Faraway with Lo Yi-Chin

Lo, Yi-Chin. Faraway. Translated by Jeremy Tiang. Columbia University Press: 2021.

Faraway

Faraway is a story of transitions: between life and death, between losing a parent and becoming one. In Jeremy Tiang‘s able translation a further set of transitions take place: between reader and writer (the translator starts out as one and becomes the other), between one language and another.

The novel chronicles Taiwanese protagonist Lo Yi-Chin’s (the author’s fictionalized counterpart) struggle with health care bureaucracy as he does his best to bring home his comatose father who has suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while holidaying in mainland China.

The holiday was the elder Lo’s first return to his ancestral Jiangxi province (and to the Chinese mainland) since 1949 when he left his first wife and son behind and fled to Taiwan with the Kuomintang troops. After his stroke, the trip that began as a homecoming transitions into an awkward meeting between two long-separated branches of the Lo clan: the Taiwanese family and their mainland relatives.

Reading Faraway, I felt constantly curious about what the women of this drama felt. Did the abandoned first wife feel resentful towards her younger and more affluent successor? Or curios about her faraway lifestyle? How did she feel about having to recognize and treat as head of the extended family this man whom she had not seen for more than half a century? How did the Taiwanese wife feel about being confronted with a stepson only a decade younger than herself? And, perhaps most of all, I wondered about the protagonist’s own wife, left behind in the final stages of pregnancy in an echo of his father’s abandonment of his first wife.

But this is a story of fathers and sons. Of the life-changing transition from being someone’s son to being someone’s father. Of the baffling responsibility of suddenly finding yourself the stand-in for the debilitated patriarch, head of a large family you hardly know, much less understand.

One of the lingering tastes that characterizes Faraway is irony. The narrative exposes both the blatant prejudice that the urbane, Taiwanese protagonist feels for his hillbilly mainland relatives and the ambivalent emotions of indebtedness and contempt they evoke in him.

This theme is poetically mediated through continuous references to primeval lifeforms. Such imagery is used to signify the mental regression of the father after his brain hemorrhage – “this old man, so stuffed full of tubes, like a fossilized crawling bug” – as well as the protagonist’s mainland roots, so distant and primitive they seem almost prehistoric.

Lost in my Life (receipts)
by Rachel Perry Welty,
MIT List via Cuseum

My overall impression of the novel is a very dense narrative, a paper river overflowing with a tremendous number of tedious details upon the waves of which glitter sudden bursts of simple and breathtaking literary beauty, confidently and delicately translated by Tiang: “I stood behind her, gazing at her profile, which was very like my wife’s but drawn with a thicker pencil. She told this story in the gloom, leaving indelible marks of sadness.”

And the boring and excessive details are there for a reason. Collectively they make up the form and shape of despair. Faraway is the fictionalized account of Lo Yi-Chin’s own experiences of the deep grief and eyewatering paperwork associated with a sudden and serious illness abroad. Rather than spelling out the emotional responses of the main characters, the narrative expresses the feelings of abandonment, meaninglessness, and Kafkaesque bewilderment through painstakingly detailed accounts of everyday consumption and bureaucracy.

Lo’s style is cinematic, a style that his fictional counterpart seems to share according to one of his friends, who asks him “Hey, Lo, how come your stories are so weird – all those characters with blurry faces running around huge, empty, ‘abandoned’ spaces?”  Both author and narrator are drawn to “no-places” (such as airports or hospitals) where, outwardly, nothing much happens, but emotionally, everything is at stake. And they convey this duality through terse narrative teeming with supposedly unimportant little details floating upon, and concealing, an ocean of emotions beneath. 

And the faces of the novel’s characters do seem blurred. If we get to know the narrator -the camera man of the cinematic narrative- at all, it is through his framing of the views we are presented with. Everything else remains a background of blurred faces.

The perfect filmic ending comes at page 227, when the narrator walks into the sunset with his son: “In this way, I led this beloved person sadly through a landscape of true emptiness, the outlines of our faces blurring into shadow in the faint light.” Here, all the metafictional elements come together in a shot of the father and son surrounded by emptiness, blurred into archetypes.

But the novel doesn’t end here. In reality, death is often messy, disgusting, boring, fatiguing, and drawn-out. And so, Faraway continues to tell the story of a fatherless man who struggles to be a father amidst the absurd chaos of everyday life, of a young boy for whom death is now a recurring part of life. The text ends in a horrible shopping mall, littered with grotesque animal corpses discarded as consumer goods. The transitions continue, hopefuly with more of Lo’s work in translation.

