Interviewed by Stephane Lavoie
I first photographed Xue following the release of his first title translated into English, Shenzheners, a collection of short stories. I met Xue in the multicultural neighbourhood of Côte-des-Neiges, Montreal. From the entrance of his tall apartment building at the foot of Mount Royal, we walked up to Saint Joseph's Oratory in time for golden-hour light. There, seemingly ignoring the sound of the camera’s flickering shutter, Xue calmly answered my many questions about his stories.
Xue Yiwei’s reticent nature intrigues me. Writing in Montreal but publishing in China, he seems to prefer living away from the action, opting instead for a view from a distance. It’s this view, in part, which makes Dr. Bethune’s Children, Xue’s second title translated into English, so intriguing. He capitalizes on his own unique perspective to weave stories around Bethune's spiritual children, i.e. Chinese citizens who came of age during China's Cultural Revolution.
Norman Bethune, like Xue, seemed compelled to be away from his homeland. The fabled Montrealer served as a frontline surgeon in the Spanish Civil War and later brought modern medicine to China, where he died in the cause of Communism, leaving a profound impression on the Chinese people— especially Xue, who, for this reason, describes himself as one of Dr. Bethune’s children.
In Dr. Bethune’s Children, Xue sets out to discover the inner links between the memory of Dr. Bethune in China and the memory of Dr. Bethune here in Canada. The novel, composed of a series of fictional letters addressed to Dr. Norman Bethune, is deeply personal and distinctly Canadian. Below are excerpts from a recent interview.
SL: What was your process for writing this book? At what point did you decide that this wasn’t going to be the “authentic” biography your publisher wanted and that you were going to stray from your original plan?
XY: I started to write Dr. Bethune’s Children in November 2007 as the final portfolio for a creative writing class at the Université de Montreal, taught by Gail Scott, herself a writer. The first seven stories, as well as the preface and epilogue, were included in the portfolio. I extended it into a novel consisting of 32 stories in the following 18 years. It was a fiction, not a biography from the very beginning. Miraculously, the inspiration struck me one afternoon in November 2007 as I was passing by the Place du 6-décembre-1989, a pivotal site in the novel.
SL: On a couple occasions, you accept that Dr. Bethune’s notoriety in China is in part due to circumstance. Is Dr. Bethune romanticized?
XY: No, notoriety is not a proper word. It should be fame or stardom. But the bad side of this romanticization is that he is taken as an asset of the Chinese Communist Party. In other words, he is an example of sacrificing the self for the collective cause, or rather, an instrument to strengthen the one-party dictatorship. In the novel, the narrator is aware of this antagonism between idealism and realism. This is certainly the painful side of Dr. Bethune's children's lives.
SL: What do you think Dr. Bethune’s Children offers to the collective memory of Dr. Bethune?
XY: This book provides the reader with a new angle to reappraise Dr. Bethune as a historical figure. Conditioned by history, he conditions Dr. Bethune’s children. And there are so many absurdities around his legend. For example, his adoptive country has “developed” into the opposite of what he is devoted to and the “utter devotion to others without any thought of self”. His spirit has been considered as a joke while he is still treated as a hero.
SL: What is it like to be very popular in China but little known (until now) in the West? Do you find that your English- and Chinese-speaking audiences react to your work differently?
XY: For me, writing or literature is a mission. Neither popularity nor being little-known exerts significant influence on my somewhat stubborn literary endeavour. In China, the praises are heard mostly from the elite and peers. And I am sometimes considered as so-called “writers’ writer.” But in the English-speaking world, my work has not drawn much professional attention yet. It is mostly from the ordinary readers that I have received encouraging responses.
SL: Do you believe China will allow Dr. Bethune’s Children to be published soon?
XY: For about two years after the Chinese version was published in Taiwan in 2012, a few reviews had appeared in the mainland newspapers, which made the “non-existent” book well known there. And various attempts had been vainly made to get it published. Now the situation has become quite different. It’s impossible for the book to be published soon in China.
SL: How has your career evolved in Canada?
XY: To be a Canadian has secured my identity as a writer. My years in Montreal have in fact been the most productive ones of my literary career of three decades. And it has also given me an opportunity to introduce the Canadian writers to Chinese writers. My essays about Alice Monroe and Margaret Atwood are well received. Last week, the book section of Xinjingbao newspaper published my review on Michael Ignatieff’s writing, focusing on Blood and Belonging: Journey into the New Nationalism and The Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience. It has attracted considerable attention.
SL: What are you currently working on?
XY: I am currently working on a collection of essays. Each focuses on a real person who connects in a certain way with Dr. Bethune’s Children. Dr. Bethune’s Children is a novel surrounded by miracles. I have quite a few thrilling stories to tell. And I feel grateful to the people who help bring the novel to this point.