I have a hangover, so what you read here will not necessarily be in the right order.
Shortly before I finished my degree, I went to my father’s house for dinner. He asked me, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” “What am I going to do?” I asked in surprise. “Carry on writing, of course.”
He made no reply for a moment, then said, “You can’t do that. Writing isn’t real work. Either you should find a proper job, or you should stay on at university. Being a writer is just a hobby, you can’t make a living out of it.”
On the way to the pub, I told Ahmed about this. “I understand,” he told me, “I come from a family of doctors.”
We went and got some drinks.
Lacan’s account of the “mirror stage of development” is wonderfully poetic. A baby slowly, gradually, curiously pieces together the parts of her body by looking at herself in the mirror, and thus becomes a whole, becomes a person, becomes a self.
In other words, more abstractly, we obtain selfhood from the gaze of others. In other words, what we call the self does not have any fundamental solidity; it is simply a synthesis of information obtained from other sources.
The reason I’m writing about this is that I’m doing this column sitting in front of a big, sparkling mirror. To be honest, it’s extremely distracting.
The ideas below often make me shudder:
In my entire extended family, everyone who has been to university got their degree in Chinese. At some point in time, everyone decided that in addition to all the Chinese teachers, editors and reporters in our family, we needed a writer as well. So my grandma pondered on the question over many evenings, and selected for me a name which already had all the qualities of a good pen name. So my grandpa forced me to drag a copy of The Selected Classical Works around with me after school. It was heavier than a brick, but he told me that “no-one who hasn’t read The Selected Classical Works has the right to call themselves an author.” So after dinner every day, my mother patiently read with me. Song dynasty lyrics, essays by Su Dongpo… when we came to the emotional climaxes, she would even weep a little.
To some extent, I am not me, because I have never in my life stopped and thought about whether I really want to be a writer or not.
Even more scary is the fact that I really believe that I made the decision to be a writer myself.
I’ve calculated very carefully: much of the time, more than 40% of the time in fact, the reason I’m doing something turns out to be because other people want to look at a writer. On good days, this means that people want to see the writer called “Yan Ge”, so I have to go to a book signing event, or a reading, or an interview. On bad days, people just want to goggle at any writer. I’m terrible at seeing through people’s little stratagems, and I only realise when I get to the door of the restaurant’s private dining room that once again it’s a fucking theme party, the theme being “look at the lit chick”.
At the after-party, I told Philip about this. The music was loud, so I yelled into his ear, “I’m not a hostess club girl!”
Philip blinked mysteriously, and said to me: “I know, that’s just the way China is. Sometimes when these people can’t find a girl writer, they go and haul in a foreigner to look at.”
We’ve both been there, it seems. We clinked glasses and drank.
Public zoos are very important things, sociologically speaking. Animals have vanished from the modern human world, and been replaced by zoos. A zoo is a place where people bring together and categorise creatures for viewing and enjoyment. When you divide up animals by their habitats and spectate at them, what you see is a surrendered, totally marginalised other. And from the perspective of the animals: their air, their vistas, their space, their food – everything, all the movements that their limited freedom allows them – through these, they become accustomed to their zoo. They even gradually start to feel the need to be watched, the need to be imagined, the need to be symbolised, the need to be thrown food by a screaming kid.
While I’m on the subject, I must just say that my favourite animals are elephants.