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Novel becomes a bestseller despite author’s anonymity

“During the first weeks of spring 1974, when Jingqiu was still at senior high school, she and three other students were selected to take part in a project to compile a new school textbook.”

So begins the English translation of Under the Hawthorn Tree,  a novel set to be published in Canada by House of Anansi Press. Already a huge success in China, in part due to a 2010 film adaptation by Academy Award–winning director Zhang Yimou, the book began life as a blog by the writer Ai Mi. Perhaps most remarkable about the novel’s international success (it has reportedly sold in 15 countries) is that no one seems to know the real identity of the pseudonymous author.

The novel, a love story, is part of a crop of Chinese works dealing with the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong. In a translator’s introduction to the English-language edition, Anna Holmwood writes:

While political sensitivities have continued to limit full historical and political analysis, novels were for a while – and perhaps even still are – the most fruitful way of coming to terms with this period. They became known as “scar literature” or “literature of the wounded” – a term coined after the publication of Lu Xinhua’s novel The Scar.

According to an article in The Guardian, Lennie Goodings, the editor at Virago who bought the book for the U.K. market, hadn’t even read it in English when she made an offer.

Goodings asked someone from Shanghai who works in Virago’s accounts department to read it: “Her face fell and she said, ‘I’m not interested in the Cultural Revolution. It’s my parents’ generation.’ The next day she was at my shoulder, eyes brimming, saying ‘it’s so wonderful and I cried.’ On the basis of that, I bought it blind.” Although the original blog was serialised on a website that was blocked by the Chinese authorities, an admirer had passed it to one of China’s state-affiliated publishers, which has been overwhelmed by its sales.

Anansi will publish the English version of Ai Mi’s novel in February. There is currently no North American release date for Yimou’s film.

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