Last Words from Montmartre
by Qiu Miaojin,
translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich,
New York Review Books,
New York 2014
Notes of a Crocodile
by Qiu Miaojin,
translated by Bonnie Huie,
New York Review Books,
New York 2017.
Reviewed by NICHOLAS JOSE
Last Words from Montmartre begins with an epigraph from the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1922-77) that refers to a moment in life when youth transitions into adulthood by relinquishing happiness in favour of something less compromising: ‘an unsettled exaltation that had so often been confused with an unsustainable elation’. Such a state is hard to know and harder to live with. The discovery that ‘one could even live without happiness’ occurs in a story by Lispector called ‘Love’. Qiu Miaojin’s second and final book likewise expresses an emotional ultimate—unconditional, unendurable—that admits no alternative and allows no going back.
Last Words from Montmartre takes the form of twenty letters that can be read in random order, with brief witness statements before and after. They are written in extremis, about love, desire, sex, relationship, betrayal, attachment and detachment. They are sharply observant, insightful, scratchy and desperate, with that ‘unsettled exaltation’ written into every sentence, even unto death. Published in Taiwan in 1996, the work might be considered the last epistolary novel, created not long before email and social media would make the exchange of hand-written letters a thing of the past. You can imagine the envelopes travelling by air from Paris to Taipei, addressed in calligraphic full-form Chinese characters. Written in Chinese in the original, Last Words is translated into English with a matching, etched intensity by Ari Larissa Heinrich. If this is translation, it is an act of love too, for a genius who expressed herself and left. It reflects, Heinrich tells us in a fine afterword, an encounter that might have happened in life in either city, but didn’t. It happens through language now, two decades after Qiu’s final testament first appeared, published after her suicide in France at the age of twenty-six.
If the mid-1990s was Qiu Miaojin’s time, her moment has come round again: 2017 sees the publication of her earlier novel, Notes of a Crocodile (1994), for the first time in English, translated by Bonnie Huie, joining Heinrich’s translation of Last Words from Montmartre in the NYRB list of classic reprints, among few books by Chinese or indeed Asian authors. As Taiwan moves to legalise same-sex marriage, ahead of other Asian countries in doing so, Qiu Miaojin has become a LGBTIQ icon. That’s one reason for reading her. She is a Taiwanese literary icon, a figure of the transformations (personal, political, creative) that have marked Taiwan since the end of martial law in 1987, and she is a feminist icon, writing a script for an alternative Chineseness, outside patriarchy. These too are reasons for reading her.
Born in Taiwan in 1969, Qiu Miaojin (Chiu Miao-chin) studied psychology at National Taiwan University and the University of Paris VIII. Her first book, Notes of a Crocodile, is a campus novel set in Taipei between 1988 and 1991. It charts the narrator’s emerging lesbian identity through shifting relationships with women and men, recounted with insouciance and anguish: ‘fragments from the first semester of sophomore year’ is how the narrator, nicknamed Lazi (laduzi=diarrhoea), refers to one of the eight notebooks that make up the novel. Notes of a Crocodile might also be a how-to book for creative writing students with its vivid invention, variety of cultural reference (from the ancient Chinese Book of Songs to Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood), verve and wealth of quotable aphorisms. It starts with writing:
Locked the door. Shut the windows. Took the phone off the hook and sat down. And that’s how I wrote. I wrote until I was exhausted, smoked two cigarettes, and went into the bathroom and took a cold shower. Outside were the torrential winds and the typhoon season. … Then a sudden clatter, as if the power-station had been rocked by an explosion. I was enveloped in pitch-dark silence. The power had gone out. Nobody else was around, so I ran out of the bathroom completely naked … I threw open the balcony door and stepped outside to cool off. I hoped to catch a glimpse of other kindred souls standing naked out on their own balconies. That’s how it is, writing a serious literary work. (5-6)
Then crocodiles start to appear, walking into shops wearing mink coats, taking baths. Are they disguised humans, or are some humans in fact crocodiles? What’s under their skin? What’s going on? This zany satire catches some of the peculiarities of Taiwan, a country that isn’t permitted to be a country because of China’s claims to it, but where localist and independence movements have grown strong: ‘In the past several years, a great deal of importance has been attached to the issue of crocodiles and their existence. However, each and every citizen … must agree to maintain confidentiality in the event that the domestic crocodile situation reaches a critical state, as we as a nation could very well find ourselves shunned by the international community…. Or perhaps our land may become a void on the world map….’ (81) Taiwan was in transition at the time Qiu wrote Notes of a Crocodile. Her characters face transition too, experimenting with ‘post-gender relations’, confronting non-existence, where opposites combine impossibly and happiness can only be transient: of her lover, the narrator writes, ‘My salvation—Shui Ling—was as short-lived as a rainbow.’ (123). The book is tender, sentimental, strung-out and brave. It is set, as we are repeatedly reminded, in 1989, at the same time as across the Taiwan Strait in Beijing another young generation was hitting a wall of state violence in response to agitation for change, for liberation. It is intriguing that among Qiu’s admirers today is Wang Dan, one of the student leaders at Tiananmen in 1989. He is quoted as saying that he ‘felt a secret intimacy with Qiu Miaojin from the first page’. (157).
By 2016, Taiwan would have a female President in Tsai Ing-wen, elected leading the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party—a single woman, as her enemies in Beijing insinuate with incredulity. But in 1989 in Taiwan the way had not yet been found, as Qiu’s affecting novel reminds us: ‘Our desires guided us down a fogbound road marked by one sign or another…. Then a right turn onto a one-way street led to a detour in unchartered territory….’ (142) How a new discourse of sexuality and queer self-making emerged in public spaces in Taiwan in the 1990s as part of a movement for political and social change is explored with clarity and nuance by Fran Martin in her landmark book, Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film and Public Culture (2003). ‘Modernity in Taiwan is defined more by rupture and disjuncture than by any universal or unifying qualities’, she writes (11). Her chapter on Qiu’s work situates it in the context of Taiwan at the time, explaining how ‘the lesbian xianshen [coming out] effected by The Crocodile’s Journal [Notes of a Crocodile] accrues its meaning from its positioning as a resistant response to a specific and local representational regime’ (235). Martin concludes that:
At the close of the twentieth century, the combined effects of Taiwan’s colonial histories and its contemporary positioning within accelerating transnational circuits of knowledge and capital produced a situation in which an array of discontinuous discourses on sexuality coexisted in a radically heterogeneous discursive field. (249)
While not necessarily paradigmatic, Taiwan was a harbinger of defining millennial concerns, of which Qiu Miaojin is a concentrated expression.
I worked on an exhibition of contemporary Taiwanese art for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, in 1995. I picked up on some of this emergent energy when I wrote of Huang Chin-ho’s work ‘Fire’, 1991-92, ‘he exposes the hybrids of a crossover society, pumped-up beasts in bikinis, robots with dictator faces, transsexual, hermaphroditic party animals all crossdressed-up with no place to go … human existence in which the world of spirits hovers, perhaps trapped, within the fiery, brightly coloured world of passion and mortality’ (ART TAIWAN, 1995, 16). I would have understood better if Qiu’s work had been available to me at the time. One of the significant works selected for the show was ‘Silent picture’, 1992, by Chen Hui-chiao, the female artist who co-founded the artist space IT Park. It consists of hundreds of needles piercing a blank ground, their shining threads curving and tangled in aesthetic, introverted pain. I recognise it now in a phrase from Notes of a Crocodile: ‘Her despair was her beauty’ (195).
After she moves from Taipei to Paris in 1994, Qiu Miaojin declares her literary ambition in the strongest terms. ‘My goal is to experience the depths of life,’ writes Zoë, her narrator, ‘to understand people and how they live, and to express this through my art. All my other accomplishments mean nothing to me. If I can only create a masterpiece that achieves the goal I’ve fixed my inward gaze upon during my creative journey, my life will not have been wasted.’ Other young writers have felt same, but Qiu’s singularity combines with a universality beyond self that distinguishes her. Her concentration on her art is akin to the devoted practice of an adept in quest of enlightenment: ‘a crystal-clear perception of what’s real’. In that sense this art is anti-art, eschewing artifice: sentences break off, pronouns shift, characters morph, popular song lyrics and cute fantasies interleave with radical critique. The emotional switchback is a torment as well as a tease, allowing disregard and fracture. The influences are from experimental film as much as literature, from Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos. And yet Last Words from Montmartre is a novel too, breathing situations, scenes, drama and narrative detail, and managed by an intelligence that lives on nerve endings and gets it down in words. ‘Oh … if one were to call this book an unintelligible collection of hieroglyphics with no words and a plot that had long since disappeared, one would be right,’ the narrator speculates ironically, knowing the risk and the pay-off in reckoning with her impossible subject: ‘”Love” is the experience of this whole, its unfinished parts, including those of one’s own in relation to those of the other.’ In its derangement, diffusion and obsessive focus on self/not-self, the book approaches a truth of being.
Qiu was a student in Paris as she was writing Last Words from Montmartre. As she learns enough French to follow her teacher, Hélène Cixous, she absorbs a new literary heritage. Cixous’s écriture féminine encapsulated tradition in its critique, from the Francophone dialogic legacies of philosophes such as Diderot (in Rameau’s Nephew) and Madame de Stael, through to modern precursors of transgressive autobiographical writing including Proust, Gide, Genet, Duras and Yourcenar, and in English Woolf and Plath, and further afield perhaps the Argentinian Julio Cortázar, who wrote Hopscotch (Rayuela, 1963) in Paris, a novel with numbered chapters that can be followed in multiple sequences. Cixous was herself discovering Lispector at the time. Radical procedures were needed to forge emancipatory creative expression, including for cinema. This was a jumping-off point for Qiu, with seemingly little of it coming from her own culture in its standard form. Yet here she is at her most fascinating and powerful as she gathers it all up, all this advanced work in the languages of Europe, and re-creates it even more radically in Chinese. In cognitive rupture and a dissolving of binaries, she connects with deep subversive/transcendent capacities in Chinese language and thought. It’s as if it’s just parochial until she converts it into her larger reality. She has to become the teacher herself.
In an essay in A New Literary History of Modern China, edited by David Der-wei Wang (2017), Ari Larissa Heinrich calls Last Words a ‘lesbian I Ching’. It’s a neat phrase. The cosmology of I Ching (Yijing), The Book of Change, is based on yin and yang, concepts which can be understood in gendered terms as female and male. I Ching is a text to interact with, to question through divination with sticks or coins. It allows no position outside its ebbs and flows, its creative and destructive energies. It exists only in the occasion of being consulted—another ‘unintelligible collection of hieroglyphics with no words’. Yet it is at the root of Chinese thought, setting out the dynamics of body and mind, matter and spirit, human being and social embeddedness. This is what Qiu writes about in those troubled letters to Xu and Yong, the two women to whom her character Zoë is most bound. She does so in a Chinese tradition of revelatory, intimate fiction, formally fluid and indirect, with eros as a central energy. The late Qing dynasty memoir Six Chapters of a Floating Life by Shen Fu is just one precursor, where lesbian desire powers the narrative as a mystery at its core. Last Words is written in a similar vein.
Is it erotic writing? Of course, provided the erotic is understood to couple joyous, unflinching recognition of carnality, vividly depicted, with the questioning of existence that comes with the severest pain, meditated on rather than turned away from. Eros, the ‘bittersweet’, to use the description that Anne Carson takes from Sappho, is as philosophically demanding as it is rapturous and rhapsodic: ‘Here is contradiction and perhaps paradox,’ Carson writes. ‘To perceive this eros can split the mind in two. … Each crisis calls for decision and action, but decision is impossible and action a paradox when eros stirs the senses.’ (Eros the Bittersweet, 1998, pp.3, 8) It’s the condition that Qiu explores, always excessive, never stable, constantly in a state of arousal that as quickly deflates, comic in that way as well as tragic. It is an ultimate human experience, available, fully blown, to a young Taiwanese woman who comes to Paris in the mid-1990s with piercing psychological insights and a gift for writing:
When her own body reached a certain degree of arousal she’d bore into me like a small snake and slide swiftly into the mouth of my groin …. She knew what rhythm to follow and when to enter my cunt, to brush against all those obscure curves, the creased cliffs, the canals, climbing the steep slope of arousal and suddenly planting a crimson flag there. The Virgin Mother of burgeoning flowers reproducing asexually and gushing forth in clusters from the slender internal palace….
That ‘internal palace’ is a deeper interiority, a possibility of infinitude, for a long moment, a site of eternity, beyond which is non-existence.
What I’ve wanted most in this life is this level of intimacy: to be able to form the deepest creative connection with another human being. And I’ve attained it. I’ve achieved inner happiness. But if I were to actually send you these letters of my pure openness, of my truest values, I would just be hurt all over again….
And that is the paradox of writing. For the writer, at this highest erotic pitch, the writing becomes a lover of another kind, more demanding perhaps, more secret, truer. Erotic writing moves from carnality to abstraction, aware of the loss while recognising it as necessary for artistic survival. Finally Zoë writes to Xu: ‘I can’t face speaking to you. I can’t be myself. I’m sorry I have to write in this circular and torturously convoluted way.’ But that is what she does. It hurts. It is isolating. And it becomes this unique, mesmerising masterpiece that the author knows she has inside her, at the cost of everything.
