Language: Chinese

In Review: Can Xue’s Frontier

[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.”

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Monthly Update from the Asymptote Team

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.

India Editor-at-Large Poorna Swami spoke at a panel on South Asian books in translation at Jaipur Bookmark, part of the Jaipur Literature Festival. On another panel, she and Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan presented on Asymptote‘s Indian Languages Special Feature. The Indian online news publication The Wire ran a selection of poems from this Feature in a week-long series titled The Republic of Verse.

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.

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Joshua Freeman talks Uyghur Poetry, Part II

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…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your update from Taiwan, India, and Finland!

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.

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Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

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:

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Dispatch from PEN Hong Kong: In Conversation with Jason Y. Ng

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.

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November News from the Asymptote team

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.

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More Dispatches from the Asymptote Team:

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

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.

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Translation Tuesday: “Shadow Puppets” by Wong Yoon Wah

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.

i. Birth

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
everyone loves.

 

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.

 

iii. Confession

Don’t take me
for one who loves fights,
schemes to be king,
or hankers
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,
he decides.

 

iv. Fate

If you go backstage
when the show ends,
you’ll find usheroes, ladiesall
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.

November, 1977

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.

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What’s New in Translation? May 2016

Asymptote's own read this month's translated releases

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima by Hideo Furukawa, tr. Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka, Columbia University Press. Review: Justin Maki, Assistant Managing Editor.

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The nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi power plant—triggered by the magnitude-9 offshore earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011—created a rift in the country over its use of nuclear power and a major loss of faith in plant operators TEPCO as well as national and local government. Many protested the 2015 resumption of nuclear operations across the country, claiming safety regulations remained inadequate and that the government had rushed to cover up past failures rather than making honest efforts to learn from them. In light of this recent example of the world’s “tradition of nuclear forgetting,” as Robert Jacobs puts it, “we have to do more than remember Fukushima, we have to learn how to remember Fukushima.”

Hideo Furukawa’s newly-translated Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima offers some hope in this capacity. Written in the first months after the triple disaster struck, the Fukushima native’s literary response works to complicate and deepen what it means to “remember” an afflicted region. Rather than engage in only the personal side of remembering (his own childhood in the area and his relatives with contaminated farms are both kept to rather brief passages), Furukawa brings the reader into contact with the region in a variety of ways by using multiple genres—literary reportage, imagined scenes, alternate history—and perhaps most notably by invoking Gyuichiro Inuzuka, a character from one of his earlier novels, whose voice and “memories” of northeastern Japan appear at various moments throughout the book.

Due to this connection, Horses, Horses has been called a sequel of sorts to The Holy Family, Furukawa’s 2008 epic novel in which the Inuzuka brothers go on a crime spree in Fukushima and its neighboring prefectures. The earlier book has yet to appear in English translation, but from details mentioned in Horses, Horses, the Inuzuka brothers seem to have been stolen in infancy by a group of warrior-monks whose secret lineage goes back some 700 years into the region’s history. In an inspired turn, Furukawa allows the older brother to appear in the present volume, showing up in the midst of the author’s visit to disaster-hit areas in early April 2011. The character draws on his “deep memory” of the region to narrate an imaginative history of its horses, from war horses at the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333 to the traumatized tsunami-survivor horses the author meets at an abandoned shrine during his trip.

By pairing observation and imagination in this way, Furukawa acts against two major pitfalls in the wake of an internationally-known crisis. First, he circumvents that awful shorthand whereby a place name comes to represent only a war or disaster that took place there; instead, he acquaints us with local geographies and strands of culture within the prefecture known for its long tradition of horse-breeding. In addition, while he doesn’t skimp on describing the damage wrought by the disaster and the scope of its human tragedy—in tandem with his own feelings when watching from afar and visiting up close—Furukawa also positions it in a much larger timeframe so as to avoid yoking the region to a single historical moment. The author, who prefers not to be labeled a Fukushima writer, makes the locality unforgettable by complicating rather than simplifying, giving the reader more to experience in prose and “remember” about the region than its direst hour—an effort far more promising than the crisis-driven news cycle in building lasting empathy.

