Time Out Shanghai

China’s first female International Man Booker Prize nominee

Wang Anyi is China’s first female author listed for a Man Booker International Prize. Charlotte Middlehurst and Blessing Waung visit her Shanghai home and meet a literary heavyweight who has never heard of Philip Roth

It’s a bit pointless asking Chinese writer Wang Anyi whether she’s going to win the prestigious Man Booker International Prize on Wednesday 18 – because while she’s up against the likes of John le Carré, Phillip Pullman, Philip Roth and compatriot Su Tong for the biennial 637,820RMB cash award, she hasn’t heard of any of her fellow nominees on the 13-strong shortlist except for Su.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘I don’t use the internet so I don’t know who these other writers are.’ She doesn’t seem too concerned, either, that her inclusion alongside Su for the fourth Man Booker International Prize represents the first time that any Chinese writer has made the shortlist for the award, which recognises an overall contribution to literature, rather than single works, as the regular Man Booker Prize does.

Since producing her first set of short stories in 1976, Wang, now 57, has quietly published a body of more than 20 works of fiction. By far her most famous is The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (1995), which traces the life of a young Shanghainese girl from the 1940s until after the Cultural Revolution, and is already considered a modern classic. The novel won the esteemed Mao Dun Literature Prize, was voted the most influential Chinese novel of the 1990s in a survey of Chinese writers, and inspired the film Everlasting Regret, produced by Jackie Chan in 2005.

Her realist writing style and vivid descriptions of life in her home town of Shanghai have drawn comparisons with Eileen Chang – though when we meet at Wang’s smart modern flat off Xinhua Lu, her persona seems a long way from that of the glamorous, tragic Chang, best known for her short story Lust, Caution.

She’s wearing a beige fur gilet and plain black trousers, and her black hair is tied back tightly in a bun. Her bearing is like that of a schoolteacher, with a fixed, dignified gaze that befits someone who’s currently chairwoman of the Writers’ Association of Shanghai.

Her home is clean, composed and understated, with splashes of colour – hundreds of books are stacked neatly on Ikea-issue plain white shelves; her desk is bare apart from a few notebooks, a pen pot and a floral glass lamp. There’s no computer. With her husband affectionately bringing regular top-ups of longjing tea, you sense that not much intrudes on Wang’s private world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a woman who doesn’t use the internet, she’s disparaging of many of the current crop of young Chinese writers. She teaches an MA creative writing course at Fudan University, but says there’s a lot of work to be done with writers today. ‘They skim over the details of everyday life, and romanticise stories,’ she says. ‘There’s so much media and television telling people what life is like, they cannot hear their own sound.’

Certainly, most aspiring creative writers at Fudan University haven’t been through what Wang has. At 16, she was plucked from school in Shanghai and sent to work on a famine-stricken labour camp in Anhui province. Eventually, she escaped by joining an arts troupe as a cellist, an episode that would later inspire her novel Life in a Small Courtyard, a story about a company of actors living cheek by jowl through chaotic circumstances.

She returned to Shanghai in 1978 but it wasn’t until the 1980s, when she was trained by the Chinese Writers’ Association, that Wang began to think of herself as a writer, and gradually gain nationwide recognition. ‘In the ’80s there was an opening up of thought. We all started writing under these circumstances,’ she says. ‘Writing, to us, was freedom.’

For Wang, this freedom didn’t mean mawkish memoirs or fancy experiments with style, but telling stories that felt true and that portrayed a time and place through people, often women. In The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, she writes that the residents of a Shanghai longtang are ‘hewed to the little things of life, which left them stranded on the margins when it came to politics’.

Whether about a young girl in the 1940s or a woman in modern urban China, Wang’s writing is defined by its focus on the details of real life. In a preface to an anthology of her work, sinologist Jeffrey Kinkley writes that she ‘does not stint in describing the brutalising density, the rude jostling, the interminable and often futile waiting in line that accompany life in the Chinese big city’.

As for Wang, she once said: ‘I hope my work has this kind of effect, that people will read it and say: “Yes, this is the way things were once upon a time.”’

It seems a modest aim for a woman who is considered one of China’s most important writers, and who you’d get 8/1 odds on joining Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe and Ismail Kadare as a winner of the Man Booker International Prize.

But she’s unconvinced. ‘I’m not popular,’ she says simply. ‘If I were, my books would be selling a million copies.’ Alas, many young Chinese people would still rather read rebel blogger Han Han than one of the country’s most critically respected writers – maybe it’s them who are out of touch with reality.