China's Boom Boosts Interest in English-Language Fiction About the Nation, Writers Say

The rise of China as an economic power has sparked interest in English-language fiction about the country, bringing success to several bilingual authors.

But only a few authors will be remembered once the novelty wears off, according to writers speaking Tuesday at the annual Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

"The Chinese economy and market and politics play such an important role in the world. It's hard to ignore its literature," writer Yan Geling said at the festival, sponsored by the same group of companies behind Britain's Man Booker Prize.

"If you look at the business side (of publishing) for instance in America, there's huge interest in China and everything related to China," fellow author Li Yiyun said.

Yan and Li are part of a new group of mainland Chinese who have enjoyed success writing fiction about their home countries in English after moving to the United States.

But Li, author of the award-winning short story collection "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," said only the truly accomplished writers will be remembered when the current fascination for China dies down.

"If you look at literature, it's always a pyramid. It's always the best that will be read in 100 years," she said.

The proliferation of English books about China offers good exposure to Western audiences, Li said, adding that "once they get over that China is so exotic, it's so mysterious, I think that's where real literature comes in."

Yan was an established Chinese-language writer before making her English debut with "The Banquet Bug." She enjoys writing in Chinese and will continue to do so despite her success in English. "Chinese is such an ancient, wonderful, graphic language that I can't give up," she said.

Yan, who lived in the United States but is based in Taiwan, said she has different voices when writing in Chinese and English. "My English identity is bold, young and more straightforward, whereas my Chinese self is more subtle — it's older and complex," she said.

Li said she won't try to publish in Chinese.

"I really felt that I became a writer in the English language and that English became my first language in writing. It's very hard for me to imagine going back to Chinese," she said.

Li, who studied science before switching to writing, grew up in Beijing and now lives in Oakland, Calif. She likes living in the United States because, she said, "that distance between China and wherever I am is very important for my writing."