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
In this themed cluster of PRISM: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, we encounter wandering flats, ghostly spaces, and nostalgic fantasies that foster an interpretation of space and time as fundamentally entangled in the city.
The book is all about sensory engagements between body and city, so I’ve divided it into three sections:
SKELETON: theoretical foundations, literary spacetime, alternative sensoria, and triangular comparisons.
CORPUS: the literary analyses, thematically organised around extended sensory organs into 6 chapters.
EXCRETIONS: analytical comparisons, temporal typologies, and concluding remarks.
Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City
I begin by presenting the idea that the rapid and violent restructuring of cities like Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai from the 1990s onwards affects the way we think about space and time: “When entire building blocks are here today and gone tomorrow, or vice versa, space starts to shift and entangle itself with time as the elusive silhouettes of memory gain a new urgency and begin to shape how spatial reality is perceived.”
So I argue that we need to analyse urban spacetime as a unified concept and discuss some of the ways this has been done (from Bakhtin’s chronotopes to Elana Gomel’s impossible topologies) and could be done.
I also introduce the term time-space (inspired by Doreen Massey and Kevin Lynch) to designate discrete chunks of spacetime, such as “my shabby home-office on a February morning in 2022” or “the illuminated Shanghai Bund on his 103rd birthday.”
I extoll the approach that I call literary sensory studies, which is follows in footsteps of Cai Biming’s take on body-sensations (身体感) as well as sensory studies scholars’ call to examine and expand the traditional fivefold sensorium, but from the vantage point of literary analysis. Fictional narrative has a wonderful capacity for highlighting the cross- and multisensory foundation of almost all sensory experiences, as well as imagining and describing forth sensations of pain, hunger, temperature, and selfhood that are not part of the conventional sensorium.
Finally, I talk about the creative aspects of memory and use the metaphor of “memory knitwear” to highlight that “each time you rip up the fabric and reknit it following the same pattern, the result will be subtly different, paralleling the process of opening, reconfiguring, and re-storing memories described by neurobiology.”
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.