11. Egoyan Zheng (Taiwan) – Dreams, Eyes and the Erotic
by Ma Yihang (trans. Emily Jones)
Photo by Chen Zhifan
When I came across the book Man In The Urn, I was going through a dark, difficult period. The author, Egoyan Zheng, had written on the flyleaf, "Dedicated to my five years at university: those 1,800-plus days in which I acquired no degree and ultimately achieved nothing." I instantly developed a crush on him. I photocopied a picture of the young Zheng from a literary magazine, where he was dressed in a checked shirt, with black hair neatly parted to the side; so very different from his slightly dispirited manner today. Until a few years ago, when I was with my friends, I would occasionally get distracted and take out the picture to examine his fine, swallow-tail shaped eyes, wondering what tricks and desires were concealed behind them. Drawn to the images that Zheng, through his writing, had fixed, frozen, transferred and destroyed, I would think back to those rooms in Zheng's story, 'Man In The Urn', emitting from their doorways a vein-like blue; then a flash of nakedness, followed by a complete whiteout...Then, when I read his novel The Dream Devourer, which seemed to contain within it all the sorrows of the universe, I noticed some themes starting to link up and propagate.
A most sordid reader, I hunted for clues to the author's private, sexual inclinations. The agitation of light and shadow during an interview with a porn star in 'Sacrifice', or the lustful screams and pained confessions in a porn film in The Dream Devourer—in these, erotic language, even if practiced, acts all the same as a vehicle of desire and experience. Zheng's books are not an easy read—but the writing, translucent and refractive as mineral ore, also rewards with loving caress and tender respite. In short, grief and ecstasy are the extremes of his work, and to read him is to vacillate between the two.
Pornography is also present as a poignant detail of indigenous Taiwanese night-market life in Sacrifice, or as a reenactment of classical desire excluded from a future time-space; the missing piece of the experiential puzzle faced by biochemical Man in The Dream Devourer. So what does the pornography symbolise? It's tempting to ascribe the intensity of visual imagery in Zheng's work to the "explosive" style of Taiwan's new generation of writers, but there are some key points of difference. Aside from his habitual use of onomatopoeia and visual devices, such as over-exposure or whiteouts, the visuals/politics of his work may be categorized in relation to such discourses as: surveillance and the machine of power (punishment by degradation?), the body and performance (the biochemical porn star?), the ethics of observation/narration (transplanting pornography into the dreamworld?), ceremonial violence and pleasure (ancient rites and folk customs?). However, I believe that all these complex themes point toward a primal sorrow inherent to existence, memory, experience, and the sense of 'I came, I saw (or didn't see), I conquered (or am conquered by)—the sorrow of being born human (or a biochemical being), felt during the process of re-creating (or dissolving?) the sense of sight. Let me say a few more words about Zheng's treatment of pornography: I believe we are all erotic beings, but considering the abundance of metaphors in pornography—the drawing out of the subjective viewpoint, the magic trick of freezing time, the close focus on small details while obscuring the full picture, the repeated purification and destruction—his writing goes beyond mere eroticism.
If all literary works deal with memory in some way, then what is distinctive about Zheng's treatment of it are his infinite conjurations, as in a séance, of some wondrous memory or other, brilliantly apparent in his short story collection, Man In The Urn. Through scenes that reflect, transform, then cast aside one another, scenes that fabricate and envelop, a fantastical, desolate tone is invoked, as if the author had purposely led the reader astray to secret rooms in the crevices of time. The opening story in Man In The Urn, 'Story Masquerading as Authorial Response', gives strong evidence of a tendency to subvert the relationship between reader and writer. 'Sacrifice', 'Tortoise Urn', 'Ghost Urn' and the titular 'Man In The Urn' are linked not only by the particular rhythm and quality, formed from a blend of classical language and dialect, but also from the way human love and loss are brought to life in between dreams and ghosts. The "Urn" of the story's title is also a coffin, hiding things that lie beyond the indigenous world. Zheng's writing is at once absolutely economical and luxuriant, making him more resistant to interpretation than other writers of his generation.
