Literary awards season is upon us, with National Book Award finalists named yesterday and the Nobel Prize awarded today, to China’s Mo Yan. For the most part, the NBA picks are well-known to Americans. If not household names, they’re prominent in the literary world and many are bestselling authors: Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich, Ben Fountain, and Kevin Powers. Whereas the Nobel pick, though widely known in China and internationally acclaimed, might leave you asking, Mo who?
In recent years, there has been a fair amount of grousing that the Nobel picks are “obscure” —at least to Americans, who’d like to see the prize go to, say, Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates. If you know Mo Yan’s work, it’s likely because you saw the movie adaptation of his 1987 novel Red Sorghum, about the Japanese occupation.
It would be a wonderful thing if the awarding of the Nobel encouraged more of us to read outside our borders—in this case, to grapple with the work of a writer who weaves elements of magical realism and folklore into his narratives, which are set half a world away.
Realistically, most of us won’t rush out to buy Mo Yan’s latest (his most recent book available in English is Change, translated by Howard Goldblatt). The Nobel Prize committee has given us all a gift, however, if we stop to consider the journey of a child of rural Chinese farmers who lived through the Cultural Revolution and then created enduring literature while navigating between government censors—sometimes by using fantasy—and those who faulted him for not criticizing the Communist party enough. It’s worth noting that Mo Yan is actually a pen name that means “don’t speak.” The author, whose real name is Guan Moye, has said that chose the pseudonym because he grew up during a time when speaking out could be ruinous.
Mo Yan’s story—the one he’s lived as much as those he’s written—is one that can inspire us and make us grateful for the freedoms we have.