A Sinophone "20 under 40"
Introducing Xu Rongzhe, Zhang Yaosheng, Wenren Yueyue, A Yi, and Gong Wanhui
by Shen Xiaofeng (trans. Yu Yan Chen)
Photo by Lin Jiaying
"Chekov is dead and Calvino no more, only I am still alive!" Xu Rongzhe has said with glee. Clearly, this writer is full of hot air, comparing himself to such masters! Still, if you take a closer look, there's something to these lines that characterizes Xu's fiction: always having the final say.
What might this mean? Let's look at a pivotal scene from Wandering Lake, which describes the effect of the September 21 earthquake on a small Taiwanese village. A dying village elder asks to speak to protagonist Halinshi in confidence. But before the village elder can address Halinshi, he passes away without a word. This gives Halinshi a blank check—a final say, if you will—that no one can refute. Soon, whatever the village elder had wanted to tell Halinshi becomes irrelevant; instead the story centers on how Halinsi uses this opportunity to turn his fortunes around.
Indeed, what matters in Xu's fiction is not the solution but the mystery solver. Once the mystery is revealed, the story is dead. It's the characters who are alive that might actively shape the story, and propel it to its different possibilities. This is really what Xu goes back to over and over in his stories—it's at the core of his fiction. With a background in science and engineering, Xu is adept at solving mysteries but even better at setting them up. Using logic and reasoning, he designs mazes full of emotions and poetry, albeit with a heart of darkness. Yes, 'heart of darkness': I've said the key words. Readers familiar with Xu's works will not find 'heart of darkness' an implausible phrase to associate with his fiction. Though it forms a constant theme in his work, it represents the part of his narratives that is most difficult to understand or emulate, because it doesn't involve technique but deals with human nature. Character is fate, after all, as the saying goes. It takes uncovering layers and layers in order to get to the murkiest regions of human nature. In the case of Xu's fiction, this murkiness can take the form of a secret or even of a murder. It can be the compulsive lies of a student (Time Soaked in Formalin), a faked suicide (Why does No One Believe Me?), or the truth forever buried by the September 21 earthquake at the beginning of Wandering Lake.
However, story is not the only way to set up a maze. In later works, such as The Tale Regarding the Loss of Important Words and Novel Clock, Xu has mastered narrative logic, delivering the story's exposition through the use of narrative forms. His experimentation isn't willful; rather, he deconstructs the narrative in order to delay discovery of the story's core, its design purposely hiding or distorting the order of events. For example, a repeating scene in The Tale Regarding the Loss of Important Words symbolizes the passing down of tragic circumstance from one character to another. If a story succeeds at emotion only through accumulation of detail, this means readers accumulate details in the way that Xu intends them to, in a different way than in traditional storytelling; but in the end the heartbreaking story still gets across. At this point, the medium has become the story, the story the medium.
I have worked with Xu at camps for creative writing. Sometimes he is my boss, sometimes my partner. I have observed, close up, how he racks his brain to 'torture' the students (of course, only after the staff themselves have been tortured). Later I realized that Xu lives his life as a novel: for feelings to arise in people, there must be obstacles. Climax needs design, thus foreshadowing. How to open a story, how to transition from one movement to the next, how to tie up a conclusion—it's not so much neat resolutions he cares about, but the story that continues in the reader's mind after the curtain has fallen, post-dream. The reader thus no longer experiences just a game, but in fact a literary conundrum. Indeed, Xu knows this better than anyone: a good fiction is really a mystery—a mystery that tests the reader's understanding of the world.
Xu Rongzhe's Bio:
Xu was born in 1974 and holds two MAs: one in Engineering for Sustainable Environments from National Taiwan University and another in Creative Writing from National Dong Hua University. Formerly a member of the mischievous "8P" and an editor of Unitas Magazine, he is currently the Artistic Director of the Gengxin Youth Writing Program and the Editor-in-Chief of Siye Publishing. Besides fiction, he has written a paper on water reservoirs, several screenplays for movies and TV series, children's books, and several books on writing, including Lessons about Fiction. Many students see him as the passionate Teacher Ah Kai in the Naturo cartoons, but he is actually more like the clever villain Orchimaru. His most powerful work will emerge once he completes training in all the different ninjutsus.
