Upon finishing the fifth of five stories in Stick Out Your Tongue by Chinese dissident Ma Jian, I was not sure that I would write a review. The book felt important, but I did not know what to say. The stories are so strange and disturbing, and I was afraid I'd write something foolish. Maybe I still will. Then I read the Afterward by Ma Jian telling about the writing and banning of these stories in China. It took overnight, but I think I understand.
Ma Jian took a trip to Tibet in 1985 that shocked him. He had expected to find gentle people and enlightenment but instead found gray poverty and ignorance. The country had been under the control of Chinese Communists for over thirty years, and much that was beautiful had been suppressed or chased away. He wrote these stories that were accepted by Chinese literary magazines and then was luckily out of the country when they were published. They were only translated into English in 2006.
All of the stories have settings that feel ancient and timeless into which modernity invades. In "The Woman and the Blue Sky," the narrator mentions that he arrived in the province by army truck, but then he becomes a wanderer, walking through valley and villages, looking to witness a Tibetan sky funeral. In "The Smile of Lake Drolmula," a son back from two years of school in Beijing wanders hopelessly trying to find his nomadic family. In the fifth story, "The Initiation," the Buddhist monks must be those who remain in Tibet after the Chinese takeover, practicing a corrupt religion.
After both the first and second stories, and even in points mid-story, I considered closing Stick Out Your Tongue, but I persisted. I had heard praise for the stories, which were fascinatingly filled with strange cultural details, and saw that the time investment was short. I am glad I did get to the end, as the pieces make more sense together. I am left with a justifiable sense of horror. It is no wonder they are banned in China.
Ma Jian. Stick Out Your Tongue. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. 93p. ISBN 0374269882.