Read an English translation of Lo’s “The Body Transporter” here.

Owlish and Other Translated Languages with Natascha Bruce

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:

Y1 Ep4 w. Natascha Bruce

Migratory Catbird

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.

Resident Birdcat

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

File:Rose-ringed Parakeet RWD.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

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).

Bubo blakistoni.jpg

Fish owl is a subspecies found in East and Southeast Asia. I would really like to meet one.

File:Kattuggla Tawny Owl (14129656552).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sinopticon: A Starship Library

Sinopticon is 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.

TOC

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

Science Fiction is a Many-gendered Thing: Regina Kanyu Wang

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.

Listen here

Artwork by Joanne Taylor/NettOp/UiS

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/

The Membranes by Chi Ta-wei

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.

Chi, Ta-wei (author) and Ari Larissa Heinrich (translator). The Membranes. Columbia University Press, 2021.

Sounding the Dream: Can Xue and Jorge Luis Borges

NOW AVAILABLE via Project MUSE (requires institutional login): https://muse.jhu.edu/article/787090

I am looking forward to seeing my essay on the overlapping practices of creative dreaming, writing and reading in Can Xue and Jorge Luis Borges in print! It is forthcoming -in the august company of several really innovative articles on aural metaphors in literary criticism- in the belated December issue of The Canadian Review of Comparative Literature‘s special Issue “Cultural Resonance and the Echo Chamber of Reading,” guest edited by Shuangyi Li.

It performs a comparative reading of oneiric imagery in works by two different authors (Can Xue and Jorge Luis Borges) in two different genres (fictional short story and non-fiction essay) from two different languages (Chinese and Spanish), in order to challenge unidirectional notions of literary inspiration and allow them to sound together.

Though strikingly individual in her writing style, critics often compare the work of Can Xue (née Deng Xiaohua 1953-) to that of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), an author whose writing she has analysed in detail in her monograph Interpreting Borges (解读博尔赫斯). This volume is itself a textual chimera, posing as a work of criticism, yet possessing much the same literary style and freedom as Can Xue’s creative writing. Borges approaches literary criticism and philosophical exegesis in a similar fashion in his non-fictions, many of which follow narrative patterns recognisable from his short stories in what literary scholar Ned J. Davidson calls “a successful amalgam of fiction and essay” and proclaims as “an acknowledged contribution of Borges to the history of genres.” Both authors, then, display a disinclination to separate practices of reading and writing. In this essay, I borrow Gaston Bachelard’s aural metaphor of poetic reverberation to study how literary inspiration works in ways more complex than the causal relationship indicated by authorial inspiration or, in aural terms, by source and echo.

The Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, Special Issue: Cultural Resonance and the Echo Chamber of Reading. December 2020 (47.4).

Introduction
Shuangyi Li 399

Resonant Listening: Reading Voices and Places in Born-Audio Literary Narratives
Sara Tanderup Linkis 407

Computational Resonance: Modelling Thomas Mann’s Early Novellas
Laura Alice Chapot 424

Sounds in Contact: The American Bird Sounds of a German-American Worker Poet and New Empirical Methods of Comparing Literary Sounds
Gunilla Eschenbach and Sandra Richter 449

Sounding the Dream: Crosscultural Reverberations between Can Xue and Jorge Luis Borges
Astrid Møller-Olsen 463

Echoes of the Past and Siberian Nature’s “Radical Otherness”: An Ecological Reading of Contemporary Travel Writing
Ana Calvete 480

National Renaissance and Nordic Resonance: Language History and Poetic Diction in Nineteenth-Century Sweden
Alfred Sjödin 496

Creative Destruction in Multilingual Sound Poetry: The Case of Eiríkur Örn Nor∂dahl
Karin Nykvist 514

The Resonance of Conflict: Genre and Politics in the Transatlantic Reception of The Quiet American
Oscar Jansson 533

Literary Resonances against Ideological Echo Chambers: Wu Zhuoliu’s Orphan of Asia and the Necessity of World Literature
Flair Donglai Shi 552

Seven Senses of the City

On Tuesday January 21st I defended my doctoral dissertation “Seven Senses of the City: Urban Spacetime and Sensory Memory in Contemporary Sinophone Fiction” at the Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, Sweden.

defenseIn Sweden, the defense is a public event, a critical dialogue between the doctoral candidate (me in this instance) and an external opponent (the wonderful prof. Jie Lu from University of the Pacific).

