Place: China

The Opening Is Where the Light Comes In

Within [this publication], we celebrate the immense, wondrous heights of the Chinese language.

Spittoon is a literary and arts collective born in Beijing, China, with the aim of bringing together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, and creators. Consisting of monthly events, poetry-music intersections, and literary and artistic publications, Spittoon has set down roots in Beijing, Chengdu, and Gothenburg, Sweden. In June 2019, Spittoon Literary Magazine Issue 5, a bilingual publication that translates and publishes China’s best contemporary voices, was published. Xiao Yue Shan, Managing Editor of the magazine and Assistant Blog Editor at Asymptote, writes from Beijing about the days leading up to the launch. 

Drivers here love talking politics, my aunt says to me after my hour-long ride into Xiaotangshan, the oddly idyllic suburban town in northwest Beijing. Really? I reply. They’ve been telling me the stories of their lives

Beijing is brimming to burst with stories, occasionally startling, occasionally brilliant, told in voices bred by an immense variousness, from the sandy waters of the Yellow River to the steaming skies of Hunan, the stillness of Heilongjiang winters to glittering Kunming greens. It is a city that collects and bounds the language of its citizens, between circling highways and sky-bound apartments. So it is that one is never beyond the reach of a story, told as regularly as the hour tells the clock.

The literature of contemporary China is represented in the contours of Beijing—a place you must visit a great number of times, an ongoing landscape impossible to traverse by foot alone, wayward beginnings which speak nothing of ending. Any attempt to define it would be a disservice, as it openly resists definition; one is only able to catch at its hems, glancing, in search of openings that allow light to come in, any small light that would lend sense to the vastness. So it is with this knowledge that we, at Spittoon Literary Magazine, set out to compile a selection of China’s most engaging and original literatures, carving a door by which one can visit again and again. This publication is an entryway toward something lasting, a portrait of a national body that refuses to stay still. Within it, we celebrate the immense, wondrous heights of the Chinese language.

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Translation Tuesday: “Untitled” by Song Lin

your evening battles with a certain angel / until stars become bones

This week’s Translation Tuesday proffers a poem by Chinese poet Song Lin. This poem, “Untitled,” translated with a certain sublimity by Dong Li, offers a haunting vision that places the reader into a fleeting and gilded world, where the symbols of poetry invert and exhaust themselves upon being observed. Within this short poem, a whole lifetime quivers under the strain of thought and composition. “A belated meeting beckons” to the readers of the poem who become themselves the poetic voice, simultaneously offered and denied the splendor of traditional lyric. Dong Li’s translation captures the sparsity of language and the depth of tableau expected of traditional Chinese lyric poetry, while also capturing a sense of alienation from these stereotypical themes and imagery. The language of this poem leaves a lasting impression as it ignites and etches feelings and impressions. We are glad to be able to feature this innovative and compelling translation. 

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Translating Contemporary Tibet: In Conversation with Christopher Peacock

We could say that there isn’t a demand to undermine or challenge our preconceptions of Tibet.

Publishing since the 1980s, Tsering Döndrup’s novels and short stories have been honored with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese literary prizes. He’s among the most prominent Tibetan writers working today, but as with the great majority of Tibetan fiction, translations of his work remain scarce. This winter, Columbia University Press released the first collection of Döndrup’s work in English, with a suite of stories selected and translated by Christopher Peacock. 

Populated by a dizzying cast of characters—from corrupt lamas and venal deities to the incorrigible Ralo and the souls of the recently deceased—the collection The Handsome Monk and Other Stories presents us with both the diversity of subject matter that only decades of craft and experience can bring, and the discernible unity of vision we expect of a great artist. Peacock’s translation lucidly animates the stories, even as their author arranges separate realities for the action of each to unfold inside. Also preserved is the author’s humor: at times profoundly bleak, but always incisive. In this conversation, we discuss the challenges of translating Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, as well as the position of Tibetan fiction outside Tibet.

Max Berwald (MB): How did you first come to the work of Tsering Döndrup?

