The pre-dinner hour at Moganshan was often given over to talks and presentations by various course participants; the group leaders one evening, the writers the next. These presentations could be eye-opening in terms of the widely-varying approaches people take to this business – Bonnie McDougall and Howard Goldblatt, for instance. There was almost a kind of glee in the way Bonnie described her translations: leisurely, considered, I think she even described herself as spoiled in being able to pick and choose, freed by her position at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. Howard, on the other hand, was very much the harried professional man, and talked of funding and negotiations, work he'd taken to make the rent. Bonnie goes patiently from beginning to end; Howard generally starts somewhere in the middle and jumps around. Howard hates the second draft more than anything; Bonnie goes and reads a book until the aha! moment comes.
The talk with the writers was the next day. Tie Ning had left early on official business, so we had Bernadine Evaristo, Hari Kunzru and Li Er. Someone asked a bog-standard question about the writing process, and both Bernadine and Hari described how they develop stories, how they go from a voice or a moment into a piece of writing. When it was Li Er's turn, he launched into a discourse on the history of Chinese intellectuals over the past 100 years. This happens, sometimes. My attention drifted for a bit, and then he was talking about the suffering of the Chinese people through recent history. There was, he said, such a thing as the Greater Suffering (大痛苦, dàtòngkǔ) in the earlier part of the century, and the comensurate Lesser Suffering (小痛苦, xiǎotòngkǔ) of more recent years. By Greater Suffering he meant floods, famine, violent death and oppression. Lesser Suffering accompanied the transition into modernity: anxiety, loneliness, vacuity, exhaustion and depression. He said that as a Chinese intellectual and writer, it was his responsibility to represent these two kinds of suffering, to mediate between them, to give people a way to understand how their world is shifting, and how they need to shift with it.
He got a little smile on his face while he spoke. I only spent a week around him, not enough to know if the smile was just a habitual thing, or whether it was the tiny smile of exhilaration you get when you feel you're articulating something essential. Whichever it was, the room was quiet by the time he was done talking.