Meet the LARB China Channel Team, Part 3 — A Q&A with Commissioning Editor Anne Henochowicz

This is the third in a series BLARB will be running of interviews with some of the people who will be playing key roles in the soon-to-launch LARB China Channel. (Stay tuned for one with Eileen Cheng-yin Chow coming soon that may be the last in the series.) Regular readers of the China Blog will be familiar with at least one thing this week’s interviewee, Anne Henochowicz, has done: this review she wrote for BLARB last year. This Q&A, though, will fill them in on more about her, while also introducing her to those who have only recently begun to check out the China Blog or were led to this post via social media. JW 

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: You’ve done a lot of work doing two different hats: that of a translator and that of a writer. Could you tell us a bit about one thing you are particularly proud of doing wearing each of those hats?

ANNE HENOCHOWICZ: I was particularly moved by journalist He Xiaoxin’s photo-essay on the chemical explosion in a Tianjin factory two years ago, which I translated for China Digital Times shortly after she posted it to her public WeChat feed. She volunteered to cover the story for her newspaper and snuck through a police cordon to document the devastation. Apartment complexes had been built dangerously close to the factory, and He walked through the wrecked neighborhood. She took photos of cars whose windshields had been blasted out, pots and pans scattered on the pavement, a lilac teddy bear tossed onto the ground. She let her images speak for themselves, narrating just enough so that the reader registered the same shock she felt at the scene. As I translated her essay, I imagined myself clambering over the wall right behind her and following her through the shattered ghost town. I hope, by making her story accessible to English readers, they can have the same feeling of journeying alongside her. It can be hard to relate to faraway tragedies. He Xiaoxin puts you right there.

Before I was steeped in study of the Chinese internet, I was an aspiring ethnomusicologist/folklorist. I published a few academic articles on folksong and oral narrative in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. I’m glad I got out those out into the world. I also recently found a paper I’d written about the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto. It would be nice to have it published, at the very least so that more people hear that concerto. It’s one of my favorites.

What is the most unusual project you’ve taken on as either a writer or a translator?

I’ve learned the strangest (and dirtiest) words working on China Digital Times’ Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon, itself named after a mythical internet creature whose name (due to homonym play in Chinese) sounds like something one should never do to anyone’s mother. The Lexicon gathers words and memes invented by Chinese internet users to discuss political and social issues, often coded so as to avoid censorship. One of my favorite entries to write was for fei si bu ke (pronounced “fay suh boo kuh”). The term is at once a pseudo-idiom meaning “surely must die” and a transliteration of “Facebook.”

Did you go first to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the mainland, and what led you there?

I’ve always been a language nerd. I joined the Hellenic Society at my high school and was convinced I would major in Classics. Then my family hosted an exchange student from Chengdu one winter, and my Mom asked if I’d like to go on the reciprocal exchange to China that summer. The next thing I knew I was spending my July copying characters with a purple sparkly gel pen into a composition book in my host sister’s Beijing apartment. I was hooked. Even before that trip, though, Chinese culture was all around me. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where there is a large Chinese-American community. I sat at the lunch table with Taiwanese friends who taught me about Hong Kong celebrity Edison Chen. So much for Xerxes!

Tell us more about what work you’ll be doing as a Commissioning Editor of LARB’s China Channel? Are there any tips you want to give prospective contributors of the sort of things you’re particularly interested in having them pitch to you?

I’ll be fielding pitches for original reporting, book reviews, and multimedia work. I’m eager for stories about the Sinophone world writ large. That includes China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the diaspora—so really, anywhere that people identify as Chinese. I’m also excited for stories about different peoples and subcultures within “greater China.” Stories about Tibetan Muslims, indie rockers in Shanghai, Midwestern Chinatowns. Stories about going to Chinese school on the weekends, visiting your grandparents in Taipei, reconnecting with your long-lost cousin in Beijing.

I’m also in charge of our Facebook and Instagram accounts. So send me photos and artwork, too.

Switching gears a bit, I’ve been asking everyone I interview for LARB if there is any recent book on China that you wish had gotten more attention? Or if you’d like to tell us to watch for something that you know is in the works, that’s fine, too.

An English translation of the hard to categorize writer San Mao’s Stories of the Sahara is coming in 2018. It’s an autobiographical collection about her time in Spanish-controlled Western Sahara with her husband, Jose Maria Quero y Ruiz. San Mao, born in Chiang Kai-shek’s Chongqing and raised in Taiwan, lived for adventure, but she wasn’t a thrill-seeker. [N.B. for more about her, readers can click here for a short piece, or here for a longer one.] She simply followed her frenetic heart around Europe and North Africa, while her mind took her even further afield. I love her short story “Farm of My Dreams,” about her meticulous plans to win the Spanish Christmas Lottery, buy a farm in Uruguay, and move her and Jose’s families there to work the land. (Her brothers-in-law will learn kung fu so they can patrol the farm at night.) San Mao has inspired so many Chinese readers, especially women, with her poetic prose and independent life, even though both she and Jose died tragically (Jose first, in a diving accident). I can’t wait for her work to inspire English-language readers.

Same question but with a twist: is there a recent book on China, scholarly or popular, that you wish was getting less attention now, or a past one that you wish did not have as much influence when it came out or such lasting influence now?

I’m going to gripe not about a particular book, but about how Confucianism is sometimes bandied about as the defining element of Chinese (and East Asian) culture. It’s not that this philosophy isn’t important, but that it is oversimplified, rather than regarded as a tradition that competed with other influential strains of thought and that evolved over the millennia. It’s hard to escape the essentialized notion of collectivist Chinese and individualistic Westerners. All societies contend with the needs and desires of the individuals that comprise it. I have a copy of Zhuangzi Speaks: The Music of Nature, a wonderful cartoon version of the Daoist thinker Zhuangzi’s unconventional philosophy. Zhuangzi encouraged his students to examine their assumptions about the world and look beyond their human perspective. A few of my favorite parables lampoon Confucius himself.

I’ve also been asking, is there any famous China book or film that you know you really should have spent time with but haven’t been able to bring yourself to actually read or watch?

It’s not that it would be unbearable to watch or read certain things. It’s more that I’m a perfectionist: if I can’t get through the whole thing right now, I have to save it for when I can. I have a four-volume set of the complete writings of the late linguist Zhou Youguang, “father” of the pinyin romanization system. I also found the 1980s CCTV series Journey to the West on YouTube. It’s delightfully campy, but the acting is excellent. The Monkey King is played by Liu Xiao Ling Tong, who comes from a long line of dramatists specializing in the character. He may be wearing glitter eye shadow and flying on a cloud, but he really is “better than a living monkey.”

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