I headed over to the PEN cafe on the second day of the London Book Fair because I had heard that Chinese author and screen-writer Bi Feiyu was going to be interviewed. I first heard about Bi from a friend who I work on the Society of Young Publisher’s magazine InPrint with. I hadn’t considered quite how packed it would get in the relatively small cafe area so I was pretty pleased I had got there so early to grab a decent seat as most people had to stand. I pretty much wrote down as much as I could and because Bi had a translator with him as he doesn’t speak much English, I hope that what I did manage to scribble down is accurate. I’ve tidied it up as much as I can as my notebook would have made any doctor proud.
Arts and current affairs journalist Rosie Goldsmith interviewed Bi Feiyu, and this is what was said.
R.G: Twenty-one authors were invited to take part in this year’s Chinese Market Focus at the London Book Fair. You have spent over 20 years writing and you have produced ten novels, two of which have been translated into English. Why have you decided to get involved with the international market now?
B.F: It is a good time for me to be known. If you had met me earlier in my life and read my stories, I may not have been mature enough. My writing wouldn’t have been as developed as it is now. I wouldn’t have been good enough to meet you.
R.G: Your story Three Sisters explores the psychological impact of the cultural revolution on a family. Can you tell us more about why you chose to write about that topic?
B.F: There are two reasons why I decided to write Three Sisters. The first is that it is literature. After the revolution it became fashionable to write countryside novels, which often lacks a portrayal of characters. I wrote Three Sisters and then some other stories before I realized that whatever you write you cannot take the characters away with you. The second reason was politics. It is a new century for us and young people barely remember anything. I’m a post-cultural revolution author. I didn’t go through the revolution and I believe the youth shouldn’t have forgotten about it so fast. There are authors who write about WW2, why can’t they write about what happened with us? Three Sisters was made into a play, at first I was worried that it wouldn’t be accepted or liked by people but the result was really good and it opened a new chapter for me.
R.G: Your books explore both empathy and psychology, but there is also a lot of sex in your stories. Was that a conscious decision?
B.F: Three Sisters is about the cultural revolution. To the outside reader they might view our economy to be the real disaster, but for us, it had an impact on our bodies too. Sex was a shameful word in that period. Sex aside, if I talked to a girl when I was in school it was seen as improper, it was similar to medieval Europe. We were made to feel the features of our body were ugly, as was long hair. It was a huge strain on the human body and humanity. Sex is so great because it can’t really be restricted. You can control sex but inside people’s hearts there is always a storm going on. I hope the sex in this book comes through because it is important. from beginning to end. No matter about the politics – sex is great. We currently have a sexual freedom in China that I don’t think you experience even here in the UK.
R.G: You write in a very cinematic way. Do you write deliberately in that visual way with the hope of more film adaptations?
B.F: Not really. When I collaborated with a director in the past for the film Shanghai Triad he told me to write the way I liked in the screenplay. Then he took a look at what I’d done and deleted most of it. I wasn’t paid well because of it.
R.G: In total you have written 10 novellas, 4 long novels and short stories. If you could chose one more to be translated into English, which one would it be?
B.F: I wish that all my books and stories were translated into English. I sound greedy but I’m not. If you want to understand an author, reading one of his novels is not enough. I would like Chinese Massage to be translated into English. It was published in 2008 and is about a society of blind people. From start to end, every character is blind. China has a huge population and a large number are blind. For a long time, blind people were neglected by society. When I wrote this book I wanted to pull the readers in to the dark side of society. Metaphorically, an author shouldn’t embody himself with an image for his reader. What a character symbolizes is more important. Shakespeare’s work isn’t about how great Shakespeare is, Shakespeare symbolizes Britain and it’s readers who read Shakespeare.
R.G: Do you feel free to write what you want?
B.F: There isn’t any author who can really write what they want. Everyone can read from a very young age and build their own perspectives of the world. A serious and responsible writer should respect his own interests. Regarding which part is not free, I’m not sure. I am free but I have my own ideas and will express them my own way. Never underestimate the power of an author to express themselves.
R.G: What is your reaction to controversy surrounding the China Market Focus at The London Book Fair and the 21 government approved authors who have flown over to the fair?
B.F: Controversy is good. It is inhumane to stop other people criticizing you. China felt that the Chinese Market Focus was the right thing to do. It is always good for a family to invite close friends over. But it is also good to invite new friends over too. I will still come to Britain even if the British people don’t want me. I will walk or swim if I need to.
Image from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn
And there you have it. Although what Bi Feiyu said was translated he was very personable and he came across very well. His translator was excellent and made the Q&A transitions seamless. I will definitely be visiting the PEN cafe again next year!