The Dream Devourer is an extraordinary, technically complex work of science fiction. It lays out infinite reflections of the self, spirit and dreamworld, repeatedly examining the morality of memory and technique. Perhaps Zheng is testing the reader's strength of imagination by creating a weave of technical terms as intricate as a Persian carpet. The complexity of the novel doesn't end there, since bound up in the science fiction capsule is an endless sense of nostalgia and political allegory; the protagonist's nightmares are actually our dreams, just like the ambiguity, at the novel's end, of return, self-consumption, dissipation and propagation. In the end, the reader is left questioning if the author's dreamworld is born from the words themselves, or if the work should be interpreted as a sort of public declaration towards memory and writing—in the same contentious vein as torture or masturbation.
I am eager to draw more attention to Zheng's poetry collection Your Light Shines Through My Eyes, to the insights and conjurations that flow from his brown pupils, the dense yet slightly magical poetic stills, and scenes that lean toward lost plots. The dream in the urn; the urn in the dream. This is my version of Zheng: of the future literary canon, his are undoubtedly the most difficult pair of eyes to watch; the most expressive form of pornography.
Egoyan Zheng's Bio:
Egoyan Zheng (real name Zheng Qianci) was born in 1977. He studied at both the Department of Psychology at National Taiwan University and at the School of Medicine at Taipei Medical University, and then obtained an MA in Chinese Literature from Tamkang University.
His writing has been published in the "Newcomer Award" collection and nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 and the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in 2008. Zheng's publications include the short story collection Man In The Urn, the long novel The Dream Devourer and the poetry anthology Your Light Shines Through My Eyes.
The cool, yet emotionally expressive, quality of Zheng's work has a rhythm that is sometimes relaxed and at other times deliberately fractured. His fascination with memory, setting and interpersonal relationships reveals itself in the uniquely melancholic tone of his early works. In The Dream Devourer, the sophistication and eloquence of the science-fiction narration demonstrates a "post-human epic" ambition and energy, which gestures towards the origination of existence and destruction, the complexity of memory and forgetting, and the core of emotional expression and its opposite.
The Dream Devourer (2010) In this novel, Zheng almost flaunts his mastery of metaphor, as well as his ambition and skill with the art of fiction. The mystery of the biochemical being "K"'s experience, the city of the giant leeches and glistening reptiles, the disorder and dizziness of false words and a maze of knowledge, the virus program of memory, the almost political allegory of the "Third Person"—these are not just the Cyborg aesthetics of our descendants, or the absolute illusion of the novel to end all novels—but rather an attempt to use biochemistry to express epic emotions, to invoke nostalgia through science fiction. The world he creates is a dreamworld island (the northern shore like the Milky Way and the pupils of the eye, and the blue child YiYi), a world where it is time—not reproduction—that causes sadness.
Man In The Urn (2003) Man In The Urn, a collection of stories, is Zheng's first publication. From these eleven short pieces, he demonstrates the quality of his dark, ambiguous humour, laying bare the interweaving of desire, body, destiny and ceremony to create something which is part confession, part parable. Regardless of whether it is labelled "neo-nativist" or "post-nativist" literature, or whether the slightly desolate tone is comparable to that of his literary predecessors (such as Qi Dengsheng, Tiao He, Luo Yijun and Yuan Zhesheng), this collection boasts undeniable experimentalism. Zheng invokes highly effective, timeless visual devices. Writing and dreams, crevices and coffins; it is the urn in the urn, the tricks and prophecy of youth spread out before our gaze.
Click here to read Egoyan Zheng's short story 'Falling', translated by Laura Jane Wey for our Jan 2012 issue's Taiwan Fiction Feature.
12. Tong Weige (Taiwan) – The Rainclouds of Emotion and Philosophy
by Zhu Youxun (trans. Emily Jones)
Photo by Chen Peiyuan
One claim I have never believed is that after an author diligently absorbs knowledge—particularly about literary theory—he becomes a "scholar", and in so doing loses the sincerity and "halo" that an author ought to have. Tong Weige refutes such a claim. I was once fortunate enough to hold a private conversation with him, and was encouraged to raise several research topics of current interest in Taiwanese literature. He replied gently, "Yes, I tend to agree with so-and-so's theories, because...." That was a truly horrifying moment for me because I realized that compared to Tong, who was able to discourse freely about the theories du jour, I was far behind the latest research.
