“My adulthood is covered with the bubble-wrap of English.”
So here’s a story―Trishanku was a mythological king, the ancestor of the Hindu god Ram. When Trishanku grew old, the gods invited his soul to heaven, but he wanted to rise to paradise in his earthly body. “Impossible,” the gods shuddered. Trishanku went to the sage Vishwamitra for help. Vishwamitra conducted a great yagya for Trishanku, and with the power of his ritual, started levitating Trishanku―body and all―towards heaven. But when the gods barred the gates, Vishwamitra built an entirely new universe between heaven and earth where Trishanku dangles, upside down, for eternity.
As a bilingual writer, I often feel like Trishanku. Having grown up in a postcolonial country with the shadow of a foreign language colouring every aspect of my existence, a duplicity cleaves my life. I inhabit two languages―English and Hindi―but I’m never fully comfortable in either. It’s telling perhaps that Trishanku is also the name of a constellation that in English is known as Crux. This confusion of languages I reside in, this no woman’s land of living between tongues defines me.
We review three new books available in English from China, Norway and Mexico, revealing stories of cities and bodies.
A Tree Grows in Daicheng by Lu Nei, translated by Poppy Toland, AmazonCrossing
Review by Christopher Chan, Chinese Social Media Intern
Whether a book can obtain certain currency among a wide range of readers depends upon its unique qualities. Take the genre of fantasy novels for example. Some books, like the Harry Potter series, do well because of the uniqueness of their ideas. Harry Potter was a fresh story about the wizarding world, told in an accessible language; others books, such as The Lord of the Rings, succeed with their sense of larger-than-life gravitas. A Tree Grows in Daicheng, however, is neither exclusively a book of fresh ideas nor of epic seriousness, but a careful mix of both.
The novel is a work of pastiche in many ways, especially through the narrative voices of different characters. The book’s uniqueness lies perhaps in its kaleidoscopic depiction of the great changes brought to a city called Daicheng and its people during China’s Cultural Revolution. READ MORE…
“These works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”
Last night in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Hasan Alwan was announced the winner of the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel, A Small Death, chosen from an impressive shortlist including Elias Khoury of Lebanon and Mohammed Abdel Nabi of Egypt.
In a video for IPAF, Alwan, who was born in Saudi Arabia but now lives in Toronto, said, “It might seem odd to choose to write a novel about Ibn ‘Arabi with all those extreme eastern concepts, whilst residing in this distant cold corner of the world in Canada. I often think about this. So, at first, I directly linked it to me feeling nostalgic, then I realised that being exposed to what is seemingly foreign or different is what drives me to reconnect with myself, as well as with my heritage and old culture.”
Since its inception almost ten years ago, IPAF, often referred to as the “Arabic Booker,” has maintained as its central mission the translation of winning and shortlisted novels to encourage greater readership of high-quality Arabic literature internationally. In fact, it guarantees translation of winning novels into English (and other languages when the budget permits), provides monetary awards to shortlisted pieces ($10,000 each, and $50,000 to the winner), and supports appearances of authors at international festivals, including Shubbak in London and the Berlin Literary Festival.
The initial idea for IPAF emerged in 2007 when Ibrahim el Moallem, then President of the Arab Publishers’ Association, “talked of the regrettably few numbers of high quality contemporary Arabic novels being translated into leading Western languages,” as Fleur Montanaro, current administrator of IPAF, recounted to me in a recent interview. Ms. Montanaro added “these works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”
According to numbers alone, IPAF does appear to have made some headway in promoting translation. Although some have argued in the past (see this report from Literature Across Frontiers) that IPAF primarily encourages Anglophone translations, winning and shortlisted novels have been translated into 20 languages, including several non-European languages, among them Chinese, Turkish, and Russian. Furthermore, distribution has not been limited to the European continent. For example, The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber, winner in 2012, was distributed in Latin America.
Insights from the experts on the Spring 2017 Issue of Asymptote
Looking for new entry points into the latest issue of the journal? The section editors of this behemoth cash of international literature, out just last week, are here to guide you!
