On Yan Lianke’s Fiction: Q & A with Translator and Literary Scholar Carlos Rojas

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Yan Lianke is an award-winning fiction writer in China, and has also been recognized internationally with the Kafka Prize, which honors authors for a body of work. He occupies a curious position in Chinese letters — he is typically unable to publish on the mainland, yet holds a faculty post at a prestigious mainland university. He has also been an outspoken critic of the toll that both official censorship and self-censorship take on the country’s authors.

One of his best-known novels is Serve the People!, a satirical work also available in English in Julia Lovell’s lively translation. Another one of his novels, Lenin’s Kisses, describes an idyllic Brigadoon-like village whose inhabitants, each handicapped in some fashion, but living contentedly in a self-contained community spared the ravages of Chinese revolutionary history. They are soon swept up into the machinations of a scheming official. Perhaps his most ambitious novel to date is The Four Books, a searing look at China’s Great Leap Forward famine, just published in English. The recently released English language edition of The Four Books benefits from skillful translation work by Carlos Rojas, who also provides a useful introduction, reprising things he did for the English language edition of Lenin’s Kisses.

I caught up with Rojas, who in addition to his translation work has published on topics ranging from the cultural history of the Great Wall to the fiction of literary laureate Gao Xingjian:

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Let’s begin by talking about the two Yan Lianke novels you’ve translated, Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books. Both are experimental in form and wide ranging works, but my sense reading both in English is that the latter probably presented bigger challenges to you as a translator. Is that right? 

CARLOS ROJAS: Actually, from a translational perspective, Lenin’s Kisses was more challenging. Most of Yan Lianke’s works incorporate a certain amount of local Henan dialect, but in Lenin’s Kisses this constitutes a key element of the structure of the novel itself. Beginning with the work’s very first sentence, the novel includes countless footnotes explaining local words and phrases with which it is expected that the reader will be unfamiliar. The accompanying notes, meanwhile, include not only straightforward definitions but also frequently include lengthy discussions of character’s backgrounds and the history of village. One challenge, accordingly, was to come up with English words and phrases that would feature the same combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity as their dialectal equivalents in the Chinese.

The Four Books does present a similar set of challenges, however. For instance, one challenge was how to render the Biblical language that runs through the novel, and specifically how to retain the flavor of the Chinese-language version of this Biblical language in the original version of the novel. Another challenge involved negotiating the repeated shifts back and forth between the four manuscripts that comprise the novel, given that each manuscript is written in a distinct voice and plays a different role in the overall work.

In structural terms, both works are experimental in different ways. Lenin’s Kisses is more aggressively non-linear in its narrative structure, with the repeated jumps back and forth between the main narrative plane, and the lengthy endnotes, which often function as extended flashbacks where much of the narrative development takes place. The relationship between these interwoven narrative threads is rather complex, and it was an interesting challenge to make sure that all of the chronologies lined up correctly. In The Four Books, meanwhile, the narrative jumps back and forth between the three component manuscript texts, which are all truncated and composed for very different sets of objectives. But while it was somewhat tricky figuring out how to negotiate the relationship between these different fictional manuscripts, strict issues of chronology were not as much of a problem, since each of the four manuscripts proceeds more or less chronologically.

What is most distinctive to you about Yan as a writer, setting him apart from other Chinese authors you’ve analyzed or translated? And I guess linked to this, do you see Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books as interrelated, broadly similar books, due to the gimlet-eyed view they both cast on the Maoist past, or very different, in that the former has more flat out farcical elements, while the latter takes bigger chances stylistically in weaving together four separate texts?

One of the things I like about Yan Lianke is that although there are a common set of concerns that run through all of his works (or at least his works since the mid-1990s), each of his novels tends to have a very distinct voice and narrative structure. While there are quite a few other contemporary Chinese authors who have been very experimental in their shorter works, many of them tend to adopt a more conventional narrative structure for their longer novels. In Yan Lianke’s novels, by contrast, structure consistently receives as much attention as content.

