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
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.
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.
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.
Prof. 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:
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.
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.
Some 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.
How 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.
Danish 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.
Most 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.
Despite 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.
In a fantastic blend of folk song, ecocriticism and historical fiction, the novel Elegy of a River Shamanchronicles 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.
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).
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).
True 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).
Secondly, 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.
With 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.
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.
I am utterly delighted to announce that my article ‘Fictional Dictionaries: Power and Philosophy of Language in Contemporary Chinese Fiction’ is now in print in the 2017 fall issue of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (29, 2). Here follows a short excerpt to whet your appetite:
Language is one of humanity’s most efficient mediums for expressing thoughts, sharing knowledge, and connecting. At the same time, language is difficult to contain because it changes over time and can vary in use from one context to another. The very meaning of words depends, to a large extent, on historical usage, cultural connotations, and specific contexts. Language is public and conventional, on the one hand, and individual and personal, on the other. Thus, any examination of the way we use language in literature, everyday discourse, philosophical meditation, or ideological propaganda—to give but a few examples—can reveal much about how we see the world.
Language has long been a subject of philosophy, but it can also be a subject in fiction writing. One way of explicitly drawing the reader’sattention to the language of a novel, and to just how much the power of linguistic definition influences our understanding of reality, is by writing that novel in the form of a dictionary. Ambrose Bierce knew this when, in 1881, he began writing the essays that later came to be known collectively as The Devil’s Dictionary, redefining chosen words to satirically comment on language and society.
Perhaps the most comprehensive example of the use of the dictionary format is Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars, from 1988. The novel reads like a specialized encyclopedia on the Khazar polemic and invites the reader to jump between entries when new and unknown terms appear in the text. The theme is the linguistic representation of history, and the dictionary’s polyphonic structure reveals how narrative accounts of the same historical event can differ dramatically depending on the ideological and religious perspective of the narrator. David Grossman has also used the dictionary format to explore Jewish ethnic identity in his See under Love (1989), and Walter Abish pursues formal prose experiments in his Alphabetical Africa (1974).
In the period around the turn of the last millennium, three China-born authors published literary works that adopted the dictionary format. In 1996, Han Shaogong wrote A Dictionary of Maqiao (Maqiao cidian), depicting the life, regional history, and local identity of a fictional village in southern China through its use of words. Xiaolu Guo used the dictionary format to point to intercultural relationships as a form of translation in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers from 2007. Finally, Yu Hua, in 2011, made use of the inherent connection between language and reality construction when he took it upon himself to rewrite recent Chinese history by redefining certain Chinese key terms in his China in Ten Words (Shige cihuili de Zhongguo). As I argue later, this last work, although published as nonfiction, incorporates many traits of fiction writing, thus justifying my labeling it a fictional dictionary.
Inspired by the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin’s lectures, both of which define the meaning of a word as its use in language, as well as by certain passages in Zhuangzi that are similarly preoccupied with language use, I investigate how the dictionary format affects the way language is used, presented,and understood in these three literary works.
The essay is in three parts. In the first and longest part, the focus is on Han Shaogong’s novel; it includes analyses of speech acts and propaganda as a kind of linguistic magic, of how unstable words can create alternative historical narratives, and of the complex connection among language,fiction, and reality. The second part looks at the power of canonized words and phrases, the importance of relexicalization, as well as the role and goal of fiction writing as discussed in Yu Hua’s work. The third part analyzes the role of translation and linguistic sedimentation in everyday life and love in Xiaolu Guo’s novel.
The method is comparative, taking Han Shaogong’s novel as the point of departure and comparing it to the two other fictional dictionaries, with the aim of investigating how similar literary constraints—that is, the demands of the lexicographical format to select and give precedence to certain words—can produce very different narratives, each with their own representation of the role of language in our understanding of the world.
Archipelagic Literature: Beyond a Concentric Conception of Culture (Review)
In his recent study, Brian Bernards analyses the motif of the Nanyang (the South Seas) in postcolonial fiction from Malaysia, Thailand, Borneo, Singapore and Taiwan. Through a focus on the integration, assimilation and confrontation between (descendants of) Chinese settlers and the local populations, Bernards’s analyses reveal the internal heterogeneity of each perceived group. This book reminds us, through concrete examples, that any ethnic group, national culture or language is always already ‘contaminated’ – a term he uses in a fittingly positive sense; after all it is contamination not sterility that brings life.
Bernards begins his book with two chapters that present the Nanyang motif as an integral, if not major, part of modern Chinese literature. He writes: “Not to be written off as New Literature’s detour into exoticism, the impressionistic South Seas color in the short fiction of Xu Zhimo and Xu Dishan … suggests a broader conception of and enquiry into ‘the world’ than typically attributed to the New Culture movement” (p. 30). The positive effects of structuring the book in this way, is that the early chapters provide a historical context for the Nanyang motif and thus set the scene for the later postcolonial analysis. Just as importantly, they bring to light lesser known aspects of the New Literature movement as well as non-canonized works of famous Chinese writers such as Lao She. On the downside, rooting the whole study in the context of modern Chinese literature does not further Bernards’s bold and otherwise successful project of shifting analytical focus from a cultural centre to a network of cultural connections.