In this spring issue, the drama section features two complementary pieces—one from Catalonia and the other from Poland. Both portray hellish, nightmarish worlds in a distinct, unique theatrical manner. Grzegorz Wroblewski’s The New Colony in translation by Agnieska Pokojska depicts a claustrophobic asylum where patients/citizens live out their days in a state of restless, mocking unease. Wroblewski’s text is typical of what has been deemed “post-dramatic” theatre (in Hans Lehmann’s terms). It is an open text which offers its audience an intentionally disorientating roadmap to a contemporary world that is fractured and broken, where individuals seek wholeness despite all signs that such a search is hopeless.
Written as a proto-feminist cabaret, Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaretin translation by Phyllis Zatlin, looks at an elemental Eve, channeling visions of historical female icons throughout history. Is guilt a woman? To whom will society place its blame in times of war? Helen of Troy? Other alluring, bewitching sirens up to no good? Escudé i Gallès teases and cajoles her audience in a piece that through anarchic humor questions the roles we all play to claim concepts of territory, identity, and ownership. Both Wroblewski and Escudé I Gallès are from the same generation, even though they represent different cultures and sensibilities as dramatists. It’s fascinating to see two skilled and provocative playwrights, in fine translations, address states of fear and anxiety all too prevalent in the modern world.
—Drama Editor Caridad Svich
Among three exceptional essays—including one that introduces readers to the brilliant but tortured Swiss writer, Hermann Burger, and another that briefly loiters at the fork in Iran’s contemporary literary scene—I found myself particularly drawn to Noh Anothai‘s generous and intimate reflections on a world turned akimbo, seen through the eyes of Thai poet, Saksiri Meesomsueb. As we follow Anothai through the pages of Meesomsueb’s award-winning collection, That Hand is White, and from north Bangkok to Chicago and back, I’m reminded once more of literature’s gift in transgressing borders, its necessary lucidity, kindness, and prescience; and consequently, its call for response. Only with clean hands can we clean the world, Meesomsueb tells us. Dear Reader, what will you do next?
Your Friday update from Argentina, Mexico, and Taiwan
TGIF because we have so much to tell you about the literary goings-on around the world! From book fairs in Argentina to new electronic media in indigenous languages from Mexico, to touring documentary screenings in Taiwan, this week has been packed with exciting news.
Sarah Moses, Editor-at-Large for Argentina, reports on upcoming events:
On March 22, The Museo del Libro y de la Lengua launched “Déjalo Beat. Insurgencia poética de los años 60,” an exhibit that seeks to bring attention to the beatniks porteños, a group of Buenos Aires authors and poets who embodied 1960s counterculture through works that were genre-bending and anti-academic. Open until July, the exhibit showcases magazines, photographs, early editions of novels, and other audiovisual material from writers including Reynaldo Mariani, Poni Micharvegas, Sergio Mulet, Ruy Rodríguez, and Néstor Sánchez. “Celebración Beat. La belleza de lo roto,” a multidisciplinary work of theatre based on texts from fifteen of the authors included in “Déjalo Beat” will be performed at the museum on April 7.
Bar Piglia, located in Buenos Aires’s Library of Congress, was inaugurated on March 31. The café commemorates Ricardo Piglia, who passed away on January 6; its walls are decorated with a mural and photos of the writer, and its shelves contain copies of his books. Piglia knew of the homage and, hours before his death, completed a piece tracing a history of the library and the role it had played in his life. The text was read by actress Cristina Banegas on the first night of “Palabras Vivas,” a reading series that will take place at the café.
[Grace] thought one of the frontier’s major characteristics was that the scenery outside exerted tremendous pressure on people.
Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.
The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.
As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier(Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”
The first month of 2017 has been a big one for the folks here at Asymptote!
Poetry Editor Aditi Machado read with fellow poet Kea Wilson at Washington University in St Louis on 26 January. Her recent translation of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia was reviewed in Europe Now by Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi.
Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon launched Latin American Literature Today, a new bilingual journal affiliated to World Literature Today. He serves as Managing Editor and principal translator.