Translator Doug Slaymaker, with assistance from Akiko Takenaka, does an excellent job of keeping the various threads of the text in balance. Given the amount of extra information necessary for an English-language reader (religious terminology, place name meanings, historical references, etc.), it is admirable that the translation moves along at such a good clip and preserves the agility of Furukawa’s voice(s). Horses, Horses is an essential text from one of Japan’s most prolific and inventive novelists, likely to remain important long beyond our current five-year remove from the events of 3/11.

Slow Boat to China and Other Stories by Ng Kim Chew, tr. Carlos Rojas, Columbia University Press. Review Hannah Vose, Social Media Manager.

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As far as anyone knows, in 1945 the Chinese poet and author Yu Dafu was executed by the Japanese military police, for whom he had secretly been acting as an interpreter during the War of Japanese Resistance. As translator Carlos Rojas explains it, one evening “a visitor came to Yu’s home [in Sumatra] and asked him to step outside, and he was never seen again.”

Half a century later, Malaysian author and professor of Chinese literature Ng Kim Chew is obsessed with the possibilities. What if Yu survived? He was a polyglot, he had all the promise of an amazing writer—he could have been the Great Author that China was searching for. What if he escaped the Japanese and went on with life elsewhere? In Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, we see an array of vastly different realities.

Now, not all the stories in Ng’s collection concern the possible fates of Yu Dafu, although they represent a sizeable portion. Slow Boat to China leads off with “The Disappearance of M,” which chronicles the public frenzy—and personal obsession for our protagonist—of trying to determine the identity of the author behind the critically acclaimed novel Kristmas, which is written in what amounts to a completely new language; its base is English, but it includes Arabic, German, Javanese, and Chinese oracle bone script among many other languages.

In searching for the identity of the anonymous author, all the world has to go on is the letter “M,” a West Malaysian postmark and a charge to a Chinese deposit company. Native Malaysian writers and Malaysian writers of Chinese descent both claim the author for themselves, but no one is really sure. With the sophisticated linguistic background required to craft such a work, they must be a very special person indeed. Questions arise about the legitimacy of claiming the work for any one national heritage: can something written in English really be considered to be a great work of Chinese or Malaysian literature? A Chinese writer’s group decides that the real task is to find the original Chinese version of the work, which must exist, and work from there.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the furor in the literary community which gets stirred up every now and then when someone engages in amateur detective work and points the Finger of Ferrante at an unsuspecting colleague or mild-mannered professor of Italian literature. A scene at a “National Literature Discussion Panel” is especially amusing in this regard, with authors analyzing Kristmas and positing others present as possible “M”’s only to come across new evidence and whip the compliment out from under their fellows a second later. The protagonist of the piece, a reporter, has his own suspicions, and follows a trail back to the possibility that Yu Dafu lives on and is fulfilling his literary destiny from the anonymity of the Malaysian rubber forests. (Reporters, it’s worth noting, are particularly intrigued with the whereabouts of Yu Dafu in Ng’s writing.)

The concern with Yu Dafu and his possible relocation to Malaysia speaks to something beyond a personal obsession with a probably long-deceased author. The Malaysian identity—and specifically the identity of the Chinese Malaysian—is at the forefront in much of the work here. “A Chinese. . . But what is a Chinese?” the narrator of “Allah’s Will” asks. If Yu Dafu fled to Malaysia and settled down, would he be a Chinese author or a Malaysian author? In “Allah’s Will,” the narrator thinks:

“For thirty years I haven’t spoken Chinese, haven’t written Chinese, and haven’t read Chinese. Instead, I have spoken Malay, taught Malay, have abstained from pork… Yet that Chinese flame in my heart hasn’t been extinguished. I often wondered why couldn’t I become completely Malay, given that I was no longer able to be completely Chinese? Was it because of the unerasable past?”

