STOCKHOLM — This year’s Nobel Prize in literature winner says his greatest challenge as a writer has been to reflect the social realities of his native China without letting personal political opinions suppress his work.
In his much-awaited Nobel lecture in Stockholm on Friday, Guan Moye who uses the pen name Mo Yan, mostly steered clear of politics but described the constraints he has experienced when he has allowed politics to hamper his writing.
The 57-year-old novelist, the first Chinese national to win the literature award, said “heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event.”
He gave his work “The Garlic Ballads” as an example. The novel, which depicts a peasant uprising and corruption, was banned in China after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
Mr. Mo, whose popular, sprawling, bawdy tales bring to life rural China, is the first Chinese winner of the literature prize who is not a critic of the authoritarian government. He has been criticized for being a member of the Communist Party and vice president of the party-backed writers’ association.
Mo Yan, which means “don’t speak” — something he describes as “an ironic expression of self-mockery” — said that even though novelists are entitled to their opinions, they “must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.”
Mr. Mo has also been accused of not defending free speech enough and refusing to appear with dissident writers at overseas literary seminars.
He said he was upset by the controversy following the announcement that he had won this year’s literature prize.
“But over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater,” he said, noting that “for a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated.”
Dedicating the speech to his late mother, the literature laureate focused on describing his poor upbringing in the rural eastern Chinese village of Gaomi. He said it was the place where he learned “what real courage is,” and that it taught him to understand true compassion.
Most of his works are set in this rural environment, including “Red Sorghum” (1987), probably his best known novel to English-language readers, thanks in part to Zhang Yimou’s acclaimed film adaptation. The novel has sold nearly 50,000 copies in the U.S., according to the publisher Penguin Group (USA), a strong number for a translated work.
Mr. Mo’s output has been prolific, which has contributed to his popularity and his impact, with books translated into English, Russian, French, German and many other languages, giving him an audience well beyond the Chinese-speaking world.
The Nobel jury in Stockholm awarded him the 2012 prize for his ability to use the written word in a way that “with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”
Among his other works highlighted by the Nobel judges were “Big Breasts & Wide Hips” (2004), “The Garlic Ballads,” and “Frogs” (2009), which centers on forced abortions and other coercive aspects of the Chinese government’s policies restricting most families to one child.
Along with the Nobel prize winners in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics, Mr. Mo will accept his award from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf at an awards ceremony in Stockholm on Monday.
The Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to the European Union this year, will be handed out in a separate ceremony in Oslo on the same day — as stated in Alfred Nobel’s will from 1895, when Norway and Sweden were in a union.