Qian Xiaohong is a young woman from a village in Hunan who went to the boomtown of Shenzhen in the 1990s in search of work. She is bold and optimistic, if sometimes a little naïve, and has short black hair with just a hint of curl. She has the round-faced look of a peasant girl from a propaganda poster, but for her most defining feature: her breasts. Full and beautiful, they are much too large for polite society.
Qian Xiaohong is the protagonist of Northern Girls, a novel by Sheng Keyi (盛可以) published last week in English translation (the original Chinese book was titled Bei Mei 北妹). The novel draws on Sheng Keyi’s personal experience: she too left rural Hunan to seek her fortune in Shenzhen.
Unlike Leslie T. Chang’s book, Factory Girls, which deals with a similar subject from a journalistic perspective, Sheng Keyi’s descriptions of migrant-workers combine real-life descriptions with elements of magical realism. Xiaohong’s breasts project a powerful image of femininity that burdens Xiaohong throughout the novel. In many instances, they seem to even overpower her so that they become the agent of the story more than Xiaohong herself. This is a world in which Xiaohong and her friends have no agency over what happens to them, or even to their own bodies. They have to roll with the punches to survive.
Northern Girls was Sheng’s first novel, written in 2002 and originally published in 2004. She has since published five novels, with a sixth on the way, as well as several short stories. She tackles difficult aspects of Chinese society, and she says that she writes what she wants to: She has several times chosen to let her work go unpublished rather than neuter it to meet the censorship requirements of a domestic publishing house. She is widely respected by the Chinese literary community, and is considered one of the better female writers of her time. The following is an interview with her about the new English-language release (the original Chinese is at the bottom of the English):
What inspired the title, ‘Northern Girls’?
In Hong Kong and Taiwan, young women from the mainland are often labeled “Northern Girls.” In Guangdong, the word is used to describe anyone from somewhere north of the city. It’s a pejorative term and highly discriminatory, but it reflects a particular social and cultural context. The characters in my novel are trying to defend their dignity in this environment.
You yourself migrated from the countryside, and your personal story shares a lot in common with these girls. How were you able to overcome this situation and come out so differently? How did you get such a good education?
I didn’t have a great education. When I was in elementary school, I had to study at home for three years because the school building collapsed and was never rebuilt. My family’s living room became a temporary classroom, and we made piles of red bricks to use as desks. I didn’t have access to books, and even blank paper was hard to find. Literature has no relevance in the poor countryside. Later when I entered middle school, classes were still held in someone’s house because the school was still being built. It’s hard to imagine how we were able to learn anything in such a chaotic environment. I was very mature from an early age, and studious. I set very high goals for myself and worked hard to achieve them.
When you were living in Shenzhen, did you encounter the same kind of situations and struggles as the characters in your book?
Yes, naturally. I was fired, jumped between jobs, resigned, dealt with temporary residency permits and, for a long time, suffered discrimination as a temporary worker. I wished in vain that I could be promoted to a full time worker at my company, feel proud and elated, and become equal with everybody. But I failed. Eventually I quit the magazine where I was working and moved up north to write and control my own future.
The book is set in Shenzhen in the 1990s. Do you think much has changed since then?
You can tell from the huge numbers of people who travel home to celebrate the Spring Festival every year that a lot of things have remained the same. Economic development still means that there are certain places people go to pursue their dreams. Its possible that some labor laws or aspects of the social security system may have improved. Also, the economy of the Pearl River delta region has slowed to a certain degree, and rural areas have received preferential government policies that have encouraged some people to return home and help promote local development there. I left Shenzhen in 2001, and have returned just few times since then. I notice that Shenzhen itself is getting older. From a young place, full of vigor and vitality, it’s entered a sedated middle age.
All of your writing seems to feature the struggles of women. Do you think male migrant workers have it any easier?
They’re all struggling against adverse circumstances. The human spirit can be lost in the face of so much adversity.
What has made the deepest impression on you so far?
The most shocking thing that’s ever happened to me was a friend’s suicide, two years ago. She was quite talented, very pretty, friendly, warm and always considerate of others. But she heeded the call of the devil, and threw herself out a window.
Who is your favorite writer?
It’s hard to choose just one. I’ve liked different authors at various points in my life. My earliest favorite was Kafka. Then came Faulkner and Hemmingway, along with some Latin American writers. This year I read some work by Eastern European writers, fascinating. I can’t say which is my favorite.
Towards the end of the novel, Qian Xiaohong’s breasts start to enlarge, and won’t stop growing. What does this symbolize for you?
It symbolizes the female identity, and how much it has become a burden. Also, how women cannot escape the confines of their gender.
In the book, one of the characters suffers a forced abortion. Is this still a common phenomenon?
Yes, as long as family planning rules continue to exist, forced abortions will continue as well. And the more impoverished the area, the more they will occur. One aspect of the problem is that a lot of people only want a son. On the other hand, people have no knowledge about contraception, so they’re always getting pregnant. If they haven’t got money to pay the fines, they’re subject to brutal treatment.
What are you writing now? Is there anything new in the works?
Some of my best short stories from this year and last are soon to be published in my short story collection, “The Sphinx.” And the end of this month, I’m going to start developing the plot for my next novel, which I’ve been planning for a long time.
When can we expect the next translation of one of your pieces?
Well, my next piece to come out in the English language will be my sixth novel, “Death Fugue.” The plans have already been discussed, and it should be on the shelves next year.
Links and Sources
Paper Republic: Author Sheng Keyi
Paper Republic: previously translated version, Northern Girls
Penguin Books: Northern Girls: Life Goes On by Sheng Keyi
New York Times: Sheng Keyi tells the story of poor Chinese women
‘Taishan’ blog by translator, Shelly Bryant: Northern Girls
Original interview in Chinese
Special thanks to Wang Tingying and Brendan O’Kane for their help and advice.