Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Tuesday, more than fifty Swatties gathered in the packed McCabe reading room to listen to Yu Hua, one of most famous writers in China, discuss his latest novel “Brothers”. One of the most influential writers in China, Yu Hua has written four best-selling novels and is the recipient of many prestigious awards, such as the James Joyce Award. This event was his third visit to Swarthmore and one of his last book tour stops before he heads back home to China.
Before Yu Hua discussed his novel and fielded questions from the audience, two Swatties, Alex Grant ’09 and Fletcher Coleman ’09, read an excerpt from Brothers. The novel is a story about two stepbrothers and their lives. Set against the background of modern China, the book also follows how the protagonists and other characters cope with their village’s transformation from a rural town to a modernized city.
This particular excerpt discussed the popularity of Western suits in the 1980s in China and displayed the humor and wit in Yu Hua’s writing. In the chapter, the village men are captivated by the idea of wearing fashionable modern suits and have resorted to sewing the names of famous Japanese surnames in order to increase their suits’ prestige. Coleman describes the excerpt as “both humorous and containing meaningful observations about 1980’s China.”
After the students’ reading, Yu Hua discussed Brothers and told entertaining anecdotes about his experience writing this novel. Through translator Aly Xiang ’10, he remarked on the background of wearing these popular Western suits and the role of nationalism. Moving the discussion from the chapter excerpt to his novel, Yu Hua explains why he wrote this novel.
He elaborates (with Aly Xiang’s English translation), “I feel that during the Cultural Revolution, the suppression of the human rights is comparable to the Euproean Middle Ages. So by this analogy, Europeans have to live 400 years to experience the transformation of modernization whereas the Chinese need to only live for 40 years to experience this.”
Yu Hua explains that he wanted to capture and record these memories and as a writer, he wanted to describe the great disparity of time as well as the disparities of experiences in two people living at the same time, such as the two brothers in his novel.
Also noting his duties as a writer, Yu Hua remarks on his ability to expose the dark sides of reality. Using a park analogy, he explains that he wanted to write about more than just a beautiful park; he wants to provide a panoramic view that exposed the flaws and injustices in the world.
Using wit and humor, Yu Hua engaged the audience with funny stories about his book tour experiences and process of writing the novel. The audience often erupted in enthusiastic laughter and applause, sometimes even before Xiang translated Hua’s words into English.
Swattie students and professors alike seemed appreciative of his personable nature, humorous stories, and interesting insight on life. Describing his general impression of Hua, Arthur Chyan ’10 explains, “He was a very entertaining speaker, often sharing personal anecdotes about a variety of experiences ranging from his relationship with publishing companies to reporters and more… I was surprised by his openness to share stories so freely with a community he is not extremely familiar with.”
Most of the audience members seemed drawn to this event because of Hua’s international celebrity as a writer. Chyan explains, “I attended the event because it was an Asian and Pacific Islander /
American Heritage Month event, and because I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to meet one of the most famous novelists in the world.” Eleanor Glewwe ‘12 also elaborates on Yu Hua’s celebrity, “I heard from a friend that Yu Hua was really famous, and she told me that he had written the book that was made into a movie mentioned in my Chinese textbook. I’m interested in Chinese culture and creative writing, so I thought I would enjoy this event.”
At the end of his talk, audience members eagerly bought Yu Hua’s Brothers and To Live and lined up for autographs. Many left with a good impression of Hua’s deep insight of modern China and his humorous take on it. Coleman elaborates, “I thought the event went very well, people asked meaningful questions, seemed to enjoy the readings, and really got a kick out of Yu Hua. I personally very much enjoyed my time with the author and thought he had both a great sense of humor while making many meaningful observations about life in China and life in general.”