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, fanciful—she 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.
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.
It’s always been too big for me, Phoenix’s hand covers Winter Pine’s hand, they both have their hands on it, a vein in the thing throbs gently. Does it get bigger? Winter Pine asks. Sometimes…But not very big, it does something like when a cat wakes up and does a cat-stretch. Less and less often now. Phoenix says. They spend some time examining the thing, it is evidently still alive, breathing and squirming, but it shows no sign of getting bigger or harder. What a shame, Winter Pine says, I’d really like to see what an erection looks like.
Your turn, Phoenix says, in a firm but not aggressive tone, I want to see it. Should I take my clothes off myself? Winter Pine asks. I want to watch you take your clothes off, Phoenix says. Winter Pine had imagined he was going to be very nervous, though once the shirt was off, all the other clothes should be really easy, yet he decides instead to start by taking off his boots, socks, jeans, underwear (there’s really no issue below the waist), then shirt, t-shirt, sports bra, wait Phoenix says, moving her hand towards Winter Pine’s chest, I didn’t expect them to be so big she kneads and fondles the breasts beneath Winter Pine’s sports bra I bet your nipples are pink Phoenix says enviously, you’re overthinking this, Winter Pine pulls the bra right off.
They move almost simultaneously, their hearts beating as one, they stand at the dressing mirror by the closet, pressing their bodies close together so both their reflections can fit into the mirror’s frame, the two naked bodies reversed on the mirror’s flat surface, like a picture, they’re practically the same height, Phoenix seems slender when she has her clothes on but naked now her shoulders looks broad, her collarbone is prominent, and the Adam’s apple can just barely be made out, her skin is relatively white, the waist soft and slim, while Winter Pine’s shoulders are smooth and round, the upper arms sturdy, the result of sustained biceps training, but the bone structure is slight, it’s the toned muscles which pull the body together, the breasts slant considerably to the side, to some degree the breasts have already been trained to muscle, the areolas, the size of coins, are a light brown colour, while the nipples, smaller than fingertips, are a darker brown, as for Phoenix’s breasts, the operation was a beautiful success, the tips taper upwards like bamboo shoots, areolas and nipples are the same tender pink, with the nipple as tiny as a red bean, the lower breast a sumptuous handful, her shoulders broad, her hips narrow, with long legs, along with her perfect breasts, she has the body of a model, she is gorgeous.
We’re like twins, Phoenix says, though they don’t actually resemble each other, but something about them produces a similar impression, or you might say that they have each in their own way made a supreme effort to transition out of the sex they once had, so that this current, this performance year after year, this convergence has given them a “categorical similarity.” Transgender.
Phoenix has taken it farther.
The two of them seem to be authenticating each other, their gazes fixed on each other, touching each other, comparing each other’s bodies, and these with the reflections in the mirror. Their butts are about evenly matched, My butt doesn’t fill out nicely, it’s too flat, but your butt’s small, it suits your body Phoenix complains coquettishly, I guess your thighs are naturally slender she goes on, their backs are to the mirror and they both look back, both of them have beautiful slopes running from their shoulders to their butts. They finish looking, hold hands and turn around, walk towards the bed, tumble onto it one after the other. But everything about you is natural, right? Phoenix lovingly caresses Winter Pine’s breasts, going on, everything I have is created. Winter Pine chuckles, nothing’s really natural. Natural isn’t necessarily truer than fake.
Phoenix’s pubic hair is thick and curly, but Winter Pine’s is sparse and patchy, it almost goes up to his navel, Phoenix says, your pubic hair is straight and flat, everyone I know like that is tender-hearted. They spend a long time comparing these details, then they embrace.