Wandering Lake (2008) The ingredients: an unfulfilled murder plot, a lake that can walk, a fool who turns into a clock, a teacher who loses her surname. These eccentric plots unfold cinematically, one by one. A novel that is ultimately about the riddle of time.
Hide and Seek (2002) Xu's award-winning debut short story collection displays his talent at using humor to deliver incredible tales. It caused Yang Zhao to compare Xu to Stephen King, and Giddens Ko to say he finally grasped "what award winning literary fiction is all about." However, it doesn't matter what the book taught Giddens Ko, it is more imperative that you hurry and get your own copy.
ㄩˋ一ㄢˊ [Fable]（2004）From its title of phonetic notations alone, you'll know that the novel doesn't take itself seriously. Reminiscent of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the story consists of rowdy scenes from a journey, told from the point of view of children. Li Yongping points out that this sort of 'on the road' narrative is a fictional genre rarely encountered in Taiwan. The tone is absurd, the stories full of banter yet pregnant with allegory.
7. Zhang Yaosheng (Taiwan) – As Shadows Draw Closer
by Lü Kunlin (trans. Drew Dixon)
Photo provided by the author
Have you experienced the sudden recollection of a story you read many years before; the writer and the plot are unclear, but you still remember an image—an image rendered in words and meticulously imprinted on your retina? Such images often arise from reading Zhang Yaosheng's stories; one suspects they are simply waiting for a lapse of attention to invade and unsettle us.
In 2000, Zhang received the First Prize of the National Students Literary Awards for his short story "Icarus." After this came other prizes great and small and a whole host of achievements, but as his reputation grew, Zhang started to notice the disjunction between prizes and the larger literary environment. A writer who maintains a proper distance from the 'scene,' and who treasures the role of 'creator,' Zhang withdrew from the literary world after the publication of his short story collection Seam, to return eight years later with the novel The Woman on the Far Shore. In an interview with the China Times after the latter's publication, Zhang indicated that he will henceforth only write works that he wants to write.
Excepting differences in length and plot, what gives readers pause in both his latest and his debut is the two works' high degree of dramatization, to the point of producing an alternate, symbolic space. In these kinds of passages, the reader is made to feel anxious, disquieted; one even runs the risk of overlooking the blatantly forced narratives used to construct these very spaces.
Zhang's alternate spaces are painted in a base shade of umber and peopled with dismal, ghostly wanderers who are perhaps even possessed. Take the narrow garret of "Seam," or Room 420 of "The Blue Neckband" and "Friends"; then there are the funereal and labyrinthine forests of "Icarus," the overcast mountains in The Woman on the Far Shore—whether in a factory or along a mountain pass, shadows lie in wait.
In addition to these spaces, Zhang's work is also notable for the way his language communicates and interacts with contemporary poetry. For example, the wildly different tri-generation relationships enacted in Seam's titular short story seethe with ferocity and mutual cruelty, putting one in mind of Su Shaolian's poem, "Seven Foot Cloth." Su writes that "growth" is a completely ill-fitting mangle of flesh and blood that a mother fashions out of her child's very cloth—a gentle destruction filled with warmth. In "Seam," the grandmother and father face each other in a conflict that might as well be the final, fatal version of "Seven Foot Cloth"; all the reader can do is read on in dumb amazement and wonder: How did their quarrel turn into such absolute enmity?
Then all we see is the father tightly grasping a shadow with both hands and thrusting it, both feet on the sewing machine pedal, under the point of the needle. Repeatedly pierced by the needle, this shadow falls to the ground like scattered sand. Then, as pitch-black night rises around his feet, the father continues to pedal, piercing and shredding the grandmother's shadow with all his being, while the fallen fragments of the grandmother transform into a stream of water, a gauzy veil, a strip of black winding around the father and sewing him into a place beyond the physical world.
Perhaps it is our anticipation of these twisted human emotions, set down so assuredly by Zhang, that makes us willing to follow line after line into his alternate universes, even though we know they may be haunted. His nocturnal stories awaken in us repressed anxiety after repressed anxiety only to finally drive out all our fears—pitching a slow, firefly light of hope into the dark.
