Xinran was born in Beijing in 1958. She was a well-known radio journalist in China before moving to London where she wrote her 2002 memoir The Good Women of China, which has now been translated into over 30 languages. She is also the author of What the Chinese Don’t Eat (2006), a collection of her Guardian columns from 2003-2005; China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation (2008); Message From An Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love (2012); and two novels, Sky Burial (2004) and Miss Chopsticks (2007).
Why I write
My reasons are changing all the time. I wrote my first book, The Good Women of China, because I wanted to write something so that the world would be touched and moved by Chinese women. At that time I was teaching at London University and one student showed me a book on China, a huge book, with only one page dedicated to Chinese women. It quoted an ‘expert’ scholar who said Chinese women didn’t have as much emotion as Western women, that they didn’t care about color or beauty, or the clothes they wear, or even the food they eat, because they eat noodles every day. So I told my students that I would write something about real Chinese women. And I realize now that the book was actually for myself, for my son and for the Chinese women I’ve meet, most of who will never have a chance to speak for themselves.
My last book, China Witness was written for myself first. Before I became a journalist in 1988, I thought I knew everything about China and Chinese people. But when I traveled to the countryside and started talking to people I realized I knew nothing. I was very naive. I didn’t realize there was a huge gap between the city and the country, between the generations, and also between what we know and what we don’t know. I spent over 20 years trying to find out for myself and also for my son, you know, what I should tell him about his motherland. And, again, it’s also for those people I met, some of whom I’ve known for over 20 years, who have not so many chances to tell people what they thought, what they felt, what they learned, etc.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I don’t write every day, but I’m thinking about my writing almost every day. I’m mainly a non-fiction writer and, for me, thinking about things is a much longer process than the writing itself. When I start writing it’s usually in one go; for a several weeks or several months. But my thinking never stops and now I record those thoughts on a recorder I carry with me, and that’s almost every day.
Best source of inspiration?
For me, it’s conversations with people in the street. Every time I come back to China, I take the time to talk to people in the street; people who are selling food or cleaning the public toilets, for instance. I talk to them quite a lot, often as a ‘student.’ I will ask them a few questions to make them feel more knowledgeable than me, so that they will talk to me from the very beginning saying, ‘I will help you with that,’ and then you start talking from there.
How often do you get writers block / doubt your own ability?
I have English block. English writing is still quite difficult for me – like homework for students. I write all my books in Chinese first because they are non-fiction based on my interviews. But for my blog I write in English because that’s a living thing between the reader and the writer. You are just like a teacher, you know.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Mo Yan. When I read his writing, I can feel, taste and smell a typical Chinese. I find that not many modern writers can identify with real Chinese. China is so big. People from up north or from the south or from the mountains – their body language and the way they speak and the clothes they wear and the food that they eat is completely different. This is almost lost in most Chinese writers, but Mo Yan is very good about this. He doesn’t use adjectives and adverbs very much, he always uses verbs. Verbs are very lively and fresh, they let you feel the character.
Favorite Chinese writer?
In ancient times, Cao Xueqin; in modern times, Mo Yan.
Best book ever about China?
Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, definitely. There’s no question about that.
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
The book you should have read but you haven’t read?
Millions. Feng Jicai’s latest book. He’s my hero because he’s not just writing a book – he makes people think. But in literature, it’s Mo Yan.
Does writing change anything?
Yes, I think writing sheds people’s skins and also is the third path to education. Your first part of education is from your family and the second are the lessons that come from school. I believe book writing helps educate human society.