All of Yan’s works since the mid-1990s consistently engage with a set of sociopolitical issues relating to China during the Mao and post-Mao era, though often in very different ways. So, in this respect, I feel that all of his works from the past couple of decades are interrelated, and can be viewed along a continuum of literary expression. Part of the interest of his oeuvre, for me, is observing this negotiation between an attempt to explore a coherent set of concerns through an array of different works, and the ways in which artistic, political, and commercial factors have a differential impact on each individual work.

With respect to the specific comparison of Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books, I think they both use a combination of realistic and fantastic elements to offer a commentary on contemporary Chinese society and recent Chinese society. The tone of The Four Books is somewhat darker than that of Lenin’s Kisses, but it too has its farcical moments. There is a cannibalistic theme that runs through both works — fairly literally in The Four Books, where the protagonist irrigates his crops with his own blood, and more metaphorically in Lenin’s Kisses, where the village of handicapped men and women are made to perform their disabilities for profit.

There has been a lot of discussion of censorship and Chinese publishing lately, both in general interest publications, including The New York Times, and in more specialized settings, such as on the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture list serve. Yan’s name sometimes comes up in these discussions, due to his unusual situation as a writer who has been unable to publish his recent works on the mainland and yet continues to live there and teach at a prominent institution. He’s also written powerfully about censorship and self-censorship. I’d like to invite you to jump into this ongoing discussion at any point. This could be to flag something particularly important that’s been said or written either by or about Yan, but could be something very different.

This is a long-standing issue, but the recent discussions you are referring to stems from a recent New Yorker article that quotes Eric Abrahamsen, a Beijing-based translator and editor, who is quoted as claiming that in contemporary China dissidents are jailed for their political activities, but not for their creative writing. In subsequent discussions on the academic list serve you mention, Abrahamsen explains that he feels that while “art may have political content, but it is not political speech,” and that “art falls apart for me the instant that the message (be that political, moral, religious, etc.) pokes through the artistic fabric of the piece itself.” He concedes that some jailed dissidents are in fact authors, but contends that their writing — from a purely literary perspective — is actually not very good, thereby further invalidating them as authors. (Abrahamsen was also subsequently invited to write an op-ed for The New York Times on this topic, which I have not yet had a chance to read since I am currently and China and do not have easy access to the Times and other censored websites.)

While I understand the general impulse that drives Abrahamsen’s intervention — namely, the fact that different types of public speech are handled very differently by the Chinese authorities — I think that the distinction he is trying to draw between literature and political speech is a deeply problematic one. To begin with, as Terry Eagleton argues in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, the very attempt to specify a discursive space as purely aesthetic and outside of ideology, is itself a deeply ideological (and, by extension, political) gesture. Furthermore, none of the authors and public figures under consideration engages in only a single kind of discourse, but rather they each express themselves in a variety of different ways, some of which may be perceived as more literary or political than others. So, to identify one subset of authors as being situated within the literary arena and another as being situated within the political arena is a radical oversimplification, even if the distinction between politics and pure art were a sustainable one in the first place.

Rather than a distinction between literary and political expression, I think that what we are observing is a phenomenon wherein different types of political expression are being treated differentially by the Chinese state. Some types of political expression (be they presented as literature or otherwise) are discouraged, but may have relatively minor repercussions for the authors themselves. Other types of political expression (again, be they presented as literature or otherwise) meanwhile, are dealt with much more strictly. China’s censorship may be in the process or undergoing a transformation, as Yan Lianke argues, from a “hard” censorship regime to a “soft” one (which uses a variety of approaches to encourage authors, artists, scholars, and others to voluntarily comply with the expectations), but I think it is essential to remember that the regime definitely retains a very “hard” edge — particularly when it comes to certain types of public expression.

Yan Lianke is distinguished, I think, by a determination to try to work within the mainland Chinese system, while at the same time having an aesthetic and political perspective that is not always welcome by the Chinese authorities (or by the Chinese publishing industry, which often preemptively anticipates how something might be received by the authorities). He is also, I think, quite willing to speak his mind on a wide variety of topics, and has a deep commitment to the social and aesthetic issues that he interrogates in his writings.