After this, I considered his three novels in some confusion. If scholarly discussions aim to shine a penetrating light into literature, then these books are most obstinate rainclouds.
This explains why it is so difficult to categorise Tong's novels within a single framework. Though he was originally classified as a "neo-nativist" he clearly differs from others with the same label. In his brilliant preface to Tong's The Unwounded Age, author Yang Zhao places him in the context of "nativist literature"—an insight that satirically highlights an even more obvious difference between Tong's work (particularly in the story "The Loser") and the work of authors like Gan Yaoming. Shortly after this book came out, the first MA dissertation on Tong appeared, by Huang Jianfu. Those with a serious interest in studying Tong should read this outstanding essay. Huang suggests, on the other hand, that Tong's novels should not be constrained within a "nativist" framework because his other concerns would be obscured. However, attempting to address the nature of Tong's other concerns is fruitless, and discarding the "neo-nativist" label does not necessarily make things any clearer. The raincloud remains a raincloud: after reading his novels, the mental downpour is still relentless.
As far as I'm concerned, there is no doubt that from his very first collection, My Late Father, Tong's writings have demonstrated his maturity as an author. It is exceedingly rare to find this quality in the recent generation of writers.
From the obscure short stories collected in My Late Father, Holiday, Cheerfulness and Shadow, we see evidence of a writer who invokes philosophy and manipulates emotions. By the time we get to The Unwounded Age and Summer Downpour, the obscurity is intensified even more, until finally character and plot form a deep, endless fog. However, Tong doesn't deal with conventional emotions like nostalgia. Confronted with the absurdity of life, his characters often react indifferently. Unlike their counterparts in sentimental stories who might say, "OK, I forgive you," Tong's characters go a step further—while they might also say, "OK, I forgive you," they will then add, out of helplessness: "(I hope you'll do the same.) If not, what else can we do?"
Far from overblown and coarse, Tong's work demonstrates both the art and compassion of a real writer. Tong writes about death, life, and jokes that can't be laughed at. His writing appears simple, but when taken as a whole it reads profoundly. Depth of emotion is abundantly present in his novels and expressed in almost straightforward language. Tong's distinctive style should place him alongside the novelist Yuan Zhesheng and not far from Guo Songfen.
In his work he tries to capture things that can only be captured appropriate to the language of fiction in a style of persistent reflection. His stories are near-fables (but fables with more than one possible interpretation.) Readers of his work must face on their own the self-abnegating journey in 'The Holiday', the mother-and-son duo who run an entire factory by themselves in The Unwounded Age, the artificial limb buried in Summer Downpour. After being struck by the lightning of these scenes, readers may be moved, even as they are hard-pressed to explain what the stories were about. To do so, they would have to resort to recounting the scenes from beginning to end. Tong's writings are a researcher's nightmare, but a reader's joy; his is the sort of fiction that justifies the existence of the art form itself.
Tong Weige's Bio:
Born in 1977, Tong Weige has an MA in Drama from Taipei National University of the Arts, and is now studying there for his PhD. His writing style is consistently distinctive and his work focuses on the poor mountain villages in northeast Taiwan. He is therefore often categorized as a nativist by many critics. His novels can be said to explore Taiwanese modernism, but without the clumsiness of its form. He has published a collection of short stories, My Late Father, and the novels, The Unwounded Age and Summer Downpour.
Summer Downpour (2010) Every character is in this book is old, wrinkled, mouldy—they have been soaked too long in water. In The Unwounded Age, one can roughly trace the structure and plot, but this novel defies explanation. And yet there is no real need for explanation. With such epigrammatic dialogue and so many thought-provoking scenes, it is as if these glittering fragments emerge unbidden, filling the stream of the novel with beautiful stones, much like a scroll-book that one can open and read at any point.
My Late Father (2002) Although Tong Weige's first collection includes a number of prize-winning stories, readers will find they fail to conform to the conventions of the 'prize winning' canon. Even the most stubborn of critics will find these stories hard to put down. Tong Weige excels at describing little fragments of everyday life. In so doing, he unobtrusively transforms these moments into exceptional descriptions of life's unsolvable deadlocks.
