Archipelagic Literature: Review of Brian Bernards’ Writing the South Seas

The following is my review for newbooks.asia of Brian Bernards (2015): Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

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.

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Sidelong glances
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.

Archipelagic literature
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

Qiu Xiaolong: Crime Fiction Between Languages

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)

 

Why are Chinese authors more Chinese than authors?

This Monday I met Chinese author Mai Jia 麦家, who’s novel 》解密《 (Decoded) from 2002 has just been translated into Danish by Susanne Posborg. I was pleasantly surprised that the work of this so-called ‘king of the Chinese spy novel’ (中国谍战小说之父王) is less about secret agents and more about the emotional and intellectual development of its characters. Mai Jia seemed to experience the same kind of gratified surprise when our conversation turned to literary topics – topics which to me it seemed only natural to discuss with a writer. Later I was to understand why.

That same evening, Mai Jia gave a public interview with a Danish journalist at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. This journalist asked only one question about the novel itself, most of which is set during the Cultural Revolution. The question was why Mai Jia did not give a more detailed account of the different forms of political repression and limitations of movement during that era, and not only the ones relating to the plot of his novel. Why, in short, he hadn’t written a different book. The remainder of her questions focused on the challenges she perceived to exist for a Chinese author and about the China she read into the book. Both in terms of historicity and actuality, she had read his work as documentation and not as literature.

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Mai Jia and I in conversation in Copenhagen

I do not think that an interviewer should avoid all sensitive questions or questions pertaining to matters not literary. But I do think that she should at least acknowledge that the author is more an expert on literary issues and his own work than on current and historical Chinese politics. I wonder how many American or European novelist are forced to explain how their art relates to the refugee crisis or if they feel under surveillance from the NSA.

 

This attitude is reminiscent of Fredric Jameson‘s (in)famous allegation in relation to Chinese and African novels, that “All third-world texts […] are to be read as what I will call national allegories,” (Jameson, 1986: 69). Even though China has since entered the realm of capitalism, it seems that some powerful readers are doing their best to continue to read novels from China as nothing more than documentation of a specific ‘Chinese reality’.

I think it is more fruitful to look at literature (especially in translation) as affording a meeting place. Just as translation constructs a bridge between two languages with material from both sides, so is literature, unlike statistics and other documentative formats, something that happens between the author and the reader. It includes as well as frustrates personal and cultural pre-understandings, and that is why we learn from reading.

References:
Jameson, Fredric (1986): ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’ Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn), pp. 65-88.

Mai Jia (2016): Afkodet. Trans. Susanne Posborg. København: Møllers Forlag.

Mai Jia (2014): Decoded. Trans. Olivia Milburn & Christopher Payne London: Penguin Random House.

Fictional Dictionaries

IMG_5934Currently I am busy working on my thesis on ‘fictional dictionaries’ in contemporary Chinese literature. Browsing of my supervisor’s affluent book shelves I accidentally noticed that around the turn of the century 3 novels by Chinese authors which all took the form of wordbooks, were published:

Han Shaogong: A Dictionary of Maqiao 马桥词典 (1996/ trans. 2003 by Julia Lovell) Based on his experiences and meditations upon language as an educated youth ‘send down’ to the countryside in the 1970s, the novel take the shape of a lexicon biography of the semi-fictional village of Maqiao. Through the formal break with linear narrative, Han Shaogong foregrounds the ambiguous yet powerful nature of language in shaping our understanding of history, the world and ourselves. More about Han Shaogong and language here.

Yu Hua: China in Ten Words 十个词汇里的中国 (First published in French 2010, Chinese version published 2011 in Taipei, English translation by Allan H. Barr 2011) Yu Hua aims at reappropriating China from communist sloganeering and Western generalization by redefining ten Chinese words. His word definitions consist of personal anecdote, critical essay and political analysis, blending the genres in a way that points to the context dependent status of language as well as the inherent paradox in trying to define language with language.

Guo Xiaolu: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Written in English 2007) Using the clashes arising in the cultural and literal translation between lovers as her point of departure, Guo Xiaolu probes the interconnectedness of language and cultural identity. Self exiled into a foreign context, the subject is forced to constantly translate her surroundings, while at the same time translating herself into her new reality.

IMG_5935The formal constraint of the wordbook or dictionary force a common thematic focus on language in all 3 novels, different as they do otherwise appear. Likewise the question of history, the right to write it, and the role of language in the communication of as well as the creation of it, is a topic of the first two. Cultural identity and translation is a theme shared by Han Shaogon and Guo Xiaolu, with the former presenting language struggles within Chinese territory and the latter between China and the UK.

Hope to have made some of you curious for more, all 3 novels are available in English, with A Dictionary of Maqiao as my personal favourite!

Sexualizing the Western ‘Other’: Wei Hui and Gao Xingjian

In her semi biographical novel Shanghai Baby from 1999 Wei Hui describes a sexual encounter between the Chinese female protagonist and her German lover: “His golden body hairs were like fine rays of sunlight, zealously and intimately nibbling at my body […] He penetrated my protective labia with deadly accuracy and located my budding clitoris. […] His huge organ made me feel swollen […] I imagined what he would be like in high boots and a leather coat, and what kind of cruelty would show in those Teutonic blue eyes. These thoughts increased my excitement.” (Translated by Bruce Humes. Simon&Schuster: 2001, pp.63)

This sexualization of the Western, in this case German, ‘Other’ is stereotype bordering on the comic with its images of blond hair, blue eyes and aggressive virility. The direct allusions to Nazism and the German reputation for accuracy, only increase the feeling of foreignness and thus desire in the protagonist.

