Novelist Sheng Keyi Strives for Her Freedom, and So Do Her Characters

NEW YORK, November 27, 2012 — Chinese novelist Sheng Keyi told an audience here that the intent behind her first book, the novel Northern Girls, is to make the lives of the "humble women" of China known — to display how much they lack and raise awareness of their neglect by society.

Sheng appeared at Asia Society in conversation with Susan Jakes, Senior Fellow of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society, on the occasion of the recent Mandarin-to-English translation of her novel, Northern Girls. First published in China in 2004, Northern Girls has been widely acclaimed by Chinese and Western critics alike.

The novel tells the story of Qian Xiaogang, a young woman who migrates from her home village of Hunan to the cold city of Shenzhen in search of opportunity. Young, independent, and driven by a search for freedom, Xiaogang is a resilient character who endures even though she is eventually weighed down by hindrances that were once her assets.

According to Sheng, women in Shenzhen still live under the power of men and Xiaogang's sexual frustration represents her frustration with society.

This type of social commentary caused Jakes, as well as several audience members, to question what role the Chinese government has played in Sheng's authorship. Sheng clarified that the Chinese government doesn't seek control over her writing but that she does run into many problems with censorship. Ten years ago, when Northern Girls was being written, it was difficult to write about sex and family planning. Today, it is socially acceptable to write about these topics. As Sheng put it, censorship in China is "nebulous, but strict," and in her view writers need to exercise "artistry" to achieve maximum freedom.

When asked about her writing process and style, Sheng spoke fondly of her experience with Northern Girls, identifying it as her "natural expression of life and originality." Today, she is trying to find the freedom she realized in her writing ten years ago, so as to constrain it and direct it in a sustained manner. While aiming for an innovative literary style, she intends to explore the depths of human nature and the "richness of being."

Reported by Renny Grinshpan

Video: Highlights from the program (6 min., 18 sec.)


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