The Unwounded Age (2005) This is a condensed family saga, laid out in such a way that it becomes almost metaphorical—there are few characters, the time span of the novel is not very long and it is almost as if not a single positive thing ever occurs. But somehow, it becomes a metaphor for so much more. In The Unwounded Age, Tong Weige explores his idea of human life. For him, it is about struggling to live in the face of being doomed to (amusing) defeat. In the second half of the novel, Tong poignantly describes the enforced reconciliation of the mother and son—reading his depiction is like staring at someone apparently intact but bleeding to death inside.
13. Han Lizhu (Hong Kong) – Allegories of an Unreal City
by Shen Xiaofeng (trans. Christopher Elford)
Photo provided by the author
You feel a bit crazy for enjoying Han Lizhu's novels, if only because it is like falling in love at first sight. Her collection of short stories, The Kite Family, won the 20th Annual Unitas Literary Award for Best Medium-Length Work of Fiction by a New Writer. The title story tells of a family suffering from hereditary obesity. Their only means of escape is to transform into kites. The Kite Family was the first work of hers I read, a collection which is everywhere filled with absurd ideas and symbols: endless piles of excess fat, relics plundered from a stomach, skulls drilled onto walls by construction workers. Despite the anti-real world being described, Han's style is lucid and unadorned, even sober. In her reticence, she turns reality inside out—before our very eyes, the world is twisted into something else entirely. What exactly is going on in this woman's head? I often found myself thinking, bowled over by her formidable style. It was as though I was encountering a sinister lover; I sensed that something deep within her was becoming one with me. But I would misread her work again and again, unable to grasp all of her symbols. In the end, I became painfully aware that my enchantment was shot through with a feeling of uncertainty.
Born in 1978, Han was a rather precocious child. She finished her first book while still attending middle school. In The Water Pipe Forest, she draws an analogy between the "sick" plumbing of Hong Kong's residential skyscrapers and an intestinal disorder. Drawing its energy from the teeming metropolis of Hong Kong, this debut publication bears the signature of her later work.
Aside from her native land, her oeuvre also tackles contemporary social structures and human relationships. Several of the stories included in The Kite Family—'The Forest Chair,' 'Record of a Cold' and 'Tragic Hotel'—speak to the necessity of taking on roles in social life. How does a person become a chair? Can those who have lost everything in a disaster recover through companionship? When a mother leaves, can the new members hired to fill her place reconstitute family? In rebuilding their relationships, these characters discover for themselves the absurdity of existence.
This absurdity is further explored in the novel Body Seam, in which two adults are not only paired up, but literally sewn together. This metaphor for marriage is smuggled into the novel via what the author terms an "extremely realistic" treatise, making an already absurd conceit even more absurd. By intermingling the real and the unreal, or rather: lightly erasing their boundaries, Han plumbs the nature of interpersonal relationships and even the paradoxes of the social system itself. In another novel, Grey Flower, three generations of women repeatedly attempt to escape the restrictions of society by fleeing into a dreamscape—a strategy that leads to their total disintegration. Outwardly about Malaysian-Chinese exiles, the story is really an account of the exile of modern man. Han's great virtue is that she never criticizes, never attempts to explain. Instead, she simply blurs reality to create a kind of "modern allegory" of existence.
It is perhaps this signature "blurriness" that will help Han to endure as one of Hong Kong's new-era writers. More specifically, I am enamored by the way in which she creates a Han-ian alternate universe by demolishing the world that we know only to reassemble it from scratch. If Han's writing places us in a strange and pathological space, her approach is nonetheless understated. What is strange is not the writing itself but the atmosphere; the reader stands assuredly in one spot, while around him the universe expands infinitely.
There are novels we return to over and over but never completely grasp. We think we've come close to understanding them, but after a few years have passed and we read them again, we feel shut out once more. This curious phenomenon should not be explained away by failure on the part of the reader or the writer. It rather demonstrates that these books have their own lives: that their plots and ideas are so deeply intertwined that the work cannot be summarized. They are simply what they are. Han's novels belong to this category of fiction.