I remember when I was first introduced to Clarice Lispector. It was in the dark streets of Surry Hills in those same mid-1990s when Qiu Miaojin was gestating Last Words from Montmartre in Paris. I say ‘dark streets’ because that part of Sydney has never been very well lit. The houses were built of dark materials; the street lights were dim; unruly trees and thickly painted iron lace got in the way of illumination; the places where we ate had narrow interiors and didn’t give much away to passers-by. The streets weren’t wide either and were cut off or cut through. But it appealed, as Montmartre might appeal. The person who excited me about Lispector was an Italian academic friend who was visiting from Rome. She had probably come to Lispector by way of Cixous, unless there was a more direct flow between the Lusophone Brazilian writer and Italian feminists via the actions of the Milan Women’s Bookstore in the 1980s. I mentioned Lispector to a Sydney friend of mine, a literary scholar who was happy to place her alongside Elizabeth Riley, whose All That False Instruction she had just come across. Elizabeth Riley is the pseudonym of Kerryn Higgs and her coming of age novel, then billed as a ‘Novel of Lesbian Love’, later a feminist classic, is sometimes called the first Australian lesbian fiction. It was published in 1975, two years before Lispector’s early death in faraway Brazil.
Firsts are funny things. It can mean the first book you read consciously in a certain category. For that reason I see Beverley Farmer’s superb first novel Alone, published by Sisters in 1980, as prior to Elizabeth Riley’s book because it came to the surface for me earlier than All That False Instruction. Alone had been written ten years before, and was set even earlier, in 1959. It is a book to honour, painful, courageous, moving, as we commemorate Farmer’s life and work in this year of her passing,
All That False Instruction is a terrific book too, valuable for its depiction of coming of age in the stifling and censorious Australia of an earlier time, a novel of self-fashioning and survival. Its social analysis is astute, and Maureen, the protagonist, has a great sense of humour and, finally, a resilient sense of herself in the world. ‘A hard road, but familiar’ (196), is how life presents itself to her. On that basis she can conceive a future: ‘I stood in the warm night street, gathering my strength, and hoped for the best.’ (247) For her the ‘good fit’ she achieves with the woman she loves is what it is. It is appreciated and left behind. For Lazi, by contrast, in Notes of a Crocodile, the ‘perfect fit’ is achievable in writing. Relationship can only be a source of contradiction, causing ‘unceasing tremors of all kinds—tremors of love, tremors of desire, tremors of hate, tremors of pain’ to coalesce inside her. (228) Where the world of the Australian novel is solid, if changing, Qiu Miaojin writes from the endless flow of Chinese cosmology. ‘The only way I can deal with you is by making you fully comprehend the kind of “landscape” you have carved into my heart’, her narrator says (Last Words, 42).
Long loops of language and vagaries of translation enable many of our most memorable literary experiences, generationally, geographically, as signed-up members of mobile reading communities who are always on the look-out for the next thing, for us in particular, exchanging them as tokens of friendship and affinity. As we do so, we give those authors a continuing life, even when their non-writing lives can be so sad. That’s what I want to do for Qiu Miaojin in this essay, more than twenty years after her death. Let me conclude by quoting one of the oldest, most quoted of all Chinese poems, from the Book of Songs (5th century BCE):
In life or in death, however separated
We pledged our word to our wives
We held hands
We would grow old together.
Shen Fu echoes these lines in Six Chapters of a Floating Life, the memoir in shuffled fragments that was not published until after his death. The poem, quoted here in Ari Larissa Heinrich’s translation, forms the whole of Letter Eighteen in Last Words from Montmartre. It is head-noted ‘(The period of tender love: Xu is in Taiwan, Zoë is in Taiwan.)’, when there is no separation. There are those four lines and no more. Blank space has never been more bittersweet.
NICHOLAS JOSE has published seven novels, including Paper Nautilus (1987), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), three collections of short stories, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (a memoir), and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy Beijing, 1987-90 and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide, where he is a member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.
The Stolen Bicycle
by Wu Ming-Yi,
Translated by Darryl Sterk
Text Publishing 2017.
Reviewed by CHRISTINE SUN
Award-winning novelist Wu Ming-Yi is perhaps the only Taiwanese author ever invited to the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) in the past two decades. It seems easy to forget the island democracy ever exists, for any attempt to recognise Taiwan as an independent, sovereign state is frowned upon and accused as “interference in China’s domestic affairs” by Beijing. Worse, as the world becomes increasingly wary of China’s political and economic dominance, it is often the oppression faced by Chinese and even Hong Kong authors that draws attention from international literary festivals. “No news is good news” is the consensus about Taiwan, where approximately 40,000 titles are freely released by more than 100 publishers every year.
Hence it is difficult for Taiwanese authors to emerge on the world stage without any political, cultural and even ethnical reference to China. In Australia, for example, Chinese authors Sheng Keyi and Murong Xuecun received much coverage as they discussed censorship and the “potentially dangerous undercurrents in China” in Griffith Review and during the MWF, the Brisbane Writers Festival and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2015. In contrast, media professionals, critics and reviewers only had Wu’s literary merits to rely on when featuring his appearances in Melbourne and at the University of Sydney in 2017. In the words of Readings: “[Wu’s] work, noted for its depth, complexity and vividly observed natural detail, has been compared to that of distinguished writers as diverse as Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, W.G. Sebald, David Mitchell and Yann Martel.”
But what does it all mean, exactly? Especially when anglophone readers have long been swamped and spoiled by China-related literary themes such as oppression of universal human rights, inequality and violence against women, individual struggles for freedom and independence, and trauma caused by political and social turmoil such as the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square Massacre? It seems fair to suggest anyone intending to understand contemporary Taiwanese literature within a “Chinese” framework will meet a dead end. The “One China” policy is doomed when it comes to literature, always the best indicator to a nation’s psyche, for 70 percent of people in Taiwan under the age of 40 – and 78 percent of people aged 29 or younger – now hold an exclusively Taiwanese identity. That is a sharp contrast to survey results in 1991, when one-fourth of Taiwan’s residents identified themselves exclusively as “Chinese” and nearly half claimed to be “both Taiwanese and Chinese”.
More importantly, Taiwan, like many other countries around the world, boasts an ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse society. The island’s turbulent past – first inhabited by the Austronesian Peoples and then invaded by Dutch and Spanish forces, before being colonised by China and Japan – adds much complexity to its status as a strategically important gateway to Asia. While Chinese migrants arriving since the mid-16th century laid the foundation of modern Taiwanese history, there is no denial that Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and the Japanese occupation made important contribution to the formation of what is known today as the Taiwanese identity. Rich in conflict, reconciliation and determined pursuit of peace, it is an identity burdened with loss yet blessed by perpetual intellectual and emotional struggle for harmony.
This Taiwanese identity, with the passing and re-discovery of many precious memories, is carefully, confidently and compassionately explored in Wu’s The Stolen Bicycle. As the first-person narrator “I” searches for his missing father’s stolen bicycle, he starts collecting similar man-powered two-wheelers that were once an essential part of ordinary Taiwanese trade and transport under Japan’s rule. In the process of researching and tracking down the missing parts, repairing the damaged “iron horses” and restoring their former functionality, he is also piecing together the history of his family and that of Taiwan’s war-torn generations. In the same way that the value of daily objects derives from their being constantly and continuously used, the past lives on as long as we remember it.
And what a scarred and sorrowful past Wu has given us via his vivid and veracious representation of the Second World War’s legacy on the Taiwanese people. Yet a strange sense of peace lingers as each of the characters finds fulfilment in understanding and accepting their profound loss. Abbas, the philosophical photojournalist, pinpoints what is lacking in his art after discovering the bicycle that his father buried deep in the jungles of Northern Burma decades ago is now wrapped in the centre trunk of a huge tree. Pasuya, the aboriginal warrior uprooted and broken by the bloody Malayan Campaign in which he was forced to participate, finds solace in his reunification with a war elephant. Old Tsou, the shabby soldier who has hated the Japanese “savages” all his life, spends his remaining years in a gloomy, derelict village looking after a bird that he believes is a Japanese air cadet. And Shizuko, an orphan of war who lived through the February 28 Incident in 1947 and the following decades of White Terror in which tens of thousands of civilians were massacred, imprisoned or simply “disappeared” in their struggle for Taiwanese independence, is comforted by the fact that a handful of zoo animals were cared for after the destruction of Japanese operations in Taiwan by American warplanes in 1944.
Some may argue it is closure that these characters have found, but it is precisely the journey they undertake in search for the meaning of their loss that nourishes and sustains them, allowing them to realise the point is not and has never been what they lost. Instead, what is important is what they once cherished and what they now choose to remember.
The Buddhist concept of the Four States of Phenomena in the Principle of Physics – formation, existence, destruction and emptiness – may help illustrate Wu’s conceptualisation of objects such as bicycles. However, what makes The Stolen Bicycle unique is Wu’s focus on the significance of objects in the context of our attempt to find/form/foster/facilitate meaningful existence out of nothingness. Take A-hûn, who transforms the macabre into art in her work of making butterfly collages:
Some of the butterflies weren’t completely dead, and when she made the cut, their mouthparts thrust forward and their legs would suddenly constrict. She found it strangely fascinating, and at the moment the beautiful wings were separated from the ugly body, she seemed to touch something akin to her soul… A collage’s value was determined by the complexity of the design, the number of butterfly wings and the variety of species used. Basically, the more lives sacrificed, the more beautiful the result.
Another example is Squad Leader Mu, who survived the most horrendous battles against Japanese forces in Northern Burma:
When that time came looking for him, when pain came knocking out of nowhere at his door, he’d slip away into the woods… Every time he opened his eyes after a brief nap in Fort Li in the days they spent facing off against the Japanese, he saw the tree was still growing new leaves and the sun was still shining through the gaps. It was the most beautiful experience in his entire life. It reminded him he was still alive and that the tree was still alive.
Such diminutive yet determined defiance against the unstoppable may be seen as a major and uniquely Taiwanese theme in The Stolen Bicycle. As the first-person narrator “I” explains: “The word for fate in Mandarin is ming-yun, literally ‘life-luck’ or ‘command-turn’. But ‘fate’ in my mother’s native tongue of Taiwanese is the other way round: ūn-miā. It belies fatalism, putting luck in front of life, suggesting you can turn the wheel of fate yourself instead of awaiting the commands of Heaven.” Instead of letting the past be gone, lamenting the destruction of life experiences and memories and staring at the void that is left behind, the characters in The Stolen Bicycle take the initiative to remember. In the process of remembering they learn to understand all that has been while paying tribute to what remains eternal in their ever-changing world.
It must be said that Darryl Sterk, an expert in Taiwan’s local literature and indigenous cultures, did a fine job translating not only Mandarin and the Taiwanese dialect but also the indigenous language Tsou into English. The resulting writing in The Stolen Bicycle is eloquent and thought-provoking, as Sterk well conveyed the science and philosophy of Wu’s efforts to shed light on traces of extraordinary human spirit across the dark land that is Taiwan’s wartime history. Meanwhile, the MWF should be recognised for compensating its previous lack of attention to Taiwanese literature by offering not one but two events featuring both author and translator. It is rare that readers get to glimpse the fascinating difference between Wu’s and Sterk’s personal styles, to explore how truth, kindness and beauty can transcend across cultural and linguistic barriers, and to celebrate the successful marriage of two distinguished literary voices. It remains this reviewer’s hope that we will meet more Taiwanese authors and their translators at Australian literary festivals in the near future.
- Introduction to Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now (https://griffithreview.com/editions/new-asia-now/). Retrieved on January 29, 2017.
- Introduction to Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle by Readings (https://www.readings.com.au/products/24092027/the-stolen-bicycle). Retrieved on January 25, 2018.
- Austin Horng-en Wang, Brian Hioe, Fang-Yu Chen and Wei-ting Yen, “The Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese, not as Chinese”, The Washington Post, January 2, 2017 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/02/yes-taiwan-wants-one-china-but-which-china-does-it-want/?utm_term=.c4db3c548d54). Retrieved on January 25, 2018.
- The Stolen Bicycle, p.118.
- The Stolen Bicycle, p.342.
- The Stolen Bicycle, p.7.
CHRISTINE YUNN-YU SUN is a bilingual writer, translator, reader, reviewer and independent scholar. Her book reviews, essays and other creative writings have appeared in the Australian Poetry Journal, Westerly, Limina: A journal of Historical and Cultural Studies, The Victorian Writer, Overland, The Good Weekend, International Journal of People-Oriented Programming and American Journal of Chinese Studies. Her English re-writing of four Chinese classic novels — Journey to the West, The Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber— were published for young readers by Real Reads in the United Kingdom.
by Lachlan Brown
Reviewed by NICHOLAS JOSE
One of the titles in Lachlan Brown’s new book is ‘(sorites and another traveller’s song)’. The parenthesis is a sign of casual deflection. The title of the poem is an add-on. It could be something else. But actually it provides a good description of the whole, which is a lyrical reflection of a journey and a heap of other things. ‘Sorites’ means ‘heap’, referring here to hoarding—the poet’s grandmother’s literal obsessive hoarding, as well as the metaphorical hoarding of memories, stories, observations and associations that make up (this) poetry—and conceptually to the paradox of a heap. Does a heap stay the same as things are added to it or taken away? When is a heap not a heap but just detritus, nothing? For a certain kind of contemporary Australian poetry, of which Brown’s is an appealing example, this is a problem of situatedness, of inheritance.
