Hao Jingfang (born 1984) is a Chinese science fiction (SF) writer, essayist and economist residing in Beijing. An economics researcher by day, she is a talented and prolific author who writes in the early morning. Her fiction has appeared in English in SF magazines Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny. In 2016, her novelette, “Folding Beijing”, won the Hugo Award, the second translated Chinese SF work to have won that honour; the first being Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. “Folding Beijing” was a finalist for the most prestigious Chinese SF award, Chinese Xingyun (Nebula). The story will be adapted into a movie, directed by Korean American screenwriter Josh Kim. Jingfang is the author of two full-length novels, Born in 1984 (2016) and Stray Sky (2016), a book of cultural essays, Europe in Time (2012); and several short story collections, AI: Mirror of Man (2017), To Go the Distance (2016), The Depth of Loneliness (2016), and Star Travellers (2011). She is also the founder of WePlan, a public education project aimed at preparing China’s younger generation for the era of artificial intelligence. This interview focuses on Folding Beijing while shedding insights on the diversified terrain of Chinese SF in general.
Emily Zong (EZ): Some readers’ online comments maintain that “Folding Beijing” is not “SF” enough. They claim that the story’s strong allusion to contemporary Chinese political and economic reality deviates from a more classical understanding of speculative fiction as a genre of scientific hypotheses and futuristic technologies. What is your response to such comments?
Hao Jingfang (HJF): There have always been characterisations of hard SF that focus more on science and technology, and social or soft SF that primarily imagines life and social scenarios in the future. Take the American SF writer and the translator of “Folding Beijing”, Ken Liu, for example, he has written a number of acclaimed works on family life and office life. So of course, social SF has its significance in inspiring people’s vision of future life and social relations. Any type of SF writing, as long as it is able to impart fantasy and open up future possibilities, is valuable. Also, different readers have different tastes. It is impossible to meet everyone’s needs. Some people find hard SF intriguing, while others find it challenging to turn a second page. This is a matter of readers’ tastes. If some part of the audience enjoy my fiction and feel touched by it, I will be very pleased.
EZ: Chinese SF is a burgeoning field within the contemporary Chinese literary scene. With you and Liu Cixin winning the Hugo Award, Chinese SF has also attracted a great deal of international attention. Now one of the provocative questions under discussion is what makes Chinese SF unique. What do you think makes Chinese SF Chinese?
HJF: For me it mainly depends on the setting and the protagonist. If a story takes place in China, it is already a very Chinese story. I think that for a lot of people, upon hearing that this is a SF story that is set in China, they would immediately feel a sense of discordance. It is easy to associate SF with Western countries, Marvel Heroes, and white characters, but how could a SF story occur in China? If a story allows us to overcome this sense of disbelief and discordance, it would count as an excellent piece of Chinese SF. As long as the fictional events happen naturally within a Chinese setting and among Chinese characters, it would immerse readers in aspects of Chinese culture, even without the writer’s intentional assertion of Chinese elements.
EZ: When SF was introduced to China from the West in the early 20th Century, it was equated with “modified modernity” and used as a vehicle for scientific enlightenment. This ideological and pragmatic tradition lasted until the 1990s when, with the emergence of a new generation of SF writers such as Liu Cixin, Han Song, Wang Jinkang, and yourself, Chinese SF started to manifest a more diversified vigour. Nevertheless, Han Song comments that Chinese SF is “a sponge soaked in politics” and “a diagram of Chinese mainstream culture.” “Folding Beijing” bears on a range of imminent social concerns in China from class inequality to abandoning female babies. Is this political and nationalist approach a distinct feature of contemporary Chinese SF?
HJF: I think a distinct feature of contemporary Chinese SF is diversity, which resists politicisation. Chinese SF writers tend to engage with a broader range of thematic concerns than national and political themes. If Chinese SF has a colour, it is usually grey or black, rather than Chinese red. Chinese SF is a heterogeneous field where writers have variegated styles. With an exception of Wang Jinkang whose fiction is more political, writers such as Han Song, He Xi, Bao Shu, Chen Qiufan, Jiang Bo and so on, place more emphasis on individual writing practices and artistic expression than social trends. A fair number of Chinese SF writers provide readers with glimpses of the present Chinese society, especially young people’s daily anxieties and the social issues that penetrate people’s quotidian lives. But this does not mean that these works are necessarily political.
“Folding Beijing” is not representative of Chinese SF. Actually, it is quite an exception in how it places an emphasis on Chinese social reality compared to most Chinese SF.
EZ: What do you think of the international acclaim of “Folding Beijing”?
HJF: Many people read and evaluate “Folding Beijing” in political terms, which is not what I intend it to be. It is my hope to have conversations with readers who approach the story as a piece of literary writing and readers who are intrigued by the scientific hypotheses embedded in my stories.
EZ: Is “Folding Beijing” representative of your work?
HJF: I would say, no. “Folding Beijing”, and my novel, Stray Sky, are exceptions among my own works that explore social issues. “Folding Beijing” does not represent my style. Most of my fiction centers upon the existence of human beings, including boundaries between reality and fiction, the ways that individuals perceive their existence and psyche, as well as the ways that human beings relate to the universe. My next novel, for instance, is going to interrogate how people relate to each other and the connection and conflicts among civilizations. I am more inclined to create fictional settings that diverge from the real world we live in and delve into the philosophical propositions underneath people’s outlook and beliefs.