Christopher Peacock (CP): I first came to Döndrup through my academic work on contemporary Tibetan literature. I specialize in modern Chinese literature, and I am interested in the ways in which Tibetan writing does and doesn’t fit into the context of literature in modern China as a whole. Tibetan critics have interpreted Tsering Döndrup’s story “Ralo” as an equivalent of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous works of modern Chinese fiction. I went to interview the author to get his thoughts on the matter (he doesn’t exactly agree), and while I was writing on the subject I decided to translate “Ralo” for my own use.

I kept on reading his work, and the more I read the more I felt it was essential that such a unique and fascinating writer should be accessible to English readers, especially given the extreme scarcity of modern Tibetan literature available in English. I kept on translating, choosing some stories that I liked personally and some that the author recommended, and eventually we had a collection.

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Recovering What Is Missing: In Conversation with C.J. Anderson-Wu

The collective denial of victimhood is the reason why dictatorship lasts, the far-right exists, and inequality prevails.

Chieh-Jane Anderson-Wu (吳介禎) is a Taiwanese author, translator, and publisher of Taiwanese literature in translation. She is partly inspired by the white spots of Taiwan’s recent history, namely the White Terror, a forty-year period of martial law which began in 1949 and witnessed systematic repression within the nation, particularly targeting intellectuals. Pervasive censorship during the White Terror affected literature, but also the lives of many families at a time when secrecy and denial turned into a survival strategy for many. Anderson-Wu has written several works, including the story collection Impossible to Swallow and “Life Looked at From A Single Window,” and is currently working on a new novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Today Taiwan is one of the freest societies in Asia, yet martial law only ended in 1987, almost forty years after it was first imposed. This period, known as the White Terror, witnessed tremendous political violence: over one hundred and fifty thousand people, including many intellectuals, were arrested, and several thousands were executed. It is also the theme of your collection of short stories called Impossible to Swallow. What has led you to find inspiration in this particular period of Taiwan’s history?

C.J. Anderson-Wu (C.J. A-W): There are several causes, but one of them is my sense of guilt. I did not understand it until I had written several stories. After the Formorsa Incident in 1979, posters of the so-called rebels were everywhere. I was a kid and really believed that they were bad people, that they should be arrested and put in jail. Years went by and as more historical materials were released after the abolishment of martial law, I gradually realized what lies we had lived in. I feel so grateful to those who never backed down and sacrificed so much for the freedom we are enjoying today, and resent my gullibility.

Another thing is that we never had transitional justice. We never had a Nuremberg Trial-type that conducted thorough investigation on what had really happened, why it happened, and who should be responsible. Thus we don’t know how we can prevent it from happening again. Today the past dictators are still worshipped, the days under authoritarian rules are still commemorated, and lies are still believed. I was shocked, in despair, and infuriated. How can people stay ignorant when all the evidence is presented in front of their eyes? How can people feel okay sacrificing the rights that were earned by blood, tears, and sweat?

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

June is a month of commemoration and celebration from opposite sides of the Pacific.

Literature has always been at the forefront in movements for societal change, and, in the efforts to continually push for action, we perceive the bold literary markers that fulfill art’s role to pay tribute, to inspire, and to call for attention. It’s been thirty years since the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred on June 4, 1989 in Beijing. It’s been over fifty years since the Latin American Studies Association was founded in the spirit of building civic engagement. It’s been fifty years since the Stonewall Riots began on June 28th, 2019 in New York City. From commemorations in Hong Kong, joyous displays of pride in the US, and unprecedented exchange of Latin American academic dialogues occurring in Boston, our editors bring you news that show a valiant, ongoing endeavour towards justice.

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, also called the June Fourth Incident, for which it is tradition among different parties in Hong Kong to hold annual commemoration. In light of the anniversary, the city’s literary journals are organizing special features and events to take stock of the cultural, political, and social changes the incident has caused in Hong Kong, China, and beyond.