Poetry is hard to talk about. The usual way to do so is to add a heap of words, in appreciative response. Hence this review. That’s harder to do with the particular poetry I’m talking about here which is already adding its own loose, dense, fast, fluid language to a referential conversation going on with other voices that share the space. Perhaps with John Tranter at their back, Ken Bolton and Pam Brown comes to mind, Jill Jones, Adam Aitken, John Mateer, Greg McLaren, Fiona Wright, ‘Sydney’ poets, sort of. Lachlan Brown’s first book, Limited Cities (2012) links the 2005 riots in Macquarie Fields, the Western Sydney suburb where he grew up, with riots encountered in Paris, similarly fuelled by disadvantage and disenfranchisement. The poet re-visions the world through techniques of substitution, or ‘replacement’, what a hoarder imagines for the things at their disposal. The manner of the concern is what Brown shares with his cohort. It is exemplified by the epigraph from Borges that introduces Brown’s poem ‘Petrol Stations, or Nine Vouchers Without the Optimism’:
It is as if a novelist of our day were to sketch a satirical caricature of, say, service stations, treating them in a ludicrous way. Borges, ‘Partial Enchantments of the Quixote’
But for the poet of the Australian banlieues in the 21st century, this is no longer satire but revaluing with redemptive intent.
The new book, Lunar Inheritance (2017), makes that underlying purpose and power more apparent:
You rethink your motivations
for writing. You catch yourself frowning.
It is there, first of all, in the foregrounding of form and the ordering of things. The book is organised around travel between Sydney and China’s major cities, but with the notable addition of Kaiping in the Pearl River Delta. That’s where the poet’s grandmother left from in 1939, eventually for Australia. Three generations later she has farewelled her grandson on his ‘return’. The poet tells Fiona Wright in an interview (29 August 2017, Sydney Review of Books podcast) that he was ‘going back to China for the first time’. Yet his ‘first time’ carries the China that has been handed down to him, making this a family ‘going back’, even if to a place that the maternal line broke away from and no longer knows. What return can there be? The question prompts poetry in which the moving through of layers of place, time and identification are fashioned to communicate a questioning, multiple selfhood.
The poems in Lunar Inheritance appear as eight line blocks (with parenthetical titles) arranged in sets of eight. Each set is prefaced by a bold title and an abstracted ideogram and every second set is followed by a poem in sonnet form (14 lines) with its own title in bold. The second set ends with a poem called ‘Chinese Container’, for example, while the third set is called ‘Self-storage’, both indicators that the containment is thematic as well as formal. The pattern continues strictly throughout until the last set, which has only seven poem blocks, the last (eighth) being left void, in keeping with the openness of the last title, ‘Almost there’, suggesting that any arrival can only be provisional. There is cultural play in the arrangement—8, the auspicious number in Chinese—and an embrace of Chinese aesthetic features—the rectangle, the regular sequence—combined with cross-cultural play via the interpolation of the (Western) sonnet, in poems that often critique Australian anxiety about cultural crossing. Flowing through and over the formal constraints, however, there is a great flexibility of line, varied and divided up in all sorts of ways, allowing experiment and openness.
The lunar inheritance is the yin line of female legacies from China, the far side of the moon, through the poet’s great-grandmother, grandmother and mother, all present in these poems, but it is also the pressure of that experience in himself, for an English-language poet whose name is Lachlan (unpronounceable in China) Brown. There is an undercurrent here, and a determination to defend a family’s experience and the power of the culture it draws on. Brown appreciates what he finds in China. It inspires some marvellous similes—‘scaffolding like bamboo / hashtags camped around a high-rise’—and forces reflection from a double perspective: in a Beijing hutong, for example, you glance
sideways for touristic reasons and find your gaze
pattern caught by a workshop that is filled with clothes
and striped bags, and for less than a second this is
your grandmother’s brimming house in Ashfield….
This is not a China limited by national boundaries or history as the future unfolds: ‘Around the world ((y)our) people begin to wake….’ The poet welcomes such transformation with what he calls his ‘(absorption method)’, the title of a poem written on reaching Shanghai, where ‘the river [is] the colour of a bad espresso’. The blocks of these poems image the building blocks by which China has moved forward—producing, transporting, systematising, multiplying: economic activity with a cultural base that extends even to his grandmother’s hoarding: ‘buildings … become Mahjong tiles’, a ‘container’ heads to the coast, ‘my un-heritage stacked five / stories high’, ‘in a shelf-stacked reality’, ‘the promise of a perfect supply chain’, all modular:
So you now know the reticulated
of a Zili village like those gridbooks where your
friends all practised their Mandarin Saturday characters
while you pressed space bar to jump through traffic.
Brown is a fine phrase-maker, at his best when there’s something at stake. His method is to make a connection that glances to something else, recoining the familiar, converting a perception into a metaphor. He worries that he writes from a position of ‘deracinated privilege’, that his poems are selfies. His consciousness of that puts him properly at the centre of what he writes about:
You’re anxious that each new insight is just
self-surveillance missing/hitting its mark,
the sky-like mirror in a nightclub bathroom
in Chaoyang district.
In an empire of near-universal surveillance whether language hits or misses makes little difference. The presence of China in our world has become the uneasy sign of that: a condition in which we are all complicit. Lachlan Brown registers it with a tentative intensity, his language ‘already straining this experience … like a half-hearted net in a swiftly flowing river’. Lunar Inheritance is especially valuable for the uncomfortable awareness it shares.
NICHOLAS JOSE has published seven novels, including Paper Nautilus (1987), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), three collections of short stories, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (a memoir), and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy Beijing, 1987-90 and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide, where he is a member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.
Modern Chinese poetry begins with its turn away from classical Chinese poetry in the early twentieth century. This turn saw the adoption of the vernacular and the move away from classical forms. Yet the history of modern Chinese poetry does not mimic the trajectory of Western modernist and post-modernist experimentations. In particular, the years between the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 represent a hiatus in the development of modern poetry in mainland China. The death of Mao and the ensuing end of the Cultural Revolution saw the resurgence of poetry away from the officially sanctioned poetry of the Mao era.
It was during this period in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s that the first experimentations in contemporary poetry from mainland China emerged. Dismissed as the Misty group by critics unreceptive to their imagery and language, these poets were nevertheless the first to be translated and anthologised in English-language anthologies of contemporary poetry from China. In the decades since, several competing aesthetic movements have emerged that represent a move away from the imagery and language of the Misty poets. At the same time, anthologies in English translation have continued to chart this ongoing period even if ‘for two decades contemporary poetry from China was almost exclusively represented by Menglongshi (Misty Poetry) (Yeh ‘Modern Chinese Poetry’ 603). These anthologies even now mostly emanate from the larger metropolitan centres of the Anglophone world. Recent anthologies include W. N. Herbert et al’s 2012 Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry, published by British poetry publishing house Bloodaxe Books, Ming Di’s 2013 New Cathay: Contemporary Chinese Poetry from the American independent literary Tupelo Press publishing house, and Liang Yujing’s 2017 Zero Distance: New Poetry from China from the American experimental Tinfish Press publishing house.
Australian translations of contemporary Chinese poetry have also been forthcoming in the latter part of the twentieth and early part of the twenty-first centuries. Important work in the translation and dissemination of contemporary Chinese poetry has come from such scholars and literary translators as Mabel Lee, who in 1990 published Yang Lian’s The Dead in Exile (Tiananmen Publications) and Masks & Crocodile: A Contemporary Chinese Poet and his Poetry (Wild Peony Press). Her 2002 translation of Yang Lian’s Yi appeared through the American publisher, Green Integer, while her 2014 translation of poet and writer Hong Ying’s poetry collection I Too Am Salammbo (2) appeared through the Sydney and Tokyo-based Vagabond Press in its Asia-Pacific series. Lee is also the editor of the 2014 Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian (Vagabond Press) and along with Naikan Tao and Tony Prince is one of the translators. The latter two also published in 2006 Eight Contemporary Chinese Poets (Wild Peony Press). Finally, literary translator and critic Simon Patton has co-edited the China domain of Poetry International Web, and is the translator along with Tao Naikan of avant-gardist Yi Sha’s 2008 Starve the Poets! Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books).
Poet, writer, essayist, editor and translator Ouyang Yu has over a period of three decades since his arrival in 1991 from mainland China to pursue a doctorate at La Trobe University brought to the notice of the Australian literary establishment contemporary Chinese poetry through his ongoing translation projects. Some of his translations have acquired canonical status in Australian literary culture through their inclusion in such publications as the Best Australian Poems anthologies (Black Inc). His translations of Shu Ting’s ‘Good Friends’ and Shu Cai’s ‘Absurdity’ appeared in Best Australian Poems 2012, edited by John Tranter, while his translations of Bai Helin’s ‘Meeting with the Same River’ and Hu Xian’s ‘The Orchard’ appeared in Best Australian Poems 2013, edited by Lisa Gorton.
Ouyang Yu has translated and edited into English two major anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry. In Your Face: Contemporary Chinese Poetry in English Translation was published in 2002 through the literary journal, Otherland, as a special issue of the journal, and Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China was published in 2013 through poetry publisher Five Islands Press. With a few exceptions, both of these publications, like other English-language anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry, concentrate on poets who either emerged or were born after the death of Mao in 1976. They also define contemporary Chinese poetry in its broader sense to include poetry from the wider Chinese world, including in the case of In Your Face from the diasporic world of Australia.
Apart from his two major anthologies in English translation of contemporary Chinese poetry, Ouyang Yu continues to publish translations of contemporary Chinese poetry and maintains an active connection to contemporary Chinese culture through his teaching and research in mainland China. In 2016, he edited in journal form along with poet and short-story writer Yang Xie ‘A Bilingual Selection of Poetry in Chinese and English’, translated by Ouyang Yu. It features a selection of twenty-one contemporary Chinese poets with forty-six poems. In 2017, he published his translations of three contemporary Chinese female poets in Poems of Wu Suzhen, Yue Xuan & Qing Shui (Vagabond Press). He also engages in what he calls ‘self-translation’, as marked by the publication of his 2012 Self Translation (Transit Lounge) of his translations into English side by side with the Chinese of poems written originally by him in Chinese but translated into English as discrete English-language poems.
Ouyang Yu is also a major contributor to Australian literary culture through his own poetry, fiction, and essays. In his 2009 Barry Andrews Memorial Address, Nicholas Jose notes Ouyang Yu’s ‘original and polymathic contributions to China-Australia literary interaction’. Moving fluidly between cultures and languages, Ouyang Yu has developed a dynamic aesthetic in his work that ‘enables him to move surprisingly between Australian attitudes and Chinese perspectives’(3).
Ouyang Yu’s work as a literary translator functions as a bridge between China-Australia literary cultures. Yet In Your Face received little critical attention upon initial publication. Ouyang Yu describes how it ‘was sent to nearly all the major literary journals and newspapers in Australia but got no response whatsoever (although it has since been reviewed in a number of magazines, notably Overland)’ (‘Motherland, Otherland’ 53). On the other hand, Breaking New Sky received critical attention in such online literary journals as the poetry-focused Cordite, Mascara, and the writing journal TEXT. (3) Anthologies such as Ouyang Yu’s not only bring closer together Australia-China literary relations but also join Australian literary culture to the international stream of English-language translations of contemporary Chinese poetry. A marker of the importance of his work in the translation and dissemination of contemporary Chinese poetry is Cosima Bruno’s inclusion of In Your Face along with publications by Mabel Lee, Tony Prince, Tao Naikan and Simon Patton in her appendix of book-length translations into English of Contemporary Chinese poetry from 1980–2009 (280-285).
Anthologies of poetry in translation carry images of the originating culture that can challenge a target culture’s preconceptions. In the case of China, images of China remain ambiguous in the broader Australian imagination. The question becomes what image of China emerges from Ouyang Yu’s selection of poets and poems across these two anthologies minimally divided by time being only eleven years apart and which span between them a significant period of China’s modernisation. This question does not ignore the aesthetic drive of contemporary Chinese poetry but adds a layer of interrogation. The question applies to any anthology in English translation of contemporary Chinese poetry, but Ouyang Yu’s anthologies circulate within the Australian critical field and therefore merit analysis within the networks of Australian literary culture.
To readers and critics who see the role of anthologies as being one of canonisation of poets and poems, Ouyang Yu throws a challenge when he states in his introductions to In Your Face and Breaking New Sky that they are eclectic and personal collections. He states in In Your Face that his interest does not lie in circulating established names but in discovering what ‘lies about us abundant, abandoned and not yet appropriated’. This is not to say that poets already known to western readers are not among the poets featured in In Your Face, but it includes lesser-known names. In Breaking New Sky, Ouyang Yu is even more provocative when he proposes the radical notion that ‘I have always wanted to publish an anthology of poetry featuring poems without their authors’ names attached to them’.11 He seeks to publish only those poems that have moved him ‘emotionally or cerebrally’. He is not interested in canonisation but enjoyment.
