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Writing with a Difference

Chen Ran used to wear her hair short, so short that one of her interviewers, Xiao Gang from the Chongqing Academy of Arts, couldn't resist asking her if her haircut carried any symbolic meaning.


"Does it look bad?"


Chen smiled, answering his question with a question of her own.


"Not at all. It is pretty, and different."


"I like to be different," Chen said, thus settling that question.


Evidently, Chen prizes eccentricity, a mark of her uncompromising individuality and independent will, more than anything else, even if it means she has to endure the loneliness that always come with alternative thinking.


Her heroines are often portrayed as atypical girls who alienate themselves from any form of group that demands its members speak in one voice, and who accept and even deliberately adopt a marginalized existence. Similarly, in her literary career Chen has also steered clear of the commonly trodden road.


She describes her career as "toiling along a narrow track beyond mainstream literature."


"The pleasure of becoming part of a group is something that seems forever beyond me." These words, spoken by the protagonist Ni Niuniu in A Private Life, could well be applied to the author herself.


Since she started writing in the early 1980s, she has never attached herself to any domestic literary trend, or accepted any Chinese literary award.


Because of her delicate and youthful features, which belie her 42 years, some members of the media seem compelled to refer to her as a "pretty woman writer," a term which has gained some currency in recent years in defining some young female writers who are stars of fashion and advocates of alternative lifestyles.


But Chen sees the term more as a derogatory misunderstanding than a compliment. "I never write for fashion. On the contrary, I always sound an alarm against fashionable things," she said.


"First and foremost, writing is for me a need, a means of self-expression. If one day I no longer feel the impulse to say something, I will stop writing."


For about 20 years, Chen has been living spiritually through her writing.


"Every morning I sit at my desk with a glass of fragrant green tea close at hand. The trunk and branches of my contemplation, when 'watered' by the tea, grow rapidly like a tropical plant."


Some of Chen's best-known stories have plots that share elements of Chen's own life: The divorce of her parents in her childhood, living with her mother for a time in a rented house in a desolate nunnery when she was a teenager, studying and her following teaching experience in Beijing Normal University, and a short sojourn abroad. Since coming back from overseas, she has been working as an editor in the Beijing-based Writers' Publishing House.


So are A Private Life and other stories written by Chen actually about her own private life?


Not at all. "As far as the content of my work is concerned," said Chen, "I can only say that they embody the life attitudes and psychological moods of the particular moments of my life when they were written. Beyond that, the details are fabrications of my mind."


A constantly repeated refrain in A Private Life is "time elapses, but I am still here," the heroine's own recognition of her stubbornly uncompromising attitude towards life.


But in Chen's real life, time elapses, and she, willingly or unwillingly, goes along with it. She has been going through some clearly recognizable psychological changes in recent years.


The most manifest one is that she has been cultivating a more and more serene, composed and reconciled attitude towards life.


Take her writing for example. "There is too much passion and despair in my past works," she said, "but now I can feel that some of the past turbulence in my heart has subsided."


Though she often says she is uncommunicative by nature, and always panic-stricken in a crowd; she is, in fact, amiable and accessible in personal situations. It seems she is learning to relax in human relationships.


And even with the subject of marriage, she has assumed a much easier, more philosophical attitude.


Still single after a failed marriage in her 20s, last year Chen was voted one of the top-10 most attractive single women in China in a poll conducted by Business Watch Magazine in Beijing.


"I am not a perfectionist any more. And as far as marriage goes, I now believe more in a long-term, cozy and affectionate relationship than in intense passion -- which cannot last. But as for whether I would marry again, I will let that be decided by the wheel of fortune."


(China Daily March 1, 2004)

Looking for Life Beyond Politics and Social Norms
Translator Finds Voice in Work of Others
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