EZ: That is interesting. Considering that “Folding Beijing” won the Hugo Award, some readers and critics may learn about you and your work from this novelette alone. Also, when reading cross-culturally, audiences in the Western market may focus on distinguishing identifiable Chinese embodiments and “authentic” experiences as more significant than the existential or universal concerns in these works. It is not fair to give Chinese SF the “political” label.
HJF: Reading politically is too narrow a perspective. For example, in my work readers should compare at least ten or twenty stories before arriving at an understanding of the overall style. Chinese SF is more heterogeneous and there are not many stories like “Folding Beijing” that reflects on Chinese social structures. Han Song engages with social issues in his novels, but his angle is more specific, such as probing into the institution of a hospital. Other Chinese SF presents a constellation of thematic and stylistic practices. Bao Shu, for instance, writes seven novels on the topic of time and time travel. Another writer, He Xi, has written a novel called Liu Dao Zhong Sheng, or Six Plane Rebirth, in which his characters travel across six parallel dimensions in order to save the world. The well-known Chinese SF novel, The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, portrays shared challenges faced by the future of humanity. These novels address universal concerns for a common humanity that transcends politics and nations; such as the future of mankind, human-universe relationship, and human civilisations. We cannot pigeonhole Chinese SF into a political category. Moreover, the current era of China is full of diversity, fierce competition and unprecedented opportunities, which is conducive to the development of miscellaneous literary engagements. In such a context, Chinese SF is filled with multiplicity and potential.
EZ: The ending of “Folding Beijing” is heart-wrenchingly peaceful and ironic. As Lao Dao returns to his position as a waste worker in the Third Space, his border crossing does not offer a cathartic sense of social reorganization. As the novel describes, “If he could see some things clearly but was still powerless to change them, what good did that do?” The revelation seems to rest upon keeping “the Change” itself. I wonder why did you not write some imaginative solution to change the enforced class stratification or the individual’s subordination to the collective?
HJF: I tend not to write simplified solutions in novels. Can a single hero overthrowing the world solve a deep-seated social problem? It is way too naïve and downplays the hardships and pains we undergo in real life. Sometimes SF has dystopian endings. The literariness of a story does not depend upon its resemblance of reality, such that we have to pursue justice and dismantle injustice. Some types of fictional writing give people a sense of relief and elation, while other types make people see the cruelty of reality from a sharper angle. My works belong to the latter.
The theory behind “Folding Beijing” is the quantum physics system Hamiltonian, or the collective energy of a system. If we take the megacity of Beijing as a system, the three Spaces in “Folding Beijing” can be used to write the Hamilton equation. However, when the system energy reaches its maximum or a stabilised state, the energy distribution across the three Spaces is extremely unequal. That is to say, the ultimate expansion of a megacity will eventually bring upon polarisation of population and class division, which is represented in “Folding Beijing.” This is the natural development of the system, on top of which human beings can make changes. Human intervention may reinforce class stratification by exploiting the poor, or mitigate the status quo by attending to the poor, but there will never be complete equality. What we can concentrate on is increasing fair opportunities for all.
EZ: Speaking of fair opportunities, the affective choices of characters in “Folding Beijing” are confined by their allocated social enclaves. Lao Dao’s mission is to deliver a love letter from Qin Tian in the Second Space to Yi Yan in the First Space. However, after discovering that Yi Yan is already married and considering his own economic situation, Lao Dao accepts more money from Yi Yan without exposing her lies. Yi Yan’s distorted martial values disclose the demand of marrying someone of an equal status. Within such a highly relegated social system, where do we place elements that cannot be rationalised, such as people’s affectivity and morality? For me, Lao Dao’s savior, Lao Ge, embodies the mobility and empathy that defies imposed class distinctions.
HJF: For each character in the story, when it comes to making choices, they make a compromise between a righteous choice and a utilitarian one. If someone is under economic constraints, then he/she would probably make a similar decision to Lao Dao’s. Lao Dao’s choice does not concern justice or morality, because it is complicated to make a judgment about the love relationship between Yi Yan and Qin Tian. As a bystander, Lao Dao does not want to intervene. It is hard to tell right or wrong when it comes to love. Indeed, individuals’ affective choices are subject to various external influences. Everyone has a selfish side, but also a compassionate side. It is human nature to extend help and empathy to those in need. Qin Tian or Yi Yan would also assist others when the situation permits it. The problem is that, most of the time, when their own interests are threatened, the vast majority of people would choose self-protection. There is always hope and kindness in society but kindness alone is never enough. In many cases, our societal rules undermine people’s willingness or courage to exercise empathy so much so that benevolent behaviors do not guarantee good results. If reaching out to Lao Dao threatens his own job, Lao Ge would probably restrain from sympathising with him in the story.
EZ: You have plans to expand “Folding Beijing” into a full-length novel. Will Lao Dao unite other waste workers and revolt against their subjugation?