In not delineating the field of contemporary Chinese poetry and setting its boundaries within strict limits, Ouyang Yu opens up the play of contemporary Chinese poetry beyond his taste to that of the reader. If he has made ‘many discoveries’ (Breaking New Sky,8) then the reader may, too. He does not eschew a general positioning of contemporary Chinese poetry in his introductions, but he does not categorically define readers’ tastes for them by circumscribing the possibilities of contemporary Chinese poetry even as he is resolute about what he does not like. In In Your Face, he includes few poets born before the 1950s, because he ‘can hardly read the old ones’, but he reminds readers that several, including him, were born in the 1950s, ‘such as Wang Jiaxin and Ouyang Jianghe, once dominating voices in the Chinese poetic scene now banished to the periphery by the rise of the new-generation poets’. We might compare Ouyang Yu’s playful introduction in In Your Face with that of the anthologists of Jade Ladder, when Yang Lian argues that ‘in this anthology, we hope to rebuild the formal values of poetry’, and ask ourselves whether the Jade Ladder anthologists and Ouyang Yu are that far removed. Enjoyment also means enjoyment of poetry as art form.
Ouyang Yu’s statement in Time magazine in 2010 that ‘poetry is one of the freest media in China, but the West doesn’t know it’ is intriguing when we consider ‘the authorities have turned a blind eye because Chinese society is increasingly focused on the economy’. It means that ‘this is the best time for Chinese poets to flourish’. He repeats variations of this statement in both In Your Face and Breaking New Sky. In the introduction to In Your Face, which predates his Time statement by eight years, he writes that ‘Chinese poetry is no longer a monolith of dogmatism and various isms but one of diversity and vitality’. The latter themes of diversity and vitality are taken up again in Breaking New Sky when he recalls three years after his Time statement that ‘it was only upon editing Otherland magazine in late 1994’ that he grew to see that contemporary Chinese poetry ‘seemed to have taken a turn for the better’. By better, an aesthetic as well as political judgement, he means that ‘poetry, or some of it, was no longer’ written with officialdom in mind but had become ‘an expression of personal poetic truths that readers could identify with’.
Ouyang Yu is not unique among anthologists to assert the diversity of contemporary Chinese poetry. W. N. Herbert observes in his preface to the Jade Ladder anthology that contemporary Chinese poets ‘have embarked on one of the world’s most thorough and exciting experiments in contemporary poetry’ and avows ‘the diversity of mainland Chinese poetry today’ . Yang Lian also hints in his introduction to the Jade Letter anthology at the diversity of contemporary Chinese poetry when he argues that following the deadening impulse of the Cultural Revolution ‘the last thirty years of Chinese poetry has created an era that is one of the most-quick witted and exciting in the whole history of Chinese poetry’.
The question of diversity conceals within it another question which is the question of why diversity receives emphasis in anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry in English translation. W. N. Herbert recalls in the preface to Jade Ladder that modern Chinese poetry is a product of a two-fold pressure. Firstly, the arrival of modernism through the New Culture or May Fourth Movement of 1919 ‘moved literary writing decisively away from the rules if not the influence of classical forms’. Secondly, the Communist victory in 1949 ‘confirmed and intensified the same tensions between propagandistic “realism” and individual expression that were then afflicting Stalinist Russia’. However, such factors as the death of Mao in 1976, the end of the Cultural Revolution, and China’s opening to the West as well as different movements of poets emerging to explore diverse aesthetic drives have all spearheaded the diversity of contemporary Chinese poetry.
A critical difference between In Your Face and Breaking New Sky is the former’s anarchic introduction compared with the latter’s more normative one. The biographies of poets across In Your Face read more like knowing conversations between friends than the more literary offerings of Breaking New Sky. In de Certeauan terms, the latter is less guerrilla tactics of invasion, or infiltration, and more calculated, or strategic, invitation of reflection. (4) Readers and critics who view the role of anthologies in translation as the polite introduction of another poetry may dismiss Ouyang Yu’s provocatively entitled ‘Poems as Illegal Immigrants: an Introduction’ in his earlier In Your Face as polemical.
However, Ouyang Yu is throwing up a challenge to readers who approach contemporary Chinese poetry as consumption or criticism. His vociferous tone in the introduction to In Your Face is the avant-gardist’s call to arms. He is inviting Australian readers to rethink their relationship to both China and the consumption of poetry. Within the context of the difficulty of writing and getting published in Australia as someone from a non-English speaking background, he writes that ‘translating contemporary Chinese poetry into English for an audience whose main interest in Asia read China is money and everything that goes with it defies description’. The unexpected critical judgement on readers seeking a poetry critical of contemporary China is that if they wish ‘to know what characterizes these poems’ then it is ‘that they are mildly and sensitively anti-Western’.
Despite the milder tone of the Introduction in Breaking New Sky, it recalls the avant-gardist’s call to arms in In Your Face. In what is a ‘labour of love’ for him, Ouyang Yu offers readers, who have now morphed into ‘Australian poetry lovers’, a diverse collection of ‘the most interesting, the most enticing, the most loveable poems’ from ‘the best known and unkown poets, from an ancient shiguo (poetry nation)’. The story of contemporary Chinese poetry is but one step in a long poetic journey which, as Ouyang Yu tells us, the Beijing-based poet, Lin Mang, argues that it can ‘hold its own with the rest of world poetry in that it flies on two wings’. Thus, ‘one wing is its 5000-year-old history of poetry’, and the other is ‘its absorption or assimilation of Western poetry over the last 100 years’. Both mean that it can ‘fly higher’. The invitation is that contemporary Chinese poetry stands on its aesthetic achievements.
Ouyang Yu poses in the introduction to Breaking New Sky the perennial question of what is the lasting quality of a poem and argues ‘it is the unspeakable mysterious truth captured in the brevity of lines that transcends cultures and politics’. In western terms, this is the expressive truth of lyric poetry since the Romantics. Yet Ouyang Yu’s statement reverberates with Yang Lian’s notion in Jade Ladder that the contemporary Chinese poet is ‘a professional questioner, maintaining a constant position of questioning the self and facing up to a constantly changing world’. The power of contemporary Chinese poetry in English translation also lies in what comes across from the Chinese in the very texture of the translation. For Ouyang Yu, direct translation that preserves the original language is the preferred method, operating in his analysis as if the sublime, numbing the senses and ‘adding strangeness to the beauty of the translated poem’ (Breaking New Sky 9-10).
In organising both anthologies alphabetically, and in not limiting himself to one group of interrelated poets or labelling poets according to their aesthetic affiliations, Ouyang Yu allows the diversity of contemporary Chinese poets to flourish within the pages of his anthologies. The question remains that if diversity is one of the characteristics of contemporary Chinese poetry then it is legitimate to ask what kind of China emerges from within the pages of Ouyang Yu’s anthologies, if not any anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry, since poems contain within themselves traces of social life and engagement.
Reading social interactions in China through Ouyang Yu’s anthologies
Ouyang Yu’s 1990s poem ‘Translating Myself’ in his first collection of poetry, Moon Over Melbourne and other Poems, offers a way in to reading the poems across In Your Face and Breaking New Sky as artefacts of social relations. It is suggestive of how the translated poem also conceals within itself the social body of another culture:
I translate myself
from Chinese into English
disappear into appearance of
another existence looking back across
the barrier of tied tongues
at the concealed image of the other body
Ouyang Yu’s diverse selection of poets in these anthologies allows precisely what is operating across different aesthetic groups to emerge with full and overlapping complexity. The selection of poems puts the diversity of contemporary Chinese poetry under pressure. Diversity implies both aesthetic and representational diversity. Both anthologies engage in a diverse questioning of a shifting contemporary terrain that frequently puts the present in tension with the past. In the 1990s, Michelle Yeh noted that ‘Chinese poetry stands between traditional society, which is fast disappearing, and modern society, which is dominated by mass media and consumerism’ (Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry xxiii). The poems in In Your Face and Breaking New Sky are not always suggestive of a modern world in tension with a traditional world. Yet as poems in both of Ouyang Yu’s anthologies are drawn from poets across the generations, we see a tension between the present and the past playing out in both anthologies. In In Your Face, such tension is often at the surface of the poem, but in the later anthology, Breaking New Sky, we encounter poems where the losses of the past are more subtly integrated into the concerns of the present. The poetics of individual poets show not aesthetic stagnation but renewal; not naïve reflection but sophisticated engagement.
In Your Face
Featuring seventy poets and with a total of one hundred and eighteen poems, In Your Face gives a wide view of contemporary Chinese poetry with some poets born in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Ouyang Yu argues that the poets born in the 1960s write in a more down-to-earth, or minjian, style, having an eye to ‘ordinary daily details, often sordid ones’ than ‘what they dismiss as the intellectual’ poets of the 1950s ‘whose masters seem all western’. However, those born in the 1970s ‘are even fiercer’ .
Poems like Ah Jian’s ‘Unfortunately, I Do not Have any Belief’ suggest an ennui that functions as cynicism with the status quo. It is highly suggestive of a boredom with politics and a concomitant resignation. The social space conjured in the closing lines of the poem is one in which irony itself has been enfolded into the poem’s indifferent cynicism. We are far removed from any grand statements of purpose or will. The speaker is resigned to the status quo even as he ironises it:
If I am punished eventually for lack of a belief
What can I do
Except bear it (6)
Reminiscent of Ah Jian’s cynicism, Han Dong’s poem ‘A and B’ deals in dissociative relationships in which the sexual tensions of male-female relationships manifest through the speaker’s cynicism. The lyrical in the form of the expressive has been subtracted from the equation of romantic relationships. The poem uses the banal language of official reports that annul any idealistic tendency when the speaker says that ‘for the purpose of a complete description it must be pointed out that / when B stands up after tying the laces, she has semen running down that belongs to A’ (18).
Cynicism also features in Hai Shang’s ‘An Evening Visitor to the House’ that deconstructs literary repression in an ironical, matter-of-fact tone. The poem says of the female lover, or prostitute, that ‘she must have recognised this scene from another century’ (22), but a few lines later ‘she is swaying her buttocks / and walking directly towards the bedroom / and this episode has been removed from the book’ (22). Yet the poem strikes an ideal note in its suggestion of poetry as the refuge of the forbidden. What is excluded in a book can yet find its way into poetry. Contemporary life is a negotiation of psychic freedom.
Domestic life comes under scrutiny in Chen Dachao’s poem, ‘Dreams Shattered Late at Night’, in which the speaker’s sleep is shattered by the intrusion of another’s domestic argument. The poem reaches beyond the confines of its own boundaries to raise the more generalised question of violence within the urban home, suggesting that the urban itself is implicated in the occurrence of such violence:
No-How many homes there must be
in cities today that look sturdy on the
but are broken within (13)
Hou Ma’s ‘Learning English’ critiques the linguistic intrusion of English into social life at the behest of the state. The topic, as articulated in ‘Learning English’, is one which highlights loyalty to one’s own language and hence culture even as the foreign entices one away from one’s own heartland:
As a state policy
English intervened in my life
It had nothing to do with the social environment
In which I lived then and it was useless (25)
I wish that I could fall in love with my lover, the English, one day
Without carrying my wife, the Chinese, in my heart (25)
In Ma Fei’s ‘In the Western Food Restaurant’, the speaker stands apart from those around him, who ridicule an elderly man. The latter’s indifference to etiquette is transferred to the poem itself which critiques imported western lifestyles. The elderly man insists on eating his western food with his chopsticks, saying ‘he was eating, not killing’. In a double move, the speaker’s reaction to the snobbery around him enfolds into the poem an ironic distance to western cultural influence. Ultimately, the poem becomes a commentary on writing poetry:
Unlike my pretentious compatriots
I did not present a face
Of snobbery to the old man
I found him a genuine bloke
Who didn’t give a damn about etiquette
But just did it the way he was comfortable
Like the poem I wanted (46)
Xi Du’s ‘The Son and Daughter Problem’ highlights the emotional cost of the one-child policy not as political critique but as social reality. A married couple fantasises divorce as means to gain a sibling for their unborn child:
We’ll give birth to a lonely generation
Oh, the lonely generation
Even before you are born
you put your parents in despair
Before we wake up from our dreams
we each have divorced the other once (83)
The poems across In Your Face unfold a thought-provoking commentary on contemporary life that challenges any lingering perceptions in Australian readers and beyond of Chinese poetry as rhetoric.
Breaking New Sky
Unlike In Your Face, most of the poets gathered in Breaking New Sky were born in the 1960s and 1970s with a few in the 1980s and with the youngest in 2002. As in In Your Face, they are not necessarily canonised in western anthologies. However, like In Your Face, the poems throughout Breaking New Sky are infused with the existential challenge of day-to-day life, its wryness and its lyricism, albeit in a sensibility that is not always at the vanguard of the poem. The collection features forty-five poets and seventy-two poems.
