Rebel writers write the wrongs

At 19, Zhang Yueran left her home city Jinan in eastern Shandong to study computer science at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

But she got so bored that she spent a lot of time writing, she told SundayLife! recently over coffee in Beijing.

If not for her time in Singapore, Zhang, 31, said she might not have become a writer - and one may add, much less one of China's most famous young writers.

Her travels are about to come full circle as she is coming back to Singapore, this time in her capacity as an author, for the Singapore Writers Festival in November.

Zhang, whose father taught Chinese literature at university, showed literary promise as a teen.

Her stories were published in magazines from age 14. At 18, she won the prestigious New Concept youth writing contest, whose alumni includes fellow post-1980s writers Han Han and Guo Jingming.

But it was in Singapore that Zhang really blossomed as a writer, publishing two short story collections and three novels from 2003 to 2006, when she moved back to China after graduation.

In those days, the yet-to-be-famous writer could often be found in an NUS computer laboratory, toggling between java and Chinese scripts.

She toggled between China and Singapore too, writing about both from a critical distance.

She often wrote, for instance, of Changi Airport, which she viewed as the site of anomie and dislocation.

Her parents thought her first book, the short story collection Sunflower Missing In 1890, would help ease their only child's loneliness and regret about not taking the writing path. "The book was supposed to be like a farewell to writing," she said.

But readers had other ideas. They lapped up Zhang's intricate prose and musings about love and loss: Sunflower sold about 300,000 copies in China - a big deal considering that even top writers such as Yu Hua sell just 100,000 to 200,000.

She was encouraged and could hardly stop writing.

"I had a strong urge to express myself. I wanted to prove myself through my writing," she said. Bored with her studies, she had gone from being an A student in China to one who barely passed her examinations in Singapore.

Her time at NUS helped her confirm what she did not want to do: to follow the well-trodden path of her Chinese peers who get their degrees and then go on to the United States to get a job.

On a positive note, she grew to appreciate the lushness of the tropics and its rich store of stories during her Singapore sojourn. The tsunami of 2004 hit home for her when she and a friend had a close shave out at sea near Phi Phi Island, Thailand, a few months after the disaster.

That inspired her to write The Promise Bird (2006), a mythical tale of love and revenge featuring a blind heroine who sails to and from China and South-east Asia.

The novel, which sold nearly 500,000 copies, stood out as few 1980s Chinese authors set their stories outside China. It has since been translated into English by Singapore writer Jeremy Tiang.

He told SundayLife! that Zhang is important as one of China's post-1980s writers, embodying a bold new voice.

"What I admire about Yueran is that she very much belongs to that group, not only as a writer, but she also plays an important role in developing new voices through editing the literary journal Newriting," he added.

These days, Zhang is not only writing but editing as well as teaching Chinese literature at Renmin University.

She is taking her time with her latest novel, one that looks at how the impact of events such as the Cultural Revolution can still be felt today.

She reflected on how she has departed from the common path of becoming a white-collar worker: "Life turns out to be strange and wonderful. I had gone to Singapore, the most orderly society in the world, only to depart from a life of order."

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