In his preface to The Kite Family, Dong Qizhang writes that Han reminds him of Kafka, who also gives us strange but familiar fictional worlds. From the ground of the real, both Kafka and Han persistently cultivate the flowers of the absurd to dissect the nature of human existence. But compared to Kafka's writing, Han Lizhu's work is possibly even more poetic. When readers open Kafka's door, they see a salesman who awakens one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a strange bug. But Han Lizhu has no door. As she peels away reality's facade, we get a sense that this "unreal" allegory is deeply real. She writes about human beings and nothingness with such clarity, using poetry to build an intoxicating labyrinth. We can make our way through it, but not without getting lost time and time again.
Han Lizhu's Bio:
Born in 1978 in Hong Kong, Han Lizhu began writing at the age of ten. Dong Qizhang has said that she "possesses an innate and precociously odd tactile sense of the world." She finished her first work, The Water Pipe Forest, while still in middle school. After graduating from university, she worked for a few years before deciding to dedicate herself completely to writing. Of her work currently in print in Taiwan, her collection of short stories The Kite Family, her novel Grey Flower (which won Honorable Mention in Third Annual Dream of Red Mansions Literary Awards), and Body Seam all display her distinctive "anti-realist" aesthetic. Han Lizhu currently teaches creative writing and accepts interviews. In 2011 she went to America to attend the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. At present, a number of magazines based in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong feature her columns. At the same time, she attempts to retain some "freedom of choice" for herself and her work.
Body Seam (2010) What exactly does it mean to be intent on living with someone else for the rest of your life? It means we must find the proper place for our hands and feet and re-adjust our sleeping positions. Although the wound between us may occasionally cause us pain, we must not try to understand it. We don't reject it, we don't regret it, because the price of separation would be too great. If we were truly to respect what society views as a "binding agreement" and joined our bodies as one, would it really satisfy us? Even if we were joined completely, it would have nothing to do with love.
The Kite Family (2008) In this collection of six exceptionally well-written short stories, which describe people, space and the relationships that connect all of society, we see Han Lizhu overturn familiar notions in favor of a Kafkaesque sense of the absurd and the ridiculous. Family members can be swapped. Emptiness following a tragedy can be turned inside out. The body can transform itself at will. Everything we have become accustomed to can be redefined. If we were to step out onto this un-real plot of ground and live out our days, we would perhaps first have to call into question the very nature of man's existence.
Grey Flower (2009) Using her own maternal grandmother as a model, Han writes of a 5th generation Chinese woman living in Malaysia and her attempts to flee the country. She wanders endlessly in exile, unable to find a suitable place to call home. This story has a certain historical flavor, but as Xie Xiaohong has written, "If we put this novel's several generations' worth of characters on the Chinese mainland; if we placed the rubber forests of the Malay archipelago alongside the immigrant experience of the port cities, we can easily understand this work as a Malaysian immigrant's long-suffering story, and that would be enough to make us feel uneasy."
14. Ge Liang (Hong Kong) – Writing Destiny and Mankind
by Zheng Zhengheng (trans. Christopher Elford)
Photo provided by the author
Ge Liang's pedigree is distinguished, to say the least. Hailing from Nanjing, his lineage is riddled with famous names—Chen Duxiu and Deng Zhangxian are his great-uncles; Ge Kangyu his paternal grandfather. In their shadows, it is all too easy to imagine Ge Liang's own success as something hereditary. But Ge forged his own path, studying Chinese at Hong Kong University before completing his doctoral research into Yan Geling's emigrant novels, and into the relationship between Wang Anyi's work and urban life. Afterwards, Ge became Assistant Professor in the Chinese department at Hong Kong Baptist University—a post he still retains while continuing to pursue his writing to great acclaim. Though a long time resident of Hong Kong, Ge has a broad appeal, not least in Taiwan where Unitas, Wheatfield, and INK have all published his works. Having moved around in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese Mainland before settling in Hong Kong, Ge's chosen home has become something of a trope for the author, with the city thinly veiled throughout his work. Ge has written five volumes of fiction—no small number. (His novel, Rosefinch, extends to some five hundred pages alone.) His output is a sort of anomaly among young Hong Kong writers. The spectre of Dong Qizhang's massive novels had taught a generation of writers to snipe at longer works, and aim for forceful concision instead. But, along with his distinguished family background, it is Ge Liang's experiments in long form that set him apart him from the rest of Hong Kong's young writers.