HJF: I am going to write a novel with “Folding Beijing” being the preface. The writing is scheduled from August 2018 to April 2019. When the majority of the population supports the current social structure, they feel that it is actually fair to give in a little in order to enjoy the benefits that society provides. As such the sustainability of social structures premises upon some people thriving from the sacrifice of others, so it is unlikely for any revolt or rebellion to happen. No. I will not finish the novel with any simple resolution such as a protest. It has to be much more poignant than that.
EZ: Let’s talk about time and space. The 2017 Shanghai book fair is themed “Map and Territory: The World of SF.” The use of “map” and “territory” here is a deliberate gesture to rethink SF beyond a linear model of futuristic literature, and in terms of the imaginative exploration of possible space and transformations that time can provoke. Given that there is so much emphasis on temporal elements in SF, such as technological progress and utopian/dystopian futures, how do you usually approach the time-space dynamic in your writing?
HJF: My understanding of time-space relationship is concurrent with the mainstream view within the science community, namely, time and space is limited but interrelated, and the laws of the universe determine our temporal-spatial thinking. Both time and space is very important to my writing. SF is not to mystify science. In my fiction, scientific or technological progress is not the essence, but the vehicle through which we explore borders of knowledge and possibilities of the future and the unknown. Sometimes our imagination of the future also prompts us to look to the present and reflect upon or rewrite the past. That said, a basic requirement of SF is its scientific accuracy. I can hypothesise on the basis of current scientific discoveries and inventions, but I will not wrap a story with fantasies or hypotheses that are discredited by science. For example, a number of novels in the Chinese book market theme around “chuan yue,” or time travel, in ways that are not backed up with any scientific logic. SF of this kind is not my thing.
EZ: “Folding Beijing” engages with dystopian topics. What attracts you to write dystopian SF?
HJF: I am not a dystopian writer and do not want to be defined as one.
EZ: In “Folding Beijing,” there are many arresting details and a good command of literary and conversational language, which makes it an excellent story that combines SF and traditional literature. In what ways can SF benefit from traditional literary writing?
HJF: I have never drawn a line between SF and traditional literature. Compared to traditional literature, SF creation has more freedom in terms of settings and plots, but SF needs to respect the narrative styles of traditional literature. SF can learn from traditional literature in terms of the excavation of human nature, the setting up of conflicts and suspense in the story, in-depth portrayal of human psychology and conversations, the artistic and aesthetic modifications of mainstream literature, etc. As for stylistic tactics, it depends upon the preferences of individual authors. The criteria against which we judge a classical novel also apply to SF, including the vividness of characters, the completeness of a story, and the strength of thematic expressions, and so on. By these criteria, I do not mean specific rhetorical strategies, such as how to depict a moon, which constitutes only the surface of a novel. I mean the in-depth aesthetic properties that are embodied in a novel’s theme, structure, and characterisation. These properties are what a SF writer needs to learn from traditional literary writing.
EZ: From your experience, what challenges does Chinese science fiction face?
HJF: My understanding is that there is still a lack of classical, groundbreaking works in Chinese SF. The main distribution platform for Chinese SF is magazines, and even though there are now some online columns and WeChat public accounts that start to publish SF, these channels are suitable for publishing short-length stories. There is an insufficient number of full-length novels such as Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. On top of this is the declining readership that does not respond favorably to some SF novels, even those full-length novels written by Han Song and Jiang Bo. The market for genre fiction is thus quite specific and narrow. It then becomes very challenging for new writers to get published or assert a place. Other ways of motivating the market can help, such as successful film adaptations. Personally, I think it would be helpful if publishers and the media could promote more SF works and present more SF writers to the public audience. The development of SF in China is certainly a slow and gradual process.
EZ: A pertinent issue “Folding Beijing” engages with is the relationship between humans and machines. How is this addressed in your new short story collection, AI: The Mirror of Man?
HJF: The six short stories in my new book all touch on human nature. The era of artificial intelligence enables us to gain a better understanding of human nature. In the process of configuring the differences between human beings and artificial intelligence, and the different methods of thinking between humans and machines, we can acquire a deeper knowledge of ourselves. This process allows us to detect and cherish those precious qualities within humanity that have been neglected, such as compassion and empathy for others, self-awareness, free will, interpersonal communications, and so on and so forth. We often see these qualities in children’s curious eyes and their sincerity.
EZ: Thank you Jingfang, for your valuable insights into “Folding Beijing” and Chinese SF.
Emily Yu Zong has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Queensland, where she remains an honorary research fellow. Her doctoral thesis on Asian Australian and Asian American women writers was awarded the 2016 UQ Dean’s Award for Outstanding Higher Degree by Research Theses. Her research interests include ethnic Asian literature, gender and sexuality, and literature and the environment. She has published academic articles, interviews, and book reviews in Journal of Intercultural Studies, JASAL, New Scholar, Mascara Literary Review, and Australian Women’s Book Review.
Janet Jiahui Wu is a visual artist and writer of fiction and poetry. She has published in Voiceworks Literary Magazine
, Cordite Poetry Review
and Rabbit Poetry Journal
. She currently resides in Adelaide, South Australia.
