In the interview John Balcom discusses how he first came across Huang Fan’s work; the political nature of his writing; how he fits in with Taiwanese literature and how he is viewed in Mainland China; and the diverse nature of his writing, which includes elements of absurdism, science fiction, and postmodernism. The interview concludes with John Balcom and the interviewer Lily Ye discussing the stories Zero and How to Measure the Width of a Ditch:
Lily Ye: The story “Zero,” which makes up most of this collection, calls to mind very clearly Orwell’s 1984, including even a cameo by a “Winston” in its course, who reveals to Xi De, our protagonist, a potential conspiracy that underlies the seemingly utopian world that he lives in. What are the elements of this dystopian tale that make it remarkable?
John Balcom: I read Zero shortly after it was published and was quite taken with its novelty within the Taiwanese literary context. One really must bear in mind the political situation in Taiwan in those days: martial law was still in effect and people were still being imprisoned or done away with for political reasons. It’s a far cry from the island today. In the West, where we have a tradition of such dystopian fiction, a work like Zero may come across with less force than it had for a Taiwanese audience. Many of my friends who have read the translation find the work a powerful one. It is a bleak story, with Huang writing more darkly than usual. The piece has the usual elements one expects – technology and a monolithic state, but there are some interesting twists. Dystopian tales have a lot to say to us given the dismal state of the world these days.
LY: Perhaps the story that stands out most in terms of style is “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch,” with its self-aware narrator, what are your thoughts on this piece, or on Huang’s postmodern period in general?
JB: “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch” is probably be the most accessible story in the collection, and more in line with contemporary taste. This sort of absurdist metafiction travels very well.