Cha, Hong Kong’s resident literary journal in the English language, is publishing a special edition of original English and translated works, photography, and art exploring the incident and its aftermath. The issue will include a selection of translated works by Chinese poets Duo Duo (featured in Asymptote’s Summer issue last year, also translated by Lucas Klein), Meng Lang, Lin Zhao, Xi Chuan, and Yian Lian, as well as a translation of “One Family’s Story” by Ding Zilin, co-founder of the Tiananmen Mothers. Alongside the Tiananmen issue, Cha is also collaborating with PEN Hong Kong to hold a remembrance reading with local writers at Bleak House Books on June 3.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

We come to you this week armed with manifestos from Hong Kong, recipes from India, and voices giving shapes to poetry in Barcelona.

We look both backward and forward: a revolution in China, an election in India, poets uniting in Barcelona to cohere past and future with performance and verse. This week our editors are here with literary news items that display a history starkly immediate, a present gathering visions, and tomorrows which hope that remembrance may also be an act of resistance. 

Charlie Ng, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong:

The May Fourth Movement was one of the most influential events for China in the twentieth century as it powerfully revolutionised Chinese culture and society. The cultural movement complemented the political Xinhai Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen in heralding China’s modern era. Its centenary is celebrated across the Straits, and Hong Kong is no exception. Hong Kong’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum is in collaboration with the Beijing Lu Xun Museum to organise “The Awakening of a Generation: The May Fourth and New Culture Movement” Exhibition, displaying relevant collections from both Beijing and the Hong Kong Museum of History to the public, including the handwritten manuscripts of Chen Duxiu and Hu Shih. The exhibition will also showcase visual and multimedia artworks that are inspired by the event.

The Hong Kong Literary Criticism Society has inaugurated the “Hong Kong Chinese Literary Criticism Competition 2019” to promote literary criticism in Hong Kong, and the launch ceremony of the competition was held in the Hong Kong Arts Development Council on May 18. Hong Kong writer Yip Fai and Chinese scholar Choy Yuen-fung from Hong Kong Baptist University were invited to give a talk on the necessity of literature and literary criticism, moderated by the chairman of Hong Kong Literary Criticism Society, Ng Mei-kwan.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week in literary news, we recognize the ones who created the world we live in.

We are out for justice this week on “Around the World with Asymptote.” From Brazil, a question of diversity is in the spotlight of contemporary literature. In China, the hundred-year-old May Fourth Movement continues to captivate with its relevance. And over in the UK, the fight for the Man Booker is on. We’re taking you around the world to the major literary events and publications of today, and it’s pretty clear: there are still plenty of us out there fighting the good fight.

Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil

It’s been a controversial few weeks here in Brazil, as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) canceled one of its upcoming events in Rio de Janeiro, scheduled to take place from May 7-9. The workshop, Oficina Irritada (Poetas Falam), received heavy backlash for the lineup’s lack of diversity; though the program claimed to represent “different generations” and “diverse trajectories,” not a single one of the eighteen poets invited was an author of color. Writers, readers and critics alike took to social media to comment—both on the event, and more broadly on the state of literary affairs in Brazil. In contrast, a successful twelfth iteration of FestiPoa Literária, in Porto Alegre, took on the theme of Afro-Brazilian literature, paying homage to writer and philosopher Sueli Carneiro.  

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Xi Xi, Bianca Bellová, and Osamu Dazai. Have we got your attention? Read on.

The days are opening wide this season, like the pages of a new book: for most of us growing longer and fuller. It’s a good thing, because we’ve got a lot to catch you up on. This week, we’re bringing a full dosage of global literature news with achievements from Hong Kong, rolling publications by Czech talent, and literary commemorations gliding through the literal end of an era in Japan.