Boat A Three-Part Sonata(dedicated to Ania Walwicz)
boat turning tapping tap foot step few thing way that in a row going
but going relax rope tow hauling freakish noises the body against
the movement the anx ant barks anything land small space little
room small space rainbow sheets supreme holiday caravan react against
tow boar engine going river little space little small evacuate vacuum
space mars how to deliver from here alexander dera dura free react
mars landscape barren fields brown turn parch pelt flattened boats going don’t
want to boat a prison pristine trees pristine hanging blanket on the bed
supreme kiss past the window harbor label willow wire air passing venting
the pristine mooring the dock marina the trees lovely low hanging semaphore
tingle sore little rooms share one and many divide little waves going by
birds past the noises what can you see the supreme holiday on a dream
the stream full of sandbars the room full of waste little light movements
above a certain waist the supreme seven hours a day and i am blanket on
the bed the pristine waste mooring one stop after another the transform
from supreme to supreme big silver line the wave camel hump the leisure
dock forking into river the big divide the little space on a boat the
river of my polish rings my red loving ancestors the musical crowd the
pivotal island shot with birding fireworks the shorebirds the nesting season
the pristine they once wrote of taught the destroyer of destroyed the troy
of sadist joys the heroic phallustine pleasure the predestined royal treats
the beach the couplets lining up with ducklets and blanket on the bed riddled
with the unwanted and going going the boat rowing by itself the captain in
red riddled with ferry knots time by distance and end of bed to pleasure
of the treasure hunt the segment the segregate the sold off bargain returning
with instructions the boat rotate fast and stop the hit and the cordial
talks the disapprove the approbate the singular town and the church no
one goes to the tied up dot with the jewish malemeds the hello goodbye
hello again daisy ditty song for the boat the sung the won the unwanted
alone on the bed dreading the particular singular solace solicitude the
planetary plenitudes the higher and higher the sitting by edge the down
low and unwanted on a bed staked in a fork brushed by the waves the silver
tails of the fish the walkers the admirable the dreading on shore the dreading
on boat the similitude the placidity the shake of salt and pepper on ice
the game of luck won over by the unlucky the green water the velvet waves
the old woman needing the stick an arm a warm offer the shore the old woman
i becoming i am sloping up and down the river trees big and no one loves
swallow nest and pigeon hero rainbow in the bee-eater beak a little bee
the falcon the cliff face the valentine on a columbine tail the limestone
cloud the steady pace the rolling by the setting tide the avalanching myth
my paradise you are yet to convince a little react a little federate a rabbit
scurrying into bush the flying cormorant the xx the sewage pipe the big
tower my pyramids the react the cliff broken edge the mass structure factory
industry pyramid wrecked the tree lice ants the square tail kites the buoy whistling
the steps the ladders the grass the eye on the edge falling over the path of the dark
brown roots the plastic white the powder blue shadows the talks of society
the charged blank-faced snakes the runover the runaway the cast into the
water for bait the bleached white bough the witchcraft agony the tree
needs no one but water and sun so solitary tall crooked mistletoe-ridden the
watery eyes staring out of holes tearing harmony the sun on the sheet the light reading
various ways the water entertains the grey dead branches rotting roots the yellow
haste the once was hay country the dry plains burnt with dust the scarlet
fever for the slow swimmer the fast warning for the marital bug jingling jangle
chanting the seven sister stars the harbor reeds the floating rubber ducks
these were life for them a pair and another pair trapped in a celestial
light a room forever brightened with joy boils the resting things in a singing
paradise so soon passed the light blue in the afternoon the honeying girl
with no one to talk to the set up sacrilege spilling into over spilling and
with her pallid cheeks and tangled hair the tapping at window the passing
of a great rocking rings and rings and life in the water is in the deep
and thick and waste is in the thaw all revealed late in the season the sinking
boat goes cruising up and down the river the night cooling the hours wasting
seven hours a day in a car and forty hours on the moving monster on the way up
where to where to devastate the flag of carnage waving rows of carnivals the one after
after the sick and tired look inside the aquarium a certain look and hesitate
boat beckons no one and all birds stay away the high and low casual clothes games
niceties staked upon niceties games night after night and just as wellthe right lesson
at the right time the little space live with own decision the little checkas though in delay another hindrance to the vehicle a life unsurpassed pass
away unnoticed all power vested on the point of a gun aiming at the night
insects and run and run and one mistake is gone by the trail of smoke
thrown into the other side the nice and dainty hare of my dreams
upside down hopping running the afternoon sun the golden glaze the
mellow tanning auction of the barren soul and where have you been the owing
