By Chu T’ien-wen
Translated by Ping Zhu
Upon being awarded the 2015 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, Chu T’ien-wen gave the following acceptance speech at the award ceremony on March 6, 2015, at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. In her speech, Chu uses the mythological narrative to tackle the perennial question between reality and literature. Quoting Calvino, Chu tells the audience that reality is like Medusa’s head, but different writers treat this monstrous head differently—some use it as a weapon and some change it into beautiful corals.
Watch Chu T’ien-wen’s acceptance speech, and other videos from the 2015 Newman Award Banquet, at the website of the OU Institute for US-China Issues.
First, like all other laureates, I thank the host of the Newman Prize, the Institute for US-China Issues at the University of Oklahoma, and the Newman jurists.
I am truly grateful to the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, because until now, I had never imagined that I would fly from a distant subtropical island to this continent to join this banquet with all of you. The Chinese word yuanfen 緣分 describes the convergence of various causes and conditions. At this time, in this space, not sooner, not later, it happens precisely here and now. Our meeting is one such amazing convergence, and I am thankful for it.
Moments like this make people want to be silent and ponder what literature means to us. I will talk about myself, about my own relationship as a writer with writing, as well as my relationship to the world in which we live.
You probably have heard the Greek myth about Medusa, a female monster with hair of snakes. Everyone who looked at her face turned to stone. Therefore no one could kill her, except Perseus. How did Perseus accomplish it? Flying in a pair of winged sandals, he fought with Medusa without looking at her face—instead, he watched her reflection in his polished bronze shield, and he killed her.
The Italian writer Italo Calvino regards the snake-haired Medusa as a metaphor for reality. The gravity of reality hardens and petrifies people, but the relationship between a writer and reality is different: a writer relies on winds and clouds, eyes fixed only on indirect visual representations, that is, the reflections caught in the mirror. Writing is not meant to record or imitate reality. The power of Perseus lies in his rejection of staring at reality face to face. At that moment, words, and everything carried by words over thousands of years of sedimentation, become the mirrored surface of that bronze shield. Reality loses its weight in the reflection of this bronze shield, and the curse of petrification is lifted.
Therefore, I am grateful to the Newman Prize jurist who referred to my novel Witch’s Brew as “a work [that] probes still more insistently into the nature of writing itself.” The title Wuyan 巫言 literally means “a witch’s words.” The most important tool or skill of witches is their ability to awaken the souls of multitudes of things, and to change the outlook of reality. The witchcraft of novel-writing dates back to the most primordial, pre-Adamic age, when witchcraft was cognate to and parallel with science, and was used to understand the world, the surrounding phenomena, the situation of the self, and the nature of knowledge. My novel is named after the witch, and it speaks for my aspirations. However, my younger sister, Chu T’ien-hsin, who is also a writer, commented that my book “vividly and thoroughly captures an era which I belong to and live in.” I am greatly honored by this statement.
The Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata once said: “I don’t believe in the postwar world and its customs, nor do I believe in the things in real life.” Such a novelist can forsake his life and the decrepitude state of reality, or the people and things that are terrible in his eyes, but the witches of novel-writing do not work like this. They have, in Calvino’s words, “another level of perception,” with which they search for the power to alter reality.
Therefore, the tale of Medusa is not finished yet. It still beckons us to see that Perseus in fact did not refuse to see the reality in which he was destined to live; he carried this reality with him, accepted it, and regarded it as a unique burden on himself.
You see, after Perseus killed Medusa, he put her head into a bag and used it as his secret weapon. He used it to turn the sea monster Cetus into stone and thus rescued Andromeda. After his victory, Perseus wanted to wash his hands in the water. He made the ground soft with leaves, spread out some water plants, and cautiously placed the head of Medusa facedown on them. A miracle happened at the touch of Medusa’s head: the water plants hardened and turned into corals. In order to obtain the corals for decoration, the sea nymphs picked twigs and seaweed and vied for turns to place them in front of this terrifying head.
Calvino’s narrative stops here. Taiwanese critic Tang Nuo 唐諾 continues it. He states that there are many great writers in the world who appear to be unencumbered by refusing to look at reality directly, yet they still carry Medusa’s head with them. Let me list three examples: first, Milan Kundera, who fled Prague but was reluctant to enter Western Europe. His novels contain more weapons than decorative corals. Second, Gabriel García Márquez, who was the master of magical imaginations, but who declared of his own writing that “there is not a single line that is not based on reality”; thus Márquez kept a balance between the weapons and the corals. Third, the playful Calvino, who resides at the other end of the spectrum—he was inclined to lay down the weapons and create beautiful coral trees for the world.
Finally, my thoughts turn to the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, a writer of writers. He said: “At any moment we all change into somebody else.” Isn’t this true? Somebody else. Because we believe in words and literature, we are gathered here tonight. Yet as soon as we walk out of this room, we enter the vibrant age of the Internet, where the most popular genre is the weibo 微博, the Chinese microblog style of writing in no more than 140 characters. It seems people’s tolerance for the length of writing is waning. Tonight, I send Borges’s words to the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature in return, and I thank everyone who has come to congratulate me. Indeed, we all change into somebody else.
The title is a reference to Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, ed. Richard Burgin (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1998), 184.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 5 No. 2