Winter Pine asks her, as you transition into a woman does your breath start to taste different, does the consistency of your saliva change? Phoenix answers, before when I was a guy I never kissed anybody, later everyone I kissed had a beard and they always tasted of cigarettes. You’re the first one who has soft lips. And now? I’m not sure what we should do now? Winter Pine asks. Now that you’ve seen my whole body do you still want me? Phoenix asks, Winter Pine swallows a few times and says, sure l do…But I don’t know what I should do. Phoenix hangs on his neck and says, I don’t know what to do, either, let’s just give it a try. Side by side, they look at each other, it’s like a shell has suddenly clapped shut, their bodies close tightly against each other, head against head, hands locked firmly behind the other’s back, Phoenix raises her legs and straddles Winter Pine’s body, her penis is soft, it presses against the depression in Winter Pine’s crotch, so gently.
We’ll start from the beginning. Let’s kiss.
The night they first met, the bar was pretty happening. Two different groups of friends had arranged a meet-up, a dozen people making quite a ruckus, in the crowd they recognized each other, it was a natural effect. Winter Pine was entirely aware that Phoenix had been a guy, even though she was so beautiful, just as Phoenix also knew that Winter Pine had been a girl, even though he was so handsome, during the event in the bar, they had only looked at each other from afar, experiencing a kind of mysterious feeling that this concerns me directly, they couldn’t take their eyes off each other, something is going to happen between us, it’s inevitable, each of them was thinking, their mutual friends were standing up, sitting down, shaking hands, making introductions, this is so-and-so, that’s so-and-so, so-and-so-and-so, cheerful babble drifting between the seats, teasing, flirtation, they were not the most peculiar people in the bar, they were calm enough, but they each couldn’t help thinking that this certain someone had appeared, had embedded himself, herself, in a tender corner of their own heart, just right, though neither of them knew how best to proceed.
It was Winter Pine who first asked Phoenix to go out with him, that night everybody had friended everybody on Facebook, exchanged cell numbers, so they could send messages by LINE or on other apps right away, all the newfangled forms of friendship, but for Winter Pine all those stickers you could send on the apps seemed a little abrupt, Phoenix uninhibitedly posted pictures from life and little updates on Facebook, but on Winter Pine’s Facebook there was only the picture which recorded the sunrise and sunset every day, he sent her a message asking for her e-mail, then asked for her address, then he formally wrote a letter, pen on paper, inviting her out for a coffee date.
They’ve met a little earlier today in front of the café, both of them are twenty-six, perfect hair and make-up make Phoenix look a little more mature, at the café, Phoenix is dressed in women’s clothing, Winter Pine has a not entirely masculine, an androgynous, look, they appear well-matched, they catch the eye.
They started talking in the afternoon and it has gone on until the middle of the night, they’ve switched cafés twice, then they go to the 24-hour McDonald’s until two in the morning, it’s like they have a lifetime of things which they need to talk over with each other, they go neither too fast nor too slow, the venue changes, they drink copious amounts of liquid, it slips through the buildings like a current, flows slowly towards a particular chair, ascends the table, trickles to the floor. When the McDonald’s closes, they set out into the dark night streets, very naturally they take each other by the arm, almost like a middle-aged married couple, Phoenix says there’s a park nearby, so they wander into the park, Winter Pine remembers that he spent bitter hours waiting for girls here during his college years, in front of the children’s slide, where the ground is covered in cigarette butts, just like in earlier years, thrown away and stubbed out underfoot. When the walking has tired them out, they go back into the McDonald’s, find a table where they can sit face-to-face, and continued gradually turning all the things they have to say into words. It isn’t hard to tell each other about their past lives, all they need is enough time, a lot of details in their lives are quite different, you might even say they don’t have a lot of similarities, they do not acquire that mysterious sensation of understanding each other without speaking a word, it is just the opposite sensation, it is that they have to explain themselves completely to each other, simultaneously, equally, and from the heart. So that’s what they do.