Bai Helin’s ‘A Fake Rattan Chair’ interrogates the existential quest for a symbol of the past in the form of the chair the speaker’s father once possessed but which now can only be obtained in artificial plastic:
Now the fake rattan chair in a black-coated iron frame
Has retired before its time
Like a weary housekeeper. In it, there is a mess consisting of
An old attaché case, four unwashed items of clothing, three stacks
Two mobile phones, a stack of poetry collections and a copy of
The Golden Rose
As well as a white bra, just removed
From my girlfriend’s breasts (16-17)
In Lu Ye’s ‘On the Balcony’, the lyrical interrogation of a symbol of the Chinese historical imaginary in the form of the Yangtze River turns it into a symbol of inner celebration. It performs a complex poetics that shifts the tension between traditional and modern poetic images away from critique to negotiation:
A house from whose balcony one can see the Yangtze
Can be called a luxury residence even at its humblest
My windows all open towards June and the viscera of the
The summer in my body happens to be lush with water grass
Open only for you
There is another Yangtze that originates in my heart, running
through my body
Ah, my heart is the origin of Mount Geladaindong
My veins meandering for 6,300 kilometers, with upper, middle
and lower reaches
And, at its tenderest place
There is also a sandbar in the heart of the river (63)
Zang Di’s ‘The Philosophy Building’ is a complex articulation of meditative inquiry, ironic observation, and unadorned lyricism where the tension between the old and the new is one of nostalgic loss as much as realistic acceptance of the temporal:
built in the 1940s, with a blue-grey roof
like a wing-room directly taken from a temple
its style certainly is not ordinary
beautiful because of dusk and disappearing because of the
punctuation of stars (81)
One of Lu Yu’s other poems, ‘B-Mode Ultrasound Report, Gynecology Department’ ironises both the rhetorical and lyrical modes of language when the speaker writes that “if the report were written in a figurative language” than it would talk about “its shape is cvloser to a torpedo / Than an opening magnolia denundata” (52). This is a sophisticated poetics that conceals within it a tension between woman as vessel and woman as autonomous being:
In a lyrical language, it would have to be written thus:
Ah, this cradle of mankind
Grown on the body of a failed woman
Stops short of germinating despite its rich maternal instinct (53).
In conclusion, in both In Your Face and Breaking New Sky Ouyang Yu gives an expansive picture of what makes contemporary Chinese poetry vibrate. Both collections demonstrate an ongoing renewal of the poetic element in contemporary Chinese poetry and offer a window into the complexities of contemporary social life.
1 This essay with slight alterations was presented as a paper at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Conference ‘Looking In: Looking Out: China and Australia’, which was held in Melbourne, 11-14 July 2017, and draws on my review of Breaking New Sky in TEXT. http://www.textjournal.com.au/april14/giannoukos_rev.htm
2. See my review of I Too Am Salammbo in Rochford Street Review.
3. See my review of Breaking New Sky in TEXT. http://www.textjournal.com.au/april14/giannoukos_rev.htm
4. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau identifies tactics with the disempowered and the strategic with the empowered.
Bruno, Cosima. ‘The Public Life of Contemporary Chinese Poetry in English Translation.’ Target: International Journal of Translation Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012, pp. 253-285.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Randall, U of California P, 1984.
Herbert, W. N., et al. Jade ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry. Bloodaxe Books, 2012.
Jose, Nicholas. ‘Australian Literature Inside and Out.’ (Special Issue: ‘Australian Literature in a Global World.’ Eds. Wenche Ommundsen and Tony Simoes da Silva). Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 2009.
Ming, Di, editor. New Cathay: Contemporary Chinese Poetry. Tupelo Press, 2013.
Ouyang, Yu. Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China. Introduced and translated by Ouyang Yu, Five Islands Press, 2013.
‘In Your Face. Contemporary Chinese Poetry in English Translation.’ Introduced and translated Ouyang Yu, Otherland Literary Jornal, no. 8, 2002.
‘Motherland, Otherland: Small Issues.’ Antipodes, vol. 18, no. 1, 2004, 50-55.
‘Translating Myself.’ Moon Over Melbourne. Papyrus Publishing, 1995.
Yeh, Michelle. Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry. Yale UP, 1992.
TINA GIANNOUKOS is a poet, writer, reviewer, and researcher. Her latest collection of poetry, Bull Days (Arcadia, 2016), was shortlisted in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and longlisted for the 2017 Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne where she has taught in Creative Writing. She has lived and worked in Beijing.
Middle of the Night
by HC Hsu
Deerbrook Editions, 2015.
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
HC Hsu’s essay work, Middle of the Night, is part of what might be called Asian American experimental literature, that combines elements pertaining to the migrant experience with avant-garde forms and styles of writing, such as prose poetry, without subsuming the one under the other. As Dorothy Wang argues in her book Thinking its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (2014), the error would be to “read the experimental as experiential” (164) and hence fall back into the content-oriented approach that consecrated canonical Asian (American) diasporic literary fiction such as Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior or Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. To start with, Middle of the Night employs the essay form, a “minor” literary genre working at the crossroads between fiction and non-fiction, the anecdotic/personal and metaphysical/universal. The book’s plasticity — its hybridity — seems to befit Hsu’s overall purpose, viz. to narrate one’s individual musings from sunset (18:03) till sunrise (05:25). So the book is not divided into chapters but into slices of time, rather, reflecting Hsu’s concern with the minutiae of existence. Hsu’s attempt at jotting down those little epiphanies, fleeting moments, small joys and silent pains that fill up our lives, is like a photographer’s effort to capture a pose’s pause. The vanity of such an endeavour is, paradoxically, what makes the reading of Middle of the Night a deeply moving experience. It reminded of a movie scene from the American drama The Hours (2002), partly based on Virginia Woolf’s life, in which Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) has to listen to her former lover and dying friend Richard (Ed Harris): “I wanted to write it all. Everything that happens in a moment. The way the flowers look when you carry them in your arms. This towel – how it smells, how it feels … its thread. All our feelings – yours and mine. The history of it. Who we once were. Everything in the world. Everything mixed up. Like it’s all mixed up now. And I failed.”
Failure at embracing an all-encompassing truth, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida intimates in his work, is in fact constitutive of the deconstructive process. Things move slowly in Hsu’s book, if they move at all, just as thought sometimes works, running in circles, or the way memory functions, through fragments that do not always match up; yet at the same time, everything vibrates in it with the shrill of intent. Hsu’s highly dense, (in)tense prose aggregates clauses or word clusters that, to paraphrase the postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha in his seminal text The Location of Culture, “add to” but “need not add up” (1994, 155). Hsu’s descriptive insight and eye for details seen from a multiplicity of takes, through close-ups or low-angle shots, confers on his writing a cinematic quality that appears suited to his Romantic task of reviewing the world from a fresh perspective. As he states: “To find the miraculous in the ordinary, in the spectrum of the in-between, I think, is my ‘homework’” (108). For Hsu, the object of writing itself stands for this in-between miracle (miraculous in being precarious) whereby reader and author meet across space and time. To paraphrase Bhabha again, writing then consists in the task of measuring “how newness enters the world” out of this three-dimensional (con)fusion of souls between reader, author, and text. Three images in particular from Hsu’s story fragments have retained my retinae’s attention here.
The first image is from a TV documentary aired in the middle of the night, when insomnia makes you watch anything, like soap operas, reality shows or animal documentaries. Here, Nature’s little wonders take the form of a one-thousand-pound man being airlifted in his bed to the nearest hospital for gastric surgery. Reminiscent of an angel, is the surreal vision of this anonymous man’s ascent into the sky, as if touched by grace, bed sheets flying around his naked body, and with the transfixed crowd cheering down below. Seeing him on TV, his former girlfriend, having left him because of his obesity, decides to nurse the man back to life, “because, she said, she sensed in him ‘so much pain and suffering’” (84). Through this unusual mismatch that reminded me of a Carson McCullers love relationship in her short story collection The Ballad of the Sad Café, the two of them do not so much complement (add up) as second (add to) each other, finding a supplément d’âme (solace to the soul) to their human predicament and deep sense of loneliness. The second image functions along a vertical axis, too, but deals with falling instead, bringing to mind Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man on the aftermaths of 9/11. A female office worker accidentally raises her head from her desk towards the window of her office tower for a fraction of a second and sees the V shape of a woman silently falling down outside, her black hair floating around. These two parallel individual, self-centred lives briefly intersect, yet cannot feel more removed from each other at the same time. Insulated within the illusory safety of the air-conditioned, soundproof building, the office worker “couldn’t hear anything, or make out what was happening. Just point and trajectories” (96). Falling here entails the dissolution of matter into form, and vice-versa, like the raindrops that come falling onto Hsu’s window in the middle of the night in Central Texas, making time liquid.
The third image is from a movie scene in Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, in which a man spies upon a woman from across his apartment unit. The woman is standing by the “open, large rectangular window” (100) of her own apartment, pretending to be having a romantic dinner with her lover, kept hidden from view by a wall, “when, in fact, she’s alone” (101). The man and woman’s eyes never meet, wrapped as they are in their respective solipsistic, Hopperesque solitude. There is often a tension in Hopper’s paintings between the interior and the outside, as there is here, for although exposed to the man’s binoculars and to the film viewer’s gaze, the woman remains oblivious to her surroundings, as if “putting on a show, just for herself” (101). Hsu is a cinephile, and quite a number of his anecdotes are movie reviews of films he remembered watching. Is this because cinema, as a visual art, offers the kind of rear view window and perspectival insight that Hsu, as a diasporic writer, is particularly fond of? Hsu grew up in Yonghe in the northern part of Taiwan before moving to America with his family in the early 90s. Both of his parents have connections through relatives with Mainland China. Hsu recollects his first trip, flying from America, to his father’s home in Pingdu, situated in the northeastern province of Shandong, aged eight. There he learns about the unfathomableness of “ancestral”, family, communal times, meeting with unknown relatives and “generic” (78) Asian old ladies whom he would probably never meet again, yet who are at the same time implacably, absurdly, connected to him by blood. The arbitrariness of diasporic belonging to the transcendental signifier of China is for Hsu further compounded by his father’s complicated relationship with the “Middle Kingdom”, which the latter fled as a child, crossing the Formosa (Taiwan) Strait partly by swimming. For Hsu, China remains, like the middle of the night or the disjointed nature of human relationships, a foreign haunt to which he however keeps returning. His childhood memories of China are in particular associated with his grandmother’s funerals and with the event of having to witness his father’s near-death seizure: “My father later said, that night, he had a dream that my grandmother came to our hotel room, and asked him if he wanted to go on a trip abroad, with her” (80).
To conclude this review, I must admit Hsu’s meta-fictional comments on literary reviews made me rethink the role and function of this “minor” genre. According to Hsu, book reviews often amount to highly subjective and personal scribbling in the margin that is more indicative of the reviewer’s own worldview than it says something about the author, the book being reviewed, or its potential readers. Isn’t it, however, what writing, all writing that is, is about, and what Hsu’s adoption of the essay work form hints at in particular? Hsu argues that writing is altruistic (having in mind the absent reader), while reaffirming the primacy of life over art, which will appeal to carpe diem amateurs and art dilettantes alike. In effect, readers of Middle of the Night should not expect an underlying or overarching theme running through the book, as Hsu does not write for anyone or about anything specifically, his Asian American-ness (and homosexuality) being ultimately of “marginal” concern to him. Hsu is a process artist, that is to say that his primary concern, like the German dance choreographer Pina Bausch or the American photographer David Armstrong, to both of whom he devotes a “time slice”, is “neither of this world, nor of another, neither in the moment that’s past, nor in the one to come, but, in the space and time that is lost, between them” (73). Another scene-image from Hsu’s essay work resonates with me here, that illustrates the supplementary, intra-subjective and partial (ad)equation of re-views (“yourself plus the world minus me” as Hsu puts it), and the way re-views can also, by definition, provide new ways of seeing. An undefined, non-gendered, first person narrator sits in the public transports of a non-situated city, unbeknownst to his/her lover, who coincidently sits two rows in front. Instead of joining him/her, the narrator remains in his/her seat, preferring to watch his/her lover’s back. In doing so, the narrator realises how in their respective, self-immersed anonymity, s/he has never felt so close to connecting with his/her lover: “It occurs to me I had never up until then, seen you. In your completeness. In your solitude. I wonder what you are like without me. Yourself plus the world minus me. It’s a strange feeling, but I feel a lightness and clarity. A bright whiteness shines through me. I can see an outline of myself” (113-4).
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD in Anglophone postcolonial literatures from Monash University in Australia. He works as a sessional lecturer in English at La Sorbonne University, Paris. He is involved in political activism and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).
On Exile—Inner, and Outer: A Tibetan Odyssey in Coming Home to Tibet: a Memoir of Love, Loss, and Belonging by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa (Shambhala Boulder, 2016)
by Martin Kovan
As its title suggests, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s Coming Home to Tibet (Shambhala, 2016) is a memoir of exile with something of a difference: the return to a home once lost is possible, and what is found there can be told. On its first page Dhompa writes of her Tibetan-born mother: “She disciplined her memory to give up counting her losses. She gave her suffering one name: exile.” (1) The home to which Dhompa’s mother waits “all her exiled life” to return is a “more abundant and happy place” (2) than those of their newfound lives, and which she, but not her daughter, is ultimately denied.
Dhompa describes herself as “born in exile” in India, raised as a refugee and settling as an adult in the U.S.A., a successful poet (“the first Tibetan female poet to be published in English”) writing in a third or fourth tongue. Her memoir describes her repeat visits to the Eastern Tibetan motherland to complete an arc her mother began, seeking to resolve it on her behalf, and perhaps laying to rest some still haunting ghosts of her own on the way.