Finally, anything you are working on now, as a translator or as an author, that you are particularly excited about?

I am currently translating new novels by Yan Lianke and Jia Pingwa, and just completed a book-length collection of short stories of short stories by the Malaysian Chinese author Ng Kim Chew, which will be published by Columbia UP early next year. Ng’s stories are crazily imaginative explorations of issues of displacement and diaspora, and specifically the interwoven social, cultural, and political conditions that inform the status of Malaysia’s Chinese community. His stories are also very political in their own way, carefully exploring the contemporary legacies of the Malayan Communist Party and other mid-century developments. I have two co-edited volumes that will appear next year, including an Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures, which includes 44 essays exploring a variety of different interpretative methodologies and taxonomical considerations (including one chapter by Yan Lianke himself, on state censorship). Finally, my new book, Homesickness, on the use of discourses of disease as a sociopolitical metaphor across the Chinese long 20th century, came out earlier this year. I’m currently working on two new monographs: one on thematics of time and temporality in modern Chinese cultural production, and the other on the contemporary Hong Kong director Fruit Chan.

The Greening of Asia — An Interview with Mark Clifford

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Mark L. Clifford is executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council. Clifford’s impressive resume includes periods spent as the South China Morning Post’s editor-in-chief and as Asia regional editor for Business Week. He’s been based in Asia since 1987, when he moved to Seoul to serve as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He chairs the editorial board and is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books. I caught up with Clifford via email and asked a series of questions about both his new book, The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency, and recent news stories related to the topics his book addresses:

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: What is your book’s biggest contribution to the debate on Asia and environmental issues?  

MARK L. CLIFFORD: The Greening of Asia looks at the key role that businesses are playing to solve Asia’s environmental emergency. Businesses have money, technology, and people — and they are set up to get things done, to turn challenges into opportunities. Government policies are, of course, critical — governments need to set rules. Individual efforts and actions by NGOs and other parts of civil society are important. But the uniquely positive role that business can play is too often overlooked. Through detailed case studies in a variety of areas, I show why businesses are making efforts in everything from renewable energy to greener cities and buildings to more sustainable tropical agricultural practices. Sustainable growth is not just feasible — if this is going to be the Asian century, greener growth is mandatory.

In a related vein, what sets your book apart most, whether in terms of approach or argument, from some of the other books that have come out in recent years?  Obviously, you are concerned with more than just China, but as books on that country are the ones I know best and perhaps of most interest to readers of this blog, how does your work diverge most from, say, that of Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump and Craig Simons in The Devouring Dragon? And do you draw heavily on those books or others published a bit earlier by people like Elizabeth Economy and Judith Shapiro?

China is key — it burns half of all the world’s coal and is responsible for almost one-third of global carbon dioxide emissions — and it is a big part of my book. Big as China is, it’s not all of Asia. My reporting spanned eight countries, from Japan to India to Indonesia — and, of course, China. I take the crisis as a given but try to point the way for a way out by looking at innovative, market-based solutions. Books by Liz Economy and Vaclav Smil lay the foundation for understanding China’s crisis, and Judith Shapiro’s China’s Environmental Challenges is a good up-to-date summary of many issues. Jonathan Watts’s book contains superb reportage that provides a vivid sense of China today. My book draws primarily on my own reporting combined with primary documents — and, of course, it is focused mostly on looking for solutions and looking at the ability of businesses to solve problems when the right economic and policy incentives are in place.

Since your book came out, there have been several news stories that have put Asia’s environmental challenges into the headlines, from the furor over the Chinese documentary Under the Dome, which Maura Cunningham wrote about for this blog, to reports underscoring that Delhi’s smog is even worse than the more commonly commented on Beijing variety. Could you comment on either of these stories, bringing in their relevance for your book?

Under the Dome was downloaded more than 300 million times during the few weeks it was available in China. [Note: 200 million downloads is the figure that is commonly used but according to our research it was more than 300 million]. This confirms the depth of public concern — and is a powerful reminder to Chinese authorities that they must meet public aspirations for cleaner air and a better environment. The revitalized interest in New Delhi’s air pollution is an interesting reminder that even in an open society, environmental issues are often fairly far down the list of issues that concern governments but that public concern can spike unpredictably. It will be interesting to see if India’s impressive investment in solar and wind reaches the ambitious targets set by Prime Minister Modi’s government — as well as the fate of his plan to dramatically increase coal production.

