Farewell to Chutzpah!

"Disappointingly, Chutzpah!’s life was cut short just as we got to the point where we had...consistent(ly)...high-quality pieces."

The radically cosmopolitan Chutzpah!, a bimonthly journal published in China, debuted in 2011 to critical acclaim. But late last month, its Editor-in-Chief Ou Ning announced that Chutzpah! would be shutting down. This news was greeted with great dismay among the many followers of the beautiful print magazine. In a short period of time, Chutzpah! had established itself as the Chinese literary journal du jour. Not only did it introduce important contemporary Western voices such as Roberto Bolaño, Jesmyn Ward and Junot Diaz to the Chinese reading public via Chinese translation, it also presented a dazzling range of emerging Chinese voices, showcasing even ethnic minorities. Many of these authors have also been translated into English for the English mini-journal that is inserted within the pages of the journal. In this way, the magazine connects the latest crop of Chinese writers to English-speaking readers.

As a co-collaborator with Chutzpah! on two occasions (first, for a simultaneous publication in the October 2012 issue and, second, for a panel of literary editors in Beijing in January 2013), we were naturally saddened by the magazine’s closure and wanted to find out more. So our Editor-in-Chief Lee Yew Leong arranged for the following interview with Chutzpah!‘s English editor Austin Woerner.

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Lee Yew Leong: Chutzpah! was a breath of fresh air when it first burst onto the scene. Everything about the magazine, from its slick design to its ambitious cosmopolitanism and the quality of its writing, was meant to make you sit up. But I feel I haven’t described it well enough for our readers—could you, as editor, explain the mission and mode of Chutzpah! that made it stand apart from other journals?

Austin Woerner: Sure, I’ll do my best. I should note, though, that my role was mostly limited to commissioning and editing translations. Ou Ning was the impresario of the whole endeavor, and it was he who conceived of the magazine, not me.

Chutzpah! was a bimonthly literary journal published primarily for a Chinese-speaking audience, with a fifty-page English-language mini-journal, or “parasite,” sandwiched inside the Chinese magazine. What was unique about Chutzpah! was that it didn’t see itself as a journal of Chinese literature per se, but rather as part of a global literary conversation. You mentioned its “cosmopolitanism”—the magazine’s Chinese editors were very plugged into international literary goings-on, and in addition to translating “hot” Western writers into Chinese—Arundhati Roy, Roberto Bolaño, Jesmyn Ward, and Junot Diaz are a few of the bigger names—we collaborated with n+1 and A Public Space, and published interviews with prominent Western intellectuals. But that’s just one facet of the magazine’s identity. A big part of Ou Ning’s mission was to promote the work of younger Chinese writers and some older ones who hadn’t gotten the attention they deserved, and to create a niche in the Sinophone literary ecosphere for more offbeat, unconventional writing. The issues were themed and carefully curated, and the style was eclectic—we published everything from traditional realism to avant-garde experimentation to scifi, fantasy, and detective fiction—and our Sinophone contributors hailed both from mainland China (including ethnic minorities like Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and Yi), and from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and throughout the Chinese diaspora, from Singapore and Malaysia to the U.S. and the U.K.

This all refers to the Chinese part of the magazine. As far as the English supplement goes, the notion was to make some of these new Sinophone writers available in English so that their work might eventually find readers outside of China and the exchange might become more bidirectional.

According to an interview with Ou Ning, each edition issue cost 80,000 USD to produce. Last year Chutzpah! went from a bimonthly journal to a quarterly, presumably in an attempt to rescue the magazine from its financial woes. 

Yes, it was a question of money. I don’t know what costs were involved in designing, printing, and distributing, but I do know that the magazine paid a fair wage to both its editors and translators—a rare thing—and that alone must have added up. The reduction to quarterly last summer was a cost-cutting measure. So when we got the news two weeks ago that the magazine was closing, it didn’t come completely out of the blue.

What I appreciated about Chutzpah! was that it had its finger on the pulse of contemporary Chinese literature. Who are some of the writers making waves today that debuted in Chutzpah! (in the original Chinese)?

My sense is that Zhou Kai and He Wapi were two of the most exciting finds for the Chinese editors, and they came right out of the slushpile. I’m sure there are quite a few other Chinese authors whose careers Chutzpah! helped launch…

What are your proudest accomplishments as Chutzpah!’s English editor? Which writers were you especially thrilled to introduce for the first time to English readers?

