Writer delivers cold, hard fiction

Source: China Daily (11/17/23)
Writer delivers cold, hard fiction
By Yang Yang

Jack Liao (second left), vice-president of Blancpain China, and Liu Ruilin (right), founder of Imaginist, present prizes to the short-listed authors at the award ceremony, as Leung Man-tao, chief consultant of Imaginist, speaks at the event. The authors are (from left to right) Fei Ying (third left), Ning Buyuan, Shao Dong, Wang Ruoxu and Yang Zhihan.[Photo provided to China Daily]

The 2023 Blancpain-Imaginist Literary Prize has been awarded to 29-year-old author Yang Zhihan [杨知寒], for her collection of short stories Yituan Jianbing [一团坚冰] (literally, “a block of solid ice”), after beating four other short-listed writers.

The award, cofounded by the Swiss luxury watchmaker and the Chinese publisher in 2018, aims to discover young Chinese writers. The winner receives 300,000 yuan ($41,160) and a Blancpain timepiece.

The prize targets writers under the age of 45 and is open to all fictional genres, said Jack Liao, vice-president of Blancpain China, at the award ceremony in Beijing last month.

Consisting of nine short stories and novellas, Yituan Jianbing recounts the sometime hard life stories of people in Northeast China, including one about a dropout girl hiding in a temple, a wild animal trainer who sends his tiger to a zoo after it kills another trainer during a performance, and a jobless young woman who is kicked out of the WeChat group of her classmates in primary and middle schools after she tries to sell products to them.

Ma Boyong, one of the five judges this year, read comments from the jury about the winning entry at the award ceremony: “Yituan Jianbing is like snow falling on the edge of a knife, or licking an icy door. She ‘freezes’ her hometown with a cold, sharp brush, then takes a step back and lightly licks it with her tongue. The warm flesh sticks to the cold surface, and every move is shocking and deeply painful.”

Born in 1994, Yang said that she started writing when she was asked to keep a diary as a primary school student.

“I didn’t know what to write, so my solution was to write a martial arts serial. One day it was about what happened to two people, and the next day I would add a new character. Later, our teacher said we didn’t need to keep the diary, but I didn’t stop writing. At first I wrote stories to finish the homework, but then it became fun, because my friends read my stories and they all asked me to add a new character for them,” she said at the award ceremony.

Talking about her book, she said: “Some of the stories in the collection are very unpleasant, but others are rather warm. I have included them in one book to represent my understanding of life. Just like the ice block on the cover of the book, which depicts a fire inside it, life has many moments when joy and sorrow exist at the same time.

Leung Man-tao (left) talks with the judges on this year’s jury at the award ceremony: (from left) Ma Boyong (second left), Tang Nuo and Ye Zhaoyan.[Photo provided to China Daily]

“I want to write about the moments that ordinary people have to face, and give people who aren’t able to express themselves the chance to do so.”

Writer Ye Zhaoyan commented on Yituan Jianbing, saying that “there are a lot of details in the book worth pondering”.

For example, in one of the stories, there is a monk chanting scriptures in a temple, wearing thin clothes. A girl waits outside for him with a quilted coat in hand, but the monk’s forehead sweats profusely while he chants.

“But why was he sweating profusely? The writer didn’t give the reason. I think this detail is very interesting and surprising. Older writers like me are very likely to write more about this kind of detail, but Yang simply buried many such details in the stories,” Ye said.

The other short-listed works are Tianzhu Chuanqi (A Legend of Dzi Bead), a novella collection by Fei Ying; Mi Lianfen, a novel by Ning Buyuan; Kongqi Jita (Air Guitar), a short story collection by Shao Dong, and Kuangre (Fanaticism), a novel by Wang Ruoxu.

Each year, the Blancpain-Imaginist Literary Prize has a different theme. This year, it was “we must defend complexity”.

“Anyone will agree that the time we are living in is very complex. …I sincerely think that things have never been like today; we have to face such a complicated world, but we expect to learn about it in increasingly simpler ways,” said Leung Man-tao, chief consultant of Imaginist, explaining the theme and giving the example of using a three-minute video to learn about ChatGPT.

“But can such simple methods really help us learn history, or about the increasingly complicated world and people?

“What’s more, nowadays, a lot of people like to rely on stories to decide whether an idea, a product, or a place is good or not, rather than on more profound and complicated knowledge of the topic,” he said, “as if it’s the case that, if the stories are well told, even bad things will become good.

“However, for me what’s most troublesome is that together with the simplified ways I have mentioned, a method that we are familiar with has formed,” he said.

News stories on social media — their titles, content, or structure — look so similar to each other that they always seem to stir up an emotional response, he said, adding that, “all these simplified stories on social media are urging us to judge what is right or wrong as quickly as possible, so that we can find a simple, clear and righteous perspective to give a thumbs-up to or comment on”.

Maybe every era is complicated, but now people like to use the simplest stories to talk about our complicated world, and that is why today complexity must be defended, he said.

It is thus the hope, Leung said, that fiction can sometimes work like a high-powered microscope to see through grand narratives in popular stories and focus on details that people often fail to notice, much like telescopes on satellites, which can look from afar, enabling people to see that the forest that they inhabit is like a drop in the ocean.

Liao said: “The theme was meant to encourage young people to read, discuss and have valuable thoughts about it.”

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