Debbie Lim translates an interview with Luo Lingyuan
Luo Lingyuan was born in 1963 and is a German-Chinese writer. After studying Journalism and Computer Science in Shanghai, she has lived in Berlin since 1990 and published works in German and Chinese including four novels, two short story collections and numerous pieces in literary journals. In 2007 her short story collection, Du Fliegst für Meinen Sohn aus dem Fünften Stock [You Fly for My Son from the Fifth Floor,] received an Adelbert-von-Chamisso Advancement Award, a prize awarded to works written in German, dealing with ‘cultural change‘. In 2017 she was Writer in Residence in Erfurt.
The following interview was carried out in 2016 by Bai Shaojie as part of her Masters degree in German Studies at the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU). The interview was originally conducted in German and the English translation is by Debbie Lim. Thank you to Bai Shaojie , Luo Lingyuan and SISU for permission to publish the interview in Mascara.
Bai: Why did you move to Germany? What led to your decision?
Luo: I have to say it was actually only by coincidence. During my studies at Fudan University I met a German man who was doing a degree in Chinese studies. That changed my life. We were in love and decided to get married after my studies. And so I learnt German, for the sake of love. Actually I was more interested in French literature and had even studied French for half a year. But then then we moved to Germany. When I arrived in Berlin, I could speak only very little German. My husband spoke fluent Chinese and in China we’d only spoken Chinese with each other. After we got married, I wanted to find to work in Berlin but it was very difficult because I hardly spoke German. I worked as a room maid in a hotel and a saleswoman in a department store. At the same time I learnt German. After some time, it became good enough to be able to work as a travel guide.
Bai: When did you begin writing?
Luo: I began writing regularly in German in 2002. The Literarische Kolloquium Berlin became aware of me and supported my work. Before that, I’d published a few articles in China. At first I only wrote short articles and pieces of prose but soon after stories and novels as well. I took a lot of detours and tried out various things until I found my dream job. My first book was published in 2005. But living as an independent writer isn’t easy. I know many German authors who live from hand to mouth and struggle in vain for grants and publishing contracts. Only a rare few can live from writing alone. I have to do all kinds of bread-and-butter jobs too in order to be able to keep writing.
Bai: Why did you choose this career?
Luo: I‘ve enjoyed reading since I was little. I‘ve always admired the famous works of Chinese literature and secretly always wanted to write myself. Even though I studied Computer Sciences at Jiaotong University, I never had much interest in it. I continued because it was ‘sensible‘. After I graduated, I was given a position as lecturer in Computing, which I did for two years. Then I decided to study journalism because I was looking for a bread-and-butter job that could combine with literary writing. I already knew back then that as a writer you always lived on the border of poverty. But it was during this degree that I met my first husband, which completely changed my plans. I learnt a new language and only after 11 years I became a journalist and was able to write articles in German as well as in Chinese.
Bai: Many migrant writers write in Chinese. Why do you write in German?
Luo: Well, Gao Xingjian writes in French, and Ha Jin and many other Chinese authors write in English. Whoever writes in the language of their host country can communicate an image of their home land much more directly. I’ve also read a lot of books in Germany about China. But each time I‘ve felt that the way things were depicted was somehow odd. The China that I knew was different from the China in these books. So I came upon the idea to tell the German people about my country, in their language. I hope that Germans can get to know China and its people better this way.
Bai: How did you choose the subjects for your books?
Luo: That’s difficult to say. I write what I enjoy writing. When I find myself thinking about something repeatedly, when my thoughts keep returning to some person, some story or even some city then I feel that maybe I should write about it. But my subjects often come from my surroundings. People ask me questions about the people in China and I try to give an answer through my books.
Bai: I’ve noticed that you’ve written a lot about China, but not Germany. Why?
Luo: When I came here [to Germany] I was already 26. I spent my childhood and youth in China, and the Chinese culture and my family have influenced me deeply. For a story, you need people – they’re the starting point of every narrative. And for me, it’s easier to understand and create a Chinese person. But it’s only a question of time. Maybe soon I’ll write more about Germany.
