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A sensitive subject

By  Mei Jia  (China Daily)

08:44, July 04, 2012

Beijing-based writer Sheng Keyi is attracting attention for her novels that focus on underprivileged women in Chinese cities. Feng Tang / For China Daily

Sheng Keyi's novel Northern Girls: Life Goes On, tells of a migrant woman worker who has to deal with men's perception of her sexuality and the struggle for survival. Mei Jia reports in Beijing.

The struggles of a woman who migrates to the city in search of work is the focus of Sheng Keyi in her novel Northern Girls: Life Goes On. Shelly Bryant has translated the work, the first of Sheng's six novels, into English. "My focus in the novel is to examine how women from the lowest rungs of the social ladder make their way to the city and fight for their dignity," says Sheng, known for her realistic approach to writing.

Qian Xiaohong, the novel's protagonist, is a 16-year-old girl who appears to be a model citizen, but experiences unwarranted gossip and suspicion on account of her well-endowed body.

Qian is from a village in Hunan province and it is rumored that she was forced to leave because she had an affair with her brother-in-law. She joins other migrant workers who flocked to the country's south in the 1990s to seek a better life.

Qian works hard at a factory, salon, hotel and hospital.

In Shenzhen, locals often referred to migrant women workers as "Northern Girls" because they came from provinces north of Guangdong, with nothing but their bodies and their labor.

"What Qian experiences was shared by 70 to 80 percent of Shenzhen's migrant girls in real life," the author says.

Sheng, also born in Hunan in 1973, says Qian's character came to her when she was thinking about starting on her first novel.

"Qian has a strong character. She's frank, bold and has her principles."

Sheng uses Qian's ample bosom as a metaphor. In one scene in the book an official offers her 50 yuan ($8) for sex - a not insubstantial sum for the young woman who earns just 250 yuan a month.

Qian appears to accept the offer and begins to undress the man, but then escapes the room tossing the money at the official and saying: "I'm a virgin, uncle. I was just curious about your body. I'm giving you 50 yuan to put your clothes back on."

Jo Lusby of Penguin China, the book's publisher, says Sheng "presents a very different, inside view" that attracts an international audience.

Unlike other works on the subject of migrant workers, notably Leslie T. Chang's non-fictional Factory Girls, "Sheng adopts an unusually intimate and direct approach and writes through, and about, women's bodies", columnist and writer Didi Kirsten Tatlow says.

Tatlow says Sheng has addressed a key topic, namely "how a poor woman who attracts considerable male attention holds on to her morals in a highly amoral society".

The language of the novel is forceful and concise, mixing Hunan and Cantonese dialects; while the action is original and lively.

"Once I've set the tone, the narration and language style, the writing becomes smooth," Sheng says of her writing.

Writer and publisher Shen Haobo considers Sheng's style to be unique.

Shen says both Qian Xiaohong and Sheng have an attitude similar to that of Jack Kerouac in On the Road - strong spirited.

Unlike an intellectual's approach of pitifully looking down from above, "Sheng doesn't judge", Shen says. "She talks about Qian's survival in a straightforward manner."

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