In 2010, I was teaching a World Literature intro class at an arts college in Santa Fe and Daniel Halpern’s international reader The Art of the Story (2000) was one of my principal texts. In the collection there were only a couple writers I had never heard of and one was Can Xue, of China, whose story “The Child Who Raised Poisonous Snakes” was one of the strangest, most haunting stories I had ever read. My tastes have always veered toward the magical, absurd, dark, and the deeply and genuinely bizarre, so it hooked me, rather relentlessly. It got deep into me and became a part of me rather immediately, as if absorbed into my bloodstream. My daydream life—an indispensable part of any writer-brain—for weeks felt drenched by this tale. I finally decided to teach it, though I had no idea how to teach it. I felt speechless before it and nobody said much the whole class. Some of my students said they were traumatized by it—and a few also shared my obsession. Occasionally after that class ended, even months after and in one case years after, I’d still get emails from those students: what was that story about the kid with the snakebites, who ate snakes? Which does it a disservice, of course—which should tell you something not just about that story, but what it means to read Can Xue.
I didn’t let myself ever get over Can Xue, and I guess I could say she never let me go either. She has become one of my most treasured inspirations and models. Can Xue’s name—a pseudonym that means both “the dirty snow that refuses to melt” and “the purest snow at the top of a high mountain”—is synonymous with Chinese experimental literature. She is the author of four novels, fifty novellas, 120 short stories, and six book-length commentaries, with only a half a dozen of her works published in English (she has had five English translators, all of whom she refers to like they are close collaborators and even friends). She is known as the Chinese avant-garde storyteller. She also happens to be one of the great enigmas of contemporary letters.
It was more than just that story that got me. I started at the beginning with Dialogues in Paradise, 1989, her first work in English. To Chinese and American realism, I raise you: “My mother has melted into a basin of soap bubbles,” not the most scandalous sentences at all in these thirteen stories that range from literalized fairy tale to warped memoir. Then I fell hardest for her novel, the surreal and often hyperreal Five Spice Street with its lunatic chorus, kaleidoscopic perspectives, whirlwind energies, in its portrait of a certain Madame X, speculated to be anywhere from her 20s to 50s, told and perhaps entirely realized via neighborhood gossip. Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories and Vertical Motion similarly did not disappoint but left me entirely awe-struck, baffled, a bit silenced even.
Then there is her self, the transmission of her writer persona through interviews, which is unlike any master one would encounter. All that opposes my training, my literary culture, and even my gut instincts as a writer lives in her self-presentation. Here is the writer as true iconoclast, the uncompromising original. A choice quote on her process: “I never edit my stories. I just grab a pen and write, and every day I write a paragraph. For more than thirty years, it’s always been like this. I believe that I am surrounded by a powerful ‘aura,’ and that’s the secret of my success. Successful artists are all able to manipulate the ‘balance of forces’—they’re that kind of extraordinarily talented people.” Of course.
She refers to herself in third person, describes fiction as a performance, and claims that all of her works are from the experiments in which she takes herself as the subject. In this sense Can Xue is almost more medium that artist, a vessel rather than a generator, creation being relegated to its perhaps most logical state: the mystical. “In my mind, my ideal readers are these: those who have read some works by the modernist writers, and who love metaphysical thinking and material thinking—both capabilities are needed for the reading of Can Xue.” Of course.
She is also of the late bloomer species, one who came to her work well into adulthood, a story I don’t relate to but now wish I did: “I decided to become a writer when I was thirty years old. But I think before that I had been preparing for this, actually, since I was three years old….. After the situation in China changed, all the literary things happened to me naturally. I have been like an erupting volcano ever since.” She began writing in 1983 and now is 61—at her peak, it feels like, though it’s hard to say when she wasn’t at a peak.
I’m not alone in my deep love of Can Xue, but you might not know it. She can often feel like an industry secret, more than a cult icon even, a deity almost among those unafraid to utter that dirty A-word ART in its rightful literary positioning, for those seeking the edges of the commercial and the marketable and the industry-friendly (the real dirty concepts in my mind). Robert Coover called her a “new world master,” Susan Sontag believed she was worthy of a Nobel, and Eileen Myles has been a longtime fan. This July her second novel in English, The Last Lover, will appear, and the US is given yet another chance to discover the most celebrated writer few have encountered here. I feel conflicted about the opportunity for larger reception; as her crazed devotee, I feel plenty protective plus a tinge of possessiveness as well. I recall reading once that that Xue was eager for more of an American audience, but I also remember reading an old interview where she expressed deep disappointment with our fiction. “I don’t care for contemporary American literature. I like my works much better. I prefer nineteenth-century American writers, like Emerson. Today’s American writer seems very superficial.” A little part of me wants to be defensive—to send her a reading list of some of my favorite American writers and their works, that she might quite like—but a greater part of me understands what she’s talking about. I think the only way to really digest that criticism is to read her work.
Can Xue has always a raised a bar we couldn’t have imagined needed that much raising. She makes a student out of all of us, and I think that for any writer, much less reader, is a radical gift.
I feel very lucky to live in the time of the great Can Xue.
- Dialogues in Paradise. Translated by Ronald R. Janssen and Jian Zhang. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989.
- Old Floating Cloud: Two Novellas. Translated by Ronald R. Janssen and Jian Zhang. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991.
- The Embroidered Shoes. Translated by Ronald R. Janssen and Jian Zhang. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.
- Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories. Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. New York: New Directions Books, 2006.
- Five Spice Street. Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
- Vertical Motion. Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2011
Porochista Khakpour is the author of the novels Sons & Other Flammable Objects (Grove, 2007) and The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014). She has received fellowships from the NEA, Ucross, Yaddo, Sewanee Writers Conference, and more. She has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Slate, Elle, Spin, and more. She currently teaches at Columbia, Fordham, and Wesleyan where she is a Visiting Writer.