The first book Yan Lianke wrote was burned when he joined the Chinese army, in 1978. His mother tore up his adolescent ode to the Cultural Revolution, then used it to kindle kitchen fires. Yan worked in the army’s propaganda department for years, yet his own novels ran into trouble with censors. Serve The People!, a racy comedy on the cult of Mao during the revolution, was banned. For Summer Sunset, he was ordered to write “self-criticisms” for six months.
With many of his books having been translated into English in the past decade, Yan has become a rallying figure in the literary world. Chinese publishers remain barred, however, from printing new copies of his backlist. Each year, before the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced, the Chinese government sends a minder to his home in Beijing: “In case I’m bombarded by international press,” Yan says, “and say something untoward.”