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

This spring has been a series of firsts for Hong Kong literature. Continuing from my previous dispatch in March on Xi Xi winning the Newman Prize for Chinese literature, historically awarded to writers from mainland China and Taiwan, World Literature Today is dedicating its first annual city issue to writing from Hong Kong. Sourcing contributions from writers, translators, and academics at the forefront of Hong Kong literature, the issue includes poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction with a focus on food and languages as well as a selection of recommended reading about the city. Xi Xi and Bei Dao are among the list of writers featured in the magazine, as is Wawa—recently showcased in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue in an interview with Poupeh Missaghi, our editor-at-large in Iran—and Chris Song, one of the winners of the Fifth Hai Zi Poetry Prize which announced its results a few weeks prior.

To celebrate the launch of the issue, Cha, Hong Kong’s resident online literary journal, is organizing an event on April 27 at Bleak House Books, where eight contributors will be reciting and discussing their works. Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, founding co-editor of Cha and the guest editor of World Literature Today’s Hong Kong feature, will also speak about the conception of the special edition.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2019

Join our blog editors as they explore everything the Spring 2019 issue has to offer!

The Spring 2019 issue of Asymptote, “Cosmic Connections,” features work from 27 countries and 17 different languages. If you’re not sure where to begin, our blog editors have you covered with recommendations for some of their favorite pieces, including an essay about an adventure in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a story that jumps from medieval Jewish theology to the relationship between an Argentine father and son, and poems that offer us a glimpse into intimate moments in the city of Shanghai.

Asymptote’s newest issue is one of the journal’s best to date, meaning that it was nearly impossible to choose just one piece to highlight. In the interviews section, I found Dubravka Ugrešić’s comments on literary activism and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s discussion of the role of Marxism in his work particularly illuminating, while, in the special feature, Nancy Kline’s essay stood out for its focus on the often-overlooked role of the writer’s (and the translator’s) accent and spoken voice in the translation process. But I’d like to devote my highlight to an essay by a somewhat lesser-known writer, one who might otherwise get lost among the many big names that appear in this issue.

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Small Streams That Grow into the Main Flow of the Novel: An Interview with Radka Denemarková

I just want to speak the truth because I cannot stay silent about the pain affecting others.

Radka Denemarková is a unique phenomenon on the Czech literary scene. A true polymath, she has written plays, scenarios, short and long novels, a double novel that can be read from both ends, translations, and essays. On April 7, she was awarded the Book of the Year award at the Magnesia Litera ceremony, making her the only four-time winner of the most prestigious literary award in the Czech Republic. Her most noticeable works include Money from Hitler (2006), which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who returns to her home village in Czechoslovakia only to be denied existence; Sleeping Disorders, a humorous play featuring Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump; and A Contribution to the History of Joy (2014)—of which Asymptote published a partial translation—a reflection on violence disguised as part essay, part crime novel. Finally, her most recent novel is Lead Hours, a major work expanding over 700 pages, spanning China and Europe, and exploring the fate of a series of characters witnessing the crumbling of their value system as they face life crises. Denemarková was also featured in Asymptote as a translator, and is now translated into over fifteen languages, including Chinese. She is currently working on her next novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Your latest novel, Hodiny z olova, which can be translated as Lead Hours, just came out in January. What does the title refer to, and why is China such a prominent theme in this 700 page-long major work? 

Radna Denemarková (RD): The reason for China being the center stage of my novel comes out of a series of trips I made to that country, the first in 2013. I was literally shocked by what I experienced there: the breaking down of a socio-political system combined with the consequences of globalization, and how all of this affects us in the most intimate way. Initially, I had a very idealized notion of China, shaped by the little knowledge I had about its poetry, calligraphy, and philosophy. What I hadn’t expected at all was the brutality of daily life.

The main issue in China we face concerns how economic pragmatism changes the human soul, and how we can bring back the notion of humanism in our daily language. While the world seems to embrace new forms of totalitarian ideologies, we need a new language. People are afraid to speak openly. People report on each other even within the family circle. In Beijing, in the case of a car accident, people accepted as normal the fact that the male driver of an expensive car hit a woman because she was poor and uneducated and had no business ‘getting in the way.’