After a short apology that my work (despite ostensibly constituting a multisensory approach to the study of memory and literature) did not include any perfume sniff pads, CD soundtracks or an eatable book cover, prof. Lu graciously introduced the main arguments and contributions of my dissertation. This took care of the first half hour.

happy drProf. Lu then asked me several critical questions to do with possible incongruities or alternative paths my research might have taken, producing a very rich and fruitful discussion of another hour. Finally the three esteemed scholars of the examining committee, Prof. Lena Rydholm from Uppsala Uni, senior lecturer Martin Svensson Ekström and prof. Rikard Schönström, presented briefly their comments on the dissertation and we all went out to await their decision.

In short, they liked it a lot and awarded me my doctoral degree and we all had sparkly wine or sparkly apple cider (and I had a beer) and hooray what a day.

Below, you will find a painfully short abstract of what is really a 260 pages long analytical kaleidoscope that took me more than four years to complete:

20200128_104017[1]What happens when the city you live in changes over night? When the streets and neighborhoods that form the material counterpart to your mental soundtrack of memory suddenly cease to exist? The rapidly changing cityscapes of Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai form an environment of urban flux that causes such questions to surface in literary texts.

In this dissertation, I engage with themes of scented nostalgia, flavors in fiction, walking as method, literary cartography, the melody of language, gendered cityscapes, metafictional dreams and rhythmic senses of time to study how contemporary cities change the way we think about time, space and memory.

 

 

Intimate Stories from Taiwan

Review of “Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers: An Anthology”, edited by Jonathan Stalling, Lin Tai-man and Yanwing Leung.

In his foreword to this anthology, Jonathan Stalling eloquently describes how “Taiwan literature, like its complex writing systems, exists as a palimpsest of the cultural contact points, overlapping languages, peoples, and histories that have paved the way for one of the most vibrant literary scenes in the Sinosphere and the world beyond.” The aptness of this delightful description is borne out by what follows, namely 11 diverse, yet eminently readable, short stories and essays written between 1976 and 2013.

If any single thing connects all these stories, it is intimacy. Each of these very different narratives (some are simple and anecdotal, others elaborately literary and still others read like personal reminiscences or diary entries) circles around human relationships. The array of intimate relationships include the emancipation of a meek young woman from her egocentric husband; the invention of a much longed for imaginary son by a single woman tired of playing the field; the extremely brief but life-changing mentor-student liaison between a successful fake socialite and an up-coming rich-husband hunter, as well as the parasitic mother daughter bond presented in sensuous and colorful prose—almost like a revolting yet fascinating surrealist painting.

These stories also possess a kind of sensuality, which begets a different type of intimacy—between reader and text this time—that is deeply satisfying and engaging: interior and private smellscapes in “A Place of One’s Own” share the protagonist’s sensation of how “body odor from Liang-ch’i floated up toward her, the faint smell of cigarette smoke and perspiration. She had never had a male in this room before.”

In “Taipei Train Station”, the mind’s eye of the reader is called upon visualize the public and exterior space of a city where “buses dashed over streets, their metallic sides aglow in the light. The shine and swish they left in their wake enveloped the city as if with fish scales that flashed with every move.”

These stories describe Taiwanese society from 1980s to 2010s (with the notable exception of the final story “The Fish”, which—dating from 1976 and dealing with the Cultural Revolution in mainland China—hangs on like an out of place appendix) and thus also touch on the tremendous changes in economy, politics and lifestyle that took place during those years.

A literary showcase of life in such transitional times is displayed by the generational conflict at the heart of Chung Wenyin’s “The Travels and Lover of a Junior High Girl”. Here, the protagonist’s mother, who was born in poverty and has finally risen to a life of wealth and luxury, refuses let go of her Gucci purse to go swim with her children. Her daughter, on the other hand, who has grown up in relative affluence and financial security, longs for untraditional love affairs and a simple life closer to nature: “I truly wished that my mother would come and see the fates of other women — take off her expensive shoes, tread barefoot on the earth, and feel the chill or heat.”

