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
As part of Margaret’s lecture series ‘Visual Culture in Modern and Contemporary China‘ I listened to Jane Qian Liu talk about how, at the beginning of the twentieth century, creatively translated love stories blurred the boundaries between reader, writer and protagonist when people not only read but rewrote and even lived out the new romantic narratives.
I was absolutely fascinated by Coraline Jortay’s presentation of her ongoing research into Republican-era debates on gendered pronouns moving from 他 and 伊 over attempts at modernisation through the Japanese 彼女 or the latinized ta and taa to the 她 we know today and further into contemporary gender-neutral pronouns like X也 and ta們.
I also got toshare my own ongoing research on how contemporary Sinophone works of fiction use botanical characters, plant imagery and green environments to create alternative realities, explore possible futures and deal with traumatic pasts – inclduing how plants figure as partly human monsters, planetary partners, or ecological avengers in works by Chi Hui 迟卉, Yan Ge 颜歌, Dorothy Tse’s 謝曉虹, Alai 阿来, Chu T’ien-hsin 朱天心, and Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章.
Finally, I got to explore the glorious, if somewhat muddy, Oxford countryside – here are a biased outsider’s best tips:
NATURE TIP: Ramble! Walk north along the Thames past Port Meadow and on to the Trout Inn or south past Christ Church Meadow to the Isis Farmhouse pub. For a longer walk, try the Oxford Jubilee Circular Walk up Boar Hill to the view that inspired Matthew Arnold to write about Oxford’s “dreaming spires.”
TIPPLE TIP: Try a pint of real/cask ale – it is allowed to continue fermentation in the cask at the pub and the result is a much more complex and mellow taste than the sharp fizz of ordinary tap beer.
BOOK TIP: If you are a student or faculty at a university in or outside the UK, you can apply for a Bodleian reader card and use all the fabulous libraries. There are also some tempting second hand bookshops like Last Bookshop Jericho, Book Stop by St. Mary Magdalen and Oxfam on St Giles.
In Of Forests and Humans, Monika Gaenssbauer and Nicholas Olczak present anglophone readers with the narrative experimentation, complex urbanism and literary variety of contemporary fiction from Hong Kong. The volume contains six well-chosen short stories published between 1992 and 2011 and introduces a variety of different literary styles, from Xi Xi’s 西西 surreal fabulations in “Elzéard Bouffier’s Forest” to Chan Lai Kuen’s 陳麗娟 science-fiction-flavoured urban labyrinths in “E6880**(2) from Block 6, building 20, wing E”.
Each short story is followed by a close reading by the editor-translators, which provides cultural and historical context, suggestions for relevant theoretical approaches, as well as their reading of the piece. This is meant as a pathway into the text rather than a definitive interpretation, for, as the editors rightly acknowledge, the “strength of many of the stories in this collection [is] that they might draw very different responses and interpretations from different kinds of readers”. For instance, where Gaenssbauer and Olczak were reminded of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s short story “The Tunnel” when reading Wang Pu’s 王璞 “Greek Sandals”, an image from “The Tunnel” in Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams instantly surfaced in my mind when I read the story. It is interesting that the symbolic structure of the tunnel often used to represent the link between conscious wakefulness and subconscious longings and emotions so readily solicits personal and immediate responses in different readers. If Hong Kong literature has a common denominator despite its plurality of forms and voices, it is the willingness to embrace and invite, at times even demand, multiple, contrasting and complicated readings.
As the editors note, Xi Xi’s story is intertextual in setting, writing itself into and through Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees”. It is a story of the cyclical withering and rebirth of a utopian forest, half-hearsay, half-imaginary, and slowly being translated, it forms the memory of the second-person protagonist’s father through the protagonist’s sensory experiences and onto the pages of the story. This situates the story firmly on the boundary between memory and fiction, and reality and imagination, allowing us to read it as a metafictional comment on how such processes become intertwined in literary narratives. The story also has an ecocritical aftertaste when, in the space of a single page, the utopian forest of the father’s recollections comes to life only to dry up again: “Elzéard Bouffier’s forest unfolded like a flower, this green sea of trees changed the area into a paradise where people lived peacefully […] The dried out well also came to life again […]” and a few lines further down, “the last drops of water had dried up, the river turned into a clay-grey canal. You did not know what had happened in the meantime to turn the gardens into a wasteland and make Elzéard Bouffier’s forest completely disappear.” Several utopian intertexts spring to mind, including Tao Yuanming’s 陶淵明 famous fable “Peach Blossom Spring”, which depicts a hidden site where human society has been preserved in its natural and unspoiled state. At the same time, it is also metatextual, describing how the reading experience brings to life the forest of memory that has all but disappeared with time. In the end, when the protagonist arrives at the barren memory of a long-gone forest and finds the last of Bouffier’s acorns, the cycle is ready to start over as the seeds sprout a new story, a new life.
