IFOA: As a bilingual writer, how do you decide which language you will initially publish a novel in?
Yan Li: I had never thought about writing a novel until I came to Canada. As the first graduate student from China ever admitted by the History Department at the University of Windsor in 1987, I received a lot of attention since many people were curious about China. A year later, I decided to write a book in English that would give a truthful reflection of life in China in the 20th century from an insider’s point of view. My first novel was an unexpected success and totally changed my life in Canada. A few years later, when I noticed increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants coming into Canada and that people back home were interested in knowing their life in a new country, I decided to write a novel in Chinese for readers in China. Married to the West Wind became my first novel written in Chinese.
IFOA: What are some benefits/difficulties of translating your own work?
Li: I very much enjoy the process of translating my own works from English into Chinese, or vice versa. I can see the differences in expressions and choices of words, and tailor materials accordingly, based on my understanding of both cultures, to approach readability, efficiency and aesthetic results, valued in different languages. I don’t feel it is a good idea to translate literature word for word and line for line. The best can be produced through a rewrite. However, not many people are willing to have their original work rewritten by someone else. I am lucky to have the ability to handle both languages in my creative writing. So far, I have not experienced any difficulties.
IFOA: Do you write for audiences of a certain age or culture?
Li: I never pay attention to generational gaps, since I don’t write for money but for faith. I believe that good literary works will last in history, whether they are bestsellers or not. The purpose of my writing is simple. The world around us is imperfect but our writing, ideally, may change it for the better. Human natures and values are the same, but different languages and cultures separate and isolate them. I hope I can use my pen to help erase prejudices and misunderstandings.
Li: My academic training comes from three fields: language and literature, journalism and history. I tend to mix up those influences in my creative writing. When I wrote my first English novel, Daughters of the Red Land, my style was very much limited by my training in journalism and history and it was difficult to allow my mind to flow freely outside the boundary of truth and facts, which are crucial for news writing. God knows if that actually helped the novel to be successful because it was so true to human nature and the real world. When I wrote Lily in the Snow, I had gradually become used to a more creative style since I had published some novels in Chinese by that time. Although Lily in the Snow is more fictionalized, it is a product obviously influenced by my academic training, with many stories based on truth and facts. I think I have developed a writing style, in English or Chinese, that portrays fictional characters very closely to real life. I believe it is a pity for the writer if her characters and stories sound fake and unreal.
IFOA: What have you read in the past six months that you really loved?
Li: For the past 20 years, most English novels I have read are those that have a connection to China or the Chinese. I very much enjoy reading Chinese language books reflecting life in today’s China. Some works by short story writers like Liu Qingbang and Wang Xiangfu are very well written and impressive, showing the Chinese society estranged from what I used to know.
Yan Li is the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo and the coordinator of the Chinese language programme at Renison University College. She presents her latest novel, Lily in the Snow, which provides a unique perspective on the universal tale of intergenerational conflict, and explores the Chinese immigrant experience in Canada with humour and insight. Catch her at China@IFOA on October 26.