China writer Ma Jian chooses exile to preserve integrity

China writer Ma Jian chooses exile to preserve integrity
(From left) Moderator Kwok Kian Woon with Kim Young Ha, Dina Zaman, Alvin Pang, Ma Jian and a translator.

An exiled writer's capacity to influence developments in his country may be limited, but leaving a repressive society is also the only way to keep his integrity.

Acclaimed Chinese writer Ma Jian, who has lived in exile for 26 years, made this point at a Singapore Writers Festival discussion last Saturday evening on the topic, The Writer In A Country's Intellectual Life.

Singapore poet Alvin Pang, Malaysian writer Dina Zaman and Korean novelist Kim Young Ha were the other authors featured on the panel.

Those living in countries where critical discourse is open, like Dina, said they felt a responsibility to raise the intellectual tenor of political debate. The hour-long discussion at Singapore Management University, attended by about 100 people, was one of more than 40 panels held during the 10-day festival's opening weekend.

Ma's books, including his latest novel The Dark Road (2013) about the impact of the country's draconian one-child policy on village women, have been banned in China since 1987, when he fled Beijing for Hong Kong and then London, where he now lives.

Five of his books have been translated into English and they have drawn rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times and The Guardian.

Explaining why he chose exile, the outspoken former photojournalist, 60, spoke about the "literary inquisition" that has prevailed in China against writers from the Song Dynasty to the present.

He said that in the past year, the Chinese government has imprisoned more than 40 underground writers for being critical of the establishment.

He drew a parallel with the past half century of political turmoil in Latin America, resulting in numerous writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda going into exile. "In situations like these, only exiles can comment meaningfully on a state of affairs in a country."

Criticising the self-censorship of authors in China, where one-party rule and breakneck economic growth have spun off various social and environmental problems, he quipped: "In a place like China where even the air is politicised, it's very hard not to write about politics.

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