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Tuesday May 3, 2011

Bi Feiyu proves friends wrong with literary prize win

Bi Feiyu’s talent and passion for language helps him write good novels.

WINNING the prestigious 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize last month came as a surprise for Chinese author Bi Feiyu.

Friends had told him there was no way a Chinese author would win since Chinese writers had already bagged the prize in 2007 (when the prize was launched) and 2009.

Passion: ‘I love the written word. Although a good novel can do a lot of things ... without a good command of the language, you will not be able to write a good book,’ says Bi Feiyu, winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize for his book Three Sisters.

His novel, Three Sisters, was up against the likes of Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe’s The Changeling, Japanese author Yoka Ogawa’s acclaimed Hotel Iris and best-selling Indian authors Tabish Khair’s The Thing About Thugs and Manu Joseph’s Serious Men.

Bi had thought that his chances of winning were so low that he did not even take his 42-year-old university lecturer wife (whom he declines to name), to the awards ceremony held in Hong Kong.

Speaking over the telephone from his home in Nanjing where he lives with his wife and 14-year-old son, he says with a laugh: “You know that women must shop when they go to Hong Kong ... if my wife were there and I didn’t win, I would be courting trouble.”

As it turns out, there would have been quite a lot of “shopping money” to splurge – the winner receives US$30,000 (RM90,900).

Continuing his banter about his wife, Bi, speaking in Mandarin, adds that she did not think highly of Three Sisters. In fact, “she doesn’t think that I write well. Maybe it’s because we’re too close. Even after I won the prize, some things will not change,” he says with mock exasperation.

Perhaps it is because his wife was his unpaid secretary before he started writing on computers. He explains: “Before I send my manuscript out to the publishers, it will usually be a mess, with lots of changes. My handwriting is not good too, so I used to ask her to copy it out for me. But I ditched this secretary after I got a computer!”

Three Sisters is about the Wang family and how the fate of three sisters changes during the Cultural Revolution in China when their philandering party secretary father has an affair with a soldier’s wife and falls from grace.

Begun in 2007, the Man Asian Literary Prize is awarded annually to the best novel by an Asian writer published in the previous calendar year. The book can be either written in or translated into English. The translator of the winning book receives US$5,000 (RM15,150).

Bi is the third Chinese winner to win in four years, following Su Tong (2009 for The Boat To Redemption) and Jiang Rong (2007 for Wolf Totem). Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco won the 2008 prize for Illustrado.

Bi’s work was first published as Yu Mi in 2001. When he started writing it, he planned to pen a traditional love story in response to books he describes as focusing too much on fornication.

He explains: “It would be what you called ‘xia ban sheng xie zuo’ (‘lower body writing’ in Chinese). I was dissatisfied with the current state, so I wanted to write a love story that was actually coy.”

Halfway through, Bi realised that there was a bigger picture, so he wrote a she hui xiao shuo (societal novel) instead.

He says: “Many authors have already written about the Cultural Revolution, but I feel they touched only on the surface, talking politics. So what I wanted to do was to look at how the smallest details of life, such as family, relationships and even sex, was affected and harmed during that time.”

Some readers might find the fate of his protagonists, Yuyang, Yuxiu and Yumi, too tragic – think rape and loveless marriages – but he thinks his novel accurately depicts the sense of oppression and resignation many felt during that period.

“The events that happened to the characters are fictitious, but I think that many (Chinese) will be able to relate to the emotions that the sisters experienced,” he says.

Bi was born in 1964 in rural northern Jiangsu. His father had been labelled a “rightist” in the 1957 Anti-Rightist movement and exiled to the region. His mother was a schoolteacher. Bi remembers the first character he learnt to write from her was “Mao” for Mao Zedong, and not his own name.

His parents did not support his career choice to be an author: “In those days, it could prove to be politically dangerous. My father’s life was wasted by politics. He returned to the city only in his 40s. His prime was over.”

As a child, he loved writing but knew nothing about being an author. He recalls that in the early 1980s, when he was at university, a sudden poetry wave swept through the student population.

“Almost everyone wanted to write poetry. It was a strange time. I spent a lot of time writing poems but I did not succeed,” he says.

After graduation, he attempted to write prose in the form of short stories and novellas. “It’s not that shorter form is less time consuming, but rather, it demands a greater precision from the writer. That form trains a novelist to be a better linguist.

“It was only when I felt that I wrote better that I started to attempt longer stories.”

He has written more than 100 short stories, six novellas and three novels. As well as Three Sisters, his other translated novel is Moon Opera, about an opera singer whose career is ruined when she attacks her understudy.

Bi says unabashedly he feels that from the start, he had a talent for language and it is something he loves passionately.

He says: “I love the written word. Although a good novel can do a lot of things – such as reflect on life, comment on political or socio-cultural issues – without a good command of the language, you will not be able to write a good book.”

Has his love for the Chinese language rubbed off on his son?

He replies, chuckling: “He doesn’t like literature. He prefers basketball. He has no intention of being an author.”

He adds: “When he was seven or eight years old, he said he wanted to be an author. When I asked him why, he replied, ‘Because I can play games on the computer every day.’ He thinks I’m playing computer games when I’m actually writing.”

However, it seems these days, Bi does not spend much time in front of the computer. Used to writing for six hours each day, he has not been able to work as usual since winning the prize.

“I get interview requests every day. I hope your call will be the last for today,” says the author, who is writing a novel set in post-economic boom China.

After the experience of writing Three Sisters, he says of this latest one: “I have a general direction for development but no detailed plans. Plans are sometimes useless. They get messed up anyway. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network

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