Zhang Yaosheng's Bio:
Born in 1975, Zhang Yaosheng is said to have been drawn to literature through fortuitous misreadings: In junior high, his mother sent him to buy some books about real estate, but he accidentally bought Zhang Dachun's novel Apartment Guide instead, and discovered fiction. Then, as a student of statistics at Tunghai University, he found a black cat on his balcony one early morning; then, consulting books on pet rearing, he came across Edgar Allen Poe's The Black Cat. He at once decided to transfer to the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature.
Seam (2003) Zhang's first collection, comprising seven short stories, debates themes of familial love and friendship throughout. The denouncement of the school system, elevated to the level of symbol, is quite shocking and suggests in no uncertain terms Zhang's conviction that therein lie all the oppression and damage of growing up. Commenting on Zhang's work, Yuan Zhesheng says, "In his work, I feel as if I'm seeing him pick up the broken fragments of this world and sew them together carefully, with trembling hands and eyes full of pity."
The Woman on the Far Shore (2011) Sculptor characters frequently stand in for artistic creation. In this novel, Zhang's sculptor protagonist adds a lofty artistic devotion to the twisted pains and sorrows of his predecessors. Still, he is not immune to earthly entanglements and ends up turning into the coarsest of cynics.
8. Wenren Yueyue (Hong Kong) – Peace In An Age of Rootlessness
by Zhang Wanwen (trans. Drew Dixon)
Photo provided by the author
As someone of Wenren Yueyue's generation, her work—especially "The Gilded Age"—takes me back to the days of my youth, back to that teenage feeling of reading Yi Shu during my middle-school years.
The works of Yi and Wenren share many elements and themes: protagonists recurring in different stories; life abroad in Europe and America; educated and accomplished men and women who live in big cities; a dignified life of high salaries and cultivated tastes; the search for a bit of the bohemian lifestyle while still remaining firmly within one's comfort zone; and, most importantly, romances that, although not lacking for passion, having run their course, end amicably and peacefully, with neither side losing their cool or making a fuss—romances in which no-one could possibly break down crying, as that would mean a loss of dignity.
That's why reading "The Gilded Age" kept me up all night, even after I'd finished reading it. Although I am a middle-aged woman for whom romance has long become a thing of the past, that night I was overcome with a feeling I had not felt for a long time: a chaotic yearning churning about within me, like long-dormant butterflies fluttering in my stomach.
It took all my willpower to regain self-control. After all, I'm no longer young and to break down crying would have been a loss of dignity. Such is the "Gilded Age" of the middle aged.
Of course, Wenren and Yi are two distinct people. The former's artistic ambition is not to portray a particular type of people—such as modern urban women—but to capture an era, an entire generation. What resonates with people is that, while some writers set themselves up as prophets or moral teachers, Wenren does not. Her readers should not expect to receive words of wisdom or tidy aphorisms. And unlike Yi, Wenren does not take on an acerbic tone or attempt to expose hollowness from without. Instead of setting herself apart from her generation, Wenren walks with it, writes from within it.
And that generation is made up of those born in the 1970s, people from the so-called "Gilded Age," when the economies of mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong were taking off under relatively stabler political conditions. Wenren frequently draws upon the period of her childhood and adolescence in the 70s and 80s, her life in Hangzhou, friendships from school days, and settings such as her grandparents' cauliflower fields, along with the air raid shelters of that older generation. Wenren carried these experiences to New York, observing Manhattan, Taipei, and the rootlessness of young city-dwellers she met therein. Yet she does not step back from their lives to assess their values; Wenren is herself one of these people. She expresses the mixed feelings they all share. On the one hand, there is a sense of homesickness. On the other, there is the feeling of being rather well-suited to life abroad. And all of this is what is captured in the Chinese phrase, 'chuan lian,' i.e. 'making connections.'
'Making connections' is the main theme of Wenren's novel Huang Xiao Ai. The term originally referred to a country-wide youth movement that took place during the Cultural Revolution in which students roamed about the country riding trains free of charge. Wherever they went, they were received by the local student organizations and provided with free food and lodging. The movement's mood of romanticism swept across the whole country.
But the Cultural Revolution long became a thing of the past; and the post-adolescent form of 'making connections' of course cannot include free train fare, food, and lodging. However, this way of life—bouncing between cities, greeting everyone as if there were no one who wasn't already an old friend—is always present within Wenren's works, whether hidden in the background or clearly present in the foreground. The faint traces of a former era.
