Anni Baobei cuts a mysterious figure. The bestselling Chinese author rarely gives interviews or attends public events. Fans have given her the nickname ‘Flower in the Dark’ for her tales of desolation and loneliness. Yet Baobei’s readers run into the millions. Lotus, Baobei’s 2006 novel, which is set in Tibet, has sold more than a million copies in Mandarin. Now, one of China’s most in-vogue writers will reach English readers for the first time, with the inaugural translation of her debut collection Goodbye Vivien (originally published in 2000), under the English title The Road of Others.
After much cajoling, Baobei – real name Li Jie – grants Time Out a rare interview on the basis that we are not accompanied by a photographer. We half expect to meet a diva or enigmatic goddess. But the woman who slips gingerly into a chair is slim and shy. As she talks, she chain-smokes, occasionally playing with her hair, which is slung in a side parting, giving her an almost elfin appearance.
‘My personality makes me incompatible with social occasions, I don’t really know how to communicate with people,’ says Baobei with a diffident smile, waving away the offer of a drink. ‘I don’t like places that are crowded. I don’t like being put in the spotlight, with lots of people taking photos or staring at me.’ Baobei, 38, grew up in Ningbo in China’s Zhejiang province. As a young woman in her early twenties she worked in a bank – a job filled with tedium. In a bid to escape, Baobei (whose pseudonym means ‘Baby’) started publishing short stories on one of China’s first online literary forums, Rongshuxia.
Baobei’s stories quickly hit a nerve with China’s disaffected internet youth: her early pieces (three of which are printed in The Road of Others) are filled with disturbed characters, all navigating the confusing new world of boom-era China. In ‘Goodbye, Wei An’ the womanising protagonist, Lin, becomes obsessed with a girl he meets online; simultaneously, he plays callously with the feelings of his real-life flesh-and-blood fling.
Each story features the brash, ambitious but spiritually empty products of China’s one-child generation. These are the Chinese children who grew up looking inwards: they are fast and loose with feelings; hungry for money, material goods and all things foreign – and they’re messed up. These tales, say Baobei, reflect her mindset as a 24-year-old writer who was ‘anxious and depressed’.
Obsessive readers send Baobei their diaries. Inside the handwritten scrawlings, she finds stories of pain, isolation and, often, cries for help. To her fans, Baobei is a saviour-figure: a writer who understands their pain, who is one of them. She is a mystery they can mould in their imaginations to fit their own desires.
The Road of Others, from Dhs40, available at www.amazon.com.