Chinese, Sinophone and Comparative Literature: narrative spacetime, botanical monsters, literary sensory studies, urban memory, plant-human hybrids, ecocriticism across genres & a hovercraft full of eels
In this fourth episode, award-winning translator Natascha Bruce talks about wormbooks, birdcats and owlfish, about haunting Hong Kong protests, and about keeping alive uncanny textual elements across languages. She reveals how it was to translate 謝曉虹 Dorothy Tse’s 鷹頭貓與音樂箱女孩 Eaglehead Cat and the Music Box Girl (which I make a hash of explaining in the episode) into Owlish (which Natasha has brilliantly come up with as the English title). We talk about literature that speaks to you in its own voice and begs to be translated, about taming or not taming long, meandering sentences and about the strangeness that spills over from one language to the next. Listen here:
Natascha Bruce translates fiction, creative non-fiction and, occasionally, poetry from Chinese into English. Her work includes many short stories, especially by the Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse, as well as the novel Lonely Face by Yeng Pway Ngon and the short story collection Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong. Her current projects include the novels Mystery Train by Can Xue and Owlish by Dorothy Tse. She has recently moved to Amsterdam.
Astrid Møller-Olsen is international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has a degree in comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, oneiric soundscapes, digital chronotopes in science fiction, ecocritical temporalities, and sensory urban spacetime. Her first monograph Sensing the Sinophone will be published in January 2022 by Cambria Press. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism: https://xiaoshuo.blog/
Other birds in the podcast
Green parrots are feral rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) growing populations of which make their home in Central and Northern Europe and have recently made it to Southern Sweden (I misremembered, it was in Skåne, not Norway, I saw them, but still, not the place you expect green parrots).
Fish owl is a subspecies found in East and Southeast Asia. I would really like to meet one.
Cat owl is the Swedish name (kattuggla) for Strix aluco, tawny owl in English, night owl (natugle) in Dainsh and grey forest owl (灰林鴞) in Chinese.
Despite spending a lot of my working hours with literary texts, my readings are not always as immersive as I would like. With the seven stories that make up the translated anthology Queer Taiwanese Literature, I couldn’t help myself. Each one sucked me into its wormhole rabbit hole and when I came out again, everything seemed subtly different.
Spanning the last 50 years, these seven short stories featuring Taiwanese queer experiences have been expertly selected by queer historian Howard Chiang and brilliantly translated. Under the banner of tongzhi literature (同志文学), they include sexual and social identities that are or have been perceived as deviant including asexuality, transgender, transsexuality, homosexuality, and other queer (non)categories.
The term tongzhi originally meant “comrade” in Sun Yat-sen’s usage and continues to do so in both Taiwanese and Mainland China formal political discourse. Wah-shan Chou traces the term back to the 3000-year-old Yijing (易經 Book of Changes) and writes that it was appropriated by activists for the first Hong Kong lesbian and gay film festival in 1989. He explains that “’homosexual’ was dropped as it was a medical term denoting sickness and pathology. Even positive categories such as ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ and ‘queer’ are Anglo-Saxon constructs with specific histories that fail to capture the indigenous features of Chinese same-sex relations” (Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies 2). He highlights that the term is not only about sexual preference but also about acknowledging non-hetero forms of kinship and family. Indeed, most of the stories in this anthology are not about sexual experiences, but about love and pain, about rejection and acceptance, about forging identities and making flexible (social) space.
I love (this anthology is wonderful, I can’t help starting each paragraph like this) how menstruation blood runs a track of living, red sameness that simultaneously disgusts and draws the sexually ambivalent protagonist towards her friend Ann in Li Ang’s “Late Spring” (1975, translated by Yichun Liu).
I love how the cityscapes of San Francisco and Taipei blend in Chi Ta-wei’s meandering, Ginsberg-inspired “Howl” (1998 translated by Yahia Zhengtang Ma) — a story of the terminally ill but irrepressible man Amoeba who prefers a stranger’s reluctant hospitality to his family home as he roams the streets on his final, lonely journey. The name Amoeba is apt as it denotes a single-cell organism with no fixed body shape that reproduces asexually and can be parasitic as this one seems to the narrator to be. It also recalls Chi’s earlier novella “The Membranes” from 1995.