original the feudal kenturky the feud of father cloud and mother cloud the soup
of souls cooking cannot love cannot know cannot wake another day to work cannot
put on face to march row after row and away sway sway roll and unroll wave
and unwave another casual charade for the unthinking ones
going on land where do you smile going on land after a while
going on land searching afar going on land to watch the stars
going on land fair is my love going on land smooth as a dove
mooring with the circling kites
mooring by the reeds for the night
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. The EvFL stanzas are intuitive works inspired by the prosodic dissonances of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
| vain, jadeworsted, giantesque-bedizzened Sophisticated sponge 1
– assembles Distortion serenely ugliness
– noise realises quiet
– quailing bluster in accord ― pillory’ Prints
– unrelated parade parapluice at Bernice
– in shrill quiverbolt, in inapt
– sagacity, sweat shàpe sweeter, snéer suu ― suu ― shooo ― shooo ―
– hártlesse śhearlets go bough, bushì, enskied the skeńeid
– engineer tradition inside crudity, vulgarian flippancy,
– dollarheap possessing sillilý-educated fatigue throughóut unvanquished
| victim TOADKING ! HISSING ――
– untrained Ulysses,’
– logically unhampered selection from únreasoning,
– goal-God’s passionate-jellymass-development, fídgety, in
– aristocratic sunfishing, boisterous, of imitation,
– rinjehöhrts ― As damnation, tender-tissues-enticing ―
| void call pallor
– of hídden swish, folgendes
| vulgarian engines. Polopony brilliancy bluff ― scíence ― stagegiant
– ihn houses
– consciencelessness-centenarygarlanding-repugnance-arena-Poem (!) naughty circus
– twindles effective díctionary
– rest, Harry,
– on śtrength ―
– laughter, heartbreaking, emotional-Śubconscious Germans
– aloft in cloth
| ornate águe 2
– begán Unflèxed for me
– sabelfir up pálace Through ―
– contained approach Round fámishing; to púlse
– expectant grounds Array! shy wings aflow
– noon-demon-things directed Bĺooddrop śense
– ever grimace sćarlet banning sex
| on clamour:
– denseness caution ― eckshishtenschen ―
– escape amúck! receives
– aquiver never
– keeping Rackingly
| orgasmlitré lifeworks ― Transition LifeLethe: fliest: balloon, balloon-afternoon
– poolstrung pinning thrálls at durst, mockbat’s spectral bright
– a plenipotent smile
– lone grey Gay Finessen scheel, weckWhat ― that? ― expectation ― preservation ―
– inexuberant incessancy Fucks Jehovah; disappears unplumped Beurgrunst thine Thereupon
– suck-grave-smugness, as ẃell did ẃar attire
– sanitation thunder! society! toilet
– uTmost gŕandeur-meddles-magnitude, ćostly-chiseled Dinning,
– electric-ego language
| neurasthenic Moon, fastidious ẃorld 3
– late By dúll October’s-sober-dynamic Radiance. Matter
– effects Combústion There, but Gaunt-casts-Chárs ― désolate ― Uptorn ―
– scull loom Betwixt ―
– hatepale Cortège is treshed with Tilt, Blacknoozzled in Azure
– ojé Onto ojé, Orkm O Ojombe space!
– rests redéemer Flux-immense ―
– essence dim ― maintenance obsćure ― loamfragrantly down grey ―
| nightbrimmed earthcrucibles, earthtesticle immortal that:
– on Elsius Poke-Pőntius mortale
– noise, Culture:
– exiled ultramundanity,― Dreadnaught durlurvm pornèojaculore ás deed
– no far echo śpangled fŕom that juggler
– effigy-distinguished flea! off tiný-Exit-farce ― snookums’romping
– shade beflitt-spume-studded-filigree, ― finstruck-sensed ― unmánnerly ――
– strays thee: Music.
| necessity our Glossgreen Praise: Dappled Śulphur Face.
– illustrator ― by haloflavour ― mellow soothing Velvetune
– tinwipe rubberwhistlebreak! For seen’s-Saint-strung-Bologna, Ghingha ―
– rainbow Jarman biding blue
– elevatet “Gottriese” ― hailes Hight and ćannot pike
| navel śense as Strasse,
– novembertag Mefí
– jánuaŕy nædness dámhc paẃer
– assumptiv Ĺghting ― ony tánl cĺamers hunes ――
– recreatet scapel ― rýthmic fĺippanccy aharth ―
– recreatet wizzardry ― lauŕeld Ceaśar
– recreatet violńt Héartrythm ― VERMILION “Wetterleuchte”
– elevátet, exaltet, am íss Befĺatterd ― mhyrrstuffed ― SEATALEHostilLacheule ―
These arose from free inspiration of rhythms out of EvFL ‘The Baroness’ Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven the German dadaist & are dedicated to her memory
Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar
Edited by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum
Reviewed by MARTIN KOVAN
Hidden Words Hidden Worlds, an anthology of short fiction from contemporary Myanmar (Burma), is unusual in many senses. It assembles the work of seven established Burmese-language writers, and the same number of newly-discovered voices from a range of ethnic groups, translated by up to thirty literary volunteers into English. Singular not merely in its collaborative breadth, it is unprecedented: it is the first time in a half-century that such an ambitious and eclectic literary undertaking has been able to occur at all.
As well as Burmese, other ethnic groups represented include the Mon, Karen, Kayah, Shan, Kachin, Chin and Rakhine, their writers ranging from “WW2 veterans and rubber tappers to poets and journalists”: aptly eclectic for a document that looks beyond its purely literary status. Yet, Burmese remains the lingua franca of the whole, mediating the translation of the ‘ethnic’ pieces into English, as much as the speech of fictional protagonists (‘He spoke in Burmese, so all would understand him” in “The Right Answer”). Inasmuch as Burmese national hegemony is a frequent theme, it is also built into the production of the text itself.