“The unerasable past” wouldn’t be a half-bad alternate title for this collection. Everyone is haunted by their past, whether the past is the past where Yu Dafu disappeared, the past where they left their homes for a new country and new opportunity, or the past where they lost someone or part of themselves. Heritage and history, especially the melding of different cultures and ethnicities and all the creativity and conflict that this can cause—look no further than the debate over “M”’s identity for evidence—are at the forefront in every piece here.

It is less the themes and more the character of the writing in this collection that really drew me in, however. Ng’s experimental writing traipses on the borders of reality, as though everything that happens is distorted by the swampy, thick air of the forest where much of his action takes place. Dream is indistinguishable from fact until the last second, woven into the narrative seamlessly only to set both reader and character up for an abrupt drop into reality. Dream and Swine and Aurora implements this in a way which is genuinely, stiflingly terrifying: a seemingly infinite Russian dolls of a dream of waking, each layer slightly more surreal than the last. Memory and conscious thought get tangled up all the time, and keeping track of reality sometimes feels like trying to breathe under water. It’s hard to read, but it’s rewarding. This is definitely not a one-sitting kind of collection. You will need some time to recover.

As a whole, the collection is nicely curated and all the stories fit together in a sensible way. Carlos Rojas, Chinese translator extraordinaire, doesn’t disappoint in his masterful rendering of Ng’s tricky prose. The only piece I felt was slightly disjointed was the first story, the aforementioned “The Disappearance of M,” which seemed to me a little choppy and awkward. Given the linguistic complexity of Ng’s writing, however, this is the smallest of foibles. Rojas’s introduction is an invaluable part of this collection, both setting up the cultural context for Ng’s work, and explaining some of the linguistic trickery that needed to be accounted for in translation. As an English introduction to a great Malaysian author, I could hardly ask for better.

Bardo or not Bardo by Antoine Volodine, tr. J.T. Mahany, Open Letter. Review: Laura Garmeson, Executive Assistant.

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The opening of Antoine Volodine’s novel Bardo or not Bardo, translated from the French by J. T. Mahany, hurls the reader headlong into a murder scene amid agitated hens, errant gunshots, and vegetables. An assassination attempt near a Buddhist monastery is witnessed by a hapless nonagenarian monk, ‘touched more by Alzheimers than grace’, who hurries over to the victim. Elsewhere, the ceremony of the Five Precious Perfumed Oils is underway, leaving this monastic wing vacated but for our monk, who had been confined to the lavatory thanks to the ill-judged ingestion of fermented milk. His duty is to recite passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, known as the Bardo Thödol, to the dying man, providing him with much-needed guidance for his journey through the dreary posthumous smog, an infinite world of darkness that is the Bardo.

There are precious few European books that really upset the tedious binaries of the Western Christian afterlife (the doomed torpor of Sartre’s 1944 play Huis clos is a renowned exception) but Volodine’s universe certainly does. According to the Bardo Thödol, after forty-nine days spent wandering the Bardo’s sprawling sweat and soot-infused tunnels and black charcoal plains, souls shall submit to either salvation or a rebirth. This provides Volodine with a predictably cheery platform for fiction: characters dully await something unknown which may or may not happen, experiencing a slow ebbing of memory in a barely visible landscape described as an ‘arid parade of blacks’. This is a hell so monotonous that the dead often fail to recognise they have entered it, but it gives rise to a gleefully disorienting work of black comedy.

The seven sections comprising Bardo or not Bardo scuttle in and out of the ‘hermetic darkness’ of this spiritual limbo, which is also Volodine’s metaphysical arena of choice in which to play out the existential crisis vaunted in the title. The irony of such a title, of course, is that the deceased have no choice at all; they are irredeemably trapped in the Bardo, where chances of salvation seem doubtful. Volodine’s consistent use of the present tense throughout the book confirms this sense of suspension the Bardo confers, that of a ‘floating world’ in which past and future are not only non-existent, but crushingly irrelevant.