The cultural and linguistic amalgamation, which Stalling describes as characteristic of Taiwan literature, is exemplified in several of the stories: in “The Story of Hsiao-Pi” the Taiwanese Mrs Pi struggles to speak Mandarin with her Guomindang husband; in “Seed of the Rape Plant” the protagonist’s Japanese housewife schooling proves redundant in modern-day Taiwan; and the narrator in “The Party Girl” comes to realize that a knowledge of foreign languages is essential in order to crash and successfully shine at fashionable gatherings.

But why a separatist anthology of only female authors? Dr Olga Castro wrote last year in in The Conversation that “in an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s.”

Our world, however, especially when it comes to translated works, is far from ideal. According to Castro (who cites the VIDA Count of women in the literary arts), “generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies…”

This anthology therefore does its bit to redress the balance. And from a Sinophone perspective, it bears witness to the remarkably rich literary scene in Taiwan as well as to the fact that a not insignificant number of the island’s best authors happen to be female.

Fortunately, these stories have more in common than the fact that they are written by Taiwanese women. They are short and delicious samples of human curiosity, humor, suffering, politics and love. They are very well translated and well mixed as if for a literary buffet. The editors have thoughtfully provided bibliographical information on each story’s original publication so that the hungry reader can easily sample more of new discovered favorites.

First published for asianreviewofbooks.com

More than Words: Translation Chinese – Danish

20170226_155646Some literary works excite us because their linguistic fabric is so rich; each sentence describes not only an event or an action, but a way of thinking through language and narrative, a way of looking at, living in and representing the world, full of cultural residue, philosophical implications, personal memories and associative capacity.

20170416_144219How can we as (would be) literary translators encompass both syntactic melody, narrative pace, semantic connotations, metaphoric content and intertextual aspects of our source texts while rendering them at all readable in our target language? Last week, I attended a workshop organised by Rakel Haslund-Gjerrild and Mai Corlin Bagger-Petersen at University of Copenhagen, featuring experienced and new translators of Chinese fiction into Danish, which addressed these daunting questions.

Professor emeritus of Chinese language and literature, Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg used Franco Moretti’s allegory of translation as waves that bring new life to the shores of national literatures, while the renowned Danish translator of James Joyce and Herta Müller, Karsten Sand Iversen stressed the importance of integration rather than  assimilation as a method for translation. This strategy includes avoiding what Iversen referred to as ‘normalisation’; the act of trivialising inventive and even weird literary language, in order to satisfy editors and the perceived cultural laziness of prospective audiences.

20170305_162352Danish translator of Haruki Murakami’s works, Mette Holm described the collaborative efforts of translators around the world to deal with the complexity as well as the specificity of fictional narrative: On the one hand, translators must understand and retain the literary ambiguity of Murakami’s texts, his fantastic elements, his literary subconscious, while on the other, they struggle to incorporate his use of highly specific brand names, sometimes unknown or unnamed in the target language.

20170302_172518Most translators from Chinese, including Susanne Posborg and Sidse Laugesen, agreed that the issue of dialects, idioms and jargon represented a huge hurdle in terms of translation. One cannot simply interpolate Danish dialects for Chinese, as the whole fictional geography clearly does not conform to the cultural sphere known as Denmark. Conversely, more subtle differentiations might go unnoticed by the casual reader.

20170503_144334Despite all the difficulties and challenges to good translation practice raised by the speakers (a commercial book market with, according to Klim publishers‘ representative, an active readership of only about half a million was another factor that was mentioned), the all-day workshop was very well attended by old hands and young students alike, a fact that seems to raise hope for the future of literary translation from Chinese in Denmark.

The Last Human Tiger: Review of Fang Qi’s Elegy of a River Shaman

In a fantastic blend of folk song, ecocriticism and historical fiction, the novel Elegy of a River Shaman chronicles four generations of the Tribe of the Tiger and their Tima (shaman) in the Three Gorges (san xia 三峡) region along he Yangzi River. It opens with the clan patriarch Li Diezhu’s decision to build a pioneer settlement in the fertile Lihaku ridge and moves on to relate how macro-historical events, such as the Japanese invasion of 1937 and the civil war between communists and nationalists, affected the lives and traditions of this local community.

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After trailing the fates and misfortunes of the dwindling tribe, the novel ends on a hopeful note, with Diezhu’s ageing widow assuring their great-grandson of the continued survival of his people and their totem animal: “when a tiger turns five hundred years old, its fur turn white. They can live a thousand years” (467).

In terms of genre, this almost 500-page long work is indebted to at least three Chinese literary traditions: root-searching literature (xungen wenxue 寻根文学), nature writing (ziran xiezuo 自然写作) and new historical fiction (lishi xiaoshuo 历史小说).