Ge Liang first made his name with Enigma, which garnered praise for the precision and weight of its language. The novel's setting is vaguely reminiscent of Hong Kong: a generic cityscape, with no distinguishing features or characteristics. But beneath the order of this urban façade, mysterious elements conspire—not least among them Enigma, the tellingly named crow that lends the novel its title. For a young couple, the act of raising this bird brings about a series of earth-shattering changes, entwining their individual fates into the same, single thread. There is a danger that such novels can buckle under their own ever-intensifying narratives, but Enigma is resilient, weaving itself together through cinematic sequences, and straightforward, considered language. Li Shixue called Enigma the "best and most recent representative of new academic fiction in Chinese letters"—a prescient statement as Ge's more recent novels have gone on to prove, reveling as they do in knowledge, research, and language, as well as a deep communion with culture.
An expanded edition of Going Our Separate Ways, which added two new stories to the original five, was published as the collection Seven Tones. These stories have a tremendous humanity about them; or, to be more specific, a certain folk sensibility—a perceptiveness that the author openly acknowledges in his preface. "One by one," Ge writes, "they passed me by, and bore witness to the changes of the years. I was willing to stroll through the orbit of my earlier years, and use a pair of much younger eyes to look at these long lost people and events. All that I saw gave me a feeling, perhaps of intimacy and purity, perhaps of dejection and distress, perhaps even of deep agitation. But there was always a kind of authenticity. The authenticity contained undertones of sympathy―it brought solace." Of the pieces assembled in Seven Tones, 'An's Story' (also called 'Going Our Separate Ways') is the most outstanding piece for capturing Ge's "authenticity". Its characters vivid and its observations true, the story brims with the giddiness of youth, depicting scenes of campus life (including the carefree antics of students), and the wax and wane of friendships.
Li Heshi, Han Shaogang, Zhang Ruifan, Chen Guanzhong, and Tao Randeng—talented writers such as these have all written in praise of Ge's work, but his oeuvre is equally resonant with young writers on the Internet who are more and more engaged with his books and who are beginning to explore intriguing avenues of criticism, such as Wang Dexie with his recent essay "Return of the Unseen Rosefinch—Ge Liang's Rosefinch". Indeed, for inspiring criticism, the novel Rosefinch undoubtedly offers itself as Ge's most ambitious to date. As in Enigma, Ge displays his skill for putting highly controlled and economical language to the service of rich narratives and his gift for bringing characters to life—creating a vast array of personalities, each with purpose, substance and shape. Little wonder then that Wang Dexie writes in his essay, "[Ge's] stories are both touching and complex; they engross the reader, perhaps even trap him in the maze of the narrative. Young writers are often eager to please, which can make them want to say too much, but there must be another way to view Rosefinch's excess of coincidences and complex structures."
In his most recent work, The Year of the Drama, Ge returns to the style of Seven Tones and Enigma, with its steady pace and emphasis on character. When you open The Year of the Drama, you immediately see the author's introduction, a retrospective entitled 'These Last Few Years', in which Ge reflects on how he has grown over the past decade; on all that he has written, and on all that he has felt. He nostalgically roams the dormitory halls of Hong Kong University, Taiping Mountain, High Street, the Northwest District, and even finds himself searching out two of Changzhou's islands. Finally, in his plainspoken fashion, we find him directly addressing the sum total of his experiences in Hong Kong. "These Last Few Years" is a uniquely personal essay and certainly the most affecting evocation of Hong Kong Ge has yet written. In it, he declares that, "Having lived in this city for so many years, finally, I have sentiment for this sea." Truly the thoughts of a traveler—a traveler who fixes his gaze on unchanging human nature, so that nothing passes him by.