More monks and lamas populate this book, as well as suicidal clowns, ethereal feathered bird-women, and an increasingly absurd series of characters who share the name ‘Schlumm’. In the fourth vignette, ‘The Bardo of the Medusa’, a particularly poignant episode sees the writer and actor Bogdan Schlumm stage and single-handedly perform a series of ‘Bardic playlets’ to a sparse audience of slugs. His valiant efforts to publicize his theatrics prompt Volodine’s narrator to declare ruefully, ‘I have always regretted that only a handful of minor invertebrates […] in general devoid of literary savvy, were witness to this brilliant performance.’

The Volodinian narrator is, naturally, an ambiguous character in itself. This is due in part to the fact that Antoine Volodine is the primary pseudonym among many belonging to this French author, whose other works have appeared under the names Manuela Draeger, Lutz Bassmann and Elli Kronauer. Volodine has described the literary corpus of these heteronyms as works of ‘post-exoticism’, a self-coined phrase which constitutes a war cry to ‘official literature’. His extensive literary output is gradually being translated into English, and J. T. Mahany’s relaxed, playful rendering of Bardo or not Bardo is a welcome addition.

*****

Read more from New in Translation:

Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from “Ruined City” by Jia Pingwa (tr. Howard Goldblatt)

The chair creaked and inched slowly toward the pear tree; squinting at the moon through the branches, she fantasized that it was Zhuang’s face.

When originally published in 1993, Ruined City (Fei Du) was promptly banned by China’s State Publishing Administration, ostensibly for its explicit sexual content. Since then, award-winning author Jia Pingwa’s vivid portrayal of contemporary China’s social and economic transformation has become a classic, viewed by critics and scholars of Chinese literature as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. Howard Goldblatt’s deft translation now gives English-speaking readers their first chance to enjoy this masterpiece of social satire by one of China’s most provocative writers.

While eroticism, exoticism, and esoteric minutiae—the “pornography” that earned the opprobrium of Chinese officials—pervade Ruined City, this tale of a famous contemporary writer’s sexual and legal imbroglios is an incisive portrait of politics and culture in a rapidly changing China. In a narrative that ranges from political allegory to parody, Jia Pingwa tracks his antihero Zhuang Zhidie through progressively more involved and inevitably disappointing sexual liaisons. Set in a modern metropolis rife with power politics, corruption, and capitalist schemes, the novel evokes an unrequited romantic longing for China’s premodern, rural past, even as unfolding events caution against the trap of nostalgia. Amid comedy and chaos, the author subtly injects his concerns about the place of intellectual seriousness, censorship, and artistic integrity in the changing conditions of Chinese society.

Rich with detailed description and vivid imagery, Ruined City transports readers into a world abounding with the absurdities and harshness of modern life.

Here below is an excerpt used by permission of the University of Oklahoma Press. Click here for more information about Ruined City, released in bookstores this week.