Several of the stories experiment with the popular genre of urban romance, but they do so in completely unexpected ways by delving into darker aspects of city life. This includes depictions of deadly violence in Jessie Chu’s 朱艷紅 “Wonderland”, a story that flirts with the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction without giving in to any of the clichés. Instead, it uses the crime fiction format to explore contrasting yet intermingled experiences of alienation and proximity in a global big city.
Hon Lai-chu’s 韓麗珠 “Water Pipe Forest” is sublime in its depiction of the city-body, using as it does the image of plumbing to form a corporeal link between human interior and urban exterior. At the same time as the building across from the narrator-protagonist’s home is demolished due to faulty plumbing and bursting pipes, her grandmother is admitted to hospital with a gastric ailment establishing a symbolic parallel. On a more explicit note, the narrator identifies directly with her building through the similarity between water pipes and gastric tubes: “On the fourth day without water I still heard no noise in the water pipe. I felt restless, as if part of my body was missing.” Playing with sensory perceptions of watery noises gurgling through buildings and bodies, the story replicates and reverses the relationship between citizen and city in the relationship between reader and text. Just as the sound of water in the pipes recalls and affirms the protagonist own body, so does the watery symphony of the text resound in the body of the reader.
Of Forests and Humans promises to be a great resource for students of literature, Chinese studies, and/or translation studies, yet I can’t help wishing that the editors had opted for a bilingual text. This would have allowed curious anglophone readers to acquaint themselves with traditional characters while enjoying high-quality literature and to explore the paths chosen by the translators as a practical exercise in translation. Despite this omission, the fact that the original title and source of each story is given at the end of each translation is a terrific help that will permit readers to pursue analyses of the original texts or follow up on other works by the authors showcased in this collection. The bibliography at the end of the volume likewise provides a good starting point for readers who want to engage theoretically and historically with Hong Kong literature.
Read together, these stories are examples of innovative approaches to genres such as urban romance, science fiction, crime fiction and showcase the diversity and originality of Hong Kong literature. The editors have wisely included highly celebrated as well as lesser-known authors, ensuring there is something for both veterans and newcomers to explore. Some of the translations feel a little stiff while others offer a smoother read and in a few instances something appears to have gone wrong in the typesetting, baffling the reader with recurring light-grey bits of text.
The title Of Forests and Humans, as well as providing a thematic focus on the jungle-like qualities of urban life, creates an anticipation of narrative engagements with the spatial that are both organic and unconventional, an expectation the stories each fulfil in their individual way. Here, skyscrapers rise like huge tree trunks above the humans navigating the dynamic and metamorphous cityscape. People look at one another’s faces and see overlapping images of intimate strangers and alienated kinfolk. Readers get lost in unfamiliar storylines, only to glimpse their own memories at every fictional street corner. There is certainly enough to discover and celebrate in contemporary Hong Kong literature and now a little more of it is available in English.
We discussed sex as an arena for power struggles as well as a last expression of individual freedom under repressive conditions and forced collectivisation.
In particular, I read Wang’s focus on illicit sexualities that deviate from the perceived norm -such as non-monogamous or homosexual relationships- as cynical but in some sense hopeful explorations of bodily freedom in situations of extreme control, in this case prison (in ‘Gentle like Water’) and rural work camps for ‘educated youth’ 知青 (in ‘The Golden Age’).
Faraway is a story of transitions: between life and death, between losing a parent and becoming one. In Jeremy Tiang‘s able translation a further set of transitions take place: between reader and writer (the translator starts out as one and becomes the other), between one language and another.
The novel chronicles Taiwanese protagonist Lo Yi-Chin’s (the author’s fictionalized counterpart) struggle with health care bureaucracy as he does his best to bring home his comatose father who has suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while holidaying in mainland China.
The holiday was the elder Lo’s first return to his ancestral Jiangxi province (and to the Chinese mainland) since 1949 when he left his first wife and son behind and fled to Taiwan with the Kuomintang troops. After his stroke, the trip that began as a homecoming transitions into an awkward meeting between two long-separated branches of the Lo clan: the Taiwanese family and their mainland relatives.
