“The violence just poured out every time I sat down to write—I couldn’t help it,” says the novelist Yu Hua in his Art of Fiction interview, published in our new Winter issue. Yu grew up in the Zhejiang province of eastern China during the Cultural Revolution, and the harrowing events he witnessed in his youth—“people getting bloodied with sticks and beaten to death in the streets, getting pushed off three-story buildings”—had a profound effect on the fiction he produced in the ensuing decades. From his early, experimental stories to his best-selling realist epic To Live and the scathing satire Brothers, Yu’s writing has a vitality shadowed by death and despair. “I think if a writer can’t even move themselves they probably won’t move their readers,” he says. “I remember when I was writing Brothers I was crying so hard—snot and everything—that my wife would come in and see a mountain of used tissues next to me.”
In the interview, Yu tellsMichaelBerry,thetranslatorofToLive, aboutsome of the signal experiences that made him a writer: as a child, reading dazibao, or handwritten “big-character” posters posted in the street, in which neighbors would accuse one another of affairs and other moral failings; making up stories for his classmates to supplement the sparse available novels at school, which were often missing pages and front covers; at university, sharing a room with his contemporary Mo Yan, who inspired him and drove him crazy in equal measure.
When I began helping to edit the interview, I knew of Yu’s work, but, like many American readers, had yet to dive in. I started with the novel Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, originally published in 1995 and translated in 2003, which traces the fortunes of a man named Xu Sanguan over decades as he sells his blood at crucialjunctures in his life in order to support his family through the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and beyond—a common practice in rural China during the years in which the book is set. The intensity of the book is startling—arguments between Xu and his wife over her suspected infidelity erupt furiously on the page, and Xu’s treatment of his illegitimate son, Yile, alternates sharply between cruelty and compassion. The hallmarks of Yu’s earlier and later fiction are present here: fortitude in the face of overwhelming hardship, wild dark humor, and a tonal instability that defies simple interpretation. I recommend it—along with our interview—as an entry point to a teeming, fascinating body of work.
“You live one life in invention and another in reality,” Yu tells Berry, but of course it is the space in between where great fiction lies, and which Yu navigates to such brilliant effect. To read our interview with Yu, as well as our Art of Poetry interview with Louise Glück and the rest of the new Winter issue—subscribe to the Review today. You can also read a syllabus of reading recommendations Yu provided to his students here.