Qian Xiaohong, the heroine of “Northern Girls,” a critically admired novel by the rising literary star Sheng Keyi, could be any young woman serving you in a restaurant, or leaning on a mop watching you walk over the floor she has just washed or, though she fights this fate, sitting behind a glass door in a pink-lit “hairdresser” shop, its rotating barber pole outside signaling illegal sexual services within. Millions of women like Ms. Qian have left China’s villages for its cities, looking for their place in the sun, since the government began sweeping economic — though not political — reforms in 1978.
The result has been enormous social change affecting everything from family relationships to fashion to sexuality. “These are women whose eyes and bodies see and feel the ruthlessness of the age, the difficulty of surviving,” Ms. Sheng writes in an afterword to a new edition of her novel, published this year. Barely educated and vulnerable, “They are women on whom society’s eyes rarely rest for long. I feel that to present their struggle for survival, that’s interesting, and it’s valuable, it’s important.”
A major part of migrant women’s struggle is dealing with attempts to exploit them sexually in the big cities, where prostitution flourishes and often offers better pay than other jobs, making their sexuality a central issue, says Ms. Sheng.
With five novels and a clutch of short stories to her name, Ms. Sheng, 38, is well known in China. In 2003, she won the Most Promising New Talent award. “Northern Girls” was first published in Chinese in 2004 and is to be published in English next year by Penguin.
A shy person who doesn’t appear to seek the limelight, Ms. Sheng nonetheless appeared recently at the Beijing Bookworm International Literary Festival. Dressed in a black skirt and black boots, her long hair framed a quiet, pale face. “I wanted to write a story about girls from the countryside, what it’s like to be seeking yourself in the city and trying to maintain your independence. And I think it’s very hard,” she said.