On Nov. 10, the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, a new component of the prestigious Man Booker International Prize (won this year by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe), will be announced. The category for Asian authors includes works originally written in English, as well as translations. With the announcement of the shortlist on Oct. 25, Taiwan's Egoyan Zheng (伊格言) was knocked out of contention, but given the insignificant presence of Taiwanese literature internationally, he is amazed he got that far.
The longlist for the award included such heavy-hitters as Chinese authors Mo Yan (莫言) and Jiang Rong (姜戎), the latter's Wolf Totem (狼圖騰) making it through to the shortlist.
Egoyan Zheng is the pen name of Zheng Qian-ci (鄭千慈), a former medical student who has turned his back on medicine to explore the souls of men, rather than just their bodies. In entering the competition he was acutely aware that he was handicapped in terms of international recognition, not just by his age - he is just 30 - or the fact that Fleeting Light (流光) is his first novel, but also because of where he comes from.
"Most Westerners, if they want to read (East) Asian literature, will think of China or Japan; they don't know that Taiwan has works of equal caliber," he said, in an interview with Taipei Times. Zheng is convinced that in terms of quality, the new generation of writers is a match for all contenders in the arena of pure literature.
To make his point, he took the unusual step of personally seeking a translator for his work and paying her out of his own pocket, rather than hoping that one day a local publisher would come along with an offer to pay for translation, publication and international marketing.
"The publishing industry (for literature) in Taiwan is too small; it cannot afford to bear the costs of translation. So how do you make your work known abroad? One way or another, you have to get it translated. The publishers won't do it, so the only thing to do is pay for it myself. ... And obviously, I am also confident about the quality of my work."
This confidence led him to abandon his medical studies at the National Taiwan University in his fourth year and transfer to graduate studies at the graduate school of Chinese at Tamkang University. In doing this, he also cast aside a family tradition of medical practice.
"I knew I could write well," he said, "and becoming a doctor is basically about nothing more than looking after ourselves economically - its a secure job. As a medical student, I had no great ambition - that's all I wanted to achieve. As a writer, I believe I have talent."
Zheng maintains an interest in science, especially its philosophical implications, and has plans to write science fiction at some point, but the mentality that pushes him toward literature is the desire to explore the irrational in humans. This is behind the choice of his pen name, taken from the Canadian director Atom Egoyan, whose films Zheng admires. Talking about Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Zheng said: "A part of the story is telling you that the irrational part of a person can often be much stronger than the rational. ... Simplifying, I can say that after watching that film, I had an appreciation of the dark power of the irrational. It left a deep impression on me. I later realized that this was a response to a good piece of art."