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Northern Girls: interview with author Sheng Keyi

Sheng Keyi pic copyright @ Feng Tang

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of Chinese society, and she says that she writes what she wants to: She has several times chosen to let her work go unpublished rather than neuter it to meet the censorship requirements of a domestic publishing house.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

‘北妹’ 是您最初的作品,为什么选取这个题目?
香港台湾人称在大陆姑娘为“北妹”或“北姑”,广东人称广东以北的人为“北妹”,这里头隐含了强烈的歧视意味。这个称谓是一种特定的文化背景下产生的,也很具有中国特色。这个名字是一个社会文化与社会现状的缩影。我小说中的人物就在这样的环境下捍卫她们的尊严,寻找自己的出路。

您也是从山村里走出来的。 您是她们的一员,您为什么和别的女生不一样?为什么能受到这么好的教育?
我没有受特别好的教育,小学三年都是在家里上的,因为学校倒了,一直没有建好。我们家的堂屋就变成了临时教室,红砖砌的课桌。小时候也没有文学书可读,连张白纸都难以找到。文学和贫穷的乡村没有关系。后来上初中了,教室还是安在农户家中,因为学校正在修建。很难想像在这样动荡的教育环境下,小孩子能学到什么东西。我是一个早熟的人,我很刻苦,尤其是当我知道自己的目标订得很高很远的时候,就会倍加努力。

您住在深圳的时候,遇到过书里描述的挣扎吗?
自然会有的。我也经历过被炒鱿鱼,跳过槽,辞过职,办过暂住证,长时间地承受工作中临时工和正式工待遇上的不平等。一直梦想着调进所在的单位,扬眉吐气,和大家平起平坐。但是我失败了。后来我从杂志社辞职去北方写作,我决定自己蹚一条路出来。

这本书以九十年代为背景,现在有没有变化呢?
从现在每年返乡过年的春运高潮可以看出,有很多东西仍在延续,经济发达地区仍然是人们挖掘希望的地方。也许可能在劳动法规,或者社会保障方面有所改进。珠江三角洲的经济一度萧条,农村政策有些优待时,有些人返回家乡发展。我2001年下半年离开深圳,偶尔去过几次,发现深圳也在变老,从一个朝气蓬勃的年轻人步入了稳重中年。

您所有的作品中都是关于女人的挣扎。 您是否觉得男人的处境会好一点?
人都在逆境中挣扎,人性都在漩涡中泯灭。

迄今为止,什么事情给您留下了最深的印象?
生命中最震撼的是两年前好友的自杀。她相当有才华,也很有姿色,很友善,很热情,处处为别人着想。但她听从魔鬼的召唤,从自己的窗口跳下去了。

您最喜欢的作者是谁?
只说一个,这很难。在不同时期喜欢过不同的作家。比如最早喜欢卡夫卡,后来是福克纳,海明威,还有拉美作家,今年读了一批东欧作家的作品,令人着迷。我无法说出最喜欢的那个。

在这本书的最后,钱小红的胸部越来越大,这有什么象征意义?
强调女性性别,如何成了一个人的负担,以及女人走不出性别的局限。

书里面提到了一个强制堕胎的现象,这个到现在还是个常见的问题吗?
是的,只要计划生育政策还在,强制堕胎就一直存在,而且越贫穷的地方,越多。一方面是由于这些地方的人观念有问题,总想生儿子;另一方面是没有避孕知识,不断地怀孕。他们又缴不起超生罚款,所以会遭受野蛮待遇。

您现在还在继续写作吗?都写些什么呢?
去年和今年我写了一些品质很好的短篇小说,即将出版我的短篇小说集《人面狮身》。本月底我将闭关开始我构思已久的新长篇。

您预计什么时候会有新的英文作品?
嗯,我的下一部英文作品将会是我的第六部长篇《死亡赋格》,基本上已经谈好了,应该在明年就能出版。

Special thanks to Wang Tingying and Brendan O’Kane for their help and advice.