I love the smoke-hoarsened and casually open-minded talk of the tribal mothers in Dadelavan Ibau’s “Muakai” (2001, translated by Kyle Shernuk) and its haunting of ancient myths from the present through queer reinterpretation.
I love the time-fuck of the eternal, futuristic stone age evoked in Hsu Yu-hsuan’s “Violet” (2008, translated by Howard Chiang and Shengchi Hsu) and the protagonist’s lifestyle cocktail of illegal drugs and fitness health foods needed to survive his white-collar working life.
I love the brutal naivete of Lin Yu-hsuan’s “A Daughter” (2014, translated by Shengchi Hsu) and the image of the young boy finally transforming into the young woman he always was. Through her own body work, she provides a space for both her dad and the text to transform into something unexpectedly complicated and gorgeous as well: “The gown’s zip is stuck halfway on Dad’s back, faintly revealing her blossoming age spots through the layers of lace.”
I love the conclusion to Chen Xue‘s jumble of queer and futuristic reproduction strategies, excess of ovaries, and phantom wombs in “A Nonexistent Thing” (2020, translated by Wen-chi Li and Colin Bramwell) that “what is important is that you can write. Write her out.” A fitting and hopeful end to an anthology of struggle, hurt, and haunting beauty.
Above all, I love all the poetic disillusionment coupled with the uncompromising individuality and bloody-mindedness of the main characters in Tsao Li-chuan’s novella “On Her Gray Hair Etcetera” (1996, translated by Jamie Tse). Just read it.
I would have liked to see the original titles for each work displayed alongside the English translation but appreciate that the date of publication and short context of each story is available in Howard Chiang’s introduction so that one can chose to read it before, after, or not at all. The many translators, the editor, and the editorial assistant are all duly credited and introduced at the end of the book.
If you expect to have an overview of Taiwan’s tongzhi literature after reading the anthology, you are mistaken. The term may unite against heteronormativity, but it also embraces heterogeneity. What you do get is a body dive into an ocean of multitudinous voices, of individual pains and perspectives, a promise that here is something here to explore in text, body, and social world, quite possibly for the rest of your life.
Introduction by Howard Chiang
1: Late Spring by Li Ang (translated by Yichun Liu)
2: On Her Gray Hair Etcetera by Tsao Li-chuan (translated by Jamie Tse)
3: Howl by Ta-wei Chi (translated by Yahia Zhengtang Ma)
4: Muakai by Dadelavan Ibau (translated by Kyle Shernuk)
5: Violet by Hsu Yu-chen (translated by Howard Chiang and Shengchi Hsu)
6: A Daughter by Lin Yu-hsuan (translated by Shengchi Hsu)
7: A Nonexistent Thing by Chen Xue (translated by Wen-chi Li and Colin Bramwell)
Sinopticonis the brainchild of Xueting Christine Ni who has done an amazing work of collecting, translating, and introducing 13 new SF stories from contemporary China. The stories span two decades and incorporate a variety of themes from galactic existentialism in Han Song’s “Tombs of the Universe” (宇宙墓碑 1991) to Ma Boyong’s hardboiled-style space age take on Chinese holiday traffic chaos in “The Great Migration” (大冲运 2021).
The overweight of male protagonists, casual gender stereotyping, and the odd dash of not too subtle patriotism made me a bit tired at times, but luckily several of the stories depart from this pattern. Jiang Bo’s “Starship: Library” (宇宙尽头的书店) combines a structure reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” with Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey to explore the difference between knowledge and learning. I prefer Ni’s evocative title over the more literal translation “the bookshop at the end of the universe” (the Douglas Adams reference is getting a little worn), and the idea of a roaming library piloted by a contemporary incarnation of an ancient Chinese goddess will excite bibliophiles of all galaxies.
Each story is followed by an anecdotal epilogue introducing the author and offering a mini-interpretation of the narrative, which, combined with foot notes explaining Chinese terms and idioms as well as a list of author bios at the end of the book, is a bit too much guidance for my taste. But who am I to talk, I’m offering up my own readings all the time including right now. Anyway, one can just skip on to the next story.