Throughout the novel, as professor of comparative literature Sheldon H. Lu points out in his brief analysis of the book, the virile, aggressive European lover is contrasted with the protagonists artistic and intellectual but impotent Chinese boyfriend. (Lu, Sheldon H.: Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics, University of Hawai’i Press: 2007, pp.58)

This put me in mind of Gao Xingjian’s novel One Man’s Bible also from 1999, in the very beginning of which we find the male protagonist in bed with a German woman: “She sips the cognac and closes her eyes. She is a white German with very dark hair and long eyelashes. You get her to part her legs so you can see clearly and have her deeply imprinted in your memory.” (Translated by: Mabel Lee. HarperCollins: 2003, pp. 11)

Later they talk about how they first met: “‘I remember you, of course I remember you! As soon as you came through the door you took of your big padded coat and your scarf, and there stood a very beautiful young foreign woman!’ ‘With big breasts, right?’ ‘Of course, very big breasts. Blushing white skin and bright red lips even with no lipstick. Really sexy.'” (Ibid. pp. 14)

Again the foreignness is underlined and sexualized by images of white skin, big breasts, red lips, this time with a hint of irony, which does not however diminish the effect of the foreign body on the Chinese protagonist.

Later the plumpness and natural vigor of the German woman, as well as the protagonists open and bold investigation of her body, is contrasted with his nostalgic love for a very young and delicate Chinese girl: “‘It was special because a white German girl with bright red lips had suddenly arrived…’ ‘And there was also a bare foot little Beijing girl who was lovely and slender…'” (Ibid. pp.15)

In both cases it is the very foreignness of the Western ‘Other’, the points in which their body differs from the well-known and homely, that makes them sexually attractive. It is also interesting, albeit maybe coincidental, that these to instances both centers on the German physique as the one diametrically opposed to the Chinese, both when it comes to women and men. Both objects of desire are more over soaked in foreign and exclusive liquor, another forbidden, exotic and sensually intoxicating luxury.

What is Chinese about Chinese Literature?

What delimits Chinese literature?

I’m currently working on a critical analysis of the term ‘Chinese literature’ including my own role in the reproduction of it through for instance the title of this blog.

It involves asking a lot of questions, first of all: What is Chinese about Chinese literature? Who and what defines it?

Is it geography? If so, how to deal with overseas or exile writers? Is it Tu Wei-ming‘s notion of a ‘cultural China’? Or are might there be hybrids not answering to one cultural ‘root’ called China but to several roots? Is it about language? Current discussions in global Sinophone literature seems to be some of the most nuanced, but still fail to take into account ethnic Chinese who writes in other languages and foreigners writing in Chinese. And the Chinese language itself, even in its written form, is far from being a homogenous or easily limited subject.

Is this category of Chinese literature at all useful? For me at least, it sprung from a very practical wish to be able to access a lot of great novels and poems written in another language – Chinese. So it started with language, but from there it just grew. The best course for me now seems to be not to stop using the term ‘Chinese literature’ but to use it in a more nuanced and reflected way.

As Ien Ang puts it in her brilliant article “Can One Say No to Chineseness?”: “[A]ny intellectual investment in an object of study -say Chineseness- is not the innocent reflection of a natural reality that is passively awaiting to be discovered; rather the active quest for knowledge actively brings it into being, in the knower’s experience and understanding of the world, slices of reality he or she then calls and classifies as Chinese.”

Ai Wei Wei’s ‘Trees’ and the dead beetles – not about China

A few weeks ago I visited Louisiana to check out Ai Wei Wei‘s exhibition there. Like many others I wasn’t that impressed.

One thing that caught my eye and interest, though, was the amount of dead beetles locked in the tree-roots of the ‘Rocks and Trees’-installation (2009-2010) (whether or not it was intended, I care not).

For how long had the beetles survived in the installation, their artificial art-home through airports, gallery basements, packing and unpacking. Are they Chinese beetles or picked up in some storage room along the way, and does that make a difference? (they’re dead all the same) And how on earth did they get through airport security?

The little black bodies, lying belly up at the foot of the dead tree trunks nailed together to form a tree-figure, lend the interpretation of the work an extra dimension. The trees are obviously constructed, made up of different parts forcefully put together to form an ideal structure. The artificiality of the structure however, renders the single parts or branches unable to survive. Even the inhabitants of such an artificial construction will not last long.

To read ‘Trees’ as an allegory for the Chinese society, forcefully holding together very different geographical and ethnological communities to form an ideal united nation, is tempting. But it might be more fruitful, and even relevant, to look at the dead trees as a more general critique of ideology.

Few of us can get completely away from a desire for order and consistency, in which trees look like trees, cultures are recognisable as cultures, and Chinese art is about China.

What I got out of seeing Ai Wei Wei’s dead trees (and not least the additional dead beetles) was a feeling that this kind of thought hygiene might be very unfit to accommodate, or even take into consideration, real life.