Attuned to surreal worlds

While doing a master's of fine arts at New York University three years ago, Chinese author An Yu (left) wrote Braised Pork (above).
While doing a master's of fine arts at New York University three years ago, Chinese author An Yu (left) wrote Braised Pork (right).PHOTO: TARA LENGYEL

Writer An Yu shows her sensitivity towards the strange and dreamy in her debut novel, Braised Pork

Chinese writer An Yu once had a dream about a strange creature with the head of a man and the body of a fish.

Trying to write a story about a woman in her early 30s who experiences loss and goes on a journey, she experimented with combining this with her dream.

In the opening scene of her debut novel Braised Pork, Beijing housewife Jia Jia walks into the bathroom to find her husband Chen Hang lying face-down in the half-filled bathtub, naked and dead.

Jia Jia did not love Chen, but is nevertheless upset that he has died on her because she has nothing to her name except their posh flat and no employment prospects, as he had disparaged her attempts to pursue a career in art.

She embarks on a surreal journey based on the one clue her husband left by his body: a crude drawing of a fish-man he once described to her from a dream he had in Tibet.

An, who is 28 this year, grew up in Beijing and has recently moved back there after studying in New York and Paris.

"Jia Jia's experience is very similar to my experience of living there," she says over the telephone. "I never really tried to write about Beijing for a foreign audience. I tried to make it as authentic as possible, like the protagonist is someone who has been breathing and living in the city for all her life."

Growing up when China had just opened up its economy, she saw her city develop and change at what she calls a shocking rate.

"Cities were being built seemingly overnight. It felt like Beijing had woken up into this completely different city and it still hasn't really stopped morphing and evolving."

An is keenly attuned to the notion of other worlds, surreal ones, that lie just below the surface of reality.

"It's just the strange and dreamy quality that our world has at times," she says. "It feels like there are moments in life, tiny split-second moments when things around you might shift.

"Sometimes just very randomly, like during my commutes on the train, I would get moments when it felt surreal to be sharing this fast-moving vessel with all these other people, all going to the same place.

"There are moments in navigating everyday life that make me question, why are we all doing this? What makes us do certain things we do?

"I think that the boundary between what feels real and what feels alien is not so clear, especially living in large cities these days."

Also surreal, notes An, was her swift journey to being published.

A business student who had worked in the fashion industry, she wrote Braised Pork while doing a master's of fine arts at New York University three years ago.

It was picked up in a two-book deal by Harvill Secker, publisher of writers such as Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard, for a six-figure sum in a seven-way auction.

An, who has a partner, wrote the novel in English, her second language.

"Writing in English gave me a sense of clarity I wouldn't have achieved if I were writing in Chinese. It gave me some distance from the world of the story, which takes place in China and in which all the characters are interacting in Chinese.

"I experimented with writing parts of it in Chinese, translating it and then trying to write the whole scene again, just in English, and there was actually quite a striking difference between the two.

"When I tried to write a scene in English, it was much cleaner, more focused and it felt like I was actually talking about the most important thing in the novel.

"Whereas in Chinese, I tend to sort of blabber on and I have to cut more."

Her next novel - about a pianist who, like Jia Jia, is in her 30s, has an unrealised dream and discovers mysteries surrounding her - will also be in English.

"I would love to try to write an entire novel in Chinese, though," she adds. "Perhaps a bit further down the line."

  • Braised Pork ($26.95) is available at bit.ly/Braised_Pork.
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2020, with the headline 'Attuned to surreal worlds'. Print Edition | Subscribe