The Pope’s statements on climate change have also made news recently. Do you see his comments as being important in Asia, and, if so, in particular countries?

There is little debate about climate change in Asia, for there is almost universal acceptance that it is a serious problem. Asian countries like the Philippines — also the only majority Catholic country in Asia — are literally on the front lines of climate change, bearing the impact of more frequent and more severe storms. The Pope’s encyclical amplifies the sense of urgency, but it doesn’t have the same direct political impact that it does in, for example, the United States.

Word will come soon from the IOC on whether Beijing will be chosen as the host city for an upcoming Winter Olympics. Are there lessons about the environmental costs and issues associated with the 2008 Summer Games held in that city?

The 2008 Summer Games provided some interesting lessons. In 2008 there was a serious cleanup effort, one which showed the strengths and weaknesses of China’s top-down approach. Vehicle use was restricted, factories shut, clouds seeded — skies were reasonably blue, the rain fell at convenient times and it looked to many people as if the city had turned the corner and was about to embark on a path of more sustainable environmental policies. These hopes were dashed when it became apparent that the improvements were simply a matter of short-term measures. Shutting down factories and severely restricting traffic gave people a glimpse of what government was capable of. While the campaign raised awareness and was a short-term success, it didn’t create fundamental changes. Air quality has worsened dramatically. In recent years, China has implemented more sweeping changes, from extraordinary investments in wind and solar power to tougher restrictions on pollution sources in cities like Beijing.

Water is a key issue for the winter Olympics. If Beijing used the games to seriously reform its water policies, it would be a remarkable Olympic legacy.

Reading in the Dark: My Winter with T. C. Boyle

By Michelle Brafman

I devoured T.C. Boyle’s novels and stories after the PEN/Faulkner Foundation asked me to moderate an event called “All Things Animate Beating in Unison: An Evening with T.C. Boyle.” I read them as he wrote them, a novel followed by a cluster of short stories, rinse and repeat. I started in late December and stopped the night of the Boyle event, six days after the end of a cruel winter.

I decided on that brisk spring night that I would not read T.C. Boyle for a long while, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love his work, because I still do, or that reading him would not make me a better writer, because it definitively would, or that I hadn’t found a dozen models of the point of view I am trying to pull off in my next novel, because I did.

I decided not to read T.C. Boyle past the sixth day of spring because I knew that I would always associate him with the winter of my developmentally disabled sister-in-law’s torturous demise. I know now that I will also link him with the joyful moments of my family and professional life, only made sweeter by the looming death we lived with every day as her caregivers.

In early January, I made a pledge that I was going to endeavor to read everything Boyle had ever written: 15 novels and around 100 short stories. I failed at my goal, but not without putting a nice dent in his canon. Breakfast is the only meal my family consistently shares, and while my husband divvied up The Washington Post, I sat at the head of the table with my shiny new red 915 page hardcover beauty, T.C. Boyle’s Short Stories Volume II. I didn’t read like a writer. I didn’t attach Post-It notes to my favorite pages or underline sentences that hummed or dissect narrative structures that should come with a warning: “Don’t try this at home.” I simply followed the stories wherever they took me: to an abortion clinic, an Alaskan bar, a virtual peep show.

I assigned “Balto,” and “Hit Man” to a student whom I tutor, and we unpacked them together, and then I read a dozen more stories sitting in the bleachers of my son’s swim meets. I read passages of “Greasy Lake” aloud to my husband, and he smiled because he appreciates a well-crafted sentence and an apt rock ‘n’ roll epigraph, although he’s not a Springsteen fan. And when friends asked me how I was doing, I often responded by describing a T.C. Boyle story or tidbit from an interview I’d just read because really, who wants to hear the gory details of a long and protracted cancer death? My family had built a cocoon around itself as confining as my sister-in-law’s apartment, thick with the scent of the Bengay her hospice nurses rubbed on her lower back. Periodically, we’d let relatives and close friends inside; for me, Boyle had taken up permanent residence with us.

