More than three decades after scribbling his first poem as a teenager in the mountains of northern China, Chen Nianxi is living a literary dream. He has published two critically acclaimed books. He hobnobs with intellectuals around banquet tables. He tours the country promoting his writing, flitting between book fairs and university lecture halls.
Still, he often finds his joy tempered with a sense of alienation.
“I can’t completely leave behind my old life. I also don’t really know how to participate in this new life,” said Mr. Chen, 51, in a video interview from the southern city of Ningbo, where he was attending a book trade fair. “So I really feel like I’m in a very awkward position.”
The source of that tension is the vast gulf between his new circumstances and his old. For more than 15 years, he labored in gold, iron and zinc mines across China, detonating explosives by day and scrawling poems on the backs of newspapers at night:
I while away my middle age at 5,000 meters deep
I explode the rocks layer by layer
And through this rebuild my life
My lowly family is far at the foot of Mount Shang
They are sick, their bodies covered in dust
However much of my middle age I cut off
However much their old age can be prolonged
Mr. Chen has emerged as one of the best-known practitioners of a relatively new genre in China: migrant worker literature. As China’s breakneck economic growth has collided with growing awareness of the human toll exacted, readers have increasingly sought out the voices of people like Mr. Chen.
His poems speak of the loneliness of the mines, the deaths of fellow workers and the distance between modern life and his work underground. They lament the toll of physical labor, while also valorizing its clarifying power. This summer, two years after publishing his first poetry collection, he published a book of essays, “To Live Is to Shout at the Sky.”