Dhompa’s own return, and the ambivalence it entails, prompts in Tibet a repetition of the projection to an unknown future revelation her mother has instilled in her during their shared life in exile (in India and Nepal). Dhompa’s aunt Tashi
asks the same questions, sits in the same spot, and repeats the stories I know by heart. I rewrite notes I took down three, five, ten years ago. Quite often I have to resist the urge to go back to my room when irritation or fatigue overcomes me listening to the unnecessary and long diversions in the storytelling, but it is precisely at these moments I remind myself—a story does not have to make sense. Someday, I tell myself, the relevance and the wisdom of these moments will be revealed to me. (34-35)
This candour marks a wise humility before the many untold and untellable aspects of her own and others’ stories, including those one tells oneself. Dhompa’s memoir of going ‘home’ to Tibet is the story of the degree to which such is finally possible, and what it means even when it is. An understated weight burdens a narrative only occasionally leavened with the light of the Eastern Tibetan plateau that somehow salves the damage of history:
In the evenings the clouds are sometimes bandages for the sky’s scars. Perhaps it is my nostalgia for this place that gives the sky such grandness. I view the sky as though it belongs only to this location […] It is more beautiful than I imagined. The land is vast and unhindered by trees, highways, electric poles, or tall buildings. There are few distractions other than what is offered by the imagination. But this will not last for long. (103; 106)
This final caution is typical of a warning note sung quietly throughout the memoir. The modernisation of the traditional khampa nomadic culture of the Dhompa family’s native Kham region is frequently pitted against a much older, hard but tested relation with the vast grasslands and their unremittingly harsh conditions of life.
Dhompa is unsparing in her portrait of the often violent hardships and injustices of each: the coercions of the Chinese-enforced 21st-century offer conveniences many former nomads prefer, despite the loss of land, tradition, and earlier forms of independence; but the old ways also kept women, in particular, subjugated to a religious superstition and patriarchy itself subordinate to feudal dependencies on clan and clerical authority.
Yet, those same dependencies provided for khampas the foundations of personal and social security still possible within the stark constraints of nomadic life: the presumed lost world of exile. Dhompa questions and rues the insufficiencies of both sides of the divide between tradition and its deracination, ready to note facts and anecdotes with a documentary thoroughness. Her own fate is to find herself irremediably between worlds, to neither of which she properly belongs, as a woman or a writer, yet is irrevocably bound.
The memoir of exile is unsurprisingly a prominent genre in Tibetan diasporic literature in English: well-known examples include those of the 14th Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa, among many others primarily of a Buddhist religious-hagiographical, but also ethnographic and historical, character. These and texts like them offered, on their first appearance, a vital hermeneutic function for a Western audience hungry for Tibet lore: social and cultural histories of a threatened and archaic, if romanticized, authenticity.
The trope of the mystical snowbound ‘Shangri La’ fed into many early instances of a Central Asian imaginaire: from heroically framed fictions and films of the 1930s and post-war period, up to their only minimally updated versions of a Western framing of the Tibetan other, especially in a series of films of recent decades (notably, in Scorsese’s Kundun, itself a cinematic melding of the Dalai Lama text with Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, also filmed). A veritable industry of Tibet and Buddhist-themed film and text has ensued, but one result of the commercial dissemination of the Tibetan imaginary has been a limiting of its literary spectrum. Of the latest state of play of Tibetan diasporic literature in English, a current Wikipedia entry claims:
Especially popular are autobiographies of Tibetans for an American and British audience. However, pressures from the popular expectations of Western readers for […] the “authentic Tibetan” limit success to authors who identify themselves “as Buddhist, as nationalist, and as exiles”. Tibetans who actually live in Tibet, or whose experience incorporates aspects of Chinese or Western culture, are seen to be “tainted”.
Dhompa’s narrator passes all three criteria, but in very qualified terms, and in focusing on the latter ‘taints’ resists the homogenising trend. Perhaps only after a half-century of part-imagined projection, can a comparatively sober account of nearly seventy years of occupation be told in the demythologised voices of internal Tibetans or those like Dhompa’s, close yet distant enough as a direct and indirect participant to perceive the reverse sides of which earlier accounts, gauzed by different curatorial concerns, were unaware.
To the degree Dhompa’s account of her mother’s exile, and so indirectly her own, rehearses a well-trod twentieth-century trope, all the necessary ingredients are in place: political turmoil, totalitarian persecution, perilous journeys to comparatively safe haven, separation from family, gaps and mistranslations of oral history, memory, identity. Dhompa’s memoir has these aplenty and, given the ongoing Tibetan crisis, in a still acute form.
She sustains an unflinching view of the many truths of displacement, working against the simplifying trend of the packaged theme-tour of a 21st-century, Sinicized ‘real Tibet’. It demonstrates how polyvalent Tibetan reality is, especially for those personal histories, like hers, so deeply enmeshed in and alienated from it. The text is also a continuation of the earlier phase of introducing Tibet to a global readership: part travelogue, ethnographic survey of traditional nomadic culture, social history, and personal confession, it sits, in terms of its discursive and affective foci, and their linguistic strategies, between all of those.
Dhompa is known primarily as a poet (with three full-length volumes, among other work, to her name), and an abundance of well-turned metaphors rise from a sometimes flat descriptive exposition: one relative “has undulating flesh, abundant and light, and a singing voice that echoes the tenderness of a teenage girl’s elbow” (64); while “With its temperate summers and the majestic backdrop of mountains, Dharamshala has been an auspicious sanctuary for Tibetans.” (45) The poet and the ethnographer together weave a portrait of Chinese Tibet that also limns its author: as if the wishful subject of an elusive otherness must repeatedly concede to a catalogue of often grim time-bound facts.
This stylistic division between objectivization and phenomenology reflects a host of other polarisations. These are various: between tradition and the modern—above all between the family home in rural Kham and the modernised West, but also between modern Sinicized Tibet and the ‘wild east’ of the rugged high country; between an opaque and unreliable third-person testimony and the first-person direct confession (at least one chapter thematizes Dhompa’s various family members’ ‘insider’ versions of shared stories contrasting with her own past and present ‘outsider’ interpretations of them). She contrasts a religious atavism and its mythopoeic certitudes, against her own acquired but ambivalent secular scepticism of the pre-modern world of superstition.
The apparently fixed identities of Dhompa’s Tibetan relatives resist her own fluid, uncertain and displaced one. The pre-1959 and post-occupation Tibetan lifeworlds of relative political and sovereign autonomy (with age-old clans and chieftains perpetuating all the forms of a feudal, hierarchised religious society) contrast with the post-Cultural Revolution flattening of the same rich social-religious layers of identity—only to introduce new ones where Tibetan ethnicity is at the lowest and most disempowered of its social rungs. And all of this resonates, ironically, against the backdrop of promises from Beijing of equality, economic liberalisation and the benefits of 21st-century technology, speed and efficiency.
Another of the many ironies of these polarisations is the degree to which Sinicized Tibetans themselves, including the poet’s own young and old family members, have readily taken to some of those changes—’a new four-star hotel, a twenty-two-story apartment building shimmering in glass, KFC outlets, coffee houses, and new public buses’ (6)—while sustaining the unbridgeable rift between the ‘elders’ who have endured and survived the shattering turn of 1958 “when time collapsed” (dhulok) (36) and their Chinese usurpation amid so many generic shifts of a 21st-century globalised order. Dhompa’s narrator sits, poetically and empirically, right in the uneasy midst of their now sepia-toned cultural and personal tragedy and her own globalised generation that in many respects risks consigning the Tibetan history of the prior century to a netherworld of forgetting.
One of the important tasks of Dhompa’s memoir thus lies in its attentive restitution of some of that cultural memory, before its guardians disappear in the wake of the changed social and cultural landscape of a homogenised, globalised, deracinated and diminished Tibetan ‘fatherland’ (phayul). Dhompa claims to be someone in a permanent state of exile from that fatherland, but to what does this refer?
Her restitutive project uncannily illustrates the Derridean sense in which the “more abundant and happy place” to which much of the exile’s psychic and emotional life aspires as a more-privileged present, exists as a virtual chimaera fulfillable only as unfulfillable. It exposes the degree to which the fatherland can and will only exist as a trace or image of something that survives just by virtue of the exercise of the notion of exile, sustained among others by the poet herself. Dhompa writes: ‘I have lived my life defined as a refugee in Nepal and India, a resident alien and immigrant in the United States. At last, I am a Tibetan in Tibet, a Khampa in Kham—albeit as a tourist in my occupied and tethered country.’ (94)
In this and in many other minutely examined ways, the poet is unlike her Tibetan (semi-)nomad family: as she suggests, she is a Khampa of one (where even their own unicity of identity is increasingly fractured). Its necessary condition, moreover, is precisely its supplement: she can only be so as a tourist, itself defined as someone who is not from the place of visitation, and stays there only temporarily before leaving again.
This apparently conclusive return to the Buddhist theme of impermanence only confirms much of the traditional religious subtext Dhompa’s mother has impressed upon her daughter in exile all along. However, it is in fact twice allusively noted, if easy to miss, that the mother does pay at least one visit back to Tibet, but its significance for the narrative is elided: we learn nothing of what must be an intriguing response to this shift in the terms of exile.
Rather than impermanence, it is perhaps the resort to substitution that elision allows—of an appeal to an inauthentic real but impermanent state—that is more deeply at work in the willing nostalgias of exile and its self-representations. A passing anecdote metonymizes the primacy of the absence of home, truth, centre, certainty, and self:
Each March my mother sent me a birthday card extolling in cursive print the joys of having a daughter, and of love, that love of a mother for her child not as I had known from her but as the greeting cards made known in florid language. Even though individual birthdays were a new concept to her she learned about greeting cards and gifts and said she did not want me to feel excluded from the customs of my time. Her date of birth was unknown. (107)
The strength of Dhompa’s memoir lies in this kind of acute attention to the quotidian but strange event serving as a deep poetic metaphor. Her liminality is due not merely to the overt loss of her geographic homeland (an actual phayul) but still more the apparent loss of a stabilising idea of her ‘Homeland’ (a virtual phayul) to and upon which so much of Tibetan diasporic self-representation refers and relies—in India, Nepal, and all the exile communities spread through the liberal-democratic West. Dhompa writes:
An imagined country has a tenacious grip, perhaps more so than a known one, for there are no disappointments or memories to contradict the ideal. The imagined country is an ideal, and within it, a perspective of the motherland gathers meaning. In this lies the irony of a refugee’s state of mind, seeking to establish roots in a place that bears very little resemblance to what it becomes over time. (218)
Among that global Tibetan diasporic community, and its sizeable Western fraternity, ‘the imagined country’ of Tibet is replicated, marketed and indeed sold as a privileged commodity of cultural capital: a phantasmatic object in which the aspirations of Buddhist Tibetan and Western selfhood invest a genuinely fulfilled future. Yet the degree to which the ideal might be realised is in perhaps inverse proportion to the degree to which, as an always deferred object, it is successfully sustained in a circulating cultural economy.
This also means that an ideal of a free and authentic Tibet, of its unstained past, of fatherland, sustains a fetishized power of the sacred to the degree that it remains unrealisable under conditions of Chinese geopolitical hegemony—in which Western capital is tacitly implicated. If the real sovereign Tibet has in fact been permanently sundered, then by the same token a global capitalism guarantees that a virtual ideal Tibet can endure indefinitely (indeed, much as its commodified ‘Buddhist’ double of a kitsch ‘Shangri La’ has, replete with levitating monks, miraculous phenomena, supernatural proofs, and so on). The unhappy irony of this is that it is only the tragedy of the former that proves the necessary condition for the triumph of the latter—something on which Beijing appears to be doggedly trying to capitalise.
Conditions inside an actual geographic ‘Tibet’ that is neither of these, are both more ordinary and more strange, as Dhompa’s text admirably reveals: whatever survives of ‘authentic’ Tibetan and nomadic culture inevitably morphs into something novel and untested, not merely by virtue of the Chinese juggernaut but also the encroachments of a global technocratic order. What has been lost, for the contemporary Tibetan conscience (personified in Dhompa’s probing narrator) is not merely a place and its firm roots of an anachronistic culture, but their possibility of survival in the same form. One of the new features of 21st-century Tibetan literary self-representation is surely that Communist China as a prime antagonist is only one among a much wider field of global forces that Dhompa’s not-literate khampa family are only passively able to comprehend.
Dhompa’s beautiful memoir registers a final, but radical, elision. It is only in its last (supplemental) page of Epilogue that a direct authorial address gravely references the seismic phenomenon of Tibetan self-immolation in which since 2009 over 155 people have burnt themselves, most usually, to death. Coming Home to Tibet was first published in India in 2013. The relative absence in the body of the memoir of its own real traumatic climax replicates the social haunting already conditioning its writing; (nor does the U.S. edition of 2016 expand on this ongoing crisis). Its retroactively dark irony lies in the fact that its central locale is the same eastern Kham region (the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan) which has been the origin and epicentre of so many Tibetan deaths by fire—not least of many nomadic khampa herdsmen and women, such as those Dhompa brings so faithfully to life.
MARTIN KOVAN is an Australian writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. His essays, poetry, short fiction, literary reviews and articles on ethics, politics, North and South Asian issues and Buddhism, have been published widely in Australia and overseas. In 2018, he is graduating with a PhD. in philosophy at Melbourne University and completing a novel of which the story published in Mascara Literary Review (Winter, 2018) is the first chapter.