Firstly, Fang Qi, like the father of root-searching literature, Han Shaogong and Shen Congwen before him (Kinkley 1993), is concerned with the folkloristic remains of ancient Chinese civilization: “The first vestiges of human civilization can be traced to the banks of the Three Gorges” (vi). However, where Shen and Han were fascinated by the cultural and linguistic residue of Chu culture in Hunan, Fang focuses on Hubei, where, according to her narrator, “in ancient times, the mountain chain formed the boundary of the Ba State” (11).

forsideTrue to this literary tradition, delightful folk songs and shamanic chants weave in and out of the narrative, a pattern of poetic myths linking humans and nature through verse: “The wind so crisp, the sun co bright, / Tang of ginger pairs with hot peppers’ bite. / Crisp wind augurs a clear, fine day, / Come back, my love, and take me away” (81). It likewise shares the root-searchers’ tendency for ecological naiveté and sexualized exoticism: “In this desolate primitive wilderness, husband and wife nightly waged fierce sexual battles” (24), running the risk of romanticizing a society where women are primarily seen as baby-making machines: “A girl of eighteen commits suicide: fertile soil, abandoned land” (110) and endangered species are hunted and killed (37).

tiger-nature-zoo-wild-162306Secondly, it offers a kind of literary ecocriticism concerned with the destruction of the natural cohesion between human beings and environment as expressed by clan matriarch Tao Jiuxiang: “Earth swallows man, yet man depends upon the earth for his livelihood. Buried under the ground, man’s death is eternal, yet eating the fruits of the earth men have subsisted for countless centuries” (560). Just as famous writers like Ah Cheng, Jiang Rong and others lamented deforestation and disregard for wildlife (Thornber 2017). Fang Qi’s work is an elegy for the last shaman of Three Gorges, the loss of whom brings the land itself into demise: “With Xia Qifa’s [the shaman] nurture and solicitude, the fir tree on the dragon’s brow had gradually turned from yellow to green, coming back to life. But now, the tree’s needles had turned a brittle yellowish-red” (452).

The novel playfully accepts the animistic paradigm of shamanism, making use of allegorical wildlife scenes to hint at future events: thus, when the matchmaker Third Auntie, after having been turned away in disdain by the wealthy Xiang family, sees a pack of small but vicious dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) attacking and bringing down a moon bear, she (correctly as it turns out) interprets the episode as a good omen: “She, too, would claw back her honor like the fierce dhole” (35).

Thirdly, the novel employs the temporal scope and narrative perspective of the New Historical trend in contemporary Chinese fiction as represented most famously by Mo Yan (Lin 2005), which, with a postmodern wariness of grand narratives, retells famous historical events from the perspective of the individual and its influences on her or his emotions, fantasies and daily life. One example of this kind of micro-history is the conflict between regional and national loyalty experienced by Diezhu’s son Mawu: “Motherfucking Japanese devils! […] He wished he could head straight to the front to take revenge, but he couldn’t: Huangshui, this ancient town, needed him” (150).

Another conflict, brought into focus by the novels cross-generational timespan, is between tradition and progress: Diezhu wishes for his sons to be educated and knowledgeable, yet he is exasperated when their expanded horizon makes them want to leave home.

P1040074With its numerous and somewhat flat characters, the novel initially requires some perseverance on the part of the reader, yet as it unfolds its detailed and sensuous universe of sweet wine, cloud filled gorges and spiritual chants there is no turning back. Based on ten years of anthropological field work, Elegy of a River Shaman is a lush and generous (but also violent and tragic) tale of the last tiger and the last shaman of Three Gorges. It uses fictional narrative to celebrate the rich folk customs of this area of China and preserve them for the future.

Fang, Qi. 2016. Elegy of a River Shaman. Translated by Norman Harry Rothschild and Meng Fanjun. Portland, ME: Merwin Asia.

References
Kinkley, Jeffrey. 1993. “Shen Congwen’s Legacy in Chinese Literature of the 1980s.” In Ellen Widmer, and Der-wei Wang, eds., From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lin, Qingxin. 2005. Brushing History Against the Grain: Reading the Chinese New Historical Fiction (1986-1999). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Thornber, Karen Laura. 2017. “Wolf Totem and Nature Writing.” In David Der-wei Wang, ed., A New Literary History of Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Harvard.