Ge Liang's Bio:
Born in 1978. Originally hailing from Nanjing, he now lives in Hong Kong. Received his PhD in Chinese from Hong Kong University. Currently holds a position at Hong Kong Baptist University. His writings have been published in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. Author of the short story collections Year of Drama, Enigma, Going Our Separate Ways, the novel Rosefinch, and the essay collection Sketches. Winner of the 2008 Hong Kong Arts Development Award, the 1st Hong Kong Book Award, the Unitas Literary Award for Best Short Work by a New Author, and The Liang Shiqiu Literary Award, among other prizes. His works were chosen by Wheatfield Publishing for their anthologies "Contemporary Chinese Novelists,""21st Century Chinese Literature,""2008-2009 Best Chinese Fiction," as well as their "Quality Selections". His long novel Rosefinch was picked by Asia Weekly as one of the ten best novels of 2009.
Seven Tones (2007) A collection of seven stories, mostly focused on the lives of ordinary people. With the exception of 'Zither', which is concerned with the emotions involved in being a grandparent concerns the feelings of grandparents, each story takes the name of the main characters as its title. 'Zither' and 'An's Story' are the outstanding stories of this collection. The expanded Hong Kong edition of Going Our Separate Ways is the only one that contains 'Ada and Steve', a story about a tragic fight for the "right of abode" in Hong Kong.
Enigma (2006) 'Enigma', the titular piece of this collection of seven short stories, won the 2006 Unitas Award for Best Short Story By A New Author. The story proceeds cautiously under the cover of its tranquil prose, until it suddenly sends shivers down your spine. As Ge Liang himself has remarked, it is a story of fate, of the way in which reality ruthlessly bores its way into life, revealing its fragile core; a theme which runs through the entirety of this collection. 'River Without a Shore' and "Material Life" both have an academic flavor while 'The 37th Floor: A Love Story' takes the start of the Cultural Revolution as its backdrop.
The Year of the Drama (2011) A collection of four short stories, mostly linked in some way to history. 'The Clay Lord' recounts the experiences of a sculptor. 'Ying Zhu', a story of travel through Sichuan and Tibet, should be read alongside the preface to Seven Tones entitled 'Their Voices'. In 'William', the main character falls in with a Chinese-Canadian man named William and from there, a deeper story about heritage develops. 'The Year of the Drama' is a novella that tells the story of childhood and adolescence as seen through the movies, and gives the history of several decades of Chinese cinema as seen through the personal experience of one man.
15. Sabrina Huang Liqun (Taiwan) – Stories Told in a Dark Cave
by Chen Yuxuan (trans. Poppy Toland)
Photo provided by the author
I read Huang Liqun's Welcome to the Dollhouse as part of a fiction module back when I was a graduate student. I saw the novel, with its protagonists Uncle Ah and the unnamed she, as obscenity blended with agility, while its indulgence in corporeal beauty forced me to consider the writing at every level, unsure exactly how to comprehend what I had just read. Love and possession form the two pillars of the female protagonist's existence. It is an existence so anguished that the reader experiences an unbearable itch, wishing to reveal everything to her. Paralysed and bedridden, she can't even respond to her boyfriend's e-mails. Her interface with the world reduced to only fingers, she can't even get out of bed by herself. In her newly disabled state, she learns commitment to the depths of her room. This cross she bears ruins any chance she has of happiness.
But it seems this isn't possible.
Huang Liqun's knifework is not the finest, but her strokes are most precise. It's unlikely that readers new to her work will understand what is written between her lines; their interpretations will probably be riddled with confusion. It is not that Huang hides things; she says everything that needs to be said. It is all in her precision plotting, the mise-en-scène of her characters, treated with great patience. In Cat Disease, for example, the plight of the cat, Meimi, changes the cat's owner from the subject to the object of the book. She appears to be taking her sick cat to the vet, but the reader already knows the prognosis. Huang's method is to show you the tip of a knife she is partially concealing. You know it is going to stab someone, but you keep turning the pages, often in tears.