I read “Chicxulub” after coming home from a difficult visit with my sister-in-law, her arms and legs skinny as chopsticks and excruciatingly painful to the touch. I cried, not only because I shared the narrator’s imagining of the tragic fate of a daughter, but because the meteor that had hit my sister-in-law hadn’t been kind enough to knock her out completely. Much of the beginning and ending of life revolves around waste management, and as my sister-in-law’s body shut down, ironically, I read Road to Wellville, its numerous scatological references resonating with me a little more than I’d wished. It did feel good to laugh, though. During one of many snow days, I curled up with When the Killing’s Done and renewed my connection to the natural world, its vastness taking me outside of myself for a span of pages. On the sub-zero degree night before my sister-in-law’s funeral, I read Boyle’s newest novel, The Harder They Come, in a Syracuse Hampton Inn while my children stretched out beside me on our king-size bed and watched reruns of an insipid Disney sitcom. I finished the book the next night in another Hampton Inn room in Pennsylvania because the snow thwarted our plans to drive back to DC. I found the novel’s violence a disturbing comfort.

Between stories and more novels, I read essays, the most profound, “This Monkey, My Back.” As a somewhat obsessive person, I was stirred by Boyle’s description of his writing as an addiction “as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in our arm.” Yes, writing was just the vice I needed to make it through the winter, and maybe beyond. So I wrote, mainly junk and journal entries of moments with my sister-in-law: my little boy bringing her snow in a plastic cup, spending date night watching Family Feud with her, sitting with my husband while he told her that she wasn’t going to get better, that kind of thing. By simply moving my fingers across the keyboard, I was able to hold on to the human moments hidden in her suffering.

When I told a friend about Boyle’s influence over the past few months of my life, she suggested that I would have attached such meaning to anything I’d read. But that’s not true. I believe that books find you when you need them most. I wouldn’t have read them at all had I not had this assignment from PEN/Faulkner. I couldn’t concentrate without a good reason to, and even if I could have, I wouldn’t have sought out T.C. Boyle. And I wouldn’t have had a companion throughout my winter.

Now it is summer, and we are molting. My sister-in-law’s death is a receding headline in our lives, although if someone appears truly interested, I’ll find myself blurting out details about the funeral or shiva. But that’s rarer and rarer as the days progress. I am grateful to T.C. Boyle for his unwitting visit to our grief bubble.

It is time to let him go.

Beneath the “Patriarchy-Animality-Metaphysics” Complex

This piece was originally published by LARB Channel Philosoplant

Essay and photograph by Michael Marder

Philosophy flourished in Ancient Greece on the basis of the question of nature, construed in vegetal terms. The Greek word for nature was phusis, alluding to growth and, in particular, to the germination and blossoming forth of plants. Nonetheless, the version of classical metaphysics that became predominant in the West was transfixed by the animal world. In fact, provoking the laughter of Diogenes, Plato characterized the human as a featherless bipedal animal and presented an indelible image of the soul as a charioteer who tries to steer a carriage drawn by two horses. Aristotle, in turn, defined the human as a “rational animal.”

The metaphysical privileging of the animal, hierarchically standing above vegetal life, has situated this mode of thinking in opposition to phusis-nature, closely linked to the world of plants. Paradoxically, the most ethereal, spiritual dimension of metaphysical thought unfolds contra natura, against nature, which is to say, against plants. We emphasize the paradoxality of this move particularly in relation to Aristotle’s philosophy, where the demand is to think each being according to what it is, in keeping with its nature, kata phusin. But what does “according to nature” mean, when the word is divested of its vegetal connotations? Perhaps, one can say that metaphysics thinks nature itself against nature and that, it is consistently with this de-vegetalized “counter-nature nature,” that singular beings and being as a whole are grasped.

Click here to read more. 

