What’s your earliest memory?
Standing on the beach of my fishing village, by the East China Sea. After a typhoon, when the seas were quiet, you could hear the anti-communist campaign propaganda from Taiwan coming through the loudspeaker.
What was your first experience with books?
My first books were the textbooks at primary school when I was eight years old. They were just textbooks, to learn Chinese characters, but they were very politicized. You know, things like ‘how to be good and dedicate yourself to Mao’. That was the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, so everything was still about Mao.
Who or what inspires you?
People from European cinema and literature: Jean Luc Godard, Boris Vian, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Italo Calvino… But I have so many! US poet Alan Ginsberg is a great inspiration, and also Walt Whitman. I always feel Walt Whitman is the embodiment of true poetic spirit; his absolute love for nature, for life, for sexuality and for passion are so vivid and alive in his poetry. I felt that warmth permeate me when I first read his poetry. I was in China then. The Beat Generation spirit and Ginsberg’s poetry were my true passion for free verse and great prose. I guess I’m into a literary form not constrained by rhyme or emotional conventions. I find it very difficult to connect to Victorian-era poetry, for example.
What kind of issues are you politically passionate about?
We live in a very materialistic world: that’s something I think about a lot. I used to live in a world with a lot of censorship and no freedom of voice. But now China has become much more progressive; it has, quite amazingly, opened up. It has reached the stage where you are no longer so censored, although there’s still commercial censorship: everything has to be ‘in the market’ and on sale. If you cannot sell, you are condemned to nothing, zero.
With fiction it’s very difficult to convey these kinds of political visions; it’s not a perfect format to be political. I think the best way is to be a journalist, not a fiction writer. Journalism is more direct, but there’s also a lot of censorship of journalists in many sensitive matters. With my new novel, I Am China, I spent many years trying to say this political stuff through my characters. But in novels it is very difficult.
In I Am China, as in many of your books, the characters are placed in cultures that are foreign to them, and they’re alienated and lonely. Are you drawing on your own experiences?
If you’re a critical person, you can feel quite lonely or alienated in any culture, because you always feel this kind of ‘political problem’. And if you’re an artist, you try to be alone and try to write about it, and that, of course, pushes you away from the collective society. If there is a collective…
What effect did the success of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers have on your life and career?
It was the seventh book I wrote, but the first book I wrote in English, so it was kind of a restart of my life in the West. Before that, I thought I was just going to go back to China and live and write in Chinese. You know, that’s how I had lived most of my life. I wrote that book when I was 30 and it became my first published book in the West, so I thought: ‘OK, I can become a bilingual writer!’
What makes you happy?
Being with warm people. Intellectual people. Interesting people.
What’s your biggest fear?
Losing the people I like.
If you could banish one person from the Earth, who would it be?
That’s quite a tough question. It’s a philosophical question. I would say the people who love war, who push for war. I’d get rid of the war-makers.