Thus situating his innovative analytic focus in the well-known context of modern Chinese literature, he goes on to provide a short literary history of the Nanyang motif as an expression of the combined pride and despair felt by Chinese writers of the 1920s and 1930s towards their own culture: Bernards’s description of how Yu Dafu championed Sinophone Malayan literature as a literature in its own right, only to go on telling the Malayan writers how best to develop this genre (p. 77), calls to mind the strange mix of arrogance and fascination that characterised the ‘primitivism’ popular among European painters from the late 19th and early 20th, who sought artistic (and sometimes sexual) liberation from so-called ‘primitive’ cultures in the colonies.
Though I find Bernards’s translation of baihua as ‘pure speech’ (p. 33) rather than for instance ‘plain speech’ somewhat misleading, his argument that the enlightenment project of the New Literature movement was not simply a vernacular liberation, but also led to cultural homogenisation, is an important and often neglected one.
No margins no centre
The single greatest contribution this book makes is, in my opinion, that it turns our way of thinking about and analysing literature away from a supposed centre by creating a kind of empty centre (the sea) from the vantage point of which every literature, culture and language is an island in an archipelago of other interconnected islands. This is a brilliant and a much-needed step in literary studies. While I fully recognise the debt to Shu Mei-shih’s work on Sinophone fiction, Bernards’s book adds a new archipelagic focus and, as most pioneering studies, it suffers from a few weak points. Firstly, the very structure that allows multiple geographic points of departure also proves quite challenging to a reader less familiar with the mosaic of southeast Asian colonial and national histories. Bernards does his best to remedy this in the text, but a timeline or some other visual historic overview (such as the very helpful map provided in the introduction) might help the reader navigate between chapters.
Another issue is how the term Nanyang itself simultaneously makes possible and defeats the aim of the book to move beyond national or linguistic literary boundaries. The term ‘the South Seas’ presupposes a point that one is south of; in this case, that point is inescapably China. I do not see how Bernards could have done otherwise, but this dilemma helps to remind us that we are still struggling to get beyond notion of centre-periphery.
While generally thrilled with the works and authors presented, I could wish for more methodical congruity in the literary analyses. Some chapters provide biographical interpretations, other offer sociopolitical readings and one gives a comprehensive narrative analysis. Personally, I find this last instance – which includes a diagram of the author Pan Yutong’s ‘concentric narratology’ – absolutely fascinating, and I can’t help feeling that a consistent comparison of either narrative patterns, character development or literary reception of fiction dealing with postcolonial Nanyang identities might be a highly interesting continuation of the project.
Brian Bernards’s enjoyable and illuminating book successfully diversifies the way we think about national literatures as well as about Sinophone literature as essentially a diaspora phenomenon, for, as Bernards excellently puts it, “rarely (if ever) are the terms ‘British diaspora,’ ‘French diaspora,’ ‘Spanish diaspora,’ and ‘Portuguese diaspora’ applied to communities in the New World of the Americas” (p. 198). Bernards’s study shows that not only are such concepts challenged by hybrids and misfits at the margins, but the so-called margins themselves reach the centre and affect/hybridise it to a degree that renders such concentric vision impractical. With an unswerving eye for the role language plays in creating literatures as well as for the innovate power of fiction in creolising language (and with due attention to original terms available in an extensive glossary), this book will prove an eye-opening read, not only for scholars and enthusiasts of Sinophone and southeast Asian literatures, but for linguists and literary scholars everywhere
On May 3rd, I attended a charming lecture by poet and crime fiction writer Qiu Xiaolong裘小龙 at New York University’s Shanghai campus. Born on the Puxi side of Shanghai, Qiu embraced the opportunity afforded by his visit to the campus to walk around – and have his famous Inspector Chen walk around – Pudong’s futuristic vertical landscape. A graduate from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, Qiu Xiaolong was studying in the US when the aftermath of the June 4th incident of 1989 (also known as the Tiananmen Massacre) made it untenable for him to return to China. His decision to start writing in English was prompted by an announcement from his Chinese publisher that his works could no longer be published in China.Between 1988 and 1996, Qiu remained in the US, but since then he has returned to his native city of Shanghai at least once a year, only to be amazed at the changes and transformations he observes. While humbly acknowledging that he is now much less familiar with Shanghai than local writers, and much less familiar with the English language than native English speakers, Qiu suggested that his unique position as an ‘outside insider’ might be part of the recipe for his hugely successful novels.Another interesting product of Qiu’s in-between position is his approach to literary discourse. He described how, while composing in a second language, one need not necessarily shot out completely one’s first language, but rather use it to creatively combine and reshape linguistic thought patterns. As he puts it “a cliché in one language might be an innovation when translated directly into another one.”This approach breaks with practises of composition and translation that seek to ‘domesticate’ foreign idioms and phrases to secure what translation theorist Lawrence Venuti has called ‘the translator’s invisibility’. So, while Qiu’s lack of ‘domestication’ might risk sliding into auto-Orientalism, it more importantly serves to call attention to the text’s conception between languages.
(All photographs by Astrid Møller-Olsen, Shanghai 2017)