In 'The Fortune-Teller', the protagonist makes predictions about life and death, none of which come true (don't they say that the secrets of the heavens can never be divulged?) Instead his life is filled with suffering. Most tragically, his own son, who has known him as an uncle from childhood, is unable to accept the truth when it is revealed to him, and yells: "Don't come any closer, I'm warning you, come no closer." Like lines written into the palm of one's hand, there is no changing one's future, no avoiding the hardships in store. This is what father and son realize, when they face each other for the first time, identities revealed.
When reading Huang Liqun's fiction be warned—you won't get any comfort from soft whispers. Rather, you can count on one page in this book (about love or illness or disfigurement) stopping you in your tracks, leaving you torn and unsettled.
In some of her earlier works, Huang shows signs of immaturity, and even now, her work shows a clever playfulness, an undiminished childishness, often put on for the sake of the reader. She positions these interludes in the parts of the cave where visibility is at its lowest, allowing readers a chance to understand its darkest depths.
Opening a book of hers is like entering an unexplored cave. There are people far ahead of you, and what sounds like footsteps behind you, although the echoes give nothing away about who is coming. It's just you, on your own, inside the cave, passing by a series of mural characters cloaked heavily in their stories, their stances ultimately pitiable. This sense of solitude is heightened by Huang's technique of avoiding names or surnames, of referring to her characters as simply 'you,' 'I,' or 'he.' You suspect that their creator is brimming with compassion but is unwilling to display it; she is intent on amusing, but only through sorrowful gestures. You walk very slowly, hesitating, and even occasionally turning around to glance behind you. When asked, 'Did you see anything in there?' you find yourself unable to respond—the words, which rumble around inside you, can't be shaped into an utterance. Reading Huang Liqun is like spelunking—it's normal to experience a loss of speech and a pounding heart.
Huang Liqun's Bio:
Born in 1979 in Taipei, Huang graduated from National Chengchi University's Department of Philosophy and went on to work in media. Her pen name is Jiu Jiu. Her published works include the story collections Fallen Xiao Luren, Eight Flowers Blossom, Nine Seams Split, and Welcome to the Dollhouse. In the course of her creative life, she has brought out three volumes of her accumulated short stories, only a third of which are published under her real name. Her writing is precise, with every word in its proper place, as she describes the feeling of being an outsider commonly experienced by those in the lower classes of society. Her eyes accustomed to city life, she sees right through Taiwan's weird wonders.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (2012) Designed so that the book's front cover resembles a half-open door, it is as if the novel itself is trying to pass through a tiny window. It pokes fun at the kind of people who steal the limelight but are in reality murky, sorrowful souls with hearts as cold as ice. Good use of dialogue and a sense of restriction surround the full, but stormy waves created by reading this book, which is cruel yet glowing with light. Huang Liqun continues the unique style of her two previous collections, although her writing here has a much more dense texture, cutting through the issues and entering an emotionally subtle and confusing space. She shows that while it might be hard to open a collection, it is just as hard to close one.
Fallen Xiao Luren (2001) In the preface to this book is a question worth asking: 'Why are you willing to spend the money on my book?' Huang Liqun has a point. Although it is said that writers all intend, to a greater or lesser extent, to keep themselves hidden, their methods of expression can be fleeting, or full of pomp and swagger, like Huang's. This book's plot reveals her fearless storytelling. Unpleasant tastes like deep-fried squid balls mixed with mothballs are dished out without regret. Many of the stories in this collection chill to the bone. Huang's strong grasp of the ways of the world make readers freeze with fear for her characters. However, as the book's title implies, with everyone running to and fro all day, if we're not careful, slip-ups will happen. This is the kind of book that keeps you on your toes, but amidst the cold sweat, you will give a knowing smile.
Eight Flower Blossoms, Nine Seams Split (2005) In her postscript, the author quotes from The Compendium of Five Lamps: 'When asked how is a seamless tower possible, the teacher's response is, "Eight flowers blossom and nine seams split."' This book is divided up into two parts which take their names from this idea. Only a limited amount of text fits within the thin columns, but each word is full of spark and meaning. These words are collected from Huang's wanderings in Taipei. Her characters cling onto cracks in the city, where they start to become deceitful and lonely. In Taipei, Huang strings beads professionally, while in her short stories, her needlework is every bit as deft—she never misses a stitch, particularly when writing about those many people unable to let go of their love.