Sensing the Sinophone

My first monograph is underway! Haha! It will be published as part of Cambria Press’ wonderful Sinophone Worlds series of which I already have many amazing titles on my bookshelf including Wilt L. Idema’s Insects in Chinese Literature, Chia-rong Wu’s Supernatural Sinophone Taiwan and Beyond, and Isaac Yue’s Monstrosity and Chinese Cultural Identity.

Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction combines narratological tools for studying time in fiction with critical concepts of spatiality in order to establish an analytical focus on narrative voice and reliability (including the inaccuracy of memory), structural non-linearity (such as mental time travel), and the construction of fictional parallel cities as loci for plot development. In this study, the conventional sensorium and its role in recollection is explored and amplified to include whole-body sensations, habitual synesthesia, and the emotional aspects of sensations that produce a sense of place or self.

By analyzing narratives that make use of and encourage multisensory, spatiotemporal understandings of reality characterized by permeable boundaries between material, social and imaginary domains, this monograph shows how contemporary cities change the way human beings think and write about reality.

Blurbs

Some very kind reviews have already been posted on Cambria’s page:

“With a lineup of works drawn from contemporary Chinese and Sinophone communities, Astrid Møller-Olsen pays special attention to the articulations of senses in the texts under discussion, from audio-visual contact to melodious association, tactile sensation, aromatic emanation, and kinetic exercise, culminating in mnemonic imagination and gendered fabulation. The result is a work on urban synesthesia, a kaleidoscopic projection of sensorium in a narrative form. Her analyses of works by writers such as Chu Tien-hsin and Wu Ming-yi are particularly compelling. Sensing the Sinophone has introduced a new direction for literary studies and is sure to be an invaluable source for anyone interested in narratology, urban studies, environmental studies, affect studies and above all comparative literature in both Sinophone and global contexts.” —David Der-wei Wang, Harvard University

“Evoking the language and logic of poetry, Sensing the Sinophone is a brilliant literary urban ecology that conjures cities, like texts, as open, dynamic, sensing, vital, enduring entities. How, Astrid Møller-Olsen asks, do characters experience sensory memories in six novels of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei, activated by architectural, botanical, and bodily presences in the city? With theoretical insights ranging from quantum mechanics to Confucian cosmology, this phenomenological elucidation of fictionalized cities as somaticized organisms with physiological functions is a remarkable intervention.” —Robin Visser, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

More about the book

Since the 1990s, extensive urbanization in East Asia has created a situation in which more people identify themselves as citizens of the city where they live, rather than their ancestral village or nation. At the same time, this new urban identity has been under constant threat from massive municipal restructuring. Such rapidly changing cityscapes form environments of urban flux that lead to narrative reconfigurations of fundamental concepts such as space, time, and memory. The resulting contemporary urban fiction describes and explores this process of complex spatial identification and temporal fluctuation through narratives that are as warped and polymorphic as the cities themselves.

Building on previous scholarship in the fields of Chinese/Sinophone urban fiction, sensory studies, and comparative world literature, Sensing the Sinophone provides a new city-based approach to comparativism combined with a cross-disciplinary focus on textual sensescapes.

Through an original framework of literary sensory studies, this monograph provides a comparative analysis of how six contemporary works of Sinophone fiction reimagine the links between the self and the city, the past and the present, as well as the physical and the imaginary. It explores the connection between elusive memories and material cityscapes through the matrix of the senses. Joining recent efforts to imagine world literature beyond the international, Sensing the Sinophone engages in a triangular comparison of fiction from Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei—three Sinophone cities, each with its own strong urban identity thatc comes with unique cultural and linguistic hybridities.

Sensing the Sinophone is an important addition to several ongoing discussions within the fields of comparative literature, urban studies, memory studies, geocriticism, sensory studies, Sinophone studies, and Chinese studies.

TOC

Part I. Skeleton

Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City

Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works

Part II. Corpus

Chapter 3. Sense of Place: Walking or Mapping the City

Chapter 4. The Nose: Flora Nostalgia

Chapter 5. The Ear: Melody of Language

Chapter 6. Sense of Self: The Many Skins of the City

Chapter 7. The Mouth: Balancing Flavors

Chapter 8. The Eye: Fictional Dreams

Part III. Excretions

Chapter 9. Sense of Time: Everyday Rhythms

The City Remembers: Concluding Remarks

Bibliography

Index

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

Multi-sensory Readings: A Practical and Drinkable Approach

In my recent research, I have been greatly inspired by scholars of Sensory Studies and their endeavour to reconceptualise the senses as collaborating, manifold and cultural. In my work, I extend these notions to the study of literature and analyse the ways in which fictional texts represent and reinvent sensory experience. So, as a summer project, I devised this practical experiment in literary sensory studies: I tried combining the primarily audio-visual pleasure of reading with the gustatory delights of various beverages:
20200704_180146Science Fiction and Stout:

Both the brew and Liu Cixin’s universe are dark and bitter-sweet, but with a deeper tang that is addictive. While I was no end disappointed that none of the wall-facers (futuristic heroes attempting to save the world) were women, I enjoyed the auxiliary inventiveness and the repeated motif of dragonflies across the mass of text, like the sweet undertones of the beer’s roasted malt.

whiskey satireSatire and Single Malt:

Wang Xiaobo’s 黄金时代 (The Golden Age) is an account of love in a Cultural Revolution labour camp. It chronicles the slightly dull daily doings of the young man Wang Er, spiced with his sexual relationship with a young (female) doctor and topped with their shared prosecution by the local powers that be in a raw yet complex experience, not dissimilar to a tarry beaker of Laphroigh.

crime coffeeCrime and Coffee:

Comforting yet refreshing, I haven’t yet tired of Agatha Christie nor of my daily mocha, probably never shall. Have read these books countless times and enjoy them, despite always already knowing “who dunnit” (what is the world coming to when Heidegger and the queen of crime fiction can co-inhabit the same paragraph – I like it!). Also enjoy hunting for older paperbacks with their graphic aesthetics of bygones eras, some overt and gaudy, some elegantly simple.

20200821_182158Fantasy and Kombucha:

Bubbling and fast-paced, Genevieve Cogman’s novels press all the right buttons for me, including hunts for rare books, supernatural henchmen and a steam punk heroine, matching the variety of sweet, sour and zingy notes in the fermented tea-based drink.