Northern Girls

Sheng Keyi's startling account of women on the edge

Sixteen-year-old Qian Xiaohong has abnormally large breasts. While her best friend Li Sijiang is ridiculed for her ‘oranges’, Xiaohong’s ‘pomelos’ are ‘much too large for polite society’. Interest in her ample bosom gets the girls both into and out of danger through their tumultuous journey from small town Hunan to the neon lights of boomtown Shenzhen. Here, they become two of a million so-called ‘Northern girls’ – mainland migrants who’ve journeyed south in search of fame and fortune, only to find despair and exploitation.

Northern Girls, released this month by Penguin, is rising star Sheng Keyi’s first book to be translated into English. Already canonised as a post- ' 80s generation writer (noted for their bold portrayals of modern China), her work is synonymous with the struggles of women on the margins – the shampoo girls, road sweepers, KTV singers and massage parlour workers who carry out society’s dirty work with little thanks. It’s a subject inspired by Sheng’s own experiences growing up in a farming village in Yiyang prefecture and subsequent relocation to Shenzhen. Published in Chinese in 2004, Northern Girls, her first novel, is also her most autobiographical.

‘I have a soft spot for this novel. Written when I was an inexperienced writer, it’s a work that virtually erupted into being,’ she says in the book’s afterword. So how did the story come about?

Sheng Keyi‘Qian Xiaohong is a familiar figure to me. She is typical of the people from my home village,’ she tells Time Out. ‘When I started the story, I planned simply to write about the village but once I began, I felt the place to be too restrictive for such a character, I wanted to toss her into the wider world and see what she was destined to experience.’

The wider world is a seedy cesspit of both opportunity and peril. Assertive, gutsy Xiaohong and her innocent best friend Sijiang, ‘as pale as a fallen leaf’, face rape, abortion, deportation, murder and forced sterilisation.

Initially, Sheng struggled to be accepted by a publishing house owing to the troubling subject matter, but she stuck to her guns. ‘The hardships [real women] encounter are more shocking than anything I’ve recorded,’ she asserts.

Sheng’s raw candour runs deep into her visceral vocabulary; and in Northern Girls it hits a primal peak. For example, love is ‘sacrificed at the altar of her hymen’ (in chapter six when a friend’s lover betrays her for a virgin), and intercourse is ‘an old cat gnawing on a hunk of fish’. At first, the use of the body in this way can feel forced – Sheng spends the opening pages of the book talking exclusively about Xiaohong’s breasts and how they became so big – but the author’s uniquely clever wordplay (beautifully translated by Shelly Bryant) draws on the language of the body to deliver its sting. Furthermore, the body itself acts as a metaphor for Xiaohong’s journey throughout the novel.

This open style of writing is typical of the ‘Guangdong women writers’ or ‘beauty writers’, the label given to female fiction authors, including Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby), Mian Mian (Candy) and Sheng, who gained notoriety in the ’90s for tackling taboos.

However, there is more that separates Sheng’s prose from her counterparts than unites them. In Northern Girls, Sheng’s portrait acknowledges the physical and emotional sacrifices real girls are forced to make in a world where intercourse is the only universal currency.

The scenes revolving around abortion for example, are based in brutal reality. Sheng lived in Shenzhen in the ’90s working at a securities company and a magazine, before taking up writing full time in 2001. She would often hear that working at a gynecological hospital was lucrative given the massive demand for abortions. ‘Enormous numbers of people have gone down the drains. It’s like a whole city down there,’ she told the New York Times in an interview last year.

As such, intercourse presented as a double-edged sword. It can be empowering – Xiaohong’s chest renders men putty in her hands – but the notion that women must trade on it to get ahead is resolutely rejected. Xiaohong’s most empowering experiences take place when she walks away from such encounters and decides to further her education.

The result is a touching portrait of struggle and survival that speaks to women everywhere, not just the stoic northern girls at the centre of it all.

Northern Girls is available from Garden Books for 230RMB.