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On Yu Yoyo, Language, and the Unsayable

from solitude I try to excavate / the human / but what I pull off are hairs from the haunches / of an animal

Poetry is a never-ending lesson in precision. The distillation of thirst, the evocation of experience, the cauterization of an open wound. Between the poets of the world and their various works there is a common acknowledgement of restraint—there is only so much we can do with words, and only so much words can mean. Claude Lévi-Strauss originated the term “floating signifier” to describe language that has only vague or contextual denotation, and in our contact with literature we gradually come to understand that such abstraction is the enemy of poetry. So we step gingerly around the words we know contain too much to unpack. Words like “hurt,” or “death,” or “love.”

Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join as us we celebrate indigenous writers, intercultural connection, and the importance of linguistic diversity.

This week, we return with three dispatches exploring multicultural and multilingual connection. We begin with a reflection on the work of Humberto Ak’abal, an influential Indigenous poet who wrote in both K’iche’ Maya and Spanish. We also explore the multilayered dialogue between China and New York in the Hong Kong literary scene, and get an exciting firsthand account of the recent Creative Multilingualism conference in the UK.

 Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-at-Large, reporting from Guatemala

As declared by the United Nations, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. According to their website, of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on the planet, over 2,500 are currently endangered. In Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and around the world, many hope this global recognition will lead to wider acceptance of Indigenous languages, as well as to increased opportunities for their oral and written expression.

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“The Will to Oblivion”: Ma Jian’s China Dream in Review

China Dream is psychological, interweaving an increasingly uncanny present with a spectral past that eventually encroaches upon it.

China Dream by Ma Jian, translated from the Mandarin by Flora Drew, Penguin Books.

The controversy over the cancellation and restoration of two public talks involving Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian by the venue provider, Tai Kwun, in last November’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival, has added to the topicality of Ma Jian’s newly published translated work, China Dream. Bearing a politically sensitive title that blatantly alludes to President Xi Jinping’s project of rejuvenating the Chinese nation, his “Chinese Dream” as portrayed in the novel is quite an oddity as a translated work. The translated English version was published before the original Chinese version, which is forthcoming from a Taiwanese publisher; however, this is within expectations considering the sensitiveness of the subject matter. Ma Jian’s scathing critique of autocracy not only targets the national project of the present Chinese government but all forms of rigid, state-controlled policies that annihilate individual subjectivity.

China Dream is in line with the tradition of dystopian fiction in its imagination of negative government. Different from its Chinese predecessors, such as Lao She’s Cat Country, which is more akin to a Swiftian satire, or Chan Koon-chung’s The Fat Years, whose dystopian vision is embodied in the form of science fiction, China Dream is more psychological, interweaving an increasingly uncanny present with a spectral past that eventually encroaches upon it. China Dream is about the will to oblivion and subsequent self-destruction of a Chinese officer who rises to power after his betrayal of his Rightist parents in the Cultural Revolution. The narrative centers on how Ma Daode, the director of the fictional China Dream Bureau, who is simultaneously a representative of state corruption and moral guilt, falls from his prime, and kills himself in a paradoxical moment of delirium and recognition.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2019

Explore the Winter 2019 issue with our section editors!

Not sure where to start with the brand new Winter 2019 issue of Asymptote? At 35 countries represented, this issue is our most diverse yet, and marks the eighth anniversary of Asymptote. Here, our Section Editors recommend some of their favourite pieces from their respective sections.

The writing of María Sánchez tracks close to the ground; she hunts experience. In “The Next Word,” compellingly translated by Bella Bosworth, we accompany Sánchez in her truck, as she drives around the Spanish countryside, working as a field veterinarian. There is a great slowness to her prose, born of hours of careful observation of people and things. The letters that composed this piece read like prayers, written to an unknown God, in praise of those small moments in which, as Sánchez writes, “life stands still and nothing happens.” There is a delicate empiricism at work here—an empathy with the world and its rhythms that Sánchez reads by looking at her, as if she were the geiger counter of existence. “Sometimes”, she writes, quoting Gabriella Ybarra, “imagining has been the only option I have had to try to understand.”

— Joshua Craze, Nonfiction Editor

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