Other interventions are more fruitful, like the decision to title Anna Wu’s story “戴珍珠耳环的少女” (the girl with the pearl earring) in the original Dutch as “Meisje met de Parel” to avoid confusion with other literary and cinematographic works inspired by of Vermeer’s painting. Adding another language to the layers of time and pigments that envelop the story only makes the fabric of the narrative more intriguing. Each English title is subtitled by the original Chinese title, which, as well as being is enormously helpful for researchers, is also a simple and beautiful way of reminding the reader of the multiplicity of languages and people involved in bring these stories to them.
Recurring topics include a renewed appreciation for the cultural history of Earth stemming from a futurist and/or intergalactic perspective in Han Song and Tang Fei’s stories, posthuman explorations of the humaneness of cyborgs in Wang Jinkang and Nian Yu’s work, and new regimes for AI that include social intelligence (Hao Jingfang) and process-oriented learning (Jiang Bo). An interesting deviation from classic SF figures of robots and spaceships is A Que’s “Flower of the Other Shore” (彼岸花) – an ecocritical zombie story featuring a Rome and Juliet romance between an “uncontaminated” (not yet subjected to the zombie virus) human woman and a male protagonist who is a hybrid between a Chinese jiangshi (僵尸 stiff corpse/jumping vampire) and a Hollywood zombie. Xueting Christine Ni talks about this story in the most recent episode of the Sinophone Unrealities podcast available here.
I definitely enjoyed some stories more than others, but all in all, am delighted and grateful to Ni and her crew for all their work in making this beautiful collection of authors and stories available to an Anglophone audience: A new addition our collective starship library.
Foreword, Xia Jia Introduction, Xuenting Christine Ni The Last Save, Gu Shi Tombs of the Universe, Han Song Qiankun and Alex, Hao Jingfang Cat’s Chance in Hell, Nian Yu The Return of Adam, Wang Jinkang Rendezvous: 1937, Zhao Haihong The Heart of the Museum, Tang Fei The Great Migration, Ma Boyong Meisje met de Parel, Anna Wu Flower of the Other Shore, A Que The Absolution Experiment, Bao Shu The Tide of Moon City, Regina Kanyu Wang Starship: Library, Jiang Bo
In this episode, Xueting Christine Ni introduces the new anthology Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction (out 9 November 2021) that she has compiled and edited, and shares thoughts on the diversification of the genre. She interprets literary internet fora as modern-day versions of the interactive storytelling tradition of the teahouse. We also discuss how popular global and classical Chinese influences that converge in stories like A Que’s “Flower of the Other Shore”, which feature walking dead reminiscent of both Chinese Jiangshi (僵尸 literally “stiff corpse” but often referred to as “hopping vampire”) and Hollywood zombies.
In this fourth episode, Natascha Bruce talks about wormbooks, birdcats and owlfish, about haunting Hong Kong protests, and about keeping alive uncanny textual elements across languages. She reveals how it was to translate 謝曉虹 Dorothy Tse’s 鷹頭貓與音樂箱女孩 Eaglehead Cat and the Music Box Girl (which Les mer …
Visiting Storyteller: Xueting Christine Ni has a degree in English Literature from the University of London. After graduating, she began a career in the publishing industry, whilst also translating original works of Chinese fiction. She returned to China in 2008 to continue her research at Central University of Nationalities, Beijing. Since 2010, she has written extensively on Chinese culture and China’s place in Western pop media. Her first book, From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao, is published by Weiser Books. Her new anthology Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction, is out on the 9th of November. Xueting currently lives just outside London with her partner and their cats, all of whom are learning Chinese.
Teahouse Host: Astrid Møller-Olsen is international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has degrees in comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, urban forms of memory, and sensory approaches to the study of literature. Her first monograph Sensing the Sinophone is forthcoming with Cambria Press. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism: https://xiaoshuo.blog/
Zhange Ni shared her entangled reading of The Little Mushroom (Xiao Mogu 小蘑菇) by Yishisizhou 一十四洲, a danmei (耽美) male-male romance in which humanity is fencing itself in against infection from the non-human Other in the form of mushrooms that can shapeshift to look like humans. In this novel, humanity’s only chance of survival is to unite into a single being becoming the kind of collective lifeform that fungi represent, yet without the vital cross-species interaction that characterises fungal symbiosis with trees and other plants via mycorrhiza. Hearing prof Ni’s talk, I cannot help but wonder: if humans must adapt to a more fungal way of life and mushrooms can successfully impersonate humans, wherein lies the essential difference that the people of the novel are so eager to safeguard?