The textual surface of the stories is thus a literal melting-pot of voices in which something of local lore and linguistic flavour has doubtless been lost from the specifically located original. On the other hand, much of the thematic territory and familiar tropes of ‘the literary’ (love-letters, metaphorical and real moonlight, journeys and partings, fêtes and rendezvous) are in full evidence, a time-warped tropical evocation of something like a 19th-century Russian sensibility. Family visitors meet, try new foods, talk, brood, sightsee, arrange foiled meetings and would-be trysts, and it is often politics that gets in their narrative way.
Stock figures of a Chekhov or Turgenev recur: bachelor uncles, adolescent yearning that discovers disillusion too soon, unmarried young women—not yet spinsters but not always hewing to the traditional social fabric of religious or social rituals of marriage, the fulfilments of family, of Buddhist renunciation, and happy old age. In a Chin variation on the theme (“Takeaway Bride”) young lovers risk separation by her potential marriage, for the dowry’s sake, to an expatriate suitor overseas. A contrasting, less anodyne, tale (“The Poisoned Future”) has an unmarried mother-to-be cast out to live among the socially derelict. Even the great Buddhist boon of being “given a chance to be born a human” proves ironic when, as a drunken grave-digger soliloquizes, “‘Like the saying goes, ‘where walks an ill-fated woman, rain follows.’”
A thematic comparison could also be made with earlier English-language Indian fiction of the feuding family genre (despite the absence in the Burmese context of the great social cartographer of souls in the Hindu caste-system). A prominent theme through-out, unsurprisingly in such an anthology, is ethnicity as such: its richness and divisions. At the heart of these (and another sign of something they share despite difference) are social celebrations that often broach geographic and linguistic frontiers: the famous Thingyan water festival (with its regional variations), local fêtes for unique traditions of music, dance and theatre, spirit rituals, monastic and political ceremonies. Lives from many social strata come together in these as unifying and discriminating at once: ethnic differences potentially erased are also re-defined in their purview (“The Moon…”).
“Reading the Heart” frames the same point in terms of a betrayal of tradition when a growing boy derides, from his own inexperience, efforts to present his local traditions to a national public (his seaside Hsalon village newly crammed with city ‘VIPs’, a term he doesn’t understand) in such a way that the authentic is made fake. But like other figures in these stories of innocence (lost) he only half realises the fact, or only until it is too late to reverse it. Other signalled differences are starkly racial: a darker skin colour signifies (as it tends to generally in South Asia) a lower class which is not just a marker of education or savvy, but also of aesthetic values.
Read in their benign literary contexts, these norms are easy to pass over as an effect of the naïf that runs through the collection in multiple senses: in its simply-limned characters, a plain-spoken style, a fatalism in the face of injustice. But read with the background of recent Burmese history, the fictional surface of disquiet, in this case, is also something which dare not speak its name. Myanmar is a religious-ethnic congeries, but it is curious that no Hindu or Muslim cultural elements feature among these stories. Perhaps another generation has to wait before we can read stories of or from the recently expelled Rohingya Muslim population, whose real sufferings tragically reiterate those so frequently described here as the merciless deus ex machina of the military state: a faceless and unforgiving force that crushes first loves, marriages, literary ambitions and careers, dreams and hopes, underfoot.
For these writers (half of whom are Burmese) racism is not an overt cost of ethnocentrism, so much as a normal condition of tradition that would never think to justify it. Some of the fictions here downplay that condition in the same way a seeming majority of contemporary Burmese (Buddhist) public life does, and the elision of the two would seem to belie the open, national literature to which the anthology as a whole aspires.
Along with a prominence of the carnival, one could suppose that the popular Burmese ‘anything-goes’ vaudeville of performed comic satire (nyeint) might be an irreverent background (of a kind that often sent its practitioners, also, to prison) for the narrative foreground of these contemporary fictions. If any non-Western lifeworld could reproduce the social conditions for the political-satirical flights of a Bulgakov or Kundera, it would have to be modern Myanmar. But here literariness translates often into earnest understatement, as if the fear of the people has for too long dominated their very norms of speech, and writing, as well:
When discussions of religion and community […] strayed into talk of the government, the Abbot would warn everyone: “Stop, stop! The walls have ears.” Then no one dared utter another word. (“The Right Answer”)
The government-cum-military (with its insidiously anonymous intelligence network, or MI) figures as its own personage through-out: all-powerful, deceitful, unfairly extortionate, yet rarely if ever assigned any other symbolic status despite its ubiquitous will to destroy so much of the value the protagonists represent to themselves and the reader of local and national versions of the good and the beautiful.
Even a much-loved local tom-cat is a victim of unknown malefactors (“Silenced Night”), and in Letyar Tun’s self-translated “The Court Martial” it is a disobedient soldier, reflecting on a history of grievous violence for which, in moral if not military terms, he appears on the eve of his retirement likely to pay the highest cost. This story is also rare in giving an individual face, and conscience, to the faceless machine of power, ultimately prey to it, also, for no other reason than power’s indefinite perpetuation:
In black zones, soldiers went “code red”—cruel as sun and fire—though they needed to distance themselves from their targets in order to harden to inhuman purpose.