Reading Faraway, I felt constantly curious about what the women of this drama felt. Did the abandoned first wife feel resentful towards her younger and more affluent successor? Or curios about her faraway lifestyle? How did she feel about having to recognize and treat as head of the extended family this man whom she had not seen for more than half a century? How did the Taiwanese wife feel about being confronted with a stepson only a decade younger than herself? And, perhaps most of all, I wondered about the protagonist’s own wife, left behind in the final stages of pregnancy in an echo of his father’s abandonment of his first wife.
But this is a story of fathers and sons. Of the life-changing transition from being someone’s son to being someone’s father. Of the baffling responsibility of suddenly finding yourself the stand-in for the debilitated patriarch, head of a large family you hardly know, much less understand.
One of the lingering tastes that characterizes Faraway is irony. The narrative exposes both the blatant prejudice that the urbane, Taiwanese protagonist feels for his hillbilly mainland relatives and the ambivalent emotions of indebtedness and contempt they evoke in him.
This theme is poetically mediated through continuous references to primeval lifeforms. Such imagery is used to signify the mental regression of the father after his brain hemorrhage – “this old man, so stuffed full of tubes, like a fossilized crawling bug” – as well as the protagonist’s mainland roots, so distant and primitive they seem almost prehistoric.
My overall impression of the novel is a very dense narrative, a paper river overflowing with a tremendous number of tedious details upon the waves of which glitter sudden bursts of simple and breathtaking literary beauty, confidently and delicately translated by Tiang: “I stood behind her, gazing at her profile, which was very like my wife’s but drawn with a thicker pencil. She told this story in the gloom, leaving indelible marks of sadness.”
And the boring and excessive details are there for a reason. Collectively they make up the form and shape of despair. Faraway is the fictionalized account of Lo Yi-Chin’s own experiences of the deep grief and eyewatering paperwork associated with a sudden and serious illness abroad. Rather than spelling out the emotional responses of the main characters, the narrative expresses the feelings of abandonment, meaninglessness, and Kafkaesque bewilderment through painstakingly detailed accounts of everyday consumption and bureaucracy.
Lo’s style is cinematic, a style that his fictional counterpart seems to share according to one of his friends, who asks him “Hey, Lo, how come your stories are so weird – all those characters with blurry faces running around huge, empty, ‘abandoned’ spaces?” Both author and narrator are drawn to “no-places” (such as airports or hospitals) where, outwardly, nothing much happens, but emotionally, everything is at stake. And they convey this duality through terse narrative teeming with supposedly unimportant little details floating upon, and concealing, an ocean of emotions beneath.
And the faces of the novel’s characters do seem blurred. If we get to know the narrator -the camera man of the cinematic narrative- at all, it is through his framing of the views we are presented with. Everything else remains a background of blurred faces.
The perfect filmic ending comes at page 227, when the narrator walks into the sunset with his son: “In this way, I led this beloved person sadly through a landscape of true emptiness, the outlines of our faces blurring into shadow in the faint light.” Here, all the metafictional elements come together in a shot of the father and son surrounded by emptiness, blurred into archetypes.
But the novel doesn’t end here. In reality, death is often messy, disgusting, boring, fatiguing, and drawn-out. And so, Faraway continues to tell the story of a fatherless man who struggles to be a father amidst the absurd chaos of everyday life, of a young boy for whom death is now a recurring part of life. The text ends in a horrible shopping mall, littered with grotesque animal corpses discarded as consumer goods. The transitions continue, hopefuly with more of Lo’s work in translation.
In this fourth episode, award-winning translator Natascha Bruce talks about wormbooks, birdcats and owlfish, about haunting Hong Kong protests, and about keeping alive uncanny textual elements across languages. She reveals how it was to translate 謝曉虹 Dorothy Tse’s 鷹頭貓與音樂箱女孩 Eaglehead Cat and the Music Box Girl (which I make a hash of explaining in the episode) into Owlish (which Natasha has brilliantly come up with as the English title). We talk about literature that speaks to you in its own voice and begs to be translated, about taming or not taming long, meandering sentences and about the strangeness that spills over from one language to the next. Listen here:
Natascha Bruce translates fiction, creative non-fiction and, occasionally, poetry from Chinese into English. Her work includes many short stories, especially by the Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse, as well as the novel Lonely Face by Yeng Pway Ngon and the short story collection Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong. Her current projects include the novels Mystery Train by Can Xue and Owlish by Dorothy Tse. She has recently moved to Amsterdam.
