Alexandria Shang '15 spoke with Xue Di, poet and current Brown University staff member about his experiences growing up in China, his poetry, and how he first came to Brown. Below is an excerpt from their conversation.
AS: So my understanding of the Brown Freedom to Write Program was that it was offering a chance for Chinese dissident writers to leave the country and come to the States. How did they discover your poetry?
XD: Back then, in 1989, I already had a translation of my work available in this country. Also, my translator had passed on my work to PEN America. And in 1990, I received the Hellman/Hammett Award, sponsored by the Fund for Free Expression, an affiliate of Human Rights Watch in New York. Since PEN America already knew my work, they contacted several different universities in the U.S., such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, all the top universities, and Brown was among them. The novelist Bob Coover and President Vartan Gregorian worked together to establish a program to help Chinese writers and they established the Freedom to Write Program. We came to Brown, two poets and one novelist; the novelist came from Paris and another poet was already living in New York City. I was still in China and was invited to come to the United States to participate in this program. I had a really tough time to trying to get a visa to leave China because I had a tough time getting a passport. In China usually back then, nobody has a passport, they just have a living identification to prove where they lived. To leave the country we have to first of all get a passport, and then get a visa. For my situation, I would have less trouble getting a visa but more of a problem to get a passport. (For people who have a less literary background, they have less trouble to get a passport but more trouble to get a visa.) So I spent three months waiting for a passport, and that’s a whole long other story . . . I went through a very difficult time when they were trying to prove that I participated in the Tiananmen Square student movement, but they did not have any actual evidence. So finally, after three months, I received my passport. I received my visa two weeks after that since the American Embassy was already familiar with my case. They did not actually think I would be able to get a passport. So as soon as I got my passport I went to the American Embassy, they said “Yes, we already know your case, so we will just issue you a visa quickly.” That’s how I finally got my visa to leave China and come to this country.
AS: You said that when you were writing poetry in China, a lot of what you communicated was sort of an outward energy, like fighting the system, fighting your childhood, fighting the constructs of society, and that that was where you gained your value. So when you came to the States and there was nothing to fight against, you felt lost and started to look inward. So do you think that the development of your poetry has sort of accompanied your journey through that transition, from sort of concentrating your energy on the outside to looking more into yourself in an introspective sense?
XD: Absolutely. You know, poetry definitely closely reflects peoples’ own history. Poetry is an expression of understanding toward your life, and the emotion towards objects, and the relationship between yourself and your outer and inner worlds. So in a different stage, you have a different kind of understanding and lifestyle. Poetry and any works of art always reflect that. So while I was in China, as I said, because we live in such a closed society, all we want to do is see more of the outside world--freedom. It’s like we live in a room with no doors, no windows, no lights. All you want to do, all you can do, is chisel, fight with the wall, chisel again, try to create a little bit of a hole, a crack, to see the sunlight, to hear the birds sing, to see some kind of green color. So all the energy, actions, these are all fighting something, something really close to you, something that oppresses you, something that makes you afraid, with all the fear surrounding you. So I will say, for my writing style back then in China, it was more outer directed, with lots of emotion, lots of shouting and anger; you just want to get it out. And when I came to this country, such a free country--of course there are a lot of reasons why you might not feel free, such as being under family or other kinds of burdens , but in general, I’m talking about freedom in mind, in thinking, in that sense it is a free country. So free, so many options. I felt the fighting energy all of a sudden disappear, because there is no object, no opponent in front of you. You don’t have to fight society, because society provides so many possibilities for you. I started to feel that there’s nothing for me to fight against. I then understood that to grow up in a communist country, all we learn is to fight, to survive, to complain, to feel unfortunate about our lives, with very little time to think about our inner world or our interior experience very deeply as a human being. In these circumstances, what kind of depth could be reached? What kind of internal experience could you really access? Because there was no such environment in China to foster this. When I came to Brown University, I was well funded at that time for the first few years, which gave me time to think about my life, my lifestyle, my culture. I started to gradually turn inward, to direct my energy, thinking and emotion toward the inside, to go deep within myself, to think more as a human being . . . the thinking, the way of thinking, the way of life, and what I could do. So I put more energy into my own being, and my writing naturally evolved in a different direction. In China, there was a lot more emotion, but since I came to this country my writing became deeper and quieter, with more energy directed toward the inside. I feel connected with the depth of being, of living. This is much more profound than the way I lived in China.
In the wake of a prefabricated passenger ship
the ocean, as if with an old cotton blanket
weighs deeply on a body wide awake
The sky in the eyes of a scattered school of fish
grows brighter and brighter. The bridge that spans the
brine crosses also the opaque middle-aged mind
dark path between two precise terms
My mother grieving
writes to her faraway son
Waterbirds, lonely, follow the lights
toward regions of cold where they hover
This evening the hotel room’s thermosystem
thundered without rest. Number 634
said the key in the unlit hallway
In my homeland some valuable
persons are disappearing
translated by Hil Anderson and Keith Waldrop