Contributing Editor (Chinese) Francis Li Zhuoxiong’s recent memoir looking back on his 20 illustrious years as a Chinese lyricist was announced as a top ten finalist for the nonfiction category by the organizers of the Taipei International Book Exhibition.
Assistant Managing Editor Lori Feathers is opening Interabang Books in Dallas, Texas. The independent bookstore is expected to open in May. In addition to being a co-owner, Lori will be the store’s book buyer. For more information about the store visit interabangbooks.com.
Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has received the inaugural Beverly Series manuscript prize. Her debut poetry collection We Live in the Newness of Small Differences will be published by Eyewear Publishing in early 2018. She has also received a Toto Funds the Arts award for her poetry.
Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek‘s latest chapbook, The First Five Storms, which won the 2016 New Poets’ Prize, was released this month by smith | doorstop press. His also launched ‘Words of Welcome’, a new fortnightly series dedicated to spotlighting the literary voices of refugees in Oxford and writers who work directly with them.
The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom.
Our latest issue features three poems by the Uyghur writer Tahir Hamut. Here, the Asymptote Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly talks to the translator, Joshua Freeman.
When we first spoke in October 2015, you mentioned your excitement about translating Tahir Hamut. It’s wonderful to see these poems now. How long have you been working with Hamut? Have you worked with him on translation issues?
Tahir Hamut was actually one of the first poets I translated, almost ten years ago. I met him soon after I started translating his work, since I was also living in Ürümchi, capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, at the time. He’s a terrific conversationalist with wide-ranging interests, and I’ve enjoyed exchanging ideas with him on all manner of subjects over the years. I used to ask him occasionally why he didn’t write much poetry anymore, since I regard him as one of the most talented living poets writing in Uyghur. (His poem “Returning to Kashgar” is perhaps my favorite.) Over the last couple years it’s been exciting for me that he’s suddenly reemerged with a torrent of new work, every bit as good as his work from the nineties.
When I translate work by a living poet—and most poets I translate are still around—I usually produce a semi-final draft of my translation, and then get in touch with the poet about any lingering questions of meaning or interpretation. Those conversations can be quite lengthy, and in fact I really enjoy them; as a non-poet myself, it’s a unique chance to have some access to the literary thought processes of poets I admire. Speaking with Tahir about his work, we’ll sometimes slip briefly from Uyghur into Chinese to discuss a word or a line from the “meta” level of a second language.
Interesting that you call yourself a non-poet. I wonder if you are of the camp that considers a translated poem a new poem all its own? Or do you think it is strictly a translation?
There’s lots of interesting theory on the subject by people who’ve thought about it longer than I have, so I’ll just share my own sense of it. A translated poem is not exactly a new poem, but it’s definitely distinct from the original work. The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom, but the starting point of each choice is still the original poem, and in that sense translating poetry differs fundamentally from writing it. One analogy that comes to mind is music: different musicians will interpret a composer’s work differently, but their performance will still be guided by the same notes on the page. READ MORE…
This week, put on your walking shoes so we can follow Vivian Szu-Chin Chih, Editor-at-Large for Taiwan, through Taipei, from an international book exhibition to a history museum. Then we’ll zip over to India to meet Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan for discussions about literary translation and, wait for it—bull fighting. And finally in Finland, Assistant Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen has some Finnish Publishing Industry gossip for us. Cheers!
Editor-at-Large Vivian Szu-Chin Chih reports from Taiwan:
As the Chinese Lunar New Year ushered in the Year of the Rooster, as well as the Ding-You Year (丁酉年) in the Chinese Sexagenary cycle, readers in Taiwan have been anticipating the annual Taipei International Book Exhibition, which is kicking off on February 8 and will last till February 13. The international event for book-lovers will take place at the Taipei World Trade Center, only a few steps away from the landmark 101 building. Among this year’s featured sessions are a forum specifically dedicated to children’s books in Taiwan and a discussion concerning how local bookstores can be redefined and reshaped, featuring several Taiwanese and Japanese speakers and the founding chair of the Melbourne Writers Festival, Mark Rubbo. The eminent Chinese novelist and poet based in the U.S., Ha Jin, will also deliver two speeches, one on the art of humor writing in fiction, the other to announce his two latest books, “The Boat Rocker” (《折騰到底》) and a poetry collection, “Home on the Road” (《路上的家園》). The female poet and publisher from Paris, Anne-Laure Bondoux, will travel to the island to attend the book exhibition as well, giving several talks including a discussion with the Taiwanese novelist Nathalie Chang.
