Ladies, gentlemen, respected jurists,
Today’s award ceremony for the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, held as it is in these unusual COVID times, in this unique fashion, will become a memory that belongs uniquely to those of us here today, stamped upon our respective literary lives. Likewise, the Newman Prize is destined to be a unique part of my literary life, no less so than the place where I was born and live. The word “Chinese” in the title of this prize denotes a language that has been separated from the land of its birth, that has been understood and assessed by another group of people, highly sensitive, who may have an even deeper understanding of this language’s subtleties. And so I believe that this literary prize from Oklahoma, for each of its recipients, serves as something of an Odyssean homecoming for Chinese-language literature.
As every tree has its roots, so every literature has its home. Languages and writers each have their homelands, places that belong to them alone. Amid
the literature of the world, we so often see “created homelands” written in languages, by writers, that have lost their own—for instance Nabokov, who lived in the United States and wrote in English; or Kundera, who even now lives in France; or Chinese writers like Gao Xingjian, Ha Jin, or Li Yiyun, living outside of China and writing in French or English. Each of them has created works of true brilliance, yet we could not fathom or describe the striving and suffering they underwent as they—for various reasons—gave up their native language, and wrote. By comparison, I have been unusually lucky. Not only does my language’s homeland still belong to me, it is a homeland of uncommon substantiality. The world is full of writers with their own languages, their own homelands, to be sure, but I believe that few of them can compare when it comes to a homeland with such a particular reality as mine.