Plain first-person statement frequently drives narrative with a pervasively plangent tone, born of misgiving or surrender: not yet moral drama, or the classical values of a tragedy waged for a metaphysical truth won. Without overt ideological argument, many of the stories enter into an abstraction of defeat and resignation such that Lay Ko Tin can write (in “The Moon…”), past nostalgia, of his stolen and imprisoned youth that:
Our future was vague, neither black nor white. […] The saying ‘time is the best medicine’ was not true for us […] Maybe the heaviest burden of all was to stay true to our belief that the new regime was false.
The reader sympathises with repeated scenes of incarceration and injustice, without always knowing what stakes drive an absent conflict. It is not so much understood, as enacted, that even a meaningful resistance can sometimes seem to lose even that. Ko Tin’s concluding confession “Yet even now that I’m out, I’ve lost the moon that shone within me” (appearing to belie how literary success has won him subsequent esteem) could stand as a summary metaphor for many of the stories’ protagonists, no matter their ethnic background.
If anything it is literature itself, or even only its idea, that, in being so scarce and valued, is a frequent sole redemption of the worst of deprivations, in both its clandestine consumption and practice. San Lin Tun’s “An Overheated Heart” puts writerliness at self-conscious centre-stage. Where the romanticism of the ethnic stories remains conservative and traditional, this Burmese counterpoint is infected by an urbanity romanticising not literary redemption, but a very modern and ironic appreciation of its capacity to foreclose other fulfilments. One of its pedagogic protagonist’s students reflects on her teacher’s dilemma:
When you write, maybe you compare yourself to other writers, but you can’t […] measure love. Maybe you draw strength from your books, but […] Literature and love are not the same.
Many of the narratives have in stylistic common this mode of realist but understated homiletic, pitched between fiction and memoir, recitative or spoken tale. What often results is a social reportage in which historical events are frequently the pivot around which a minimal fiction turns: little seems invented, as if fiction dare not risk the imagined or possible. When truth-telling is such a prized and dangerous commodity, anything more than verisimilitude might seem profane. A thematic comparison could then finally be made with the European modernist and post-war preoccupation with the police state and paranoia, with Fate and Unreason, the submission and resistance to an impersonal, seemingly baseless power.
In 20th-century Burma, too, if less so since, meaning has been in short supply when speech is curtailed, its expressive powers denied any context in which literature, and life, builds an authentic identity beyond that of ethnicity alone. A malignity in these narratives is pressed by an unspecific Other for seemingly no reason than to make innocents or idealists, or their political exemplars (such as Communists in “The Court Martial”), suffer. Despite reference to Buddhist principles, such as their gothic gloss given by the callow protagonists of “Thus Come, Thus Gone”, religious truism seems unequal to the eeriness of events. “A Flight Path…” negotiates more mundane encounters with a deft obliqueness of address, in which wickedness (figured with regard to the Lord of Death) respects no sacred or profane status quo: “‘When you are the anvil, you must endure the hammer. Am I right?’”
Hidden Word Hidden Worlds marks a hundred-year milestone since the widely-assumed first modern short story was published in 1917 in Yangon (Rangoon) in what was then still British Burma. Its editors stress that while the form existed in the interim through changing literary influences and political fortunes, both modified from the early 1960s by the vagaries of censorial military regimes, it is really only since the fragile transition to democracy in 2012 that a half-century of pre-publication censorship has been formally abolished.
What has resulted in this collection, under the auspices of the British Council, working with surviving local literary and cultural associations through-out the country, traverses formal and rhetorical modes of address, pregnant with a sense of life lived too intensely, or sometimes painfully, to be easily subsumed under one or other literary template. Many of the fourteen stories register intense experience in comparatively traditional modes of nostalgic memoir, stymied youthful romance (with some happy exceptions), or moral confession, in which any resulting incongruity between the telling and the tale perhaps accidentally endows an unadorned form with a force it might otherwise lack.
A number of stories offer graceful homage to oral storytelling (such as “The Love of Ka Nya Maw” and “Kaw Tha Wah the Hunter” to Kayah and Karen traditions, respectively). Yet it is hard to sense, given the thousand year-old generic oral traditions (of soldier-poetry, court dramas, religious tales) how far such old style is transported into a modern English in a way that rehearses, or subverts, their old formulae, much as their sometimes wry irreverence does the political repression that for so long kept idiosyncrasy and experiment from an open literary culture.
The tension between an implicit experimental could-be and the (in the Burmese case, quite literal) safety of the formally familiar is an unspoken feature of the whole. Only an occasional piece (such as “Silenced Night”) is editorially signalled as exemplifying a formal and, in its terms, cultural subversion. Otherwise, a story such as “A Bridge Made from Cord” analogises lost love and the ravages of jade-mine exploitation in an explicit register:
This is what it means to be Kachin and dream of a different tomorrow: a jade bridge crossing over from poverty to a life free from it. I too became a […] prospector of unwashed stones. We all found lots of stones, but almost none of them were jade.
Many of the stories similarly mark a threefold division reflective of the social ones that have seen decades of civil insurgency in the north, north-east and east of the country, between the ethnic Bamar (Burmese-language) majority who still dominate the cultural and political elites, the ‘ethnic’ non-Bamar cultures and languages, and the national (read, Burmese) army which, especially during the long periods of dictatorship (1960s to 1990s) sought to actively diminish both.