Astrid Møller-Olsen is international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has a degree in comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, oneiric soundscapes, digital chronotopes in science fiction, ecocritical temporalities, and sensory urban spacetime. Her first monograph Sensing the Sinophone will be published in January 2022 by Cambria Press. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism: https://xiaoshuo.blog/
Other birds in the podcast
Green parrots are feral rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) growing populations of which make their home in Central and Northern Europe and have recently made it to Southern Sweden (I misremembered, it was in Skåne, not Norway, I saw them, but still, not the place you expect green parrots).
Fish owl is a subspecies found in East and Southeast Asia. I would really like to meet one.
Cat owl is the Swedish name (kattuggla) for Strix aluco, tawny owl in English, night owl (natugle) in Dainsh and grey forest owl (灰林鴞) in Chinese.
Sinopticonis the brainchild of Xueting Christine Ni who has done an amazing work of collecting, translating, and introducing 13 new SF stories from contemporary China. The stories span two decades and incorporate a variety of themes from galactic existentialism in Han Song’s “Tombs of the Universe” (宇宙墓碑 1991) to Ma Boyong’s hardboiled-style space age take on Chinese holiday traffic chaos in “The Great Migration” (大冲运 2021).
The overweight of male protagonists, casual gender stereotyping, and the odd dash of not too subtle patriotism made me a bit tired at times, but luckily several of the stories depart from this pattern. Jiang Bo’s “Starship: Library” (宇宙尽头的书店) combines a structure reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” with Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey to explore the difference between knowledge and learning. I prefer Ni’s evocative title over the more literal translation “the bookshop at the end of the universe” (the Douglas Adams reference is getting a little worn), and the idea of a roaming library piloted by a contemporary incarnation of an ancient Chinese goddess will excite bibliophiles of all galaxies.
Each story is followed by an anecdotal epilogue introducing the author and offering a mini-interpretation of the narrative, which, combined with foot notes explaining Chinese terms and idioms as well as a list of author bios at the end of the book, is a bit too much guidance for my taste. But who am I to talk, I’m offering up my own readings all the time including right now. Anyway, one can just skip on to the next story.
Other interventions are more fruitful, like the decision to title Anna Wu’s story “戴珍珠耳环的少女” (the girl with the pearl earring) in the original Dutch as “Meisje met de Parel” to avoid confusion with other literary and cinematographic works inspired by of Vermeer’s painting. Adding another language to the layers of time and pigments that envelop the story only makes the fabric of the narrative more intriguing. Each English title is subtitled by the original Chinese title, which, as well as being is enormously helpful for researchers, is also a simple and beautiful way of reminding the reader of the multiplicity of languages and people involved in bring these stories to them.
Recurring topics include a renewed appreciation for the cultural history of Earth stemming from a futurist and/or intergalactic perspective in Han Song and Tang Fei’s stories, posthuman explorations of the humaneness of cyborgs in Wang Jinkang and Nian Yu’s work, and new regimes for AI that include social intelligence (Hao Jingfang) and process-oriented learning (Jiang Bo). An interesting deviation from classic SF figures of robots and spaceships is A Que’s “Flower of the Other Shore” (彼岸花) – an ecocritical zombie story featuring a Rome and Juliet romance between an “uncontaminated” (not yet subjected to the zombie virus) human woman and a male protagonist who is a hybrid between a Chinese jiangshi (僵尸 stiff corpse/jumping vampire) and a Hollywood zombie. Xueting Christine Ni talks about this story in the most recent episode of the Sinophone Unrealities podcast available here.
I definitely enjoyed some stories more than others, but all in all, am delighted and grateful to Ni and her crew for all their work in making this beautiful collection of authors and stories available to an Anglophone audience: A new addition our collective starship library.
Foreword, Xia Jia Introduction, Xuenting Christine Ni The Last Save, Gu Shi Tombs of the Universe, Han Song Qiankun and Alex, Hao Jingfang Cat’s Chance in Hell, Nian Yu The Return of Adam, Wang Jinkang Rendezvous: 1937, Zhao Haihong The Heart of the Museum, Tang Fei The Great Migration, Ma Boyong Meisje met de Parel, Anna Wu Flower of the Other Shore, A Que The Absolution Experiment, Bao Shu The Tide of Moon City, Regina Kanyu Wang Starship: Library, Jiang Bo
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/
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.
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.
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.
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.