An endearing Nobel Lecture by Mo Yan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. Yan talks about his mother, his childhood, the town he spent his first 21 years in, the sources of his inspiration, his penchant for basing his characters on people around him, and more.
I was born ugly. Villagers often laughed in my face, and school bullies sometimes beat me up because of it. I’d run home crying, where my mother would say, “You’re not ugly, Son. You’ve got a nose and two eyes, and there’s nothing wrong with your arms and legs, so how could you be ugly? If you have a good heart and always do the right thing, what is considered ugly becomes beautiful.” Later on, when I moved to the city, there were educated people who laughed at me behind my back, some even to my face; but when I recalled what Mother had said, I just calmly offered my apologies.
My illiterate mother held people who could read in high regard. We were so poor we often did not know where our next meal was coming from, yet she never denied my request to buy a book or something to write with. By nature hard working, she had no use for lazy children, yet I could skip my chores as long as I had my nose in a book.
A storyteller once came to the marketplace, and I sneaked off to listen to him. She was unhappy with me for forgetting my chores. But that night, while she was stitching padded clothes for us under the weak light of a kerosene lamp, I couldn’t keep from retelling stories I’d heard that day. She listened impatiently at first, since in her eyes professional storytellers were smooth-talking men in a dubious profession. Nothing good ever came out of their mouths. But slowly she was dragged into my retold stories, and from that day on, she never gave me chores on market day, unspoken permission to go to the marketplace and listen to new stories. As repayment for Mother’s kindness and a way to demonstrate my memory, I’d retell the stories for her in vivid detail.
A controversy recently arose over Mo Yan's selection for the Prize, in which Salman Rushdie criticized Yan's political affiliations and was ably defended by Pankaj Mishra. See the entertaining public exchanges between these two one, two, three, and four.