“A Pledge of Love…” effectively traverses the geography, and broken loyalties, of all three, figured in the confluence of northern rivers forming the Ayeyarwaddy River, itself dividing the country as the non-aligned narrator is from her lost rebel lover. Only rarely (as in “The Court Martial”) does the fictional frame seek a more objective view of the whole, unless the transfiguring properties of fable (in which heroes overcome, tradition holds firm, and the real is attenuated) perform that function of imagination.
The prospect of a cultural project such as this one was impossible during the many (ongoing) periods of civil war, and during ceasefire too precarious to sustain. The anthology is to be welcome for the fact that seven of these hitherto repressed ethnic identities can now freely be read not only in their own, in some cases formerly outlawed (the Kayah) or otherwise regenerated languages and scripts (the Chin, over a century old; the Mon, one-thousand five hundred years old), and also Burmese, but finally into a 21st-century English, as well.
Times in Myanmar, at least in nascent literary terms, have remarkably changed. Where the eloquence of silence or dissimulation has of course played a powerful role in post-War European resistance to oppression, in Myanmar it has for decades been a literal imperative, and we can’t yet speak fully, even in the expressive terms of national literature(s), of a ‘Burmese thaw’. Hidden Word Hidden Worlds is however a brave and notable first step towards its real possibility.
MARTIN KOVAN is an Australian writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. He has lived in Europe and South Asia for long periods, and also pursues academic research in Buddhist ethics, philosophy and religion, including political conditions in Tibet and Burma-Myanmar. In Australia his writing has appeared in Cordite Poetry Review, Island Magazine, Australian Poetry Journal, Westerly, Southerly Journal, Peril Magazine, Mascara Literary Review, and Overland Literary Journal, and in publications in the U.S., France, India, Hong Kong, Thailand, Czech Republic and the U.K.
Brianna Bullen is a Deakin University PhD student writing a creative thesis on memory in science fiction. She has had work published in journals including LiNQ, Aurealis, Verandah, Voiceworks, and Buzzcuts. She won the 2017 Apollo Bay short story competition and placed second in the 2017 Newcastle Short Story competition.
The Last Giant Panda
Every morning, the worker put on her panda suit to work with the cubs. They did not want human intervention, and yet they asked this of her. The cubs needed to be taught how to be pandas. Every night, she would clock off work at six and shed herself, before getting into a different suit. Her panda body would be a corpse on the floor, before it was strung up on a coat hanger and put away for the next day. Her large head would sit on the upper shelves, staring down at her with large felt eyes, which obscured how small the eye holes and field of vision actually were.
She had the job for two years when talks began for automation; a robot panda would not bare the scent of humans, and would not make them reliant on human contact. She argued a robot would deprive them of spontaneity, the ability to respond to their personalities and play, and would not give them the genuine love and experience that came with touching another living biological organism. There was connection there a machine could not emulate, as much as they would be able to model the appropriate moves and be . The zoo found her list ‘ridiculous, and frankly anthropomorphizing.’
The only problem they foresaw was cost: it was a large immediate investment for long-term gain. Her wages were much less in the short-term. They made a metal bear, and tried it out. It had patches of fur crudely glued on. The cubs ran away as the noise of moving gears was too loud for them. Her co-worker joked they some people ran from cars and construction machines when they were first introduced. It would take time.
The engineers worked to decrease the sound and artificial movements of the machine. They observed footage of pandas moving, coding their rolling lumber into circuitry. Advanced artificial intelligence was programmed in, enabling them to respond to the environment and actions of the cubs to an individual degree. They claimed by the end, none of them could tell the difference between beast and machine. Some even spoke of ending the breeding program all together; it was a waste of time and resources. Pandas could be replaced by machines, and the public would not know the difference.
She told them they were not watching the pandas closely enough.
They decommissioned the program shortly after the zoo’s management overheard these plans. The head engineer was later found hanging in her apartment. These events may or may not have been related.
She got her job back, and her suit.
She saw the bi-color babies through her limited lens. Inside this body, they were her own. She let them crawl on her chest, their heavy fat and muscle compressing down, but she did not complain. They chewed on her fake face. Bat with claws. She’d push them over when they got too rough, and sometimes just for fun, and watch them roll over like giant pom-poms. They were as serene as little Buddha, with tragic black eyes. In their simulated natural environment, bamboo shot up in stratified straight lines. Plush green glass took up all the color of her city, the panda’s black and white making her feel peppermint-flavored peace. She had raised six before the automaton, watched them grow up into sulkier teens, their eye markings taking on the brand of teenage Gothic rebellion. Then she’d get reassigned when they no longer needed her. Her latest two were already starting to grow, nearly matching her sixty kilograms. She was grateful for their remaining time. With any luck, they would not be the last pandas. Her supervisors, however, thought there was something changed about them. Something wrong. They were more curious and adventurous than they should have been. In the wild, this would have been a problem. Thankfully, they were safe inside their glass, little living biology specimens.
The last panda in the wild died on a Saturday. She continued with her work until the Thursday, but something integral and unnamable had been lost. She resigned the following Monday, citing irreconcilable differences with the world.
Three days later, her first cub was introduced to the breeding program. Given a diet of bamboo shoots and panda porn, the zoo was hopeful for success.