Geling Yan

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Geling Yan in 2014

Geling Yan (Simplified Chinese: 严歌苓; pinyin: Yán Gēlíng; born November 16, 1958) is a Chinese-American author and screenwriter.


  • I don't see myself in the circle of Asian-American writers. My English is only that of a 15-year-old. I don't feel confident enough to write about contemporary America. China has been the subject of my writings, no matter where I am. However, I'm not completely Chinese - more an outsider of China's affairs. I have the right to speak on the subjects that I lived through
  • There are still many problems that aren't answered in China. As a writer, I have to keep searching for truth. The Chinese government still neglects many mistakes that were made during the Cultural Revolution and covering the facts. We need to revisit the old wounds.
  • I believe all free thinkers, all artists and writers, should be independent from the mainstream so they won’t take the value system or moral standards of the mainstream for granted. They should take it as their duty to question and doubt the way of life and way of thinking of the majority. I am glad to live overseas as a Chinese writer, to remain independent and critical of both sides.
  • What makes me choose to write a particular story as fiction only depends on how interesting the story is and how much literary and aesthetic value I can see in it. In China, I don’t believe there are enough good literature and artistic works of aesthetic value that have been created on this war. So far, most are just crass propaganda. Literature doesn’t stop war, but it helps us understand what war can do to human hearts, and what worst or best behaviors war can trigger from us.
  • Under normal circumstances, I will not travel until a novel is finished.If there is an agreed itinerary, I will calculate the time at home, enough to write a lot of work. If I am writing a novel and encounter an urgent matter of traveling, I will be very upset and even painful. If more than half of the work has been written, and the tone of voice of this work has been formed, then I will feel better, otherwise, when I come back from a trip and sit at the desk, I want to give up because the tone is out of tone and the sense of language is weak.
  • Of course, the vision of many works, such as the sense of picture and imagery, is actually unconscious by the writer. If the writer is conscious, he will write very artificial things.
  • It’s frustrating seeing things lost in translation. Some expressions are just so Chinese, or so English, you have to switch your thinking to English in order to write it with spontaneity and naturally.
  • I don’t think a novel has a function or a mission such as teaching somebody something. Instead, I think a novelist, by writing a story in the most vivid way, with poetry of language and by sharing it with the public, is willing to discover the truth about the story together with the readers. I have written stories about women suffering during wars and after wars, because I think that no matter who wins or loses, women on both side are the ultimate victims. Their bodies are the last part of a defeated country to be conquered, to be violated. They are the mothers, wives, and daughters of soldiers whose lost lives leave voids in the women’s lives, too deep to be filled.
  • I think the Chinese are a people of survival. We are all wonderful survivors. We have risen in population during the last century, a century in which wars and famines have happened all the time. We have survived natural and political disasters almost every other year during the last sixty years. Without optimism I don’t think my people could live until today. I have gone to poor rural areas in China and seen destitute people joke and jest and laugh. I can imagine Chinese at the bottom of society, surviving like them over thousands of years. They must have a good sense of humor to go through hardship, and they must have learned how to steal whatever small pleasure they can to hold on to their dear life. I can’t imagine that any people could survive so many centuries of sorrow if to live only means to suffer. They have learned to steal joy, however little, out of the overall suffering.

Interview with the Big Thrill


"Up Close: Geling Yan" in The Big Thrill (30 April 2021)

  • Don’t you think all women need to be admired, and welcome it? Admiration comes out of sensitivity and attention. Admiration includes paying attention to every detail of her body, decoding her body language, being sensitive to her subtlest gestures, being aware of all the expressions behind her expression. Women always feel that the people closest to them don’t understand, don’t comprehend them; that they lack the sensitivity that comes from true passion. Without this sensitivity and understanding, women lack a sense of security and don’t have the impulse to open their hearts completely.
  • I realized that on the internet, you can hide in invisibility, so speaking with another person is kind of like speaking to another part of yourself, or like confessing to a priest of your own creation. So it becomes very daring, very frank, with a desire to give the burdens you carry in your heart to the other person, to have that other person share the burden. Secrets are very heavy, and someone who keeps a huge secret cannot live carefree. Over time, the corrosiveness of secrets can erode the most intimate relationships.
  • As I mentioned previously, on the internet everyone enjoys being nameless, having the privilege and protection of anonymity. It is like a person hiding in a crowd; if the crowd curses, he curses along with it, and only by cursing along with it does he feel safe. But if he doesn’t curse along with it, he loses the crowd’s protection and is not safe. On the internet many people tell the truth, or attack others, or curse others, anonymously, thinking that if they can disappear into the vast ocean of the anonymous crowd they can feel safe.
  • I don’t consider myself a successful screenwriter. I write screenplays because I have no choice. Often I’m simply the director’s last resort. I think that good novel-writing emphasizes characterization. It’s the personality that makes a good movie or novel character unforgettable.
  • I think Chinese is a difficult language to translate. Every time a draft translation of my work lands on my desk, I read it as if it were someone else’s work. I think I have the ability to stay detached and read my own work objectively, because when I read a translation draft, I rarely compare a sentence or a paragraph with my original work. The only time I do is when I discover a passage that doesn’t sound right. I don’t nitpick. It’s unfortunate that Chinese is a such a unique language, with origins so different from Western languages, so every time I read a translation, I feel something is lost, some of the strength or color.
  • But these days in China the authorities don’t grant my novels official book licensing numbers, so there’s no way to publish them in China. For that reason, I’m considering writing in English again. I swim every day, and when I swim, I feel that swimming laps back and forth is rather boring, so I think about a novel’s structure, its beginning, its characters and such, and that way I enjoy swimming more. After I have swum for a few more months, maybe I can talk more concretely about my next project.