of politics, since his win contributes greatly to the legitimacy and prestige of the CCP, especially in the eyes of the Chinese people.

      Moreover, if one chooses to believe the assessment of scholars and critics like Anna Sun, who find his literary style be more than a little wanting, even “diseased,” then his Nobel Prize itself can only be viewed as a political choice, awarded in recognition of China’s growing clout on the international stage.

      As far as Mo Yan’s insistence than “pure” literature transcends mere politics, I find that the man doth protest too much.

      Don’t speak any more, sir. Don’t speak.

    2. CP

      What’s the big deal if Mo Yan winning it was a political decision? The most embarrassing political Nobel awards were those given to Barack Obama, for basically being black and winning the US presidency, and then the EU, for basically not breaking apart and fighting another war.


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