Let Mo Yan speak


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When the Chinese writer and former Iowa International Writing Program participant Mo Yan received a call from the Nobel Committee earlier this month informing him that that he won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, Mo was not entirely celebratory. Mo responded that he was both “overjoyed and scared.”

Likewise, the Nobel’s worldwide audience’s reaction was split as well.

On one side, the Chinese government and Mo’s literary fans applauded his prize, variously pointing to the honor it brings China culturally and the merit of Mo’s distinctive magical realist style.

On the other, Chinese dissidents and international critics of the Chinese government criticized the Nobel Committee’s choice, pointing to Mo’s failure to stand up against the government’s abuses in his writings, his silence on the case of Liu Xiabo — the 2010 Nobel Peace prize winner from China who is a political prisoner of the state — or Mo’s establishment status as vice chairman of the state-run Chinese Writers Association.

Yet literature is far more than a two-sided affair, and Mo’s prize proves the impossibility of conflating literature and politics into a cohesive front. Instead of confining himself to dissident status, Mo — which ironically means “Don’t Speak” in Chinese — is able to speak, not just about politics and the Chinese government’s abuses of the past, which he does, but about what it means to be human as well.

As Mo told an interviewer in 2010, “when a writer starts writing, in the beginning, it always is from his or her own heart, from his or her individual idea. But what concerns a writer, what he feels, is common to other people.”

The Nobel Prize Committee awarded Mo on the basis of this essential talent, this mastery of voicing his individual ideas to illuminate our common humanity and the overwhelmingly complexity found there.

Instead of demanding that Mo conform to a specific political position, we should allow him to speak for himself. We have much to learn from him. Literature, not politics, will teach us that.

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