In Conversation: Boey Kim Cheng on his new novel, Gull Between Heaven and Earth

You could say the entire novel is a work of translation...mediating between languages and cultures, memory and imagination...past and present."

Boey Kim Cheng’s reputation as a critically acclaimed writer rests on his work as a poet and essayist. He has authored five poetry collections—Somewhere-Bound (1989); Another Place (1992); Days of No Name (1996); After the Fire (2006); and Clear Brightness (2012)the first two of which won Singapore National Book Development Council awards, and the last of which was selected by The Straits Times as one of the best books of 2012. His collection of essays Between Stations (2009) was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Prize in nonfiction.

This past October saw the publication of his first foray into novel writing. Set during a turbulent period in Tang-Dynasty-era China, Gull Between Heaven and Earth (Epigram Books, 2017) is a fictionalized biographical account of Du Fu, one of China’s most esteemed classical Chinese poets. The end-result of a ten-year-long, meticulously researched labor of love (the early fruits of which appeared in Asymptote’s inaugural issue), Gull represents the first extensive literary treatment of Du Fu’s life, fictional or otherwise, in any language.

In addition to venturing into the territory of prose fiction to complete the project, the Singaporean-born poet also undertook new translations of Du Fu’s poetry, which appear scattered throughout the novel, gem-like and epiphanic. In this interview with Asymptote Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao, Boey recounts what compelled him to see this book to completion, as well as the challenges and joys of translating not only Du Fu’s poems, but his character and life.

Tiffany Tsao: On the one hand, your novel Gull Between Heaven and Earth represents a shift for you. Until now, you’ve been a poet and essayist. On the other hand, there’s considerable continuity between your previous works and this one: Gull is about a poet and his poetic calling; it contains poetry as well as themes of travel and nostalgia, which feature prominently in your past work. What prompted you to switch forms for this project? How have you found the experience of writing fiction in prose compared to writing poetry and nonfiction in prose?

Boey Kim Cheng: It’s hard to identify a single point of genesis. Perhaps the novel began with an attack of homesickness. I started re-reading the Tang poets soon after settling down to a migrant’s life in Australia. It was a sort of instinctual act—a migrant’s reflex to embrace what he has lost. I first read their poetry when I was in a Chinese-medium primary school in Singapore; we had to recite the juejus or quatrains of Du Fu, Du Mu, and, of course, Li Bai. It felt comforting to hear the music of the lines again, and it was only then, as an émigré writer, that I began to realize the incredible depth and power of Du Fu’s poems.

He was writing about the homeless, about “unaccommodated man,” a good few centuries before Shakespeare in that tremendous poem “My Cottage Unroofed by the Autumn Gale.” And there is a deep sense of compassion that drives so many of his great poems—for instance, “The Song of the War-Wagons,” where he laments the plight of soldiers dispatched to the frontier and families missing husbands and sons. Then there were poems about social injustices and political corruption, which, taken together, made up a poetry of witness: startlingly vivid first-hand accounts of the sufferings inflicted on the people by corrupt officials, the Emperor’s neglect and the An Lushan Rebellion, which raged on for years.

It was the greatness of his work and the fact that most of it is unknown to western or even Chinese readers, that planted the idea of a novel in me. I would also argue that Du Fu was the first truly autobiographical poet. His poetry provides vivid snapshots of the different stages of his life, some unflinching accounts of tremendous personal and familial ordeals (the death of his infant son from starvation for example), and some tender and moving portraits of his wife and children.

A further motivation for the work came from the surprising discovery that there is no full-length account of the poet’s life—no full-length literary biography, not even in Chinese. There are, of course, centuries of scholarly exegeses on the poems, but no literary biographies like the ones that have proliferated about Shakespeare’s life. I wanted to show how tremendous, how great his major poems were, and also draw attention to the lesser known ones. I wanted to introduce world readers to the life and work of China’s greatest poet.

In the initial stages, I thought I could translate the poems in chronological sequence and the process would yield a continuous narrative. There were, however, unaccountable blanks, gaps, but this was only added motivation to recreate his life’s story in prose. By then I was mid-way through Between Stations and could appreciate prose’s narrative expansiveness and elasticity. I had started writing the essays in part because the lyric form had become too constrictive. It was a refreshing experience to have more room in which to maneuver.

It was always going to be a work of stamina and endurance for a poet used to writing in bursts and snatches, and an essayist who writes his essays like poems. I’ve never been the kind of writer to put in long shifts. There were long breaks, moments when I was tempted to quit and admit I was no novelist. A novel is a long-term investment, and I don’t have the patience for that. There were high moments, of course, when I felt I was doing justice to the poet’s life and work, lyrical moments when the prose carried me close to poetry, and moments of inspired invention, like the meeting between Du Fu and Li Bai’s sister. But these were few and far between. Writing novels is nothing like the more instantaneous and concentrated joy of finishing a poem or an essay.

TT: What was the research process like for this novel? And what were the challenges you faced in bringing the historical period and characters to life?

