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EAA Interview with Yu Hua, author of To Live (Huo Zhe)

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Yu Hua, author of the novel To Live (Huo Zhe), was a participant in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program during the fall of 2003. Realizing that many readers would appreciate knowing more about Yu Hua and his recently translated novel, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (Random House, August 2003, trans. Michael Berry), Helen Finken, Iowa Partner Site Coordinator for the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia at the University of Iowa’s Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, spoke to Yu Hua on behalf of Education About Asia. Translation of Yu Hua’s answers was done by Nancy Tsai, who graduated from the National Kaohsiung Normal University in Taiwan. She is currently a graduate student in the Translation Program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, IA. She hopes to work as a literary translator upon receiving her degree.

Helen Finken: This is the  first opportunity for American educators to meet you. Please tell readers about your early life.

Yu Hua: I’m very happy to meet with American high school and university teachers. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. An ancient Roman poet said, “To recall the past is to live again.” To talk to teachers about my past life enables me to relive the past once again. I grew up during the Cultural Revolution. My father was a surgeon. My mother was a physician. My childhood was spent roaming in the hospital. I came to like the smell of Lysol in the hallways. I often saw my father covered with blood walking towards me. He’d glance at me and quickly brush by. He was busy with work and didn’t want to stop to talk to me. My mother was better. When I walked past her office, sometimes she’d call to me. If there were no patients I could even sit next to her for a bit.

We lived in the hospital compound. The morgue was in front of us. I practically grew up among wails. Relatives of those who died would spend the night in the morgue in front of my window, anticipating the next day’s cremations. There were many nights when I would suddenly wake up to sounds of crying. You could say I heard all the crying the world had to offer. All kinds of different ones. After some time they no longer seemed like they were crying. Especially when dawn arrived, their cries turned into wails of agony, which affected me deeply. I felt in the cries a familiarity, a painful familiarity. For a long time I thought this was the most moving song in the world.

I found out then that many people died during the night. I often passed the morgue on my way to the bathroom during the daytime. I saw that there was only a concrete slab. It was neat and clean. I sometimes stood at my window and looked at this mysterious little house. It was situated under a canopy of lush trees. The heat was especially unbearable during the summer. I often woke up in the afternoons to see the form of my sweaty body imprinted on the mat. Sometimes I’d be so drenched that my skin would turn pale. So one day I walked into the morgue and discovered that it was very cool. I lay down on the concrete slab. It was a sweltering afternoon but I felt cool. It wasn’t death for me. It was happiness and a good life. Later in life I came across a poem from the German poet Heinrich Heine:

DEATH

Our death is in the cool of night,

our life is in the pool of day.

The darkness glows, I’m drowning,

The day has tired me with light.

Over my head in leaves grown deep,

Sings the young nightingale.

It only sings love there,

I hear it in my sleep.