Corey Byrnes outlined Zhou Zuoren’s interesting progression from pre-evolutionary beasts (兽 shou) over animals (动物 dongwu) and on to humans (人 ren). I find this positioning of beasts as a human Other outside a shared evolutionary history interesting because they become a kind of organic antipode to the AI of contemporary SF. Beasts and AI both function as literary anti-images to the humanism of humans. Where AI are essentially electronic reproductions of the human brain, and beasts represent the physical drives and desires beyond the mind’s control, both lack the moral imperative of the human species. Yet as much SF and speculative fiction explore, the beasts and the AI are all too often more human (and more humane) than the human.
I talked about human-plant chimeras in works by Chi Hui 迟卉, Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹, and Yan Ge 颜歌, and how their duality of being challenge the centrality of the human body and brain in defining (intelligent) life, the taxonomic boundaries of single species, and the notion of individuality. In my essay written for the workshop, I begin by analysing Chi Hui’s迟卉 short story “The Rainforest” (雨林), in which classical antagonisms of plant horror are given a sharp twist when the human protagonist is able to merge with the botanical Other with the aid of nanotechnology. Secondly, I consider the appearance of bitter gourds on the pale skin of several curiously immobile and silent girls found on a building site in Dorothy Tse’s 謝曉虹 “Bitter Gourds” (苦瓜), and how they spread through the narrative as bodily manifestation of the repressed memories, sexualities, and political protests. Finally, I look at the commodification of gendered tree-people in Yan Ge’s 颜歌 “Flourishing Beasts” (荣华兽) as chimeras that fundamentally challenge the logic of anthropocentric classifications, highlight the posthuman question of what really constitutes a species, and presents taxonomic gatekeeping as a form of ontological violence.
Panel 1-Flora & Fauna
11:00 AM—12:30 PM (EDT)
Astrid Moller-Olsen, “Growing Together: Plant-human Chimeras in Contemporary Fiction”
Zhange Ni, “The Mushroom beyond the End of the World: Posthumanism and the Sci-fi Romance The Little Mushroom”
Corey Byrnes, “The Limits of Posthumanism and the Sempiternal Animal”
(Chair and Discussant, Carlos Rojas)
Panel 2-Humanism & Posthumanism
2:00-3:30 PM (EDT)
Carlos Rojas, “Dung Kai-Cheung’s Beloved Wife and Fungible Consciousness”
Nathaniel Isaacson, “Symbiosis and Synesthesia in the Fiction of Chi Ta-wei”
Hua Li, “Affirmation of Humanism amidst Posthuman Episodes in Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide and Balin”
Discussions and collective ramblings touched upon the difference between dolls and robots as literary figures, the gendered temporalities of futurism, the fruitful (vegetal) convergences between feminism and posthumanism, and whether the doll house of gendered expectations still persists even “after Nora leaves home.”
In recent years, Chinese and Sinophone science fiction has gained new popularity, not only among devoted readers, but within the scholarly community as well. As part of the emerging field of ‘global science fiction studies,’ such research contributes to a diversification of literary scholarship by including hitherto neglected cultural and linguistic areas. This panel grows out of these postcolonial endeavours and adds a gender dimension to the ongoing academic discussion of how works of speculative and science fiction envision global futures and challenge present ideas.
By analysing and comparing narrative negotiations of what it means to be a woman, a plant, or something in-between, the presentations in this panel examine the variety and complexity of futurist visions in Chinese language fiction. Far from being concerned solely with technology and space travel, contemporary science fiction is a multifaceted genre that is equally taken up with questions of human societies and identities. By virtue of a shared focus on gender, this panel introduces the original and wildly imaginative ways in which contemporary authors contest, reinforce, or hybridise conventional concepts of gender.
From contemporary feminist reinterpretations of Lu Xun’s and Henrik Ibsen’s “doll houses” to the alienated female workers of the future in Han Song’s 2012 novel Gaotie, from Chi Hui’s feminist utopia to plant-woman hybrids and environmental criticism, this panel investigates the manifold ways in which literature crafts and questions gendered landscapes for a global future.