Xia Fang, born in 1986, is a bilingual poet and translator. She has published two collections of translated poems and her own poetry has appeared in The Postcolonial Text, Canada Quarterly, Galaxy and Criterion. A View of the Sky Tunnel (ASM) is her first book of poetry. Her early written work was influenced by new life experiences, including the move to a new environment, in Macao. Xia completed her MA in translation studies in 2013. Now she is working towards her PhD degree in literary studies at the University of Macau.
a slimy trunk leans out towards its shadow
in the bleak air, the loosening grass that was bright
— now tanwood-flooring — is content with its scale
among the glistening dewed grass
the mushroom breaks the soil and parts
green grass down to its brown skin
a milky grey smoke rears up
and freezes in mid-air
remember, this afternoon
the world’s a stage
it’s a fruitless season
except that some tree is rich with cicadas
the potted lotuses stick their necks out
straight or slant
like a stage with women actors
who like eavesdropping, or gossiping
on the other side of the white fence
a yellow cow/bull dips its hooves into the large pot
reminding you of a bull in a china shop
the frogs call
you can’t tell from which pot
Genre of The Poison of Polygamy by Qiuping Lu
The Poison of Polygamy
Wong Shee Ping and translated by Ely Finch
Sydney University Press
Editors’ note: This research essay references Ely Finch’s recently published translation of The Poison of Polygamy (2019). While not a review of the book, the essay offers a point of resonance.
The Poison of Polygamy (Chinese title Duo qi du, shortened as PoP in the following) is a novel published in serial form in the Chinese newspaper The Chinese Times from 5th June 1909 to 10th December 1910. Kuo states that its publication date is between 8 June 1909 and 16 December 1910 (222), but my research indicates the first episode was published on 18 April 1909, and the last on 9 November 1910 (Chinese lunar year). Their corresponding Gregorian calendar dates are 5th June and 10th December. And instead of being published in 52 instalments as mentioned in previous studies (Ommundsen 4), there were actually 53 instalments. There are two episodes with the same number, 25, dated 6 November and 2 December 1909 in the Chinese lunar calendar; the corresponding dates in the Gregorian calendar are 18 December 1909 and 12 January 1910. The author uses an alias, Jiangxia Erlang.
Considered the first novel about Chinese-Australians to be published in a Chinese language newspaper (Huang and Ommundsen 533-544), Duo qi du has gained the attention of critics and translators. Huang and Ommundsen first translated its title from Chinese into English as PoP, and have analysed it from the postcolonial perspective. Kuo has noted the novel’s emphasis on the value of kinship and brotherhood for Chinese immigrants, as well as its criticism of traditional Chinese values and manners. PoP is now being translated by Ely Finch, and the English version will be published by Sydney University Press next year.
The novel is set in China and Australia, beginning between 1850 and 1860, during the Taiping Rebellion, an internal revolt that ran from 1850–64, and which posed a major threat to the Qing dynasty (Dillon 663), and ending between 1880 and 1890. The story is told by an omniscient narrator who interrupts the narrative from time to time, commenting on an event, criticizing a social problem, or initiating a dialogue with the reader. As the title suggests, the novel’s focus is on the harmfulness of polygamy. The central character, Shangkang, is described as having a pointed head like a falcon, indicating his crafty, treacherous character, and foreshadowing the evil he’ll engage in.
At the start of the novel, Shangkang lives in a village of Guangdong and is addicted to opium. He and his wife Ma have been married for three years and are childless. They’re very poor, and when his mother falls ill they’ve no money for a doctor. Ma pawns her clothes and personal possessions to pay for witches and wizards to perform rituals to cure the old lady. When these have no effect, she asks Shangkang to pawn her new padded cotton coat and send for a doctor. However, after taking the formula concocted by the doctor, Shangkang’s mother worsens and dies.
After the burial, life becomes harder for husband and wife. Despite the threat of starvation, Shangkang pawns everything he can get for opium, while Ma forages for wild plants to use as food. One day she stops him from trying to pawn a broken pot; she tells him her cousin has just come back from Australia with a lot of money. Her cousin, she explains, is kind and generous, and she asks Shangkang to seek his help. Shangkang goes and sure enough the cousin, Mr. Ma, gives him money; however Shangkang spends it on opium, leaving little to buy food. He lies to Ma, telling her the money was given him by an old friend. The next day, when Mr. Ma visits, Shangkang’s lie is revealed. Ma tells her cousin it’s difficult for Shangkang to make a living in the village as everybody knows he is dishonest and untrustworthy. Mr. Ma agrees to pay for Shangkang to go to Australia, on the condition he give up smoking opium, and becomes diligent and thrifty. Shangkang agrees, and receives enough money to prepare for his trip and buy food; he asks for, and is given, additional funds to buy medicine to quit smoking. But predictably, Shangkang immediately goes to the opium den.
Mr. Ma arranges Shangkang’s departure, and when the time arrives, Shangkang is ready. Ma is reluctant to let him go, afraid he’ll spend the money on concubines. Shangkang promises he won’t forget her hard work and the hardships they’ve endured. They bid a tearful farewell.
On the voyage, Shangkang experiences seasickness. Fortunately, his co-passenger — whose formal name is Huang Peng, though is better known in the text for his style name, Chengnan — is very kind and nurses Shangkang carefully. Another passenger named Binnan is from the same town as Chengnan. The three men bear the family name Huang, so are referred to as clansmen.
There are over seventy Chinese workers on the ship; it takes seventy six days to reach Australia. When they finally dock, one of them offers to be their guide as he knows the rough direction of the mine where they’ll seek work. They climb mountains and wade across fords, trekking through vast wilderness. They quickly run out of food, and suffer from hunger and thirst. Many die. Some are bitten by venomous insects; and they have to contend with wild animals, heavy rains, lack of shelter, and homesickness.
Resting one day in a wood, they’re attacked by four Aboriginal people. A white hunter named George appears and defends them, though one man is captured and taken away by the ‘savages’ (referred to as Heiman in the text). The men learn they’ve taken the wrong way to the mine, and are now very far from their destination. George leads them to a Chinese farmer nearby who owns a vegetable garden. The gardener, Chen Liang, provides them with sumptuous meals and a place to rest. He helps the men find jobs and settle into the community.
Chen Liang invites the three Huangs to participate in a mining venture. Initially, he is reluctant to cooperate with Shangkang as he finds him wicked and unreliable; but Chengnan refuses to abandon Shangkang due to the bond that’s grown between them. For a time, their venture is prosperous; however a collapse in the mine results in the loss of their profit. They move to another mine and are prosperous again. Once they’ve earned a considerable amount of money, they plan to return home.
During Shangkang’s absence, Ma lives a miserable life of poverty and loneliness. Her mother attempts to persuade her to remarry as there’s been no message from Shangkang who might have died. Ma refuses, saying she would rather die if Shangkang has died, rather than marry another man.
When Shangkang returns to his wife after a separation of six years and sees how her youth and beauty has faded, he despises her. He considers buying a young and beautiful concubine; his indifference to Ma causes her deep pain. Shangkang resumes his opium habit and squanders his earnings, leaving no money for a concubine. They adopt a one year old baby son and name him Jinniu. Chengnan attends the celebration feast in Shangkang’s home and talks with Shangkang about going back to Australia. Shangkang immediately consents.
In Australia, Chengnan’s business prospers and he establishes several stores. He lets Shangkang manage one of his successful furniture manufacturing businesses, and Shangkang thinks again of getting a concubine. He learns that an eighteen year old slave girl named Qiaoxi has come to Australia for an arranged marriage, but refused to marry the man who she thinks is too old and ugly for her. Shangkang comes for a visit and is infatuated at the sight of Qiaoxi. He proposes through her chaperone Ma’am Lian. Qiaoxi agrees, not for his money, but because she believes she can take advantage of his seeming obtuseness and honesty.
After they are married, Qiaoxi meets often with her lover Shuangde while Shangkang works. One day, when the two are having a tryst at home, Ma’am Lian drops by and the two lovers’ adultery is exposed. Shangkang is furious at being cuckolded, but uxorious and entirely under Qiaoxi’s sway, does nothing. Qiaoxi gives birth to two daughters and the four live extravagantly. Chengliang’s business is almost entirely ruined by Shangkang’s neglect. Shangkang and Chengliang return to China. Before they leave, Shangkang asks another clansman Rongguang to run the business, and instructs him to abscond afterwards with the remaining profits.
In China, Qiaoxi asks Shangkang to build a villa away from the neighbours and relatives with the embezzled money. Though Ma is heartbroken to see Shangkang break his promise and dote on Qiaoxi, she succumbs to her fate and to the feudal rules. She is tolerant of Qiaoxi. The latter is jealous, nevertheless, when Ma becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. Out of malice, she poisons Ma and smothers the baby. When Shangkang learns of the deaths, he grieves and is sorry for Ma and the baby. When he questions Qiaoxi, she grabs him by the throat, strangling him. He dies soon after.
After Shangkang’s death, Qiaoxi becomes more unscrupulous and lives a lecherous life in the villa. One of her lovers is Jing. Jinniu is now twenty and married to a young woman, Li. Jing nearly rapes Li when Jinniu is out one night. Li tells Jinniu, and he avows to avenge her. Qiaoxi overhears this and plots with Jing to kill Jinniu. Their plan fails when Jinniu’s cries for help are heard by nearby villagers; and the townsfolk, as well as people in Jinniu’s old village, decide to aid him by getting rid of Qiaoxi. They finally decide the best way is by lynching, and throwing her into muddy water. They believe the officials who are only interested in accumulating wealth and amenable to bribes, are incapable of carrying out justice. In the end, Qiaoxi is cornered and jumps into a deep pool and is drowned, while Jing and his gangsters are at large.
The novel is eloquently written in classical Chinese. The language is beautiful; the descriptions of the natural world embody and enact the inner life of the characters. The historical and literary allusions are pregnant with meaning. The plot is well-constructed; its social criticism is obvious — and this is related to its genre.
For Western readers and readers unfamiliar with Chinese literary history, PoP might be read as a picaresque novel, but its genre is ‘new fiction’, which has its origins in the magazine New Fiction, established by Liang Qichao in Yokohama of Japan in 1902 (Zhang 86). This genre was made known to the Chinese-Australian literary circle after Liang’s visit to Australia in October 1900 and April 1901 (Kuo 96), followed by the circulation of his New Fiction. During Liang’s visit, the Tung Wah News (former name of the Tung Wah Times) published Liang’s collection of speeches and thoughts, and circulated it widely in the Chinese-Australian community (99). The Tung Wah Times was an agent for Liang’s literary journal New Fiction and shared his opinion of the social value of the novel, and argued that the novel and other new forms of literature had the power to reform society (157). The Chinese Times carried on the reformist ideas of the Tung Wah Times. It sympathized with Chinese revolutionaries and shared their anti-Manchu notions, which is reflected in the novel PoP, consistent with Liang’s ideas.
A prototypal novel of new fiction is Liang’s The Future of New China (1902). Liang was the founder and initiator of this genre; he aimed to improve the old genres, which he felt had failed to help ameliorate social problems. New fiction was to undertake the important task of enlightening the people and promulgating new knowledge and learning (Wang 14). However, what Liang and the other innovators of this genre in Chinese literary history stress, is that new fiction is not the outward form of fiction, but involves a specific method of narration, and specific subject matter. It still preserves the serial or chapter form of traditional novels, and many novels of the new genre still adopt an omniscient narrator, but the narrative pivots around the revelation of social darkness, emphasising social reformation and praising innovation (Xia 11). As PoP does, it venerates the rationality of monogamy, and embodies the progressive ideas of the time. Here ‘chapter’ and ‘serial’ do not mean the same as our understanding of them today. The genre ‘chapter/serial novel’ comes from the story-telling script of the Song and Yuan dynasties. In Chinese serial/chapter novels, the chapter/serial is marked by a number, just as PoP is. ‘Serial’ or ‘chapter’ means ‘scene’, or ‘time’. In Song and Yuan, the stories were told by a story-teller instead of being read, as many common Chinese people were illiterate at that time. The script of a story was too long for the story-tellers to finish in one sitting, so they often ended one fragment with ‘if you want to know what happens afterwards, please listen to me next time’ to attract the attention of the engrossed audience (‘Serial/Chapter’ 10). The length of each scene is nearly the same. Many chapter or serial novels have a title beside each number to summarize the main idea of a chapter, or rather, fragment. According to the contents, new fiction is divided into political fiction, social fiction, and historical fiction. PoP belongs to social fiction, that is, it criticises many social problems prevalent at the time.
Apart from its attack on the evil of polygamy (Serial 1 and Serial 37, the actual serial number of the latter should be 38), Pop is punctuated by the narrator’s criticism of superstition and opium-taking (Serial 1), of charlatanism (unqualified doctors) (Serial 3), the misogynous practice of foot binding (Serial 20) and lack of women’s right to an education (Serial 21). It follows the lead-in of Liang’s The Future of New China on the destructive force of polygamy, in which the narrator tells the tragic story of a man who practices polygamy, is bereaved of his wife and son, and then deprived of his own life — the concubine, in the end, receiving her due punishment. Ommundsen writes that ‘Horrible Poison’, a short story published in the Tung Wah Times, reflects the agenda of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, a movement dedicated to reforming the outdated and corrupt practices of China under Qing Dynasty (Ommundsen 4). In this respect PoP resonates with ‘Horrible Poison’. The editor of the Chinese Times, Chang Luke was a former editor of the Tung Wah Times, and embraced the idea of the newspaper promoting social reform. Early issues covered the reform of education, feminism, and the anti-opium movement (Kuo 84). The Chinese Times shared the Tung Wah Times’s purpose to increase revolutionary and anti-Manchu attitudes (118) The latter shifted from revolutionism to moderate constitutionalism after 1903 (149). The novel bristles with feminist ideas, and criticism of misogynous ideas and practices. At the same time, it is studded with the belittlement of women, the preference for submissive wives, and descriptions of female characters in pejorative terms, which warrants further study.
