Yan Ge: ‘I see this collection like a journey of me finding out what kind of writer I want to be in English’

Writer Yan Ge talks about writing her first book in English, living in Ireland and her desire to do stand-up

“If people tell me, ‘As a writer it will be better for you to jump off this cliff’, I would totally jump off that cliff!” I’m talking to the novelist and short story writer Yan Ge about her decision to come from her birth country of China to Ireland in 2015 – to jump off the cliff.

Ge now lives in Norwich with her Irish husband Daniel and their son, and in conversation over Zoom she is animated and garrulous, quick to explore her multicultural existence in ways both serious and funny. She observes that in Ireland and the UK, her son’s school hours are much shorter than they would be in China. “I was talking to visitors from Ireland, and I said I worry that my son doesn’t have enough adversity. They said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And started teasing me about being a Chinese Catholic!”

But the idea of blended identities runs through Ge’s book that we’re meeting to discuss. Elsewhere is the best sort of debut – one that isn’t the author’s first book. Ge has been a successful author of literary fiction in Chinese since her first book was published in 2003 when she was still a teenager. She makes a living from it. “It’s kind of like a miracle,” she says. Elsewhere, a deeply eclectic collection of stories, is the first book she has written in English.

I comment to her that writing in two languages is pretty unusual – I can think of only a few practitioners. Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Jhumpa Lahiri. What made her decide to write in English?


“Thank you for dragging me into this very flattering club!” she laughs. “I don’t think I actually belong.” She explains that her travels, which took her from China to the US before she came to Ireland, meant that by the time she was living here, “my life had become maybe 98 per cent English”.

“I didn’t really have access to Chinese except when I called my family in China,” Ge says. “So it was like stories were bubbling inside [me], in English, not in Chinese. But I had been really resisting the idea of writing in English, because I felt Chinese was my literary language. My life had kind of been invaded by this language!

“[So] I didn’t embrace it as Beckett did, but for me to write in English is to express myself differently artistically. And that’s immensely exciting.”

Ge’s stories in English have been published in a variety of places, including this newspaper, The Stinging Fly, and Lucy Caldwell’s anthology Being Various.

How is writing in English different from writing in Chinese? “There’s a great difference,” Ge says firmly. “English is a way of detaching myself from certain things.” She talks about the story Stockholm in Elsewhere, which she says is the most autobiographical story, about a woman who attends a literary festival while struggling with breast-feeding. “The woman’s mother is dying, [and] I wouldn’t have been able to do that in Chinese because it relates to my experience of witnessing my mom die. It’s too heavy. I’m still not able to talk about my mother’s death in Chinese without having a breakdown.”

When people are shouting ‘ni hao’ to me, it’s a way of flagging you out as an alien

But Elsewhere distinguishes itself not just by being in the author’s second language: it is an exceptionally varied collection. Settings for the stories range from contemporary Dublin to historic China, with one story (Travelling in the Summertime) set in the 11th century and another – the novella Hai that ends the book – featuring the politics around the succession of the fifth-century BC philosopher Confucius. The book is experimental too, with playful narratives nestling next to formal prose and autobiographical fiction.

“I set out trying to write a story collection that was connected or has a strong theme – and I just gave up!” Her agent suggested she follow her own path instead. “I really allowed myself to try out different voices. But I feel the reason I was trying them out was that these voices were in me already. I see this collection, from a personal point of view, like a journey of me finding out what kind of writer I want to be in English.”

There is, I observe, a lot of comedy in the stories too, particularly those set in Ireland, even though the stories explore difficult, serious subjects, including the role of women in society and racism.

“I love looking into grey areas, and I’m particularly intrigued by the dark side, the nastiness of humanity. And I think there’s no way to write about those things other than to make it ridiculous,” Ge says.

“I don’t know if that’s the best approach. But it’s certainly my approach. And I’m also not trying to tell the readers how to feel.”

In fact comedy goes deeper than that for Ge. “I really aspired to be a stand-up [comedian]! I did an event with [the comedian] Maeve Higgins in Cork last year and I said I really want to be a stand-up, and she was like, ‘Why?’

“I think comedy is about tension – about building up tension, then releasing it or not releasing it.

“And that’s a useful tool for me, especially as a woman – my survival mechanism as a woman is to always please other people. And comedy is to fight against this instinct – comedy gives you the tools to just be kind of nasty. To build the tension and be confrontational. It’s telling you a joke but I’m also trying to tell you something that might make you uncomfortable.”

Ge’s journey from China began when she was 26 years old, she attended Duke University in North Carolina for a PhD in comparative literature. Then she returned to China where she met her husband, “this cheeky Irish person!”.

“He was the only non-American in this circle [of] a reading/writing group – a bunch of expats, and me and some other locals,” she recalls. “And he really stood out because he looked so miserable! And that was really good for me – the others were too happy, I couldn’t emotionally engage with them.”

She planned to return to the US, but Daniel persuaded her otherwise. “He had a really good strategy. He said, ‘I’m happy to go [to the US]. But as a writer, you’ve experienced China and the United States, both big countries with dominating cultures. And it might be good for you as a writer if you go to Ireland to experience a smaller country.’” She laughs. “So he really knew me. Coming to Ireland would potentially make me a better writer. That’s how he sold it to me.” Hence, as mentioned above, Ge’s willingness to jump off a cliff.

There’s a sense of community, that you’re not seen as a weirdo being a writer here

In Ireland her son was born and then they moved to Norwich in 2018, where Ge still lives. I ask her about the story Shooting an Elephant, where a Chinese woman, Shanshan, gets annoyed by Dubliners shouting “ni hao” (Chinese for “hello”) at her in the street, or asking her to read their Chinese tattoos. Did these things happen to Ge in Ireland?

“Yeah, definitely. I suppose we have a word for it now: micro-aggression. When people are shouting ‘ni hao’ to me, it’s a way of flagging you out as an alien,” Ge says.

“They only know this one phrase [so] it’s not an invitation to have a conversation. It’s like a brick: they throw it at you, it hits you, that’s the end of it. If someone says, ‘Where are you from?’ I wouldn’t be offended, because that’s an invitation to a conversation.”

Did her husband experience this sort of thing when he lived in China? “He did. People would always shout to him ‘American! American!’ First, he was very upset – ‘I’m Irish!’ – but then he would shout back to them, ‘Chinese!’.

“But I had this conversation with him a lot and I feel it’s never the same – [in China] they think you’re doing some cultural tourist thing. I think the context is different when you’re a person of colour in a white-dominated society. When I was in Ireland, I would be asked, oh is your husband Irish? You know, what makes you legit here?”

The quality of Elsewhere makes us hopeful that Ge will write more in English (only one of her Chinese novels has been translated). Meanwhile, she has just submitted another novel in Chinese, and is happy with her lot in Norwich – at the moment.

“It’s nice to live in a place where everyone is 10 minutes away,” Ge says.

“There’s a sense of community, that you’re not seen as a weirdo being a writer here. But,” she adds, “it’s also a bit nerve-racking – I don’t know if this is me being a Chinese Catholic! – [because] whenever you feel like life is becoming very comfortable and easy – that’s the time you need to go.”

Elsewhere is published by Faber & Faber