The 90-year-old Taiwanese poet Luo Men passed away this January in Taipei. His poems are rich in imagery, with an emphasis on the spiritual search of the human mind. The TSMC Literature Award will see its fourteenth iteration this year, presented by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to encourage emerging young Sinophone writers in Taiwan and overseas. For 2017, all writers under the age of 40 composing in Chinese, traditional or simplified, are welcome to submit a piece of a novel. The deadline will be at the end of August. Since its establishment, the award has provided young Sinophone writers with a platform to debut their literary works. For example, the 2013 first-prize winner from Nanjing, Fei Ying’s novel, was published in Taiwan by INK this past week. One of the previous winners, Liou Dan-Chiou’s latest book on a couple surviving in the wild, is forthcoming, as well.
This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the 1947 228 Incident followed by one of the longest martial law periods in the world, imposed upon the island by the Kuomingtang government. To help the society further comprehend this historical trauma and to commemorate the victims of the incident, the National Museum of Taiwan History in Tainan is holding an exhibition and a series of talks on the event. The exhibition will last until late May.
The blog editors share their favorite pieces from our latest issue!
Here at the blog, we’ve been mesmerized by the new Winter 2017 Issue since its launch on Monday. We hope you’ve had time to dive in, too, but if not, here are a few great places to start!
“Daland” by Lika Tcheishvili, translated from the Georgian by Ekaterine Chialashvili and Alex Scrivener, is a curious little story, told in the first person by an unnamed dock worker in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Anyone who has seen or read about Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton will find themselves in familiar territory when the narrator becomes the unlikely participant in a duel. Any sense of familiarity stops there, however. The man who challenges him is a mysterious smoker with a perpetually fresh lily—flowers foreign to Bandar Abbas—in his lapel and an appointment with a schooner no one has heard of…
I also cannot get the words of Christiane Singer out of my head. In her essay, “The Feminine, Land of Welcome,” translated from the French by Hélène Cardona, she writes to women, “stand bewitched and ready to leap: the queen, the sister, the lover, the friend, the mother—all those who have the genius for relationship, for welcoming. The genius for inventing life.” She highlights the danger of defining women only by their commonalities, as well as the horrors that could have come to pass—and could still—in a world without women. Their absence would be powerfully felt, even in comparison to situations in which they are already roundly ignored or discredited.
—Madeline Jones, Blog Editor
In “Always Already Translated: Questions of Language in Singaporean Literature”, Boston-born Philip Holden, who has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years, writes lyrically about this multilingual city-state. Having worked with languages Holden mentions—Malay, Malayalam, Javanese, and many others—I loved his description of situations where “I speak in Mandarin to Chinese patients, and they reply not to me but to my Chinese co-worker, who looks back at me in incomprehension. She speaks in Malay to older Chinese and Malay patients, and they reply in Malay not to her but to the third of us, the Indian woman who wears a tudung that marks her out as Muslim and, by a process of mistaken association, Malay.” Multilingual societies are sadly often depicted as wrought with conflict. While language in Singapore is, like everywhere in the world, a political issue, too, Holden focuses on the opportunities it provides for performing and literary arts. We don’t have to search for a common language, he argues—it’s more interesting to find “holes between languages that everyday translation continually fills up”.
I have never read Albanian literature before, however. If you are like me, I can warmly recommend the three poems by Luljeta Lleshanaku, one of the country’s most important writers, as an introduction. Taken from the collection Negative Space and translated by Ani Gjika, the poems describe a simple life: apple trees, a butcher carving meat, “gardens hidden behind houses like sensual neck bites”. But behind each poem is a rotten apple, or cold floors, and getting one’s way without any real gain—poetic realism. Do also have a listen to the translator reading the original text in Albanian!
