Can Xue, meaning ‘dirty snow, leftover snow’, is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, author of many novels and short works of fiction in Chinese. Her publications in English include Dialogues in Paradise (short stories), Old Floating Cloud (two novellas), The Embroidered Shoes (short stories), and most recently I Live in the Slums. Formerly a tailor, Can Xue began to write fiction in 1983, publishing her first works in 1985. The following is the introduction to an in-depth interview between Can Xue and the Asymptote Journal in which she discusses fiction as performance, imagery of the body and ‘wormlike humanoids who live underground’.
The Chinese avant-garde writer Can Xue aptly describes her fiction as a performance. Reading her fiction is like watching modern dance: like an unfolding gesture out of Merce Cunningham or Butoh (her favorite), her sentences evolve towards unpredictable, pointed conclusions. Her stories often suggest a hidden, underlying narrative—a logic of movement that dictates the actions of the players on the stage. Her characters, with their constantly shifting motives, are expressly not rounded. They are personae, masks made to articulate whatever philosophical proposition or aspect of the psyche the performance currently demands: the little boy who secretly breeds a brood of snakes in his stomach in ‘The Child Who Raised Poisonous Snakes’ or the wormlike humanoid who lives underground and burrows up, towards the unknown surface, in ‘Vertical Motion’. Chief among all the personae is Can Xue, her nom de plume. Can Xue (whose real name is Deng Xiaohua) frequently refers to herself in the third person (as she does in the interview below) and even writes reviews of her own novels, as if her protean, dreamlike visions originated outside of her.
Can Xue carries on with her individual performance indifferent to those critics and readers who seek to classify and explain her. Her family was labeled ‘Rightist’ and persecuted intensely by the Communist government; her social background barred her from any formal education. She nonetheless emerged during the literary flowering of the 1980s known as the ‘High Culture Fever’ as a member of a pack of fiction writers (including Su Tong, Mo Yan, Yu Hua, to name only a few) whose works challenged the orthodoxies of social realism through formalist experimentation and vivid imagery of the body. But unlike her contemporaries, who sought out an untainted primitive past or aimed to record the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, Can Xue has no interest in Chinese folklore or politics. The bold innovations of her oeuvre—executed in a colloquial yet writerly style that emphasizes the rapid shifts in space and narrative logic—surpass the experimentation of her Chinese contemporaries. In fact, her creations are sometimes even more adventurous than those of the Western modernist writers she so admires: a long list of stated influences that includes Kafka, Borges, and Calvino. The literary journal Conjunctions has frequently featured her work, and she has won the admiration of many Western writers—Robert Coover called her ‘a world master’ and Susan Sontag declared her the one Chinese writer worthy of the Nobel Prize. She continues to stand apart from her fellow Chinese writers. As others identified with the Chinese avant-garde have since shifted towards more accessible forms of realism, Can Xue has stubbornly, movingly continued her individual performance: composing challenging experimental work.
In this sense, Can Xue’s writing is nothing less than an existential struggle. The high stakes of her gambits can be found on display in her short story, ‘Snake Island’, in which a man returns to his rural hometown after thirty years, to find that he recognizes nothing and nobody and that his family is nowhere to be found. Near the end, a villager summons him into battle. Snake Island, he explains, is divided in two, between the living and the dead, and the living must fight with the dead for territory. This is Can Xue’s neverending struggle as well: to write against the death of the soul, and to fight for an authentic life. The struggle never ends; the performance continues.