Bai: How do you manage the relationship between reality and imagination during the writing process?
Luo: The starting point is always reality and often even a concrete incident. But I look at reality quite critically. I attempt to figure out the core of the characters, based on what they think, say and do. It’s only during this phase that the imaginative power sets in. I ask myself questions: Why did this person do this? What would he or she do in other circumstances?
Bai: You’ve referred to the city of Ningbo in many works. Do you have a particular connection to the city?
Luo: No, Ningbo is a symbol for the rapid economic development in China. The city is much more interested than other cities in colloborating and exchange with foreign countries, but it’s not as well-known overseas as, say, Shanghai. I myself led at least two delegations from Ningbo on tour through Europe and met people from the city. Most Germans know of Shanghai in particular. The city has become almost a cliché and many Germans think that, apart from a few skyscrapers in Pudong, China doesn’t have much to offer. I lived for seven years in Shanghai and was very happy there but I’d like to show my readers that there are other cities in China too. If I ever write about Shanghai, it will be something special.
Bai: You’ve lived in Germany for 26 years. What are your views now towards China and Germany?
Luo: I’m still Chinese inside. That will probably never change. The richness of the Chinese culture with its vibrant traditions and deep thought, its music and reknown literary role models, still has a major influence on me. It’s such a powerful influence and can’t just be cast off. I don’t want to separate myself from it either. On the other hand, I’ve also adopted a lot from the German people, for example, conscientiousness. When I began writing, my husband once asked me how I could have made the same mistake three times. It unsettled me and I realised I hadn’t been very thorough or placed much value on precision. After that it was clear to me that I had to be more meticulous. The Germans are are very conscientious and strive for perfection in everything that they do.
Bai: Which experiences after all these years have remained particularly in your memory? What would be your suggestions for fellow countrymen who plan to come to Germany?
Luo: Above all, I’d recommend learning German. If you don’t speak it, it’s very difficult to interact with the people. The cultural contrast between the two countries is so great. Even finding a common topic isn’t simple because the majority of Germans have never been to China and know little about it. On the other hand, I notice that there’s great interest in China. Anyone who has ever seen China is fascinated.
Bai: When a Chinese person lives in Germany, they normally have problems with the language. But why haven’t the language difficulties of your characters been a topic that you address?
Bai: That never really interested me so much. The characters should have their own personalities. I’d like to depict their inner world rather than show every stammer. When the situation presents itself, I have in fact alluded to the language issues. For example, the misunderstandings that arise between Robert and the bathroom attendant in Guangzhou in the novel ‘Wie Eine Chinesin Schwanger Wird‘ [How a Chinese Woman Becomes Pregnant].
Bai: For me, your works can be considered women‘s literature as well as migrant literature. Women play an important part in your works. What’s your opinion?
Luo: It’s true. That has to do with myself. I’m a woman and can understand women better. I feel more confident depicting a woman. What’s more, I find women magnificent. Even where a man seems to be take centre stage, such as in ‘Die Sterne von Shenzhen‘ [Stars from Shenzen], it’s the very different women around him who determine what happens.
Bai: I’ve noticed that many of the love stories between German men and Chinese women in your works end tragically. Is that true?
Luo: It’s not easy for Chinese women being with German men. They are expected to be both „exotic“ and „normal“ at the same time, wonderful lovers and perfect mothers, intelligent parters, pretty companions, thrifty housewives etc. There is a lot demanded of them. But mostly they cope well and there’s a happy ending after all.
Bai: Many stories are open-ended. Was it your intention to say that one should accept fate and there’s nothing you can do about it?
Luo: Each book has its own style. But it’s true that I prefer an open ending. Life goes on, even after a novel ends, and as long as life continues, there’s also hope. It’s exactly the same as in reality. Perhaps it‘s possible to find a ‘dream man‘. But when we don’t find him, there are other possibilities. You have to fight for a better life.