Phoenix says that as long as she’s been aware of anything she’s thought of herself as a girl, I’ve been doing everything I can these few years to change sex completely Phoenix says, when she was a kid she didn’t know there were different genders, and her doting parents let her wear the dresses she loved until she had a growth spurt, when she went to elementary school she finally understood that she was classed in the realm of boys, regarded as a pretty little boy, but then it became necessary to conceal her desires. At seventeen she left with her parents for Canada and the following year she began regular hormone injections, at twenty she had the breast operation, at twenty-two she began the facial feminization surgery, with the wilfulness of a Capricorn she had painstakingly undergone this process of becoming her, which has consumed several years, but at the final stage, when she had finished university and come back to Taiwan with her whole family, she had been excused from military duty on account of a valgus deformity of the arm, but because she has been busy with further studies and work, she has put off the final phase of the operation, which she had meant to do at twenty-four, now the delay has already lasted two years. Two years: some people said the more you thought about things like that the likelier you would be to give up. I’m halfway a woman now Phoenix says, so half of me is still male, I keep thinking that when I find my Prince Charming I’ll have the operation done. Are you that person Phoenix asks. In the park a half-moon is shining in the sky, the shadow seems to be encroaching, it’s as though it’s about to consume the brightness, the moonlight gets even brighter, the dark shadows get even darker, they embrace, for a long time they are silent. Is this what is called love, or isn’t it? Neither of them stop to settle this question, because they have more important things to ascertain. It is like their bodies and souls are symmetrical, like they are each what is sometimes called the “missing other half.”
Phoenix asks Winter Pine whether Winter Pine thinks he ought to be a man. Winter Pine says he’s never wanted sex reassignment but he’s always thought that he’s “some kind of a man.” Not a man entirely, but man enough, he’s dreamt of pissing standing up, and in his dream he measured the size and hardness of the penis, it felt like some kind of fruit, the “tomboy” called Mike he knows at the bar has asked him if he wanted to have hormone therapy, then his voice would get coarser and his butt would get smaller and his sex drive would get stronger, he thought about it for a few days, then he decided against it after all, he had never had a problem with the chest, maybe it was because he slouched but if he wore a T-shirt the C-cup looked no bigger than an A-cup, although maybe also it’s because he’s never really been in a situation where he had to take off all his clothes. When he meets a girl he likes, he imagines her tenderly calling him hubby, and an electric thrill goes through him, from his head right down to the soles of his feet, though he has never told anybody about this politically incorrect fantasy of being called hubby. He almost always wears checked shirts, in the summer with short sleeves, in winter with long sleeves, if it gets even colder, he throws on a knitted V-necked vest, most of what he has in his closet are jeans, but he also has some suit pants that he bought in menswear and asked a tailor to alter, and his favourite is a hunting jacket, he bought it from the money he saved from the first job he had at university, and he has never, ever worn it. Doc Martens, Converses, Adidas sneakers, he tried Birks but they made him feel unsteady. His sense of clothing is always a bit behind the times, the artsy-fartsy youth style doesn’t suit him too well, he’s always wanted something manlier, but when he puts on clothes like that his friends think he looks too old school. His friends are all artsy lesbians drawn to all kinds of women, there’s some sissy boys and a few straight girls, but in any case, none of them are his type. He lets his hairdresser Paul do his hair the way he likes it, at one point he had dyed his hair green, but the last couple of years he has kept it gold, a little more suave he said, Paul suggested he could make it manly with a touch of mischief. Actual sexual experience: zero. A terrifying number. What about unofficial sexual experience? Twice. Once was with a friend who wasn’t sure about their gender identity, it was experimental kissing, they had even taken off almost all their clothes, but then they both thought it was pretty awkward, there was no flow of desire, they had laughed out loud and cut short the experiment. The other time was an occasion of drunken truth or dare, when he had frenched a beautiful PR girl, he remembers having been very excited at the time, but when the game was over the PR girl had gone.
