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

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.

 

 

Heritage and Memory in Copenhagen: 8th International ADI conference

What makes certain practices and sites cultural heritage? This week I took part in a very interesting panel on ‘Heritagizing Asia: The politics of time and space in Asian cities’, part of this year’s Asian Dynamics Initiative international conference in Copenhagen.

salamanca_-_patrimonio_de_la_humanidad_-_world_heritageVietnam scholar and Professor of anthropology, Oscar Salemink came up with the idea of using the verb form of the word heritage – heritagization as a process rather than something which is merely there to be recognised and preserved. As it came out in our discussions, heritagization seems to be quite a complex process of simultaneous construction and selective erasure, taking place from the present cultural political context, directed towards the past, for preservation into the future.

Several interesting and thought-provoking examples of ambiguous and problematic issues of heritage came out during the ten presentations. Anthropologists Bente Wolff and Caroline Lillelund, who talked about the local reactions to the restoration of Danish colonial buildings in India, touched upon an interesting if unintentional effect of heritage preservation: The preservation of the empty space surrounding a heritage building, which seemed to be even more treasured by the local populace. If certain practices can be recognized as intangible cultural heritage that needs to be preserved, can empty space as room for such practices also be included?

12304183263_c248552c90_bUrban geographer, Rishika Mukhopadhyay described how the idol makers of Kumartuli became the victims of their own heritagization, when their workshops were demolished in order to create a more suitable site for their heritage craft. Apart from the plight of the craftsmen now having lived in ‘temporary’ exile from their homes for more than six years, this understanding of heritage as something that can be contained and detached from its spatio-temporal context, acutely problematizes the distinction between material and intangible heritage.

Professor of Modern China Studies, Marina Svensson’s paper about the development of Nanluoguxiang 南锣鼓巷 and the creation as well as commercialization of heritage neighbourhoods in Beijing reminded us to transgress the visual bias and include more senses when engaging in cultural research.

taipei_101_from_afarMy own presentation dealt with the relation between memory and heritage. I read Zhu Tianxin’s 朱天心 novella ‘Old Capital’ 古都 from this perspective, discovering that in the instance of this fictional investigation of Taipei, the notion of heritage preservation detached from lived experience could be as problematic as heritage destruction. In this work, preservation as a nostalgic project that excludes complicated or painful memories risk removing urban heritage from the citizens, producing alienation rather than a sense of belonging.

Saint-Exupéry: The wormhole of memory

I am currently working on a PhD-proposal about memory and place in Sinophone urban fiction from the last decades of the 21st century. Therefore I tend to focus on philosophical conceptualisations and poetical representations of remembering in my reading at the moment.

On a train through Northern Greece a few days ago, I was reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brilliant and breathtaking flying lesson in life Terres des Hommes (Translated as Wind, Sand and Stars by William Rees, Penguin Classics: 2000). He writes of memories as friends, coming to him in his loneliest hour, lost as he is in the naked and inhospitable landscape of the desert:

“They came to me soundlessly like the waters of a spring, and at first I did not understand the gentle joy that was flowing into me. There was neither voice nor image, but the awareness of a presence, a friendship that was very close and already half known by intuition. Then I understood, closed my eyes, and surrendered myself to the enchantment of my memory.”

With death and the distant stars as his sole companions, the crashed pilot’s memories are his last link to life. His loved ones are separated from him by insurmountable distances in time and space, yet through the faculty of remembering they are with him in an instant. Memories are indeed the wormholes of human spacetime.

Forced to remember: The Power of Language in Han Shaogong

Han Shaogong‘s 韩少功 short story ‘Homecoming?’ from 1985 takes up many of the themes of his famous later novel A Dictionary of Maqiao from 1996. Like Dictionary it is about history and language, and their mutual distortion of one another.

In ‘Homecoming?’ a young man comes (back?) to a village he almost remembers and which definitely remembers him, though under a different name than the one he carries now: “All this looked so familiar and yet so strange. It was like looking at a written character: the harder you look at it, the more it looks like a character you know, and yet it doesn’t look like the character you know. Damn! Had I been here before?” (pp. 2)

Through the story the people of the village succeed in making the protagonist recall the violent and suppressed happenings of his past life in the village where he lived as an ‘educated youth’ and maybe killed a man. Indeed it is an act of re-membering of bringing something back into the mind, for before they start calling him by his old name ‘Glasses Ma’, he is completely unaware that he has not always been Huang Zhixian.

In the previous quote Han compares memory and written language: Both are second hand representations of happenings, open to mistake and distortion and thus not to be trusted or equaled with the events themselves.

While the power of language and naming/categorizing (Glassed Ma or Huang Zhixian) over history is taken up on the scene of personal trauma (the killing of a man) in this short story, the same relationship, now on a collective scale, is one of the themes of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

In Dictionary the official historical narrative is distorted and the constructedness of its raw linguistic framework exposed by the local dialect and its (mis-)appropriations of official discourse.

Lastly ‘Homecoming?’ also hints at the distorting yet enlightening power of dialect, as this dialogue between the protagonist and the villager Ai Ba shows: “Do you know me (Does he mean ‘recognize’? Or ‘remember’?) […] I went to chase meat with you once, do you still know? (‘to chase meat’, does it mean ‘hunting’?)” (pp. 6-7)

Is to know to remember (that is to know again)? and is remembering (recalling to a mind that is no longer exactly the same mind) knowledge producing? Certainly the power of language and remembering is so strong that the protagonist has a new (old) identity forced upon himself before he quickly leaves the village again calling for his mother, the only certain historical point of origin, in other words: home.

All quotes from Han, Shaogong (trans. Martha Cheung): Homecoming? and Other Stories. Hong Kong: Renditions Paperbacks, 1992.