I am indebted to my supervisor and associate supervisor, Professor Wenche Ommundsen and Anne Collett, who have been very helpful in the proofreading of this paper. Professor Ommundsen has offered advice on its revision. I also appreciate my Chinese supervisor Binzhong Zhu and Zhong Huang, my academic brother, as is called in China, for their help. I also want to express my heartfelt thanks to the librarian staff of UOW for obtaining the microfilm of The Chinese Times for me. and to the editor of this journal, Michelle Cahill, for her patient and careful editing.
Chinese Times, The. 1909–1910. Melbourne: State Library of Victoria (microfilm).
Dillon, Michael. Encyclopedia of Chinese History. New York, NY: Routledge. 2016.
He, Manzi. ‘Serial/Chapter Novel and the National Style of Narrative Literature (zhanghuixiaoshuo he xushiwenxue de minzufengge)’. Knowledge about Literature and History. 1982(3).
Kuo, Mei-Fen. Making Chinese Australia: Urban Elites, Newspapers and the Formation of Chinese-Australian Identity, 1892–1912. Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Press, 2013.
Ommundsen, Wenche. ‘The Literatures of Chinese Australia’. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, 2017. (http://literature.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-150.)
Wang, Zuxian. ‘Diversity of Fictional Genres and Subjects in Foreign Fiction and in Fiction of the Late Qing and Beginning of Republic China (waiguoxiaoshuo yu qingmomingchu xiaoshuo ticai de duoyanghua)’. Academic Journal of Anhui University (Philosophy and Social Science Version). 1993(3).
Xia, Xiaohong. ‘Discriminating the Meaning of ‘New Fiction’ of the late Qing (wanqing ‘xinxiaoshuo’ bianyi)’. Literary Review. 2017(6).
Zhang, Lei. ‘New Fiction and Old Genre: Review of Creative Wring and Translations of New Fiction (xinxiaoshuo yu jiuticai: xinxiaoshuo zhuyi zuopin lun)’. Collection of Modern Chinese Literary Research. 2015(4).
Zhong, Huang and Ommundsen, Wenche. ‘Poison, polygamy and postcolonial politics: The first Chinese Australian novel’. Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2016 Vol. 52, No. 5.
QIUPING LU is a Joint PhD candidate of Wuhan University, China, and University of Wollongong, Australia, Associate professor of Wuhan University of Science and Technology
Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics
by Tong King Lee
Reviewed by A.J. CARRUTHERS
Debates have been raging, in avant-garde studies, over the terms that we might deploy to describe such cultural productions and the longevity of such terms. How do we name unusual literatures in the near present? “Avant-garde” or “neo-avant-garde,” or “avant-garde” and the “contemporary experimental”? Does the historical specificity of the vanguard then preclude usages outside of this, and if so, does “experimental” then sound better historically; the history of experimental literature then to be figured as including many historical moments and contexts rather than stemming from one, what sometimes, and irritatingly gets called the “historic avant-gardes” (as if any other vanguard was not also historic)?
In Brian Reed’s Nobody’s Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013) we were alerted to the possibility of extending the half-life of the term “avant-garde” in poetics. It brings up enough questions to thoroughly occupy any scholar or layperson starting out in the area, as the Preface states:
Since the 1960s, avant-gardism has a mixed, complex history as a critical concept. Can an authentic avant-garde still exist? Or can there only be shallow effete echoes of past movements and achievements? Can an avant-garde ever actually succeed in bringing about revolutionary social transformation? Does an espousal of vanguardist aims amount to enslaving art to the logic of the marketplace, especially the constant demand for new products and new fashions? Is avant-gardism inherently masculinist? Is it solely a Western phenomenon? The bibliography on such subjects is immense, beginning with Renato Poggioli’s Teoria dell’arte d’avanguardia (1962) and including such landmarks as Peter Bürger’s Theorie der Avantgarde (1974), Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986), and Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). One does not have to delve into the footnotes, however, to know that shock and resistance generally characterize the literary establishment’s response to an avant-garde’s emergence. (“Preface” xiii)
I am not interested in further wrangling over terms here, and the various ways that one can navigate this critical history, so much as getting to the works and to the poetics of this book; from this we might see how some of these questions, themselves, might be expanded upon or modified in new light. For that, Tong King Lee in Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics, published in Brill’s Sinica Leidensia series, going since 1931, is an excellent contribution to the field. The argument begins suitably skeptically: “Indeed, it is something of a paradox to speak of defining experimental literature, given that definitions are by their nature institutionalised, and hence to some extent, this runs counter to the spirit of experimentalism” (1).
Two broad elements in Lee’s argument are the materiality of the signifier and technology. How it plays out though will be culturally specific. The roots of these blooms of invention come from the Chinese language which “is often said to be highly visual thanks to the pictographic roots of many of its radicals and characters. On the aspect of sound, innovative poets are able to exploit numerous homophones in Chinese as well as onomatopoeia to create sonic effects that play out the malleable space between signifier and signified” (4). Significant here is that these sonic effects “play out” rather than “play out in” in the malleable space between signifier and signified. There is no sense of an in here, no internal space but rather some outfacing exteriors.
The case studies deal with literature and literary language but also intersect heavily with art practice, and the various ways that art practices have taken up the “semiotic operations” found in other experimental works and across modes (131). Chapter 2 focuses on Machine Translation in Hsia Yü, Chapter 3 on Chen Li, and Chapter 4 on Xu Bing, the well-known conceptual artist. The chapter on Hsia Yü builds off deconstruction, flirting with the notion of the Death of the Translator, an interruptive différance and authorial disavowal to get to HsiaYü’s Pink Noise, a literally transparent book, made of see-through polyurethane leaves, and the intriguing notion of “lettristic noise” (wenzi zaoyin 文字噪音). The emphasis here is on unoriginality, uses of dismantling and permutative means through the digital, and sampling methods. Pink Noise uses Sherlock translation software, and the use of a machine translator “fulfills the poet’s aesthetic expectations of producing irregular poetry by way of its blatantly literal, often unintelligible, and always non-fluent translations” which is to say further that in some bid “to defy the etymological notion of transference in translating (‘translate’ in modern English comes from Latin translatio, ‘carrying over’), the poet textualises the impossibility of ‘carrying across’ any determinate meaning from some perceived source text to some perceived target text by exploiting the openness of language though MT” (34). Google-Translate then allows for back-translation, and a certain degree of grammatical torque and distortion. Lee stresses the embodied and the monstrous here too: Hsia Yü’s use of machine translation intimate with a markedly corporeal poetics. I imagined another comparison with Pink Noise along these lines would be the works of Idris Khan.
Examining Chen Li’s various works both online and in print, Lee then brings the material elements more closely into focus, putting text to theory around technology and the digital. Chen Li’s poetry embraces concrete poetry, or tuxiang shi 圖像詩 (‘picture-image poetry’), and “visual play on the architectonics of the Chinese character,” elements that fit well with the language: “The pictographic quality of the Chinese script makes it especially amenable to such manipulation” (70). The semiotics of this is compounded and exploded when it comes into the context of bi,- and tri-lingual innovation. Lee offers a reading for the visualist piece “Our Concertgebouw”
Lee brings the materiality of the Chinese signifier in Chen Li precisely to the “technologisation of the word” in way that, in other works like “A War Symphony” show translation to be part of the process of writing itself, not just living in the temporal afterlife of an original. In Lee’s reading of Xu Bing’s language-art works, the complementary Tian-shu 天書 (A Book from the Sky) and Di-shu 地書 (A Book from the Ground), the latter published in an edition from MIT Press, and which is comprised of color-printed emojis that complete a fairly straightforward narrative of one man’s day (somewhat a modernist troping) which I originally read as a novel. As Lee points out, Xu Bing’s purpose is to get beyond the notion of English as a universal language; it is, so to speak, a pre-Babelian vision, one that both harks back to Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform and the fate of the written word in digital communication. That is to say, the sheer interactivity that goes on in translation and between modes and text-types is more than a metaphor for intra, or transculturality; these Books seem like, with a dash of art-conceptual irony, real attempts to break through and take a shot at getting beyond translation altogether.
As is of utmost importance to the literary critic, Lee succeeds in bringing the clarity of terms to the specificity of texts. Lee is smart with terms and engages subtle argumentation, outlining the underlying differences between intracultural (within cultural spheres) and transcultural (across or between cultural spheres), and he aptly uses the term intersemioticity which allows us to regard non-verbal signs as “semiotic entities in their own right” (7). I think the term intersemioticity is very wise indeed, when taken back into a properly literary-critical context. Intersemioticity implies also that the seminating influence effects modes and modality. Intersemioticity is especially useful in making sense of Chen Li’s poetics; alongside interlinguality and intermediality. Multimodality is useful in discussing machine translation in Hsia Yü, and we see too in his readings of Xu Bing the value of W.J.T. Mitchell’s work — the imagetext — in normalising and expanding upon the techniques of visual reading, attention to pictoriality and the iconocity of literature.
If it is true that most sizeable literary cultures (or national literatures) have their experimental front lines; inventors, innovators, avant-gardes or neo-avant-gardes, call them what you may, it is also true that not every one of these has a critical industry built around analysing the experimental texts that they produce. Happily, the scholarship and more specifically, literary criticism dedicated to identifying the tendencies of specific avant-gardes and decoding or reading poems outside European and North American contexts, is growing steadily. Over the past ten to fifteen years, comparative studies have shed light on neo-avant-garde practices in transnational, transcultural / intracultural, regional and hemispheric contexts, shifting to explorations of the diasporic avant-gardes and studies of too- much-neglected figures who circulated among the early twentieth-century avant-garde, like Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. One might speculate how the seeming “exhaustion” of current European and American experimental poetics might be reawakened through these interlingual contexts.
Given the context in which this review appears, it is worth adding that developing work on Australian experimental writing might also contribute to this scholarship, widening the reach and regional applicability of such concepts. It is curious that Australian criticism has struggled to find ways of fruitfully speaking about inventive writing, and that no full book has yet been produced on Australian experimental poetics.
I read Experimental Chinese Literature with pleasure and with hope that its sharp critical observations can be of broad use to the contemporaneous flourishing of avant-garde studies, and bring new questions to the field.
A.J. CARRUTHERS is an Australian-born experimental poet, literary critic and lecturer in the Australian Studies Centre at SUIBE in Shanghai. He is author of Stave Sightings: Notational Experiments in North American Long Poems, 1961-2011 (Palgrave 2017), a book of literary criticism that examines five North American long poems and their relation to musical structures and musical scores. The first volume of his epic poem, AXIS Book 1: Areal, was published in 2014 (Vagabond). Opus 16 on Tehching Hsieh is a downloadable eBook from Gauss PDF.
Xiaoshuai Gou was born and raised in China. He has been working as a teacher of English and Mandarin as a second language and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Australia.
The cup itself wouldn’t amount to much significance to any stranger: crude ceramic, plain design, with a kid happily pursuing dragonflies under the summer sun. It was randomly picked up at a reject shop by the pregnant mother. The joy flowing on the kid’s face perhaps had something to do with it.
A skinny boy was born at the end of March. It was the first time the pregnant mother became a real mother, and many things had to be learned from the start and properly handled. The difficulty caused by the absence of a father was aggravated by the fact that the new mother soon turned out to be milkless. All manner of baby formulas were then brought to her, from various countries, and via the hands of all kinds of people. The cup was useful for the first time, and the mother diligently washed it after each time the formula was fed to her baby.
Two months later, the content of the cup began to change. At first, formulas were still the staple of it, with occasional pills crushed into them to add extra nutrients for the proper growth of the newborn. Then things changed to almost the complete opposite. Pill powders of all brands and colors started to take hold of the cup, while non-stop coughs of the baby boy rendered the formula feeding increasingly pointless. With the same diligence, and with growing amounts of quiet tears, the mother continued to wash the cup. But a stubborn dark stain was still irreversibly engraved into its interior wall of once milky smoothness.
Then came the summer. The coughing finally subjected the infant boy to the 24/7 protection of the hospital ICU and the vigilance of its nurses. Pills stopped being crushed. Full tins of formula were stashed away without the prospect of ever being opened again in the future. Suddenly all things ceased to be of any meaning. The mother’s distress grew more and more visible every time she watched her baby son through the ICU windows, until eventually she was declared as suffering from severe postnatal depression, and was subsequently hospitalised in the same hospital as that of her infant son. The cup washing was abandoned.
The next summer differed from those preceding it with its excessive rainfall. This posed a serious problem for the old grandma who had a flower garden at her back yard. For the bulk of the summer, she had to juggle constantly between visiting the hospital where her depressed daughter was showing clear signs of recovery, and salvaging the small garden frequently in danger of being washed away by the heavy rain. Luckily her efforts paid off in the end. Both her daughter and the garden survived the rainfall spell at the end of summer. And as did her late grandson’s tiny grave at the north corner of the garden, with a solitary ceramic cup placed in front and mounted with dirt and rain water.