Over the next few days, Zhou Min left early in the morning and returned home late at night, not straying from the magazine. At home he had little time for Tang Wan’er. Always itching to go somewhere, she complained that they hadn’t been to the Sheraton Dance Club for a long time, but he kept putting her off. She told him that Zhuang Laoshi had opened a bookstore to the left of the Forest of Steles Museum and said they should go check it out, see what sort of books they stocked, and show Zhuang Laoshi that they cared about what he was doing. Zhou replied impatiently, “I don’t have time for that. You can go if you want.” He did nothing but play the xun on the city wall and sleep. Upset, she ignored him. When he left for work in the morning, instead of going out on her own, she stayed home and tended to her appearance, putting on perfumed rouge and painting her brows thin and smooth. She kept her ears pricked, thinking it was Zhuang coming to see her every time the metal ring on the door made a noise. When they had made love that first time, she was elated that the barrier between them had been removed. As she thought about how she was now his, her face burned and she got hot all over from arousal; when she saw how the people passing by the door outside looked indifferently at the pear tree, she laughed coldly as her anger rose: Just you wait, one of these days you’ll know what I mean to Zhuang Zhidie. Then I’ll watch you come fawning over me and embarrass you until you look for a place to hide. But it had been so long, and Zhuang had not shown up again, so she vented her anger on herself by mussing her hair and by pressing her lips on the mirror and the door to leave red circles. That night, the moon was as bright as water. As usual, Zhou Min went to the city wall to play his xun. Wan’er shut the gate and went in to take a bath. Then, draping her nightgown over her naked body, she went out and sat on the lounge chair under the pear tree. Utterly lonely, she thought about Zhuang Zhidie: Why don’t you come? Were you, like all the other men, just satisfying a sudden urge that day and put me out of your mind once it was over? Did you simply want the memory of another woman added to your list of conquests? Or, as a writer, did you merely use me as material for something you were writing? She thought some more, and as she savored the memory of that day, she retracted her earlier thoughts. He would not be like that. The look in his eyes when he first saw her, his timid approach, and his madly urgent behavior when they were together gave her the confidence that he was truly fond of her. Her first sexual encounter had been with a manual laborer, who had forced her down on the bed, and that had led to their marriage. After the wedding, she was his land and he was her plow; she had to submit to him whenever he felt like cultivating his land. He would climb on with no preamble and finish before she felt a thing. With Zhou Min, she naturally enjoyed what she hadn’t had with her first man, but Zhou was, after all, a small-town character who could never compare with a Xijing celebrity. Zhuang had started out shyly, but once he entered port, he was immensely loving and tender; his many tricks and techniques had finally taught her the difference between the city and the countryside, and between one who was knowledgeable and one who was not. She came to know what makes a real man and a real woman. She touched herself as she followed this line of thought, until she began to moan and groan, calling out to Zhuang. She was writhing and squirming on the chair. The chair creaked and inched slowly toward the pear tree; squinting at the moon through the branches, she fantasized that it was Zhuang’s face. As she flicked her tongue, she wrapped her legs around Zhuang until she was up against the tree trunk, where she moved, rocking the tree and swaying the moon, until one final, forceful push of her body before she went limp. Three or four pear leaves circled above her and then settled onto her body. Exhausted, she remained in the chair, lost in thought, so weak it felt as if all her bones had been removed. READ MORE…

My 2015

Let her short but full life be an example to us readers: make hay (and read books) while the sun shines!

When I think about the best books I read this year, I inevitably think about when and where I read them. Starting in late December of last year, I spent many nights hunched over my desk, reading The Plum in the Golden Vase, the late 16th century Chinese masterpiece about the lecherous, murderous, thoroughly corrupt local magnate Ximen Qing and his six equally infamous wives, alongside David Tod Roy’s now complete five-volume translation (Princeton University Press, 1993-2013). When I finished reading both, it had become a warm Boston spring. The giant Chinese novels of the late Ming and early Qing periods (from the 16th to the late 18th century) are long for a reason: when you spend months in the world of the novel, that world becomes a significant part of your own life, heightening the sensation of microcosm. In the case of The Plum in the Golden Vase, this immersion imperils the soul. The novel reads like a thousands-page long sneer—it depicts a world in which everyone and everything, great and small, is morally compromised, and it seems to delight in its own bleak view of the world. Consequently, it’s a novel that is easy to admire and hard to love. The translation, too, wears on the reader by the end. It is complete and readable, but the occasional awkward, overly literal interpretations that are tolerable in the first volume become irritating by the fifth. “Short-life,” for example, Roy’s literal translation of the late Ming curse duanming, loses its amusing novelty by the thousandth repetition. Yet Roy’s translation is a masterwork for other reasons. Each volume comes with about a hundred-odd pages of footnotes tracing the origin of each and every oblique reference and piece of quoted poetry and prose in the novel. Roy’s scholarly tenacity borders on obsession: in order to get the jargon of Ming-era dominoes just right, Roy consults no less than four extant domino manuals from the Ming and Qing. Working through a massive scholarly apparatus that took over twenty years to construct puts the scant four or five months it takes to read the translation in perspective. There’s careful reading, and then there’s careful reading. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Venus” by Chen Xue

