AH LAI, A.K.A. ALAI (1959— )
AH LAI, A.K.A. ALAI (1959— ). Poet, fiction and prose writer. “I’m Tibetan and I write in Chinese,” Ah Lai thus describes himself. He was born in Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Sichuan. The Gyarong Tibetans in Aba are a linguistically distinct people who maintain their uniqueness while sharing an ethnic and cultural identity with Tibetans of Kham, Amdo, and U-Tsang. Due to their geographic location and agrarian lifestyle, the Gyarong Tibetans who live in a region situated at the crossroads between the Chinese and Tibetan spheres of influences are arguably the most sinicized Tibetans. Ah Lai learned Chinese at school while speaking the Gyarong dialect in his home village. He graduated from a teachers’ training college and taught in a rural school for five years before his publications landed him a job at the Aba Cultural Bureau as an editor for a local literary journal. He later moved to Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, to edit a science fiction journal.
Ah Lai began his literary career writing poetry, later collected in Lengmo he (The Lengmo River), but it is his fiction that earned him his fame. His first and most famous novel, Chen’ai luoding (Red Poppies), a winner of the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize, tells an apocalyptic tale about the final years in the history of the Gyarong-Tibetan chieftain system, covering the period from the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century. Told by a chieftain’s mentally retarded son—a man with supernatural foresights who has witnessed the rise and fall of his family and other chieftains—the novel opens a window to a geographically isolated area whose traditional way of life and sociopolitical system were affected by the outside world as China moved into the turbulent 20th century. The novel unfolds a rich tapestry of conspiracies, shifting loyalty, revenge, and romances.
Following the success of Chen’ai luoding, Ah Lai published Kong shan 1 (The Empty Mountain, Part 1), the first of a trilogy about a small Tibetan village named Jicun. Kong shan 1 consists of two novellas: “Suifeng piaosan” (Gone with the Wind), a tragic tale about the friendship between two boys, and “Tian huo” (A Natural Fire), which tells how political and human intervention causes an environmental disaster. Kong shan 2 (The Empty Mountain, Part 2) consists of “Dase yu Dage” (Taser and Tager), a sad story about hunters when hunting ceases to be a way of life, and “Huangwu” (Desolation) focusing on a Chinese peasant living among Tibetans. With the Kong shan series, Ah Lai attempts to break away from the linear storytelling used in his earlier novel and chooses instead to write a trilogy composed of six independent novellas, each with its own protagonists who may appear in the other segments but only as peripheral characters. This decentered, fragmented structure, according to Ah Lai, reflects the realities of village life in modern times. As an offshoot of nearby towns, which are symbols of the state and modernity, the village, in Ah Lai’s view, plays no role in choosing its part in the grand national mission. Unlike the countryside in the heroic narratives of socialist realism by such writers as Ding Ling, Zhou Libo, and Hao Ran, the center stage of Ah Lai’s Jicun is not occupied by a hero tied with the state in one single ideological vision, but rather by a multitude of small characters, each operating from his or her own center and taking turns to command attention. The realities of such rural life are formed by these little “centers,” acting like the small pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Ah Lai structures his three Kong shan novels in such a fashion to reflect the lost or fast disappearing cultures of a mountain village.
Ah Lai’s other works include Aba Ah Lai (Aba and Ah Lai), a collection of short stories and prose work written in the 1980s and 1990s about his hometown and his own spiritual odyssey, mingling Tibetan folklore with real-life stories, and Dadi de jieti (The Earth’s Staircase), a travelogue that documents the author’s journey across his native land and contemplates the spirit of the people as outside forces intrude upon their lives and ravage their environment.
Ah Lai taps the rich source of Gyarong culture to create poignant and intriguing literary work. His richly detailed narratives about the specific travails of the region in its recent history invoke Tibetan folklore and local legends, generating a sense of timelessness infused by a unique sensibility cultivated from multiple literary and cultural traditions.