Yu Yoyo on Writing and Owning Oneself — Mapping the World with Words Interview Series
Updated: Mar 27
Yu Yoyo was born in Sichuan, China, in 1990. From a young age, she started publishing in acclaimed literary journals in China. She published her first poetry collection, Seven Years, in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2018 that a complete publication reached English speakers with My Tenantless Body.
Yu is seen as a representative voice of the post-90’s generation. Her poems deal with themes such as femininity and the clash of traditional and modern values and identity.
1. I would like to start by asking about you. 2020 was a difficult year for everyone. How have you dealt with it? How has it affected your writing?
Covid-19 took the world by storm in 2020. The outbreak of the epidemic is a great pain and trial for everyone. The epidemic is also a pause in the progress of human society, the pause that is not a standstill, but a forced awakening from the great triumph and joy of mankind. We have to think about the relationship between man and many things, and how in the complex relationship, man can reflect on his own selfishness and arrogance to treat the other and the similar equally. During the epidemic, I felt so much pain, tears streaming down my face several times, I felt the fragility of life, the cunning of politics, and my own powerlessness. I was stuck in a sense of powerlessness and didn't know how to deal with my situation. I read a lot of news every day. Everything was like a mystery hanging over me. I couldn’t see the truth and felt great pain. But my mind seemed to be activated by this great pain, and I began to read the works of Western philosophers, in an attempt to find in their rational thinking a universal answer to the human problem. Their thoughts help me calm down, help me analyze reality seriously and not just wallow in useless pain. In March, I dealt with my emotions and began to write—I think a writer should appeal to and explore the truth rather than act impetuously. And after that, I became very interested in human power relationships, because we're trying to control other people, control everything, and instead we're accusing other people of controlling us, which is an interesting discovery. Therefore, I shifted the writing object to animals and used animal expressions to write about people.
2. This is a very typical question, but one I believe is necessary: why do you write?
To answer this question is to be confronted with the other question, what can I get from writing? We always write for various reasons, but we often forget what literature can bring to the society and the world. We always think of taking and forget to give. I used to think that writing was my own business, and I hoped to achieve spiritual freedom through writing. But now I gradually realize how important a writer—a person with a voice—is to society. We need the voice of reason, of justice, of wisdom, to resist the dark, shameless, selfish voice, because most of us are caught in the interest, and become false and ugly. Writing is to convey a kind of truth, even if it is a fictional truth, constantly to whip people, warning people.
3．I came to know you through your first published book in English, My Tenantless Body. Is the ownership over your own body something you have had to fight for? Do you think it is common, this fight to possess ourselves?
The body is the foundation of each of us. It is a kind of substance and a symbol of self. We cannot exist without the body any more than our spirit must exist with it. The body is a symbol of right, and when we emphasize the body, we are emphasizing a kind of right. As women, our rights are being suppressed, and I have to fight for that to have more possibilities in my life. As I said before, we try to control others, and we refuse to be controlled. Therefore, I think everyone should learn to control themselves, respect others, in order to gain a relative freedom.
4．For me, your poetry is sometimes like a knife: sharp and accurate, it leaves no room for doubt or second thoughts. Other times, I feel like it’s the thing being cut, a wound that bleeds and escapes my understanding. How have your experiences affected the way you write?
If you think my poem is a knife, then I must be the first to hurt myself. I suffered from an illness for a long time, and it had a big impact on me, or the original motivation for my writing. I write with a constant sense of pain, like when I have a headache. And I think the writer should be cruel to himself. Only cruelty can stimulate the inner goodwill, and finally release the goodwill. Because words must be a weapon to carry us to battle, to fight for freedom, to fight for good life.
5. In My Tenantless Body, China is ever-present in a dark and hunting way. In which way does China live inside of you?
There is no doubt that China is my birthplace, I grew up here and now live here, but it is only a geographical significance to me. I think my spirit is broad-minded, not confined here. I always look at this land with a bystander's perspective, which is also needed by writers. We should not be influenced by any kind of environment or ideology, and we should maintain the independence of thinking. Here, I was inspired to have a greater understanding of freedom: even if the body is still, it cannot stop the leap of the mind.
6. Aside from being a poet, you are also a visual artist. How is your art and your writing connected? Do you feel like there are things you can express through your paintings that you cannot express through your words, and vice versa?
We all know that poetry is the art of language and painting is the art of images. In addition to writing poetry, I also paint, and I think the two can be interchangeable. In my personal experience, the overflowing part of poetry is painting. When words cannot express it, I use images to express it. In essence, both are solving the problem of expression. Painting is a form of expression, and poetry is also a form of expression. Therefore, I also attach poems to the paintings. The core of them is actually the same, which is formed by an individual's idea and consciousness. The only difference is of specific presentation and form. I enjoy moving back and forth between the two, and the end result is a much richer way of expressing myself.
7. We have talked about the things you write about, but now I would like to know about those things you do not write about. Are there topics or experiences you haven’t been able to put into words, be it because of fear, self-consciousness or any other reason?
I think what I write is all that I have to write, and all that I can write. Writing is always about overcoming the fear you mentioned. This is the test that every writer faces, whether it is to overcome inner fear or political fear. There is no avoiding it. Whoever avoids fear cannot be a real writer. If there's anything I haven't written yet, it hasn't happened yet.
8. As humans, we are all part of a net that influences and affects us. Who are the artists or writers that have influenced you the most? Who are those you feel deserve to be known?
I like the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa very much. He has many pseudonyms, and he changes his identity and writing style among these pseudonyms, not satisfied with the value created by one pseudonym. I think he is really a writer who has gained freedom. One of my favorite books is The Book of Disquiet by him, which is like a diary or fragments of words. The author's position in the essay varies from one spiritual person to another material: sometimes a man of science, sometimes a man of faith. It is constancy in change, uniformity in difference, firmness in contradiction, clarity in confusion. It was this spiritual temperament that attracted me, and also influenced my early writing.
You can read some of Yu Yoyo’s poems and buy My Tenantless Body at poetrytranslation.org.
All images used in this interview, as well as the cover image, all belong to Yu Yoyo.