Roots to the Future: Gender and Plant-human Hybrids in Contemporary Fiction. Astrid Møller-Olsen – Lund University.
Dwindling Doll’s Houses: Surreal Gendered Futures in Contemporary Fiction from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Coraline Jortay – University of Oxford.
Gender Issues in Han Song’s Novel Gaotie (The High-speed Railway). Hua Li – Montana State University.
Emancipatory Futures: Transgressing Gender Boundaries in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction. Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker – Heidelberg University.
Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction combines narratological tools for studying time in fiction with critical concepts of spatiality in order to establish an analytical focus on narrative voice and reliability (including the inaccuracy of memory), structural non-linearity (such as mental time travel), and the construction of fictional parallel cities as loci for plot development. In this study, the conventional sensorium and its role in recollection is explored and amplified to include whole-body sensations, habitual synesthesia, and the emotional aspects of sensations that produce a sense of place or self.
By analyzing narratives that make use of and encourage multisensory, spatiotemporal understandings of reality characterized by permeable boundaries between material, social and imaginary domains, this monograph shows how contemporary cities change the way human beings think and write about reality.
Some very kind reviews have already been posted on Cambria’s page:
“With a lineup of works drawn from contemporary Chinese and Sinophone communities, Astrid Møller-Olsen pays special attention to the articulations of senses in the texts under discussion, from audio-visual contact to melodious association, tactile sensation, aromatic emanation, and kinetic exercise, culminating in mnemonic imagination and gendered fabulation. The result is a work on urban synesthesia, a kaleidoscopic projection of sensorium in a narrative form. Her analyses of works by writers such as Chu Tien-hsin and Wu Ming-yi are particularly compelling. Sensing the Sinophone has introduced a new direction for literary studies and is sure to be an invaluable source for anyone interested in narratology, urban studies, environmental studies, affect studies and above all comparative literature in both Sinophone and global contexts.” —David Der-wei Wang, Harvard University
“Evoking the language and logic of poetry, Sensing the Sinophone is a brilliant literary urban ecology that conjures cities, like texts, as open, dynamic, sensing, vital, enduring entities. How, Astrid Møller-Olsen asks, do characters experience sensory memories in six novels of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei, activated by architectural, botanical, and bodily presences in the city? With theoretical insights ranging from quantum mechanics to Confucian cosmology, this phenomenological elucidation of fictionalized cities as somaticized organisms with physiological functions is a remarkable intervention.” —Robin Visser, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
More about the book
Since the 1990s, extensive urbanization in East Asia has created a situation in which more people identify themselves as citizens of the city where they live, rather than their ancestral village or nation. At the same time, this new urban identity has been under constant threat from massive municipal restructuring. Such rapidly changing cityscapes form environments of urban flux that lead to narrative reconfigurations of fundamental concepts such as space, time, and memory. The resulting contemporary urban fiction describes and explores this process of complex spatial identification and temporal fluctuation through narratives that are as warped and polymorphic as the cities themselves.
Building on previous scholarship in the fields of Chinese/Sinophone urban fiction, sensory studies, and comparative world literature, Sensing the Sinophone provides a new city-based approach to comparativism combined with a cross-disciplinary focus on textual sensescapes.
Through an original framework of literary sensory studies, this monograph provides a comparative analysis of how six contemporary works of Sinophone fiction reimagine the links between the self and the city, the past and the present, as well as the physical and the imaginary. It explores the connection between elusive memories and material cityscapes through the matrix of the senses. Joining recent efforts to imagine world literature beyond the international, Sensing the Sinophone engages in a triangular comparison of fiction from Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei—three Sinophone cities, each with its own strong urban identity thatc comes with unique cultural and linguistic hybridities.
Sensing the Sinophone is an important addition to several ongoing discussions within the fields of comparative literature, urban studies, memory studies, geocriticism, sensory studies, Sinophone studies, and Chinese studies.