Besides that, secret crushes. In junior high school he had begun with secret and sometimes open crushes, sometimes these had developed into sisterly hand-holding, in high school there had been a girl who was very close to him, always calling him hubby, hubby, even then she had already been a he, it seemed like he could just do as he liked, cut his hair short and put on jeans and sneakers and the transformation was complete, the girl called him hubby, he blushed and his heart skipped a beat, one time they were at the girl’s home going over their lessons, they were sleeping together on the narrow bed, the girl’s warm and sweet breath had been right up against Winter Pine, he had stretched his hand out and touched her exquisite features, sure that he felt an intense rising in his crotch, he had carefully approached his lips to her lips, his heart beating wildly, he had almost screamed. The girl opened her eyes and said Winter Pine you’re such a perv. After that, she never called him husband again, the girl turned away from him and started nestling up to another androgynous basketball player, whom she also called hubby. Winter Pine had never thought of transitioning, but he had been living as a guy from an early age, becoming a guy through thinking of himself as one, for him, the hormones or the sex reassignment surgery were all too deliberate. Unimaginable. During the long wait for love, he had made all sorts of preparations, but no girl he liked had ever emerged, his boss at the café where he worked was hardcore, he’d had the hormone treatment, the boss had other friends, some of them had completed transitioning, they had had some pretty grand “wedding banquets” where it was entirely a question of a male body taking the blushing bride to wife. And there were others like him skirting the edge of transition, when there were few clients and it was basically just the café people they got into massive discussions, all about various processes for transitioning, loud conversations about sex, about bedroom technique, conversations about how to handle women, the old boys wanted to provide instruction to this apprentice, offering all kinds of advice, even taking him to the bars to get a feel for it, how about it? Have you made up your mind? Chickening out?
It wasn’t that. But he couldn’t explain himself. Occasionally some women provoked a kind a reminder of his one access of passion, women like that awakened his dormant masculinity, and that was more useful than surgery. That’s because you haven’t had the hormones the boss said. Then you’d feel horny all the time, haha. Tonight, he finally unburdens himself to Phoenix. I don’t know what to do with my body, you know? The body isn’t male, but it doesn’t stop me from becoming a man, maybe the word man for me is just a kind of identity, maybe if I transitioned into being one, I’d regret it. Phoenix has never regretted it, though, I like that I’ve become my own pretty self, I always smell good, the subcutaneous fat gives my skin a nice sheen, now the whole world look all tender and soft, I like it so much, her mortal flesh really is beautiful, Winter Pine has seen transgender people in the movies, but few of them are as beautiful as Phoenix. Did you know that transgender people don’t live long? Phoenix asks Winter Pine. I didn’t know that Winter Pine shakes his head, he holds her a little tighter, but it doesn’t matter, I live life one day at a time. If I ever have the operation, you have to keep me company the whole way through, Phoenix says. Then they go home.
Phoenix talks about the operation, she goes online and finds some clips to show Winter Pine, she’s collected a lot of material, she even has female-to-male, hard to imagine turning a dick into a vagina, right? Phoenix makes a face and sticks out her tongue she says I hear you can feel pleasure she says she’s seen a documentary on sex reassignment, at the beginning you have to use an artificial penis to widen the vagina, to make it gradually get bigger, and it’s pretty painful to make the artificial vagina elastic, Winter Pine imagines what it’s like, if I could just give you mine, and you could give me yours, wouldn’t that be awesome Winter Pine says dreamily. Yeah, if this thing was attached to your body it’d really look spectacular Phoenix gets up, Winter Pine gets up too, come here, she shifts her body, has Winter Pine sit down leaning back on her, her thighs support them, the two of them are folded into the other like the petals of a flower, Phoenix’s penis sticks out between Winter Pine’s crotch, not much of it, but Winter Pine can see that length of flesh sticking out from his crotch, fitted as snugly to him as his own skin. Hand cupping hand, they hold that feeble thing, it’s so exciting Winter Pine cries out, it’s really like it’s on my own body, he feels like his own body has cracked open and something of Phoenix’s has shot right through him. It’s yours, she says. It’s ours, he says. One last time, Phoenix says. After this, I’m going to have the operation done. Winter Pine holds Phoenix’s, now already his own, penis as it slowly grows hard, Phoenix caresses Winter Pine’s vagina, like a slit in a plateau, she feels her finger is slowly growing moist, she continues to fondle the vagina, imagining the one they will make for her later, during the operation, Winter Pine says, he’ll help her tenderly through the pain of making it elastic, you’re going to be the most beautiful, the sexiest woman, Phoenix is savouring the feeling, to possess a river like this, to use it to give happiness to oneself and one’s lover.
