Writers & Company

Chinese writer Yan Ge finds solace in creating literary worlds

The Sichuan-born fiction writer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about identity, loss and the nature of being human.
Yan Ge is a fiction writer in both Chinese and English. (Ken Chen)

Fiction writer Yan Ge is a literary sensation in China, where she was named one of her country's "future literary masters." After winning a national writing competition, Ge published her first book at 17. To date, she has published 13 books, including six novels. 

Her latest work to appear in English translation is Strange Beasts of China, a mysterious, imaginative tale about a variety of unusual creatures that live among humans. Written shortly after the death of Ge's mother, it explores themes of identity, loss, and the very nature of being human. 

Another novel, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, tells the story of a rivalrous family and the hard-drinking, misogynist manager of the town's local chili bean paste factory. Ge was inspired by her hometown of Pixian, in Sichuan province, which is known for producing the famous chili bean paste. 

Ge was born into a literary family in 1984. In 2015, she moved to Dublin with her Irish husband, where she began writing in English. Her English-language debut, a short story collection, is set to be published in 2023. 

Ge spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Norwich, England.

A provincial place

"When I was growing up, my town in southwestern China was very small. It was a provincial place called Pixian. It has a different name now because recently it was made into the urban district of Chengdu, so now it is part of the city. But back then, Pixian was absolutely provincial. 

"You walked past fields on your way back home from school. I remember the streets being dusty and potholed. Most importantly, everybody knew everybody. We had a saying, roughly translated, that 'one could walk from South Street to North Street without carrying a penny' — because everybody knows you, and your family, and they would give you water or food if you need anything. 

It's a small and intimate community. Looking back now, I miss that kind of intimacy. But back then I found it stifling.

"It's a small and intimate community. Looking back now, I miss that kind of intimacy. But back then, I found it stifling. Even as a child I could see how it was confining. This is a typical story of somebody who is from a small town — I just couldn't wait to get out of it."

Flavourful fiction

"Chengdu is known for a spicy, flavourful chili bean paste product. The significance of it is that it's widely used in the local cuisine. I think the official slogan for that product is 'the soul of Sichuan cuisine.' That's how widely it's used.

"Personally, I didn't really like the chili bean paste when I was a child living in Pixian. The reason for that was because I was traumatized by an experience that happened when I was five. It was during a family gathering. One of my uncles picked up a small lump of the chili bean paste using his chopsticks. He dared me to eat it. 

"I remember all my cousins cheering me on, saying that if I ate it, I would be a hero — and if I didn't, I would be a loser. Naturally, as a five-year-old, I did not want to be a loser. So I ate a whole lump of the chili bean paste. It was just not pleasant.

For many, many years, I refused to eat any spicy foods. That is very atypical and quite weird where I'm from.

"For many, many years after, I refused to eat any spicy foods. That is very atypical and quite weird where I'm from. It was only when I eventually left China, and went to the United States, that I started to miss the taste of chili bean paste. I eventually ended up writing about it.

"But I'm still not the best spokesperson for it because I still don't really like spicy food!"

Mother-daughter connection

"My mother's death was the first death in my life. I was 19 years old. She was 48. Neither of us were prepared for it. I just didn't know how to deal with it.

"My mother must have talked about her illness with my father or her sister, but she never talked about it with me. I think it was because of my relationship with my mother, which was a very intense, intimate and unique relationship. We both didn't know how to face this imminent departure. She had to say goodbye to me — abandoning me, in a way, although not out of her own will. 

"I would have to find a way, psychologically, to cope with it. I would be in her hospital room a lot, but we rarely had real communication because there would always be a lot of people around. So we were kind of avoiding each other. 

My mother's death was the first death in my life. I was 19 years old.

"It would be impossible for me to talk about my mother's death in Chinese. I'm only able to talk about it in English. I find it's much easier to talk about it in English because, as my second language, it gives me that distance — as if you're narrating someone else's story."

Of humans and beasts

"For the names of the beasts in Strange Beasts of China, I wanted to find something that's very ancient-sounding. I was thinking of names and words that you could easily see in classic Chinese texts, including ancient dictionaries and encyclopedias where you have entries of different items. 

"From there, I knew I would have to feature one kind of beast per chapter. But at the same time, I was trying to draw attention to the marginalized beasts of the city in the novel. I was making pretty straightforward metaphors about marginalized, underrepresented and oppressed groups.

"Rather than saying the line is blurred between humans and beasts, it's about this sort of interchangeability. It's really about the arbitrariness of whom we see as 'the good,' whom we see as 'the bad,' whom we see as the human, whom we see as the beast. 

I was making pretty straightforward metaphors about marginalized, underrepresented and oppressed groups.

"How each one of us ended up positioned in this hierarchy feels quite arbitrary — and it feels as if they could easily be changed or swapped. It's like how we need to have the concept of 'the other' in order to be able to define ourselves. I was writing to defy this idea of separating ourselves from 'the other.' 

"Rather, I just wanted to emphasize that 'the other' could just be us."

Yan Ge's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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