Part I. Skeleton
Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City
Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works
Part II. Corpus
Chapter 3. Sense of Place: Walking or Mapping the City
Chapter 4. The Nose: Flora Nostalgia
Chapter 5. The Ear: Melody of Language
Chapter 6. Sense of Self: The Many Skins of the City
A monster plant is a sinister thing, it thwarts knowledge and reverses the rules – you don’t eat it, it eats you; despite its roots, it moves about. A monster plant is monstrous because it behaves like a human; in it, we see the worst sides of ourselves: our greed, lust, violence. Or so it used to be…
But in our age of human-made climate change and environmental unpredictability, the so-called Anthropocene, plants have morphed from the radical (pun intended) ‘Other’ who can destroy us, to the one who might save us. Significant botanical others are not confined to the pages of Nature writing – vegetal characters are not only a subject for science fiction but walk abroad in a variety of literary contexts.
What can we learn from these unruly creatures? Can being curios about what it means to be a plant help us understand what being human might come to mean in the future? (Already there is an imbalance in this question – estimates calculate that this planet is home to nearly 400.000 plant species – clearly, being a plant is a lot of things).
Can thinking and writing with the green ink of botanical organisms help us reimagine the individual in an entangled world where no one is an island, where every body crawling on the ripples of the planet is itself a landscape for other, smaller beings? What can plants tell us about the ways in which we know –the shape and the form of knowledge? Might writing in green ink change the meaning of that writing all together?
In my project “Green Ink,” I am inspired by the monster as a figure that devours the organised realm of definable concepts and boundaries and excretes a fragmented, yet strangely interlinked, world view. I combine theories of the monstrous with critical plants studies’ insistence on the vegetal perspective in an impossible, but productive, attempt to bypass the patterns of prejudice inherent in the human mind.
I examine human-vegetal interactions and interrelationships, dissect plant-like humans and humanoid plants, as well as explore the completely new fictional species that populate contemporary Sinophone writing. Such monsters are rooted in both local and global traditions, they participate in a variety of discourses from genre fiction to ecocriticism, and they disrupt and outgrow every tradition, discourse, and genre they inhabit.
In the study of literature, plants have traditionally been categorised as either poetic metaphors or providers of exotic or romantic backdrops for narrative action. Although this strictly aesthetic perspective may have been adequate in the past, the contemporary global changes to the environment –and the consequent renewed literary interest in botanical and natural structure and modes of being- –demand a more nuanced and theoretically informed approach. Fortunately, such work is emerging from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives such as critical plant studies, monster theory, feminist posthumanism, and science fiction studies.
In 2013, a group of American literary scholars published the pioneering anthology Literary Plant Studies introducing Rodopi’s Critical Plant Studies Series, the aim of which was to “initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue, whereby philosophy and literature would learn from each other to think about, imagine, and describe, vegetal life with critical awareness, conceptual rigor, and ethical sensitivity” (Marder). The volume, edited by Randy Laist, first cast the green light on plant characters and plant narrators in (primarily Anglophone) literature from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park over Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. In 2017, The Language of Plants edited by Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan and Patrícia Vieira further explored “a biocentric form of literary criticism” that would “seriously regard the lives of plants in relation to humankind in terms that would look beyond the purely symbolic or ‘correlative’ dimension of the vegetal” (xii) from an interdisciplinary angle, and in 2020 Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari published their joint monograph Radical Botany, adding a Franco-American perspective to the discussion.
Parallel with these endeavours in botanical literary criticism and philosophy, the study of botanical monsters in horror fiction constitutes another important strand in the project of critical engagement with literary plants. In this growing subfield, researchers find that horror plants naturally tick many of the monstrous boxes described by Jeffrey J. Cohen in his influential text “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” from 1996. Horror plants seek Frankensteinian revenge for the ill we have done their home planet, they portray deviant sexualities, indulging in excessive auto- or multi-partner reproduction, and they inhabit the limits of knowing as their way of perceiving the world will always illude us despite the best efforts of critical plants studies.
Monster plants fracture the logic of human mastery over nature and expose the Anthropocene as an “epistemological crime-scene stained with erasures of plant consciousness” (Bishop 2018, 7). By blending vegetal, human, and animal characteristics, they force us to abandon the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being that situates plants at the bottom of a ladder that rises through various “lesser” animals to human beings at the top (Miller 2012, 466). As a subgenre, plant horror “marks humans’ dread of the ‘wildness’ of vegetal nature – its untameability, its pointless excess, its uncontrollable growth,” and function as an unwelcome memento mori reminding us that “while humans may occasionally become food for predatory animals, we all, whether buried in the ground or scattered on the earth, become sustenance for plants” (Keetley 2016, 1).