“FEW SOCIAL PRACTICES now seem more antiquated than the formal duel by swords or pistols. The so-called ‘judicial duel’ became widely practiced in Europe in the early Middle Ages, influenced by Homeric and other Classical accounts of single combat, and survived more or less intact for centuries. Over the same span, duels appeared endlessly in stories, paintings, poems, and novels. Duels seem ‘particularly hospitable to literature,’ John Leigh proposes in his lucid and thorough new study, because they are ‘self-contained dramas’; ‘the most deliberate, self-conscious of acts,’ the ‘ritualized combat’ of a duel stipulates a consistent pattern of word and deed.”

Ivan Kreilkamp on Touché: The Duel in Literature by John Leigh. 

The LARB Questionnaire Interviews Avidly

This week, LARB’s channel Avidly celebrates its third birthday.  In honor of the occasion, Avidly editors Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle sat down to respond to the LARB questionnaire.

 

How do you get up in the morning?

We get up twice, once on EST then on PST. Children screaming us out of bed on both coasts.

Do you succumb to nostalgia?

IT WAS HER ONE BEAUTY

Do you write long and cut, or short and backfill?

We cut the first paragraph. Always.

How do you feel about your Wikipedia entry?

We feel you should start one. Continue reading

Are You a Dark Horse?

By Austin Dean

On the first Saturday of June over nine million Chinese teenagers (and their parents) had something in common with the owners of the racehorse American Pharoah. Namely, all were among the most stressed out people in the world.

What was the cause of the stress for the group in Asia? Because years of preparation, worry and sleepless nights were about to come to an end, as Chinese high school students did their final cramming for the gaokao (college entrance exam). Their scores on this will determine if and where they go to university. The rest of their high school careers—grades and extracurricular activities—don’t count in admissions decisions. It is all about the test. Continue reading

The Killing Time

Our friend Ann Louise Bardach interviewed Christopher Lee for Los Angeles’s WET magazine in 1981. We post it with her permission here in memorium.

¤

Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922. During WWII, he served in the British Royal Air Force in some intelligence capacity, the details of which he says he would rather not discuss. After the War, Lee decided to try acting. He appeared in his first film in 1949 and starred in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Over the next decade, he became a fixture in the horror genre, often outclassing the gory potboilers in which he starred. In person, he’s quite tall but not spooky at all.

A.L. Bardach chats with Lee about his war years, which proved an odd sort of inspiration to his future career. Continue reading

John Brown’s Body Crosses the Pacific

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

On the last two days in April, I got a pair of emails. Each asked me to answer a question relating to China: one the predictable predictive sort I dread, the other the idiosyncratic off-the-wall kind I relish. The April 29 digital missive, from an editor at Foreign Affairs who was putting the same question to a variety of China specialists for a feature, asked me this: “Can the Communist Party survive another ten years if it fails to make ‘major reforms’”? The April 30 email was from the gifted banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn, someone I’ve long admired and recently become friends with; she wanted to know whether I could think of an old American song that had made its way into the Chinese musical repertoire in a particularly interesting fashion, and, if so, fill her in on things like when and how it had made its way to China. As I’m always leery of prognosticating, I answered the April 29 query quickly, spinning my response in a way that highlighted the foolishness of forecasting. The April 30 query has proven harder to answer. In trying to figure out what to write to Abby, I’ve found myself going off in different directions and heading down some initially promising byways that turned out to be dead-ends. This hasn’t been a bad thing. Quite the contrary: the fact that there wasn’t an immediately obvious answer to her question is one thing that made it such a welcome one to get. Continue reading

The Goats: A Middle Eastern Pastoral

By Joanna Chen

It’s that time of year. The goats are here again. They’re back with their shepherds, munching their way along the lower slopes below the forest that surrounds the village where I live. They have all the time in the world, wandering around from slope to slope leading down to the main road. They walk slowly along, dipping down to the low-growing bushes and the wild oregano, raising their necks to branches that crackle when bitten through.

These are the goats that belong to the Bedouin shepherds and they’ll be here through the long summer that lies ahead. I look forward to sharing the forest near my house with them again. They remind me that there is a different pace of life. Continue reading