Reading Chinese author An Yu’s Braised Pork is like walking into a dream in that it is composed of fragments that are as mesmerising as they are fleeting.
The book opens with a startling death and the discovery of a mysterious drawing of a creature that is part fish, part man, discovered beside the man who died in the bathtub.
The protagonist’s heart skips a beat here, and on several other occasions, as will the reader who turns the pages of this story by Beijing-based author An Yu.
“It was my hope to portray a world that is enigmatic and complex, where not many clues are given yet it is clear that it extends far beyond what is on the page. With the few descriptions I allowed myself, it took a lot of deliberating to find the right words to use, ” she says.
It seems that all that deliberating has paid off for the most part as her debut novel has been widely praised for how it merges reality with the surreal so seamlessly in the same world.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that to this author, one doesn’t exist without the other.
“I don’t want to, or rather, I don’t entirely know how to draw a clear line between the real and the surreal. The bizarre and the insane keep happening in this world we live in. To me, the imagination is so crucial to navigating what we believe is the 'real' world – to stay grounded in our lives. Being able to clearly see, understand, and explain everything frightens me. It is so important to be able to imagine that there is another, equally real space out there that we can sometimes touch, however fleetingly, ” she muses.
In Braised Pork, the fish man keeps popping up - at times in drawings or sculptures, sometimes in dreams and retold in stories of swimming in the air.
An Yu relates how this fish man began as a vague, meaningless image, but as she started to extend beyond this image to a more cohesive world, she looked to other sources of inspiration.
“Visual art, mythical creatures, religion, the natural world, to name a few. I liked the idea of the fish man being a guide, something that doesn’t quite belong anywhere but can move between places so that non-belonging exists as a form of liberation, ” she says.
Born and raised in Beijing, An Yu left to further her studies in the United States when she was 18. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. The 26 year old is currently back in Beijing.
Braised Pork, set mainly in the Chinese capital city, was a project that took over two years to complete.
“I live in Beijing now, which is wonderful. It has been a long time since I’ve been able to spend an extended period of time here and be able to write this way. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed writing a story set in my hometown while I was at a distance.
"Perhaps it was how some of the dreamier images in the book came about. There was fragmentation in my mental image of Beijing, which is the natural product of employing memory to portray a setting, despite me being very familiar with the place. I think the resulting atmosphere worked well for this story that is about disoriented characters searching for clarity, ” she says.
Still, sometimes even the best of plans go astray.
An Yu recalls how she was halfway through the book when the book started taking on a completely different direction that she had planned. She realised that her original outline just didn’t make sense anymore as the characters became much more complex than she had ever imagined.
“It was troubling at first, but as I accepted that, the rest of the writing process felt like I was discovering the story alongside the characters. The thrill that comes when the story goes astray must be one of the biggest pleasures of writing. I enjoyed so much of the process, but the most exciting was discovering the story as I went, ” she concludes.
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