What satisfied me most was to have had a hand in creating a community of Chinese-English literary translators, and to have given a handful of translators, particularly younger ones, a chance to hone their craft and encounter new authors. When I started as English editor, my first priority was to make sure that translating for Chutzpah! was a worthwhile experience for our translators. So even though we often operated on a breakneck schedule, I insisted on having a complete editorial process, giving translators detailed responses and line edits and building in at least a couple days for revision and back and forth. I thought of “Peregrine” as a kind of translation incubator, where Chinese-English translators could cut their teeth on new authors and forms with the benefit of editorial feedback and in a friendly environment.

It was particularly invigorating to watch first-time translators of fiction grappling with the kinks and eccentricities of Chinese prose, bringing their own ingenuity to bear on a particularly complex metaphor or a hard-to-tune passage of dialogue, and sometimes producing a breathtaking image or an absolutely spot-on characterization. And I was tickled pink whenever a translator asked for a writer’s email address, because I knew that some chemistry must’ve happened there, and Chutzpah! might’ve struck the spark of a longer-term collaboration.

Disappointingly, Chutzpah!’s life was cut short just as we got to the point where we had a pretty consistent batting average for high-quality pieces and could start thinking about seeking a larger readership outside of China. I was working on an e-edition of “Peregrine,” and had just begun shopping around a proposal for an anthology of our “greatest hits” when the news came. (If you’re a publisher interested in such an anthology and you’re reading this, please don’t hesitate to get in touch—we’re still interested in doing this!). But I hope that the work we did at Chutzpah! will continue to filter out into the world. I was proudest of Issue #8 of “Peregrine,” which was very strong all-around; of #11, our Xinjiang issue, which included some extremely evocative nonfiction writing, and, in painting a portrait of a region, came closest to constituting a coherent whole; and of #16, a sampler of international poetry by poets born after 1989, which actually included only one Chinese poet. Some of the Chinese authors who particularly intrigued me were Zhu Yue, Lu Nei, Lu Min, Wang Bang, Ren Xiaowen, Shen Wei, Li Zishu, and Yu Youyou, all of whom published solid work that came across successfully in English.

Can you let us into your decision-making process behind selecting pieces to translate (either into English or Chinese)? What determines why writer “A” should be selected over writer “B”? As English editor, how much say did you have in this process? 

I didn’t have much say about translations into English—Ou Ning chose the pieces, and I tried to match them up with translators whose tastes and skill sets seemed to suit them. Usually Ou Ning chose his favorite pieces from past issues, and “Peregrine” didn’t have any thematic connection to the rest of the magazine. Then sometimes we’d do a more consciously curated one, like the Xinjiang issue or the Diamond Generation issue, which was always hair-raising to put together because of time constraints, but often produced unique results.

I did sometimes play a role in choosing work to translate into Chinese. I chose excerpts from n+1’s coverage of the Occupy Movement for “The Revolutions,” selected the seven pieces from A Public Space in “Worlds Apart,” and put together the international poetry section in “The Diamond Generation.” But for the most part the foreign writers featured in the magazine were chosen by Ou Ning and other Chinese editors literate in English.

What plans do you have now that the magazine is closing?

In addition to translating and writing, I’ll be keeping an eye out for other opportunities to edit Chinese literature in English translation. If you know of any, do get in touch!

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Read “War Among the Insects,” Asymptotes collaboration with Chutzpah!, from our October 2012 Issue.

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Austin Woerner is the translator of Doubled Shadows: Selected Poetry of Ouyang Jianghe (Zephyr, 2012), Phoenix by Ouyang Jianghe (forthcoming from Zephyr, 2014), and The Invisible Valley, a novel by Su Wei (still unpublished). He has a bachelor’s in East Asian Studies from Yale, an MFA in creative writing from the New School, and a complicated travel itinerary involving three continents over the course of the next year.

Lee Yew Leong is the founding editor of Asymptote. He is the author of three hypertexts, one of which won the James Assatly Memorial Prize for Fiction (Brown University). Currently based in Taipei, he has published in The New York TimesWords Without Borders, and DIAGRAM, among others.

  • Martin Winter

    可惜!I wonder if you can still buy old issues. I would be interested in the Xinjiang issue, for example.

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