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In China, a writer dodges lightning

Chinese novelist Yan Lianke is currently in the running for the Man Booker International Prize. (Courtesy of Publishers Group Canada Perseus Books Group)

The early 20th century poet Ezra Pound liked to say that artists are the antennae of the race.

But in China, antennae sometimes become lightning rods, atttracting the wrath of a government still keen to curb insight and free speech. Being an artist in China, as writers like Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and multi-talented Ai Wei Wei know, comes with risks.

One who has danced and dodged the official lightning bolts is Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, currently in the running for the Man Booker International Prize. Yan's new book, Lenin's Kisses, is out in the U.K. this week and Guardian correspondent Tania Branigan has a timely and insightful interview with him in Beijing in which he pulls no punches.

"Chinese intellectuals haven't taken responsibility," he says. "They always have an excuse, saying they don't have a reason to talk or don't have the environment...If they could all stand up, they would have a loud voice."

Yan's last book, Dream of Ding Village, dared to deal with the tainted blood scandal that ravaged Henan province in the 1990s and caused widespread HIV infections.  But like so much of China's difficult past, it has never been dealt with openly. Government has never taken responsibility.

Yet Yan isn't just hard on others - he's equally hard on himself. He feels he didn't go far enough in his Ding Village book and self-censored himself in order to ensure the book's publication.

"I understand people who don't use their voice," he says. "I think as an author I could have taken more responsibility and I didn't."

In Mao's time this might be called a stinging 'self-criticism.' But in this interview Yan emerges as someone who is at once noble, courageous and humble.

Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller



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