A known recluse, bestselling author Anni Baobei’s popularity is nevertheless similar to that of the far less publicity shy Han Han. As she releases an English translation of her first book, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore is granted a rare interview.
Anni Baobei cuts a mysterious figure. The bestselling author rarely gives interviews or attends public events. Fans have given her the nickname ‘Flower in the Dark’ for her tales of desolation and loneliness. Yet her readers run into the millions. Her popularity is on a par with that of Han Han, China’s most famous contemporary author, who is, by all accounts, an avid self-promoter.
Like Han Han, Baobei (or ‘Baby’ – her real name is Li Jie) is a product of the ‘post-1980s’ generation of authors who write with abandon about the self. As a pioneering online author in the late 1990s, she first found fame on the internet. However, unlike Han Han – author of the world’s most widely read blog – Baobei has kept herself well hidden from the public eye. In fact, her lack of publicity adds to her cachet: part-marketing tool, part-genuine shyness, it has, perversely, kept her fans rabid for more.
Lotus, Baobei’s 2006 novel, which is set in Tibet, has reached sales of over a million copies in Mandarin. Now, one of China’s most in-vogue writers is set to reach English readers for the first time with the inaugural translation of her debut collection Goodbye Vivien (originally published in 2000), under the English title The Road of Others.
After much cajoling, Li granted Time Out a rare interview on the basis that we aren’t accompanied by a photographer. We half expect to meet a diva or a demigod. But the woman who slips gingerly into a chair at a discreet table in a Beijing cafe is slim and shy. She carries an oversized pink bag, and swishing around her legs is a long hippy skirt. As she talks, she chain-smokes, occasionally playing with her hair, slung in a side-parting, which gives her an elfin appearance.
‘My personality makes me incompatible with social occasions, I don’t really know how to communicate with people,’ she says with a diffident smile, waving away the offer of a drink. ‘I don’t like places that are crowded. I don’t like being put in the spotlight, with lots of people taking photos or staring at me.’ She adds hastily: ‘I mean the courtesy level of communication. I am good at communication for a specific purpose, such as in interviews.’
Li, 38, grew up in Ningbo. As a young woman in her early twenties she worked in a bank – a job filled with tedium. In a bid to escape, she started publishing short stories on one of China’s first online literary forums, Rongshuxia.
Above all, Li (who now lives in Beijing) wanted to escape her suffocating existence in a provincial city for a new life in Shanghai. ‘I was tired of my life and my city,’ she says. ‘I left my town not to become a writer, I wanted to go to big cities, where there would be bigger possibilities.’ However, The Bund in Shanghai, like the characters who live there, is described in one story as possessing a ‘smell of decay... the sad scent of materialism’. Its bright lights and glittering wealth are an illusion.
Li’s stories quickly hit a nerve with China’s disaffected internet youth: her early pieces (three of which are presented in The Road of Others) are filled with disturbed characters, all navigating the confusing new world of boom-era China. In ‘Goodbye, Wei An’ the coffee-drinking, womanising protagonist, Lin, becomes obsessed with a girl he meets online; simultaneously, he plays callously with the feelings of his real-life flesh-and-blood fling with devastating consequences. In ‘Endless August’, Wei Yang, a girl who grew up in a loveless household, sabotages her best friend’s relationship and, ultimately, her life.
Each story features the brash, ambitious but spiritually empty products of the one-child generation. These are the Chinese kids who grew up looking inwards. They are fast and loose with feelings and sex, hungry for money, material goods and all things foreign – and they’re messed up. Very messed up.
These tales, says Li, reflect her mindset as a 24-year-old writer who was ‘anxious and depressed’. This is mostly depicted through violent and manipulative sexual relations in her novels. ‘Sex can convey lots of things, such as fragility, or a sense of loneliness or numbness, or even blindness,’ says Li. ‘I didn’t use sex to attract readers. I am not writing pornography. Sex in my books is not a positive expression; it is more like fantasy bubbles bursting.’
All this angst has created a fervent teenage fan base. Obsessive readers send Li their diaries. Inside, she finds stories of pain, isolation and, often, cries for help. To her fans, Li is a saviour-figure, a writer who understands their pain, who is one of them. She is a mystery they can mould in their imaginations to fit their own desires.
If Li’s writings in English can sometimes seem affected to foreign readers, they are also original in a country where individualism is a rare commodity. ‘I have been different since I was a kid, I didn’t belong where I lived or with my peer group. It was really hard for me to get a sense of belonging. I felt alone,’ she explains. ‘I was rebellious – I still am. The same goes for my writing. I know it is uncommon, but it is my life. I will live it in my way.
The Road of Others is available from Garden Books, and Amazon.com priced at 8.76USD