Beijing — Sheng Keyi is one of China’s upcoming star literary novelists in part because the most powerful images in her fiction are rooted in reality. In her debut novel “North- ern Girls,” a migrant teenager named Li Sijiang suffers a brutal forced sterilization in the Chinese boom town of Shenzhen. Ms. Sheng, sitting in a bookshop-cum- café in this city where she now lives, recounts the real-life inci- dent that inspired that scene.
“The girl was screaming,” she says. “I stood watching but I couldn’t do anything.”
Like her fictional character Siji- ang, Ms. Sheng, also hails from the poor Hunan province in the inte- rior and left to pursue work in Shenzhen in the early 1990s, where she stayed for seven years. In that sprawling metropolis, she found a job at the publicity department of a birth control center.
While she was on staff, Ms. Sheng witnessed a forced abortion, as a young girl was hauled into the operating room by four men. “I was a propagandist, promoting knowledge on birth control. [Now] I write about the opposite to what I did—because I think the opposite is real.”
And more people are reading what she writes. “Northern Girls,” published in 2004 in China, has just been translated into English— the first of Ms. Sheng’s ten pub- lished works to be so widely avail- able. It tracks the fate of the “northern girls,” a pejorative term used by Shenzhen natives to de- scribe the migrant workers who pile into the city at China’s south- ern tip. Alone in the city, the girls are confronted with rape, illegal arrests and abortions.
Li Sijiang, for instance, has a naive faith in human nature that’s disabused the moment she arrives in the factory lands of the south. During the peak season for steril- izations—initiated by officials des- perate to meet China’s one-child policy quotas—she is mistaken for a married woman with children and dragged to the hospital. In a clinic filled with a sour odor of pus and unbathed flesh, four “butch- ers” hold her down on the operat- ing table. Sijiang is left “neutered like an old sow” at the age of 19.
The novel’s translation and re- publication is timely. Last month, graphic photographs of a woman lying next to a seven-month-old bloodstained fetus went viral on- line. Feng Jianmei, 23, could not afford to pay a $6,400 fine for the right to give birth to her second child. Family planning officials in Shaanxi province abducted her while her husband was away, beat her, blindfolded her, and— after administrating a lethal injection to her stomach—induced a still-birth. This savage treatment made news headlines world-wide and forced officials to apologize to Ms. Feng.
“In a civilized society, such in- humane, barbaric and border-line murder cases like forced abortion shouldn’t exist,” Ms. Sheng ex- claims emphatically when asked about this case. “The Internet has put forced abortions into the spot- light, yet there are so many brutal incidents out of sight.”
In 2008, more than nine million women in China had abortions, ac- cording to the Ministry of Health. Since 1979, when the one-child pol- icy came into force, the govern- ment claims to have prevented more than 400 million births. Ms. Sheng recalls seeing lines of girls, most of whom had little sex educa- tion and scant knowledge of con- traceptives, queuing for abortions. The gynecology ward in the aver- age Shenzhen hospital was the most profitable of all. “The drains in the city are filled with blood,” she says.
Forced family planning is not the only sensitive subject Ms. Sheng broaches in her writings. She says that her as yet unpub- lished book “Death Fugue” draws its inspiration from the 1989 Ti- ananmen Square protests. It’s a science fiction novel set in a futur- istic fictional country, where a crushed riot leaves people cas- trated. “Intellectuals lose their dreams, poets no longer write po- ems, revolutionists have no pas- sion to fight,” she explains. She’s honest with her motivations, “My book is anti-dictatorship and total- itarian.”
A novel like “Death Fugue” can be a problem in China. The author approached more than 10 publish- ers in the mainland; none dared to take it on. Instead, she is planning to publish the book in Hong Kong next year. “Northern Girls,” like- wise, caused a commotion when Ms. Sheng first attempted to get it published. Printing was delayed for over a year because of the forced sterilization scene.
In person, Ms. Sheng, dressed fashionably in a black leather jacket over a pretty cotton dress, is poised, erudite and warm. Yet “Northern Girls” is earthy, visceral and often coarse. Female matters, from menstruation to sexual de- sire, are described in intimate de- tail. Above all, the book is notable for placing working-class girls in high literature.
Yet Ms. Sheng recoils from be- ing called a feminist writer. “I don’t have items like ‘ist’ or ‘ism’ in my ideology system,” she in- sists. More important than labels is giving voice to those who are voiceless. “The most worthy things to write about are those who have no power to speak, no power to fight.”
Perhaps the most striking part of “Northern Girls” is the promi- nent position female breasts hold in the narrative. The novel’s feisty protagonist, the migrant Qian Xi- aohong, has breasts the size of “pomelos.” Like Sijiang, Xiaohong leaves her village for Shenzhen as a willful 16-year-old. At first, Xiao-
hong’s ample bosom singles her out among the millions of mi- grants—the countless prostitutes, shampoo girls (employees at bar- bershops that are often fronts for prostitution) and factory workers. But as the novel goes on, these breasts balloon to a grotesque size; her most feminine assets literally weigh her down to the ground.
“Why does [Xiaohong] have big breasts?” Ms. Sheng says, before answering her own question. She counts Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of magical realism, as one of her strongest inspirations, and her books lightly touch on surreal- ist motifs to drive home her point. “I want to send the message that being female can become a burden, depending on whether women can eventually walk out of the shadow society forces upon them.”
In China, as in “Northern Girls,” most women never escape the dark clouds of poverty and misogyny. Ms. Sheng is one migrant woman who has and, to her credit, she’s now trying to shine light on those left behind.