To the generation born in the 1970s, the Tian'anmen Square incident of 1989 constituted a deep connection, serving as a shared secret, an unspoken bond through which people can share an understanding without needing to speak a word. Similarly, September 11th let old friends who'd lost touch with one another come together again. And, in Wenren's "The Gilded Age," it even brings together new lovers:
Xiao Yi and I spent an entire afternoon praising the story, "Love in a Fallen City". It's not a typical beautiful fairy tale—it's full of helplessness. The war helped bring together the story's main couple, but rather than saying it was because of love, it implied that accepting a compromise is preferable to pursuing love. Since at that time, our lives had not yet fallen apart, we were in awe, feeling that the situation of having no way out had its own kind of beauty. I think that the love that Ni Chang and Chong Guang have is just an ordinary kind of love, and that this type is relatively better.
Huang Xiao Ai portrays what might be called a modernized romance: one that comes from one's own choices, not from being brainwashed by the values of the age, and the result of which mostly accords with one's expectations. And, I think that the novel's beginning and ending can be taken as emblematic of the feelings and expectations expressed in Wenren's work. At the beginning of the story, the first-person narrator is in a hotel room, at midnight, and receives a phone call from a stranger. By the end of the story, the stranger who called the narrator at the beginning—the character whose name provides the novel's title, Huang Xiao Ai—becomes one of the narrator's friends. That is why Wenren says, "At least the story's conclusion is not a terribly tragic ending."
The conclusion of Huang Xiao Ai is a moment of hesitation where an opportunity is lost. Whether this is for better or for worse, one cannot say. Wenren Yueyue's characters all attempt to hold on tightly to the past, while also trying to face an unknown future.
Wenren Yueyue's Bio:
As the author is always forced to explain (because the surname sounds unusual and the given name too fitting for an author): Wenren Yueyue is not a pseudonym but is in fact her real name. Wenren is a Zhejiang-province surname. Yueyue, or 'takes pleasure in reading' comes from her parents' hope that she would enjoy reading. Wenren Yueyue was born in 1975, in the city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. She worked in New York for ten years and now lives in Hong Kong. Though she studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate and finance in graduate school, the September 11th tragedy moved her to write. "The Gilded Age" was the result and won her the 2001 Unitas New Writers Prize for Novellas (First Prize).
Record of a Gold Rush (2011) Wenren's most recent novel, one of Asia Weekly's "10 Notable Novels of 2011." The story takes up the theme addressed in her oeuvre: that of young adult friendships—but adds a new element: In a generation defined by a surging economy, no one wants to miss out on get-rich opportunities. At the same time, however, her characters long for authenticity and true connection, and are forced to make hard decisions.
The Gilded Age (2003) A collection of novellas and short stories comprising seven stories including the prize-winning "The Gilded Age." This collection, too, has recollections of young love, along with stories that take England and America as their settings. It is clear that it follows the trajectory of the writer's coming of age: from being a child in a relatively open, liberal, and prosperous setting, to going abroad and leading a life of even greater freedom, and then, after 9/11, confronting society's pitfalls and frailties.
Huang Xiao Ai (2005) A novel with two distinct narrative threads: one follows a first-person narrator who lives and works in New York; the other follows Huang Xiao Ai, who is growing up in western China. Aside from the difference in setting between these two narrative threads, there is also difference in time period—it's a novel that might be said to 'make connections across space and time.'
9. A Yi (China) – The Bullet that Cuts through Reality and Absurdity
by Mu Ye (trans. Helen Wang)
Photo provided by the author
A Yi is a writer who has known hardship. In the time he spent as a police officer, he encountered many corpses, each having met with a very specific and cruel death. The deaths' specificity was what made them real to him; their cruelty made them stories waiting to be told. In the short story "Never Meant to Kill," he tells one such tale, and even gives his real name (Ai Guozhu) to one of the dead people in the story.
An admirer of literature with depth and technique, A Yi's own work sparkles with intelligence. Life may cheat you, he has said, and it may go on cheating you, but you shouldn't cheat yourself. A Yi may not know which is the right way forward, but he has a high regard for the body—for its ability to react violently–, and for the human spirit and its propensity for independence. His stories have a common thread: Oppression and vulgarity are always defeated, freedom always the hard-earned prize....