Jointly published with Read Paper Republic

There are works that I feel like translating because of their perspective and politics, and others where it is the language or the narrative that attracts me. In Chen Xue’s best work, and I think “Venus” is an example, she combines these two qualities. Acid, tender, provocative, realistic, fancifulshe has a real arsenal of literary moods and weapons. “Venus” did not get published in a couple of literary translation journals, specifically (I was told informally) because of its transgender perspective. While thanking Paper Republic and Asymptote for including it here, I call shenanigans. Anybody who values the transmission of Chinese-language literature in the English-speaking world ought to celebrate rather than suppress the diversity of Sinophone literatures.

Josh Stenberg

***

The silence of night falls on Phoenix’s room, it’s sometime in July, the dog days, it’s hot and stuffy outside, inside with the air-con on it gets down to 26 degrees, just the right temperature for an exchange of secrets.

Mum and dad are just behind the wall in the main bedroom, but it’ll be alright. At three o’clock in the morning, the despairing and the hopeful are both awake. The world is so quiet that even the sound of breathing seems to be amplified, Phoenix’s long curly hair half-conceals the naked chest, the discarded clothing are strewn about, the tender, naked skin is lustrous, almost reflective, Winter Pine has considered putting on some music to ease his own anxiety, but instead he forces himself to swallow, it’s as though there were some kind of rhythm, inaudible to the ear, emanating from Phoenix’s body, stirring the air, creating waves, with a dizzying gesture she clutches at the bed with both hands, rising from her kneeling position, and when her pale and delicate thighs spread at the crotch, an edifice predicated on her knees, ivory columns perpendicular to the bed, tapering to points, something hidden in the delta between the legs appears, which the neat, even trim of the curly pubic hair makes especially conspicuous.

That something is her penis, she hasn’t had it removed yet, suddenly exposed, it’s flaccid, about ten centimeters long, accompanied by the two ovoid testicles, as her body rises they slowly emerge before Winter Pine’s eyes, so this is it, Phoenix cups it lightly, Winter Pine is staring at the thing in the palm of Phoenix’s hand, he once had a dream in which he had a thing like that, it’s so big he says, Phoenix says, for something so unnecessary it really is very big.

Do you want to touch it? Phoenix takes him by the hand, but he shrinks back, Wait. Winter Pine forces his breathing to grow regular, he nears the bed, crouches next to Phoenix, stretches his hand out to Phoenix’s crotch, gathers up the scrotum and penis in his palm, they’re quite heavy, except in film and television or pictures this is the first time he has seen this thing, this “penis” in real life, Winter Pine is surprised to find it so warm, and that it feels somehow frail, maybe that has to do with the hormone shots, was it bigger before? Winter Pine asked, when he says “before,” he means before she started transitioning, before Phoenix turned eighteen. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “We Are Trouble’s Obedient Children” by Lut Ming

"The army is the dreams we share / Our tent is the sky (we have nothing to hide) / Take a deep breath."

There are no city gates here

No city walls, no army, no tanks

There are the people, there are things they care about, there are tents

There is the night sky with no wind, an empty, empty sky

You can watch the TV, the one and only CCTV,

To learn about the world and

Watch live-edits of people hurting people,

The Tape Recorder looks stuck up

In his suit and tie. He’s getting ready to lie

But his eyes are flickering (tape’s stuck, won’t play)

READ MORE…