Zhang Yueran: Emerging from The Cocoon (Part 1)
By Quek See Ling
To some, the past is like a nail lodged in the brain – difficult to remove, yet too painful to ignore. Chinese “post-80s” writer, Zhang Yueran, evidently felt it, taking 10 years to craft her new novel, The Cocoon. Published in July 2016, the novel sees Zhang abandoning her established writing style to engage in a dialogue with the history of her father’s generation as a post-Cultural Revolution author.
It is worth taking the time to understand this writer, whose work has been affirmed by renowned writers and critics like Mao Jian, Leung Man-tao, Yu Hua, and Han Han. At the Shanghai International Literary Week, part of the 2016 Shanghai Book Fair, Zhang spoke at “Farewells and Reunions: Dialogue and Sharing Session on the New Novel The Cocoon” and the dialogue session “Life, Short and Extraordinary: How We Write”, which featured American author Junot Díaz as its headlining guest.
Striking off the Friction with the World
Artists frequently feel out of tune with the world. Since young, Zhang felt as though she had been cut and pasted on the wall by an unknown force, removed of any sense of belonging. However, in attempting to connect to the world, she developed feelings of incongruity. The persistent buzzing in her ears embodied this friction with the world, which Zhang tried to mediate through writing as she grew older.
As a writer, it is inevitable that one develops the self-discipline to produce a definite number of words each day. Zhang compared being a writer to a provision shop’s owner, having to open for business every day. Good days see plenty of “customers” – or inspiration – but often arriving late in the day, forcing her to keep working, turning her provision shop into something more akin to a 24-hour convenience store. To Zhang, the wait is definitely worth it.
Convincing Herself about the Existence of Love
Writing style is a mark of success, differentiating between writers, but it is also a cocoon that limits one’s expression. When she first started writing, Zhang composed with ease amid boundless freedom but in writing The Cocoon, Zhang felt strongly that her current writing style was inadequate in telling the story. Language is key in writing, and to produce a work with a remarkably different language was a matter of great difficulty. Zhang worked hard to achieve a breakthrough and emerged from the cocoon. 10 years may seem like a long time to finish a novel, but Zhang noted that “as I wrestled with myself over my writing, time simply flashed by”.
One of Zhang’s challenges when writing The Cocoon was convincing herself to believe in love. “When I began writing, I was expressing a need for love because the concept of love was challenging to me – I did not know how to love, or I had lost part of the ability to love.” Zhang created a male and a female protagonist who were not entirely likeable, and used their inability to understand each other’s pain as a starting point, allowing them to take turns in narrating the story and creating a sense of contentiousness, leading readers into the story. The male protagonist Cheng Gong, who was added later in the writing process, has a complicated past, is full of hatred, and has a challenging psychology to put to paper. Nevertheless, Zhang does not wish for life to be total despair, and has continually worked to convince herself of the possibility of miracles, love and the existence of hope, so that her readers too can believe that, eventually, all of us can learn how to love.
About Zhang Yueran
Born in Jinan, Shandong in 1982, Zhang Yueran graduated with a degree in computer science from National University of Singapore, and is currently a lecturer at the School of Literary Studies in Renmin University of China. Zhang has published short story collections like Sunflower Missing in 1890 and Ten Loves; novels like Distant Cherry, Narcissus and The Promise Bird; and essay collections. In 2008, she founded the literary series, Carp, and has been its chief editor since. Her new novel The Cocoon was published in July 2016, and is considered to be a turning point in her work because of the differences in style from her earlier writing. Her works have been translated into several languages, including English, Japanese, Korean, German, Spanish, and Italian. Zhang was also voted one of the “Top 20 Future Writers” by People’s Literature magazine.
About The Cocoon
Cheng Gong and Li Jiaqi are primary school schoolmates. Cheng Gong’s grandfather, who holds a leadership position in the hospital, is harshly criticised during the Cultural Revolution. One day, he is discovered collapsed on the floor, with a nail skillfully inserted into his temple, reducing him to a vegetative state. Years later when overheard a conversation between his pastor and pastor’s wife, Cheng Gong discovers that Li Jiaqi’s grandfather in the medical college had been involved in this incident…