Long­ing for the moth­er­land

An­other ex­iled dis­si­dent who has built a life out­side china still feels its pull.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By CLARISSA OON

UN­TIL two years ago, Lon­don-based Chi­nese dis­si­dent writer Ma Jian could still visit China, al­beit with the po­lice tail­ing his ev­ery move.

Ahead of the 2008 Bei­jing Olympics, he re­calls be­ing “in­vited to tea” by pub­lic se­cu­rity of­fi­cers at the cap­i­tal’s five-star Sher­a­ton Great Wall Ho­tel and “re­minded not to meet up with ‘sen­si­tive’ in­di­vid­u­als such as Liu Xiaobo”.

Liu is a writer and ac­tivist who was im­pris­oned in 2009 and awarded the 2010 No­bel Peace Prize.

Be­tween 2008 and 2009, Ma, now 60, jour­neyed se­cretly through the ru­ral back­wa­ters of cen­tral and south-western China, re­search­ing the abor­tions and ster­il­i­sa­tion forced on vil­lage women un­der the coun­try’s dra­co­nian one-child pol­icy.

That re­search forms the nub of his lat­est novel The Dark Road (2013). The writer was in Sin­ga­pore last month to speak at the Sin­ga­pore Writ­ers Fes­ti­val and pro­mote his book (re­viewed in these pages in May).

But when Ma last tried to visit China in 2011 to see his ter­mi­nally ill mother be­fore she died, he was barred from en­ter­ing via the Hong Kong-Shen­zhen bor­der.

A few weeks later, he was given spe­cial dis­pen­sa­tion to re­turn to his home­town in the eastern Chi­nese port city of Qing­dao to bury her ashes.

Since then, Ma – who has lived in ex­ile for 26 years, first in Hong Kong and then Lon­don – has no longer been al­lowed to en­ter the coun­try of his birth. This pains him deeply.

“I miss all the Chi­nese-speak­ing cities and vil­lages, be­cause my whole life has been spent de­scrib­ing the hopes and tragedies of the land,” he writes in Chi­nese in an e-mail in­ter­view.

Should po­lit­i­cal re­stric­tions one day be lifted and he can en­ter and leave the coun­try freely, “I will buy the first ticket back to Bei­jing”, he adds can­didly.

His wish af­ter his death is for his ashes to be scat­tered “by the sea” in his na­tive Qing­dao.

A pho­to­jour­nal­ist back in China in the early 1980s, Ma has drawn a ris­ing cho­rus of ac­claim in the West for his fic­tion.

His books have been trans­lated into English by his Bri­tish wife and trans­la­tor Flora Drew. They are banned in China.

His best-known ti­tles in the English-speak­ing world are the travel mem­oir Red Dust (2002), based on his three years spent trav­el­ling around China in the mid-1980s, and satir­i­cal novel Bei­jing Coma (2008), in which he chan­nels the 1989 Tianan­men Square protests through a reimag­ined cast of flawed stu­dent heroes.

Though Ma was liv­ing in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, he had man­aged to en­ter Bei­jing dur­ing the time of the protests, which trig­gered a vi­o­lent crack­down by the Com­mu­nist Party and re­mains a taboo sub­ject in China.

Red Dust sold more than 50,000 copies and won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 2002.

As for Bei­jing Coma (re­viewed in these pages in July 2008), pub­lished on the cusp of the 20th an­niver­sary of the protests, The New York Times hailed it as “an ex­traor­di­nar­ily ef­fec­tive novel but also an im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal state­ment”.

Bri­tish news­pa­per The Guardian wrote in its re­view: “This vivid, pun­gent, of­ten blackly funny book is a mighty ges­ture of re­mem­brance against the en­croach­ing forces of si­lence.”

Ma also wrote The Noo­dle Maker (2004) about the ab­sur­di­ties of the post-Tianan­men Chi­nese so­ci­ety, and Stick Out Your Tongue (2007), a col­lec­tion of un­var­nished short sto­ries on Ti­bet that run counter to its of­ten ro­man­ti­cised global im­age.

All these books have been trans­lated by Drew and pub­lished by ma­jor Bri­tish pub­lisher The Ran­dom House Group un­der var­i­ous lit­er­ary im­prints.

They have also been ren­dered by other trans­la­tors into lan­guages such as French, Span­ish, Ger­man, Ja­panese, He­brew and Korean.

Ma and his wife, now in her mid-40s, met in Hong Kong in 1997. She was then work­ing for an Amer­i­can news agency, cov­er­ing the ter­ri­tory’s han­dover to the main­land. He had al­ready left China and was work­ing in the ter­ri­tory as a pub­lisher and ed­i­tor of lit­er­ary and arts pe­ri­od­i­cals.

He later re­lo­cated to Lon­don to be with her. The city has been their home for over a decade and they have four chil­dren, aged be­tween two and 10.

De­spite liv­ing in the Bri­tish cap­i­tal for so long, he says he is far from be­ing flu­ent in English. He has lit­tle need to speak it be­cause his wife trans­lates for him, and she and their chil­dren all un­der­stand Man­darin. — The Straits Times, Sin­ga­pore/Asia News Net­work

China boy: Lon­don-based chi­nese dis­si­dent writer ma Jian still longs to be ‘among the chi­nese-speak­ing vil­lages’ of his home­land. — ran­domhouse.au.com

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