Xie Peng, a 36-year-old Chinese graphic novelist, spent six years working on his first book, Darkness Outside the Night. It's been praised by China's first Nobel laureate for literature, Mo Yan, as inspiring people on how to deal with life.
It's a psychological journey into the world of young Chinese: a world of competition, stress and anxiety, but not necessarily one of politics. His characters, children of the one-child generation, are anxious and alienated.
It's a world Xie knows well: He works 12 hours a day as a computer-games animator; overtime work eats up his weekends. Financial pressures bear down on him, since he married recently and bought an apartment.
Darkness is a collaboration between Xie, also known as Eliparvic Xie, who drew the pictures, and Hong Kong-based writer Duncan Jepson, who contributed the words.
"It's kind of like a Sibelius tone poem, but it was very visual. It was about anxiety; it was about frustration," Jepson says. "It was, at the same time, about seeking something better, something beautiful, something more human."
Highlights From Xie Peng Interview
On whether his generation is freer than his parents'
"In our generation, you are free, but things have to be purchased. Freedom needs to be bought. Without money, you will have no freedom. Dignity also needs to be bought. It's an illusion."
On the stress that young Chinese are under
"Competition is very fierce. For example, exams are a competition with a very low chance of winning. And at work, too, for example when I do a project, there are many others doing the same project, so my chance of success is very low; probably only 10 percent of the projects are successful. In different eras, we suffer from different problems, and the problem at the moment is massive stress."
On his favorite piece of work, "Hate," from Darkness Outside the Night
"It's about a character walking outside. He was stabbed by a dagger thrown at him. He didn't know where it came from, so he put the dagger in the bag, which he carried slung 'round his chest. He was assaulted again and again, and he kept each of the knives. Eventually, when he was tripped over, he was stabbed to death by the knives inside his bag. This tells a story that during life, we meet with problems that come out of nowhere. But if you keep holding grudges and you cannot discard the hatred, eventually the hatred will kill you."
On his next work
"This work is from my younger years. Now I'm drawing my adult anxieties. It's not the same character. The work I'm preparing now is the story of a failed superhero, who finds himself back. I don't know when I'll be finished because I'm working very slowly. Since we have so much overtime, I work for 12 hours a day, and at the weekend I also have to work. So I don't have time for drawing."
On why he doesn't expect to be popular in China
"There's a common tendency among this generation to castrate their own thoughts. They automatically don't think about negative or complicated thoughts. They're factory farmed, like chicks in a chicken farm. After birth, their lives are regulated like that, and some boundaries can't be crossed. As long as you don't cross them, you will live very happily."
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's not every day that a young unknown graphic novelist is praised by a Nobel laureate. But that's exactly what happened to a 36-year-old Chinese cartoonist. The country's first Nobel laureate for literature, Mo Yan said the young man's graphic novel will inspire people on how to deal with life. It's a psychological journey into the world of a young Chinese man. And as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, it's a world of competition, stress, anxiety, but not politics.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: A small, childlike creature wearing a cone hat stands alone in the middle of a brightly lit street of bars and nightclubs. There is enough for everyone, he thinks, yet some have so little. He looks into a toyshop, happy at the sight of a snow globe. Something small for me, he thinks. Perhaps one day.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LIM: At that very moment, it's bought from under his nose by a reveler, laughing and dancing with friends. The few will take everything, thinks the child, even happiness.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LIM: This is a vignette from "Darkness Outside the Night," a graphic novel illustrated by Xie Peng as he listened to this music. It's a glimpse into his world, where freedom has become a commodity.
XIE PENG: (Through Translator) At this time, you are free, but everything has to be purchased. Freedom needs to be bought. Without money, you will have no freedom. Dignity also needs to be bought. It's actually an illusion.
LIM: This is true for Xie Peng himself. He struggles to buy himself the freedom to create graphic novels. He works 12 hours a day as a computer games animator. His weekends are eaten up by overtime work. Financial pressures bear down on him, since he's just gotten married and bought an apartment. He wants to work on a new graphic novel about a failed superhero, if he can buy himself the time. His characters - children of the one-child generation - are anxious and alienated.
XIE: (Through Translator) To put it simply, there's a feeling of isolation when you're among very happy people. You feel you have no relationship with them.
LIM: Xie Peng draws dystopian Gotham-like cities where skyscrapers close out the sky. Monsters lurk in the background; nature is absent. And the characters are engaged in intense competition for everything. Xie Peng believes his book is unlikely to find a large audience inside China; it's simply too depressing.
XIE: (Through Translator) There is a common tendency among this generation to castrate their thoughts. They automatically don't think about negative things or complicated things. They're factory-farmed like chicks in a chicken farm. After birth, their lives are regulated like that. Some boundaries can't be crossed. As long as you don't cross them, you will live very happily.
LIM: His work is not, however, political. It's more a commentary on the passivity of young Chinese. The rawness of the art has won him fans, not least Duncan Jepson, a Hong-Kong based writer, who wrote the book's words.
DUNCAN JEPSON: My attitude was it's kind of like a Sibelius tone poem, but it was visual. But it was about anxiety. It was about frustration. But it was the same time about seeking something better, something beautiful, something more human.
LIM: (Reading) The small child is walking along the road. He trips and falls into a massive hole.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LIM: (Reading) With a huge effort, he pulls himself out. He peers into the blackness as he sits on the edge of the hole. Around him, the road is pockmarked with holes. He is completely, utterly alone. There I am, he thinks, again. The last picture is the view from the bottom of another hole, the world outside contracted to a white dot inside the inky black vacuum. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.