One of the first people to notice A Yi's unique qualities was Luo Yonghao, who recommended his Stories of Grey for publication. In this collection, "Documents," "In Exile," and "Five Million Chinese Characters" are especially noteworthy; even the other stories that could have been executed with better rhythm, or could have been more convincingly told, have a brute force that is quite special.
From the start, A Yi, who has learnt from the masters, has also imitated them. For example, his The Bird Saw Me is reminiscent of the Grimms' fairytale "The Bright Sun Brings it to Light," in which a man who murdered a Jew for his money is ultimately captured after scorning the Jew's titular warning. Both stories tell of greed leading to bad luck, and of marrying and starting over in a new place. Both stories concern eyewitnesses, and show how psychological shadows can direct the divulging of secrets until all is finally exposed. In A Yi's story, the bird takes the place of the Grimms' sun but nonetheless echoes their story's strange rhetoric. Many similarities exist between the fairytale and A Yi's three-narrator novel, and no one can fail to see the great skill that has gone into transforming the former into a Chinese story and bringing it up to date.
In the chilling short story "First to Know," the introspective protagonists believe that life is just killing time between active and passive modes, between the intentional and the unintentional. If these characters seem to contain shades of Borges and Camus, A Yi would add Faulkner, Alessandro Baricco, and Isaac Bashevis Singer to the list of writers he takes a page from. Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Marquez, Yu Hua, and especially Kafka are other acknowledged influences. Yet this should not be understood as stealing from these masters: as much as A Yi has familiarized himself with the style of these western greats, he has at the same time rooted his work in a Chinese reality. Far from being stiff copies, his works, rendered in an utterly contemporary voice, burst with personality and soul. No wonder Bei Dao praised him as one of the best novelists writing in Chinese today.
A Yi's Bio:
A Yi (real name Ai Guozhu) was born in 1976 in Ruichang, Jiangsu. A former police officer, he now works for a publishing house in Beijing. His work has appeared in the literary journals Today and People's Literature. He has written two volumes of short stories The Story of Grey and The Bird Saw Me, a volume of essays and fiction Speaking as the Emperor, and a novella Now What Should I Do? The recipient of a People's Literature short story award, A Yi was selected as one of the Top Twenty Authors of the Future. In April 2012 he won the Newcomer Award at the Chinese Literature Media Awards.
The Bird Saw Me (2010) A stunning collection of ten stories for the 21st century. Notable works include "Never Meant to Kill" and "Valentine's Day Explosion," which are exquisite, as well as the excellent "First to Know."
Speaking as the Emperor (2011) This novel, intermingling fiction, poetry, and pithy one-liners ("The desert is so abstract it needs a few dry corpses to make it real"), has the feel of a blog. Containing the stuff of dreams, painful experiences, eureka moments, infatuations, and illusions, some pieces are 10 to 20 pages, others just 10 to 20 words.
Now What Should I Do? (2012) A widely commended tragic novella about a teenager who kills a schoolgirl on the day before the gaokao (the national exam that will determine his future). Eventually brought to justice, he tries to explain his actions before he is given the death penalty.
10. Gong Wanhui (Malaysia) – Life and Death Roadblocks in Time's Maze
by Huang Weishuang (trans. Poppy Toland)
Photo provided by the author
I first encountered Gong Wanhui's work when my university became part of the Internet community. I saw a poem he had published on the bulletin board system and an essay he had posted on his blog. He was quite active on the Internet back then and had a good reputation within Malaysian literary circles. His unique lyrical style left a deep impression on me.
It was later that I properly met Wanhui. I was studying at Hualien Dong Hwa University. He and his wife, Wanjun, were visiting and we were introduced by a friend. He was quiet and contained. Mostly he said nothing, just listened. Sitting there next to his wife, it seemed as if he had entered another world. Occasionally he would chip in a word or two before returning to that world.
At middle school, Gong, who was part of a writing group, got into Malaysia's Coconut House—a literary journal, as well as into the works of writers from Hong Kong and Taiwan. He also tried his hand at writing poetry and fiction. His mother was a writer and their house was filled with tomes by Malaysian Chinese writers, many of which he avidly read. Later on, he went to Taiwan to study art. Even when immersed in the world of painting, he still read and wrote; during this time, he sent in an entry for a writing competition organised by the Malaysia and Taiwan Alumni Association.