—Hanna Heiskanen, Blog Editor
Check out the gorgeous video preview of the new issue here:
Hopelessness is not constructive—it plays into the hands of the oppressor.
PEN Hong Kong was officially re-launched on 13 November, as Asymptote noted recently. Originally established in the 1980s by expatriate writers in Hong Kong, the organisation later became inactive as key members left the city. A group of professionals working in the field of the written word revived the organisation in September in response to the increasingly hostile environment for free expression in Hong Kong.
Numerous incidents have indicated that freedom of speech in Hong Kong is declining after the handover. PEN America released two reports on the issue, in 2015 and 2016, to explore the deterioration of press freedoms and free expression in the city, as reflected in the increasing economic and political pressures targeted at pro-democracy mass media. The appalling abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese authorities that was exposed earlier this year drew further attention to the issue. Self-censorship is also aggravating publishers, media, bookshops, and even academia. PEN Hong Kong’s members take up the mission of celebrating and promoting free, creative expression to guard against political suppression and censorship by uniting advocates who believe in the power of words in Hong Kong and China.
Asymptote’s Hong Kong Editor-at-Large recently interviewed PEN Hong Kong’s President, Jason Y. Ng, who tells us about the establishment of the organisation, its recent activities, future goals, and challenges.
Charlie Ng (CN): Defending freedom of speech in Hong Kong is definitely urgent and necessary in today’s political climate. Could you please introduce the current network of PEN Hong Kong members to us? What is your vision for developing that network in order to achieve the missions of the organisation?
Jason Y. Ng (JN): We’re very fortunate to have a number of prominent authors, academics, and journalists serving on our executive committee. They also represent a good balance between local Chinese writers and expatriates working and living in Hong Kong.
We encourage anyone interested in PEN Hong Kong to check out their bios at our website and to find out how to join us. An organization is only as good as its members, and we’re eager to recruit members of the literary community who are committed to promoting literature – in both Chinese and English – and defending free expression in Hong Kong.
CN: Would you like to tell us about PEN Hong Kong’s participation in the 82th PEN Congress?
JN: We sent three delegates – award-winning poet Nicholas Wong, seasoned journalist Kris Cheng, and human rights advocate Patrick Poon – to the Galicia Congress this past October. All three are founding members of PEN Hong Kong. They participated in several panel discussions, announcing the revival of our chapter and giving updates on the freedom of expression situation in Hong Kong. We were heartened to see that there was a lot of interest among the global audiences in the missing booksellers controversy and Beijing’s tightening grip on civil liberties in Hong Kong.
From erotica in translation to magazine launches, no rest for world literature!
Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon has helped to found Latin American Literature Today, a new online literary journal, with support from World Literature Today! He will serve as its Managing Editor when it launches on January 31, 2017.
Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursać will be part of an evening of readings in translation at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop on December 17, 2016, presented by Harlequin Creature. Her translation of Dubravka Ugrešić’s brilliant address on receiving the Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2016 has been published on LitHub.
Slovakia Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood‘s co-translation (with Peter Sherwood) of Uršuľa Kovalyk’s short story “Julia” was published in the latest issue of SAND, Berlin’s English literary journal.
Romania & Moldova Editor-at-Large, Chris Tanasescu, aka MARGENTO, will be launching an anthology of contemporary Romanian erotic poetry in New York together with past Asymptote contributor Martin Woodside. Another contributor to the project is Ruxandra Cesereanu, the primary editor of Moods & Women & Men & Once Again Moods.
Editor-at-Large for India Poorna Swami‘s poetry reading in Bangalore was featured by The Hindu, Metro Plus. Her poem “River Letters” was published in Prelude, Volume 3. She also wrote a blog piece on the politics of social media friendship for The Huffington Post, India. She has been long-listed for the 2017 Toto Awards for Creative Writing (English).
English Social Media Manager Thea Hawlin‘s ‘five-point guide’ to avant-garde artist Yves Klein was published in AnOther magazine.
Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize 2016 for poetry in translation, and his translation of Wong Yoon Wah’s poem, ‘Shadow Puppets’, was featured in The Guardian‘s Translation Tuesday series in collaboration with Asymptote. He was also part of recent poetry readings at the Woodstock Poetry Festival and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
Indonesia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao has had two translations and a short story published in BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016—a “best of” anthology of short fiction by cult writers from East and Southeast Asia that aims to counter the tokenistic way Asian writing is often curated in the West.
The latest literary news from South Africa, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Singapore
Catch up with latest book festivals, translation awards, and advances in the fight against free speech restrictions with the Asymptote team this week. Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong Charlie Ng reports on the a new PEN branch, while Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek sends us the scoop on graffiti-poetry and more from Singapore. Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs knows the best new publications coming out of South Africa and Nigeria and takes us along on the lit festival circuit.
Editor-at-Large Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan calls in the news from Hong Kong:
PEN Hong Kong was re-established this September. The official launch of the organisation was held on 13 November to introduce its mission, work, and founding members to the community of writers, journalists, translators, publishers, and those interested in writing or concerned with free expression in Hong Kong. The re-launch at this timely moment is aimed at addressing the restraints on freedom of speech in Hong Kong in face of tightening political control from the Chinese Government, seen in such incidents as the disappearance of five members of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold publications critical of Chinese leaders. Additionally, Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law has led to the disqualification of two newly elected pro-democratic Legislative Councillors.
Besides featuring the launch of PEN Hong Kong, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this year put together a broad range of activities for all literary lovers. Hong Kong-born, Chinese-British poet and winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize Sarah Howe read from her poetry collection Loop of Jade and gave a lecture at the University of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, renowned Chinese Misty poet Bei Dao also gave a poetry reading in the Festival. The two panels, ‘Lost and Found in Translation I and II‘, shed light on the significance of translation for poetry, fiction, and cultural exchange.
With a dab of paint I become the singing, dancing doll everyone loves.
The stories told with Southeast Asia’s shadow puppets, better known in the region as ‘Wayang Kulit’, range from adaptations of ancient epics to familiar, domestic sagas. This poem was written in 1977, when the Malayan-born Wong Yoon Wah (by then an outspoken scholar, critic, and award-winning writer) was appointed Director of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang University—just as higher education in Singapore was experiencing a period of upheaval. In this poem, Wong holds his own multiple identities up to the light, and a candid sense of his inner self shines through.
A sharp knife
pares the leather into shape.
A ruthless awl
carves each nub of my character.
With a dab of paint
I become the singing, dancing doll
ii. Family Background
Though I’m a shadow acting in the night’s mystery, I am a child of light, nothing without its beam.
The village’s earth is a white gauze.
In this soiled world, I can’t find myself.
I’ve never left a footprint on the path.
I sing movingly but never with my own voice.
At home, I’m a shadow on the screen. On stage: a self you can see.
Don’t take me
for one who loves fights,
schemes to be king,
after Solomon’s princesses.
A shapeless thread holds each of my four limbs.
Being superstitious, I can’t refuse being fate’s plaything.
The old man backstage
has my voice in his hands.
Whether I’m crying or laughing,
If you go backstage
when the show ends,
you’ll find us—heroes, ladies—all
in the arms of the ugly puppeteer.
After we’ve been played,
our heads are taken down,
bodies folded and stacked again
in his box, secured with string
where patiently, like prisoners,
we’ll wait to see the sun.
Translated from the Chinese by Theophilus Kwek
Born in Malaysia, Professor Wong Yoon Wah has won Singapore’s Cultural Medallion (1986), Thailand’s South-East Asia Write Award (1984), and the ASEAN Cultural Award (1993). He has published more than twenty books as well as over fifty articles on modern and postcolonial Chinese literature, and is presently Senior Vice President of Southern University College, Malaysia.
Theophilus Kwek has published three collections of poetry, most recently Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and his translation of ‘Moving House’ by Wong Yoon Wah placed second in this year’s Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation.