By Simon Elegant

Mo Yan ought to be in his element. The 55-year-old Chinese writer (Mo Yan is a pen name, Guan Moye his real one) is in his hometown of Gaomi, Shandong province, a place he has described as the wellspring of his creativity. It’s also the location of most of his vivid, at times brilliant, novels. Local Communist Party officials are honoring the town’s famous son with a lavish lunch, but as the dishes are served — three kinds of fish, oysters, sea cucumber — the author looks increasingly surprised. “I had no idea that Gaomi had a restaurant of such high quality,” he finally blurts, to the amusement of his hosts.

Although it remains his touchstone, Mo Yan acknowledges that the gritty modern Gaomi is very different from the midcentury, rural township of his fiction — a place where peasants ride stoic donkeys and heavily laden camels walk the dusty streets. Film buffs may know it from Zhang Yimou’s 1988 adaptation of Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum, set during the Japanese occupation. In fact, much of Mo Yan’s fiction — from the 1996 epic he describes as his magnum opus, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, to Frog, published at the end of 2009 — is set in a world seemingly remote to the 350 million or so Chinese born after 1980 and the start of Deng Xiaoping’s reformist policies. They also happen to be China’s most voracious readers, judging by the way in which books targeting this youthful demographic dominate the best-seller lists. (See top 10 friction books of 2009.)

By placing much of his writing in the past, and through the adroit subtlety of his magic-realist style, Mo Yan avoids stirring up the animosity of the country’s ever vigilant censors any more than he needs to. Take his latest novel. With China’s highly controversial one-child population-control policy as its topic, Frog traces the life of a midwife who witnesses forced late-term abortions, forced sterilization and other horrors, and it does so whimsically — in the form of four letters and a play. The midwife’s struggle to reconcile her conflicting loyalties to party, family and patients forms the backbone of the narrative, which Mo Yan says had been percolating in his head since the early 1980s. “The reason I postponed the writing of Frog was because I had too much to work on, not the sensitivity of the topic,” he says. “And anyway, there’s no law that prohibits writing on it.”

For Eric Abrahamsen, a Beijing-based translator of modern Chinese fiction, it is clear that Mo Yan engages in the complex calculus of what is and isn’t permissible that faces every Chinese writer. There is nothing wrong with that: not every artist has the stomach for strident dissent and, having been banned in the past, Mo Yan has nothing to prove. But these days, says Abrahamsen, Mo Yan “knows exactly where the lines are and doesn’t cross them.” Discussion about the drawbacks of the one-child policy, and whether it should be rolled back, is now permissible in China, for example. “I think the reason the book got published now is because it’s not controversial anymore,” says Abrahamsen. (See photos of the making of modern China.)

Mo Yan is adamant that he never worries about censorship when choosing what to write about. “There are certain restrictions on writing in every country,” he says, adding that the inability to attack some topics head on is actually an advantage. Such limitations make a writer “conform to the aesthetics of literature,” Mo Yan argues. “One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety. A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel.”

Whatever the reason, Mo Yan makes it clear that his fiction will stay rooted in Gaomi — or rather his historical version of it. The novel he is contemplating next, for example, will be centered around a siege of the town during the 1930s, when China was riven with warlord rivalry.

He tries to keep up with contemporary writers — most of whom also write on uncontroversial subjects, like 20-somethings agonizing over exams, relationships and the like. But Mo Yan says that it’s “impossible” for him to enjoy their work. “I won’t write those types of novels,” he explains, “but I do understand there are reasons for their existence.” Mo Yan quite unabashedly says that the desire to escape poverty was the initial reason for the existence of his novels but he adds that it has long been supplanted. “Now that I can afford dumplings, why am I still writing? Because I have things to say.” And to say delicately, if he’s to continue enjoying good relations with his hosts at lunch.

http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1973183,00.html