BKC: Too much research could kill the imagination—I became aware of that after a couple of years of reading and gathering material and after reading historical fiction that wears its research too heavily. The research was vital—it opened doors, mapped out the various places and clarified key incidents and granted me access to the poet’s life in a way I never thought possible. Part of the research involved fieldwork, tracking down the actual stations or places of his life, that grounded my work a lot and supported a sense of authenticity. I dragged my family with me on the first trip in the winter of 2005, which brought me closer to the poet and gave me a strong inkling of what it was like for him to take his wife and young children on long treks from Xian to Tianshui, then down across the mountains to Chengdu, and then on the final river journey down the Yangtze.

Reading Chinese books about the history of that period—about Changan and the Tang poets— helped me plug my work into a sense of time and place. For instance, discovering a book about Changan in a Xian bookstore gave me a close-up view of the incredible city it was back then—the largest and, arguably, the most cosmopolitan in the world. I ended up deciding to use the poet’s courtesy name, Zimei, which became a vital step in identification and utterly changed the voice of the work. It became a lot more intimate, and I could hear him a lot more clearly.

But in the end, I had to free the work from research in order to inhabit his character more fully and experience his world more creatively. I had to let the imagination roam in the unrecorded spaces, and took liberties with quite a few things, including the poet’s famous friendship with Li Bai. It was only then that I felt the novel come to life.

TT: You translated several of Du Fu’s and Li Bai’s poems for this book. How did you select the poems and what was your process in translating them? Were there any particularly memorable quandaries regarding translation that you had to face?

BKC: I picked the poems that I thought were the pivotal points of his life. Some I translated as poems and incorporated them into the narrative in their entirety; some appeared only as fragments anchored in contexts reflecting the circumstances that pressured them into being. For example, “Dreaming of Li Bai” shows us Du Fu’s longing and concern for his friend, combined with his own sense of dislocation, that gives rise to one of the most powerful poems about friendship in Chinese poetry.

It was a challenge unpacking the originals. Classical Chinese poetry is so compressed, so dense with allusions, that a five or seven-character line may require a couple of sentences in English to get the meaning across. Something is definitely lost in translation—the rhythm, the cadences, the musicality, the voice—no matter how hard you work at the levels of diction and syntax and form. One can only try. Something that John Berger says about translation undergirded my approach:

True translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them.

All that reading, research and writing were attempts to locate the source of the voice, and track the places where the poems came into being. Hopefully that worked, and the voice of the poet has emerged from the translation.

TT: Do you think that being a diasporic Chinese writer (as opposed to, say, a mainland Chinese or Western writer) has had an impact on the way you’ve approached the novel’s subject matter?

BKC: Yes, that certainly informed the way I read and translated his life and work. I saw him as a diasporic precedent, a poet-refugee who fled the turbulence in the north in search of home, an inner émigré who travelled across the vast country in search of peace. My act of migration is entirely voluntary and can in no way compare with what the poet and his family suffered, but I found in him an exemplar who wrestled with concerns that have driven my own work from the beginning—home and displacement. I wanted to understand the restlessness propelling him forward, even when there were moments and opportunities when he could have settled in reasonable peace, in Chengdu and Kuizhou. Perhaps the project was an attempt to come to terms with my own restlessness.

You could say the entire novel is a work of translation, which was a way for me, as a migrant writer, to mediate between languages and cultures, memory and imagination, and between the past and present. As I read and translated the poems, I felt a profound sense of homecoming—a return to the beginnings, to the source. It was immensely gratifying to be able to hear the voice on the page. That grew stronger as I started writing, as I identified with him more and more, and found in him a tutelary exemplar; it was a late switch from the Anglo-American masters I had been following since my conversion to poetry. His was a poetry of the quest for home, the questioning poems of enforced wandering; his characterizations of himself as “a guest over ten thousand miles and autumnal sorrows” and as a “lone gull between heaven and earth” all spoke strongly to my own sense of displacement and not-being-at-home.

TT: This novel has been a decade in the making. Would you care to share about the lowest and highest points of the journey for you as an author?

BKC: There were a few high points—epiphany-like moments—when I was there with the poet, on Taishan watching the sunrise, or traveling with Li Bai, or visiting Wang Wei in the Southern Mountains. And moments of arrival too, when I felt I got it right, when the narrative drew to an ineluctable moment, or when the research translated naturally into narrative. There were the counterpointing lows too, when the research dragged, and I thought I wasn’t getting anywhere.

One high point near the end was when the Australian publisher of Between Stations said it was like nothing he had ever read, that the prose was breathtaking and memorable—something like that. High praise from a very exacting reader. But the low point came when I withdrew the manuscript and passed it to an agent instead, with the hope of international readership. Nothing happened for a year. For a few years, except for reported rejections and near misses, I was ready to bury it.

The next high point came when I passed it to my wife. She revived it by breaking the long sections into shorter parts and honing the narrative shape and flow. I then saw Du Fu’s wife anew, the woman who was always there for him, and realized how much she resembled my own wife. I felt a moment of arrival, an ineffable feeling that the poet has brought us home to something beyond the writing.

Tiffany Tsao is a writer, translator, and Asymptote’s Australia Editor-at-Large. After spending her formative years in Singapore and Indonesia, she moved to the US where she received her Ph.D. in English from UC-Berkeley. She now lives in Sydney, Australia. Her writing and translations have appeared in LONTARThe Sydney Review of Books, the anthologies Contemporary Asian Australian Poets and BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, The Oddfits (AmazonCrossing), was published in 2016.

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