Inspired and informed by this corpus of literary plant research, my project looks at vegetal-anthropomorph characters that have come out of the closet of horror as a genre and as a type. Such characters can still usefully be approaches as monsters because, even without the horror, they retain an ability to complicate preconceptions and probe what it means to be human, to be plant, or just to be. Some of my monsters are still vengeful, on behalf of the planet or against the imperialism of taxonomy. Some are benevolent, seeking to reintegrate humankind into the natural world we believe to have abandoned. Some are just beings, going about their business, nurturing plants, and falling in love with humans, or the other way round.
Bishop, Katherine E. (2018). “’When ‘tis Night, Death is Green’: Vegetal Time in Nineteenth-Century Econoir.” Green Letters 22, no. 1: 7-19. DOI: 10.1080/14688417.2017.1413990
Cohen, Jeffrey J. (1996). “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gagliano, Monica; John C. Ryan; Patrícia Vieira (2017). “Introduction.” The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Laist, Randy (2013). “Introduction.” Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Meeker, Natania and Antónia Szabari (2020). Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction. New York: Fordham University Press.
Miller, T.S. (2012). “Lives of the Monster Plants: The Revenge of the Vegetable in the Age of Animal Studies.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 23, no.3: 460–479.
Keetley, Dawn (2016). “Introduction: Six Theses on Plant Horror; or, Why Are Plants Horrifying?” Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film, edited by Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
How does writing in a foreign language help authors think beyond their own perspective and imagine other beings, other identities, other species? In this episode, Regina Kanyu Wang talks about her research into environmental SF, her own use of English to experiment with a non-human narrative voice, and about The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, a new anthology of Chinese science fiction and fantasy, written, edited, and translated by women and nonbinary creators.
Enjoying a sunny day from each our separate Norwegian coast, we also discuss the delightful gender ambiguity of literary pseudonyms, the manyfold human machine of literary publishing, and the limits of genre.
Visiting Symbiont: Regina Kanyu Wang is a PhD fellow of the CoFUTURES project at the University of Oslo. Her research interest lies in Chinese science fiction, especially from the gender and environmental perspective. She is also an awarded writer who writes both science fiction and non-fiction who has won multiple Xingyun Awards for Global Chinese SF (Chinese Nebular), SF Comet International SF Writing Competition, Annual Best Works of Shanghai Writers’ Association and others. She has co-edited the Chinese SF special issue of Vector, the critical issue of BSFA and The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, an all-women-and-non-binary anthology of Chinese speculative fiction, forthcoming in 2022.
Host Organism:Astrid Møller-Olsen is postdoctoral fellow in an international position between Lund University (Sweden), University of Stavanger (Norway), and University of Oxford (UK) funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has a background in comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, urban forms of narrative memory, and sensory approaches to the study of literature. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism: https://xiaoshuo.blog/
We know that everything we experience is mediated -through the senses in collaboration with the brain- it is like there is a membrane between our selves and the world. But where does the membrane stop and reality begin? Can we even be sure that there is something on the other side? Or turn it around; where does the membrane stop, and the self begin? Is there even something at the core? These are the questions raised in Chi Ta-wei’s 紀大偉 novel The Membranes(first published as <膜> in 1995), a unique work of queer speculation, critical futurism, and cyber-psychology, superbly and lucidly translated into English by Ari Larissa Heinrich.
The novel is sometimes described as dystopian, but I see nothing in it that is not already out there, albeit in different forms: Is organ and tissue harvesting from androids worse than from other humans or animals? Is stealing people’s sensory experiences via extra layers of false skin all that different from the gathering of personal information that goes on every time you press your fingers against a computer keyboard to access the internet? Is the brutal class segregation between exposed land-dwellers and protected sea-dwellers unlike the way factories and garbage dumps are habitually constructed in the poorest areas of city and planet? As all good speculative fiction does, The Membranes draws attention to our own world by recreating familiar emotions in estranging environments, providing fresh perspectives on fundamental questions, in Chi’s case, in highly poetic and inventive ways.
