‘Li Juan … may be as far outside the system as Chinese writers are able to get and still publish … Her literary career has taken what she calls “the wild path”’ – The New York Times
Distant Sunflower Fields is not a novel, but for readers unfamiliar with life in Xinjiang, in the far north-west of China on the edge of the Gobi Desert, it might as well be one. It’s a long series of chapters, telling a mostly linear story of Li Juan’s life in the early 21st century. The framework on which the chapters hang is that her mother bought a yurt so the family could move to different field locations and plant sunflowers, thus saving rent, and Li Juan gave up her job in the town to move back in with her family.
Li Juan has a mother and a grandmother, and Uncle, her mother’s present husband, but no siblings are mentioned. Her father is never mentioned. But there is no-one else.
She doesn’t name any of these people (except one, on her death). Other characters are merely people seen farming in the distance on the great plain where Mum and Uncle have rented land to grow sunflowers, and whose shoes Chouchou steals for fun. Chouchou is one of the two characters who actually have names, apart from Li Juan herself. Chouchou is a stray tobet, or a Central Asian sheep-dog, as big as a Doberman. With his jolly, loving personality he adopts the family. Saihu is the other, a trembling needy little dog, too small and too cowardly to be useful, but loved by Li Juan’s mother all the same.
Li Juan purposefully creates an immersive strangeness in these short, ruminative chapters, quietly leaving out the necessary facts: what her job was in the town, why her mother moved from Sichuan to Xinjiang to start farming sunflowers, why the other family members are absent, why her mother brings Li Juan two lengths of pine wood to use for drying clothes. It becomes clear, even though Li Juan has a job and her mother has a shop she opens when the herders are passing by, that the family live in very basic poverty. At one point, late in the book when they are camping in woods near cattle country, Li Juan is befriended by another young woman, who works at the hydroelectric plant, and is persuaded by her to use the factory shower room. Li Juan doesn’t quite see why this is necessary until she sees herself in a mirror for the first time, after months of simply dabbing her face with a flannel. She takes a long, thorough and very necessary shower indeed, enjoying it hugely.
The family live for their first summer in the sunflower fields in a hole in the ground, a pit used by different farming families in different years, each putting their own roof on top. Camels walk past the entrance to the subterranean dugout, which the family thought was a good spot, until they were warned by the previous year’s inhabitants that when the rains came, the pit flooded, being too close to the river. That was the year Mum bought the yurt, and she and Uncle argued for three days about it.
People mostly travel by motor-bike, roaring across the signpostless desert. Li Juan laughs at her mother for signalling left and right on her motorbike, in the middle of nowhere, and tries not to remember that her mother has no idea how to use the brakes. Long-distance buses occasionally stick to a timetable, and if they’re not on time, then Mum, or Li Juan, has to wait patiently for a day or more, standing in the desert next to a bus stop that looks more like a gravestone.
Li Juan is a young writer but a highly assured one, so confident in the marvels of her own experiences and her extraordinary capacity for finding wonder in the most barren of landscapes. Her nature writing suffuses this book, making a backdrop against which the stories of humans stick out like stones. The only dangers are of losing the crop to gazelles or to cattle, or losing Saihu in the sunflowers. Li Juan wanders in the desert for half a day, and then walks back to the yurt. Her life is doing the housework and the cooking while her elders do the backbreaking work of farming in all seasons. The yurt, surrounded by rubbish, woodpiles, chicken coops and rabbit cages, is a tip, and the outhouse is never mentioned. The impermanence of their existence makes her mildly embarrassed, but only when she realises that people might be feeling sorry for them. This is her life and it is full of wonder.
The book has an unnerving quality of bringing the reader into an alien world where daily life and routines are both a little familiar and quietly strange. The sense of alienation was more for me than just being set in a recognisable but foreign culture. Li Juan’s one concession to context is her own eulogy for her grandmother, which situates the old woman in a time and place described in a way that shows the bitterness Li Juan feels about modern China, and which may explain why she herself is content to stay well out of the way, as close to the Mongolian or Kazakh border as she can get.
Qin Yuzhen, orphaned at birth, a poor waif adopted to serve in a wealthier home, finally married off to a gambling addict, mother of ten. Spent more than half her life a widow; saw eight children into their graves. No home to call her own, no hukou to claim residency, her life was lived between Sichuan and Xinjiang. At the age of seventy, under orders from the government, she returned to her adoptive mother’s home, tasked with taking care of the old woman, a family member of a revolutionary martyr, by then a hundred years of age. Made a living out of collecting rubbish, raised her granddaughter on her own. On the death of her adoptive mother, the government evicted her from the low-rent, six-metre-square apartment she’d been living in. At the age of eighty-five, she returned to the countryside to till the land. At the age of eighty-eight she accompanied her youngest daughter back to Xinjiang. She never saw her home town again.
This is a marvellous book, immersive and absorbing, somewhere utterly new to discover. The English translation by Christopher Payne was a little rocky in the proof copy I read, but Li Juan’s vision and her imaginative scope overcome the hiccups on the way. The view is tremendous, so there’s no need to worry about a stone in the road.
You can buy Distant Sunflower Fields at bookshop.org, the non-profit online bookshop that pays money back to independent bookshops.