Winter Pine is a man and Phoenix is a woman, even if the operation has not yet taken place, they make love with love, it’s not what people call spiritual love, or physical love, it goes beyond both of those, it’s the act of two people helping each other to recover their real selves, they have already taken note of every way in which the other is different, and they can also anticipate the future, where they might yet head, places known or unknown, the future is far away but the present couldn’t be closer, Winter Pine feels like he’s about to ejaculate, it’s so much like the feeling he’s had so many times in his dreams, but much realer, Phoenix is him, he is Phoenix, Phoenix feels that forbidden slit slowly beginning to open, she slowly inserts her finger, Phoenix begins to moan, it’s like she can already feel her own future self, the sensations of rising and falling that will come from the vagina the doctor will make for her, the contractions, the surges, regardless of whether she uses a vibrator, or a finger, or somebody’s penis.
They continue to move slowly, they each possess the other’s sex organ, they devote themselves to the imagination, to the real feeling, finally illusion transforms and becomes fact, by means of imagination desire transfers physical reality onto their own bodies, there is nothing more particular than the intangible. They could not be more satiated. Then for a long time it seems like they can hear ocean waves and the breeze, they can hear birds twittering in the woods, the savage jumping and beating of their hearts, but also tranquillity as deep as a well, some semen drips from Winter Pine’s palm, like tears, they have never been so happy. Phoenix places the soft penis in Winter Pine’s slit, like she’s hiding it away in a hole. They sleep like birds, necks coiled around each other. Far away in the ocean a shell surfaces, two newly born people are inside.
With thanks to Nicky Harman from Paper Republic for letting us showcase this story from their Read Paper Republic project in a simultaneous publication.
Artwork credit: Matisse, Le Lanceur, 1948
Chen Xue, born 1970, is a key figure in the development of a queer literature in Taiwan. Since 1995, she has produced 10 novels and short story collections. Her 2009 novel The Possessed was nominated for three Taiwanese literary prizes, and her 2004 work Child on the Bridge was published in 2011 in Japanese, with an English translation in preparation. The short stories “In Search of the Lost Wings of Angels” (tr. Patricia Sieber; tr. Fran Martin) and “Dust” (tr. Howard Goldblatt) are available in English-language anthologies. Her story “Butterfly” was made into a film by Hong Kong woman director, Yan Yan Mak, and won awards in Taiwan, 2004, and Hong Kong, 2005.
Josh Stenberg has translated two volumes of Su Tong’s fiction, Madwoman on the Bridge and Other Stories and Tattoo: Three Novellas, and edited the collection Irina’s Hat: New Short Stories from China. Having taught at Nanjing University and Nanjing Normal University, he is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, where his academic research interests include Chinese and transnational theatre, the Sinophone diaspora, and translation studies. His own fiction and poetry has appeared in Asia Literary Review, The Dalhousie Review and Queen’s Quarterly, among others.
Paper Republic is a collective of literary translators, promoting new Chinese fiction in translation. Their new initiative, Read Paper Republic, is for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water. Between 18th June 2015 and 16th June 2016, Read Paper Republic is publishing a complete free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one per week for a year, 52 in total. Readers can browse them for free, on their computer, tablet or phone.
Stay tuned for a conversation about this project between our editor-in-chief, Lee Yew Leong, and Paper Republic’s Nicky Harman tomorrow.
Read more LGBT-related articles:
- An excerpt of Ch’oe In-ho’s Another Man’s City
- Chi Ta-Wei’s “A Stranger’s ID”
- Abdellah Taïa’s “Homosexuality Explained to My Mother”