The Membranes narrates a short time span around the 30th birthday of Momo, the owner of a skin treatment parlor named Salon Canary located at the ocean floor in the year 2100. Through Momo’s memories and experiences, we learn of her life history and of the many membranes that surround her: “Membranes filtered Momo’s every impression of the world. At thirty, she felt there was at least one layer of membrane between her and the world. Not the kind of membrane she applied to her clients receiving facials at work, obviously. The invisible kind. The kind that made her feel like at tiny water flea – a Daphnia encased in a cell, swimming alone out to sea” (1).
Momo feels separated from her peers and, outside her work, has difficulty engaging in any kind of intimate relations. Beside the psychological barrier (which has very material foundations as the novel reveals), other membranes separate the human Daphnia from the sea of reality. Quite literally, the city she lives in lies “safe under the purple sky of a waterproof and earthquake-proof membrane, deep beneath the ocean, people lived out their days like flowers in a greenhouse” (26).
The skin is perhaps the most immediate membrane, protecting us against illness, except in Momo’s case where it failed to prevent the LOGO virus from slowly destroying her body. This necessitated the construction of Andy -an android specifically (and cruelly) designed to be “compatible” with Momo, to become her first friend and later her organ donor. Elegantly playing with the reader’s gendered expectations, Chi describes the surgical union of the sterile android Andy (sexed as female and gendered feminine) and the human girl Momo, who possesses a penis and is named after a mythical Japanese boy: “Did these two hands belong to Momo or Andy? Whose belly was this? She didn’t have a pee-pee, so that delicate flesh below her belly must have belonged to Andy!” (78).
Recalling Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking 1985-essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Chi reminds us that cyborgs are good to think with, especially when it comes to questions of gender and identity politics, because they are made, just as genders are made, of many (un)natural things in specific contexts. Cyborgs are neither/both human nor/and machine -they represent a messier approach to identity reiterated by Momo when she asks, “whose belly is this?” After all, that belly is home to many hundreds of species of bacteria with each their specific DNA as well as Momo’s “own” cells.
The most persistent membrane, however, exists between Momo and her mother. This is not the cellular membrane of a crustacean in the sea, but of a fetus in a womb. It is not a human merged with an android, but a child disjoined from a parent. Together with the android theme, the theme of parentage explores what it means to be and individual. If one individual can emerge from another, then where and when does individuality begin within all those layers of blood and uterine fluids. And, as Momo points out, emerging from one membrane into the other, one is still a caged canary.
In her dermic treatment work, Momo uses a kind of cream called M-skin which settles into a second skin on the client’s body. This skin is able to record sensory information and replay it through a computer: “Put simply, imagine the body is an old-style tape recorder and M-skin is a cassette: every stimulus experienced by Tomie Ito’s body was recorded like a sound. When Momo got the cassette and made a copy, she could play it on the tape recorder of her own body” (59).
From this angle, the skin is not our ward against the world, but our gateway to it, the line of encounter between inner and outer, I and you. Momo uses M-skin to spy on her clients and, in effect, live through their bodies, problematizing the habitual understanding of the skin as the boundary of the self. If one can share memories, share sensory experiences, share the most intimate moments, what remains of the singular I?
The novel is not only concerned with individuality and identity politics. There are subtle hints at social and political critique in the very structure of Momo’s ocean world: “The new sea-dwellers also left behind unwanted structures like pollution-producing factories and nuclear power plants (which meant, however, that some key personnel were forced to remain on the surface to man the reactors). Also left behind were prisons and various tools of punishment, since governments universally recognized that leaving convicts on the surface was actually a convenient punishment in and of itself” (22).
In the end, membranes are inescapable, and perhaps they are the very location of life. Just as the skin act as the zone of encounter between self and world, so is this wet origin of humanity, “the ocean: just a membrane on the surface of a giant apple” (67). Like the membranes present everywhere, Chi’s novel in Heinrich’s translation presents a view of reality that is certainly layered but also porous. If membranes are everywhere, they are also pierced, smeared, breached and rewoven. By encouraging a closer look at surfaces, the novel suggests that this is where much of our identity (social, sexual, species) resides and is constantly reconfigured. The core, the brain, the mind, or whatever we call it, does not thrive in vacuum, but needs and feeds on sensory stimuli from the boundaries of the body.
The Membranes is a fascinating and beautifully conceived novel, deceptively simple and alluringly deep, smoothly mediated by the membrane of Heinrich’s excellent translation. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Chi’s work.