His artistic training would influence his writing style subtly. He would become a master of observation from the time he spent with the realist paintings he studied. In writing, he would begin first with an image in his mind, then work steadily to transform image into text. Detail became of utmost importance.
Writing constitutes Gong's response to the world — not in the way a mirror reflects reality but in the way a prism reflects light, "in all its different wavelengths, intertwined like the seven colours of the rainbow." Reality is ultimately subjective after all, contingent upon the perceiver's emotional state. Yet the world he describes so unassumingly in his writing also seems to exist completely on its own.
Skilled in a variety of genres—in fact, he was a prolific poet, before getting into fiction—Gong is a rarity among Malaysian Chinese writers.
It was The Room Next Door, which won the 26th United Daily News Literature Prize (Prose), that made him a familiar name to Taiwanese readers. In this work, he challenges death and calls it fabricated thought. In some passages, the amount of remembered detail is astounding; it is almost as if language were his defense against unstoppable Time. Gong, whose parents have passed on, has said, "Art is not only a form of defence. Perhaps it is more a form of love, a form of reconciliation, a form of talking about the past."
Gong's work moves away from the imagery commonly portrayed in Malaysian Chinese literature, the tropical terrain, the rain forests, the rubber plantations. Instead he is interested in the concept of 'space': the space of memory, spaces retrieved from the past. They might be: a nook under an altar, holes in the wall, a dormitory. Through his magical, somniloquacious descriptions, these spaces become frosted up, tightly sealed, as if in a time capsule.
But above all, Gong seems to turn to writing for answers about life's meaning, in the face of mortality. Time is a labyrinthine construction in his fiction, visited by dreams; Time is, as he describes it, viscous, and slow, and stagnant. Obstacles—that he has placed himself—slow him down even further. Within such a construct, Gong the writer, who cannot bring himself to forget, gazes around everywhere.
Gong Wanhui's Bio:
Gong Wanhui was born in Malaysia in 1976, although his family originated from Jinjiang, Fujian province. In 1996 he moved to Taiwan, where he studied at National Taiwan Normal University's Department of Fine Arts. The First-Prize winner of Taiwan's United Daily News Literature Prose Awards, Gong also won First Prize in the Malaysia Hua Zhong Prize for Literature Novel and Prose Awards several times. His publications include The Room Next Door (fiction), The Morning School Bus (a collection of essays), and Lighter than Loneliness (a book of paintings). Together with Weng Wanjun, he co-authored a music and lifestyle magazine called Rewind. He is currently engaged in writing and painting full-time.
The Room Next Door (2006) Gong's debut, collecting the literary pieces written during his days in the university up till 2005, including the work that won him the United Daily News Literature Prose Award. Several writings here straddle the line between fiction and essay.
Morning School Bus (2007) According to Gong, "This book recreates all my schoolboy memories. But much of it is fiction as well." Consisting of 63 nostalgic short pieces, the collection showcases Gong's lyricism and penchant for detail.
Rewind (2007) A music and lifestyle magazine co-authored with fellow Malaysian Chinese writer Weng Wanjun, collecting their newspaper columns on music. Lyrically written.
translated from the Chinese by "And Other Stories Chinese Reading Group" members
Click here to read the essays 1 through 5 in "A Sinophone '20 under 40'" (Part I/IV).
Click here to read the essays 11 through 15 in "A Sinophone '20 under 40'" (Part III/IV).
Click here to read the essays 16 through 20 in "A Sinophone '20 under 40'" (Part IV/IV).
"A Sinophone '20 under 40'" marks a collaboration with Unitas Magazine, in which content is exchanged. In return for our translating and publishing this set of essays, Unitas Magazine published in their September 2012 issue an excerpt, via Francis Li Zhuoxiong's Chinese translation (which we commissioned), of Dominique Eddé's forthcoming novel Kite, that first appeared in our July 2012 issue.
We would like to thank Jiang Chenxin especially for her role in helping us rope in members of the And Other Stories Chinese Reading Group to participate in this project.