Mo Yan and the Oklahoma Connection

The naming of Mo Yan as the 2012 Nobel Laureate in Literature was not just a honor for the Chinese writer. It was also a coup for an American university press already poised to release one of the next of Mo Yan’s novels to be published in English translation.

Spirits were high at the University of Oklahoma Press on Thursday after the news broke. “We are certainly pleased to stand in the glow of Mo Yan’s achievements and this momentous recognition of his work,” wrote the press’s editor in chief, Charles E. Rankin, in an e-mail.

Within hours of the announcement, the press moved to finalize the cover for Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death, changing the design to include a banner flagging the author as a Nobel laureate. Oklahoma now plans to have the novel available in December, before its official release in early January.

Sandalwood Death is the second title in a new series that marks something of a departure for Oklahoma, a publisher better known for books in such fields as American Indian studies and Western and military history.

The Chinese Literature Today Series is part of partnership linking the University of Oklahoma with Beijing Normal University and China’s Han Ban Cultural Agency. The new series is edited by Jonathan Stalling, an associate professor of English at Oklahoma who specializes in comparative literature and poetics.

He is co-founder and managing editor of Chinese Literature Today,  which publishes literature in translation, interviews, criticism, and other features.

Sandalwood Death takes place in China during the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) and features an “artisanal killer,” among other vivid characters, says Stalling. “Readers of world literature and scholars alike will both be stunned by the way [Mo Yan] figuratively and literally dismembers the late Qing dynasty from the point of view of an executioner.” The story “brings a kind of cataclysmic rupture of China from the premodern to the modern period.”

All of Mo Yan’s previous novels in English translation, among them Red Sorghum, Big Breasts, and Wide Hips, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, and The Garlic Ballads, were published by a trade house. So how did a university press acquire Sandalwood Death?

“To shift from a trade to a university press was something Mo Yan and his agents were obviously cautious about,” says Stalling. Chinese Literature Today began courting authors for the series four years ago. The first book, Winter Sun, by the poet Shih Zhi, was published in early 2012. “We don’t have the financing and clout of a big New York trade house, so each one of these books comes out of a very long, hands-on negotiation,” says Stalling.

He cites a number of personal and institutional links that established “a conversation” with Mo Yan. The Chinese writer had close ties with Beijing Normal, a partner in the series. In 2009 Mo Yan won the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, awarded by the University of Oklahoma. And the new series was crucially championed to Mo Yan by Howard Goldblatt, the sole translator of all of the author’s novels into English.

“Mo Yan and Howard Goldblatt have a very special relationship,” says Stalling. “Mo Yan’s prose, which is very vernacular, is located” in Gaomi, the rural community in Shandong Province where he was born Guan Moye in 1955. The author, whose pseudonym means “Don’t Speak,” mixes “vernacular and high literary classical influences from the Chinese canon, but also from hidden idiolects of China’s peasantry,” Stalling adds. “The language is radically heterogeneous—and ambitious—in Chinese.”

“The language is very colorful, and it’s incredibly difficult to translate that kind of texture,” Stalling continues. “After many years of translating, Howard has developed an intuition of how to register the different kinds of language that weave through a Mo Yan novel.”

Goldblatt had a long day on Thursday. NPR called for a comment at 5 a.m. A former professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame, Goldblatt says he has translated some 50 books from Chinese into English, with Mo Yan and a 1930s female author named Xiao Hong his favorites.

He first encountered Mo Yan’s work in 1987, when he was spending a year in Manchuria. “I was just really taken by his stories … this is a new kind of writing,” he recalls thinking. “I want to see more about this fellow.” After reading one of Mo Yan’s earlier novels, “I just simply wrote a letter to China and ran him down.”

Goldblatt has translated seven of Mo Yan’s novels into English. Most recent are Oklahoma’s Sandalwood Death and POW! (forthcoming from Seagull Books, an Indian publisher distributed by the University of Chicago Press). Goldblatt hasn’t yet talked to the new laureate but is looking forward to telling Mo Yan how elated he is at the news.

Mo Yan “is really the only Chinese author who at this particular time was a logical candidate for the prize: age, quantity, quality, style of writing, visibility throughout the world,” Goldblatt muses. “There was really no one else who meets all of those criteria. There may be more coming down the line, but right now just him.”

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