Light in the West and Shadows in the East

An earlier draft of this essay was published in Be: A Journal of Creative Expression in April 2017. Ever since I came to Iowa City, I’ve spent a lot of time watching the sunset. The view is very different from anything I have seen in China. The first thing I’ve noticed here in Iowa is that the sunset lasts so long. The sun seems so reluctant to retire to his palace that until 8 p.m. the summer night is still glowing, unbelievable for those who are used to a dark sky at 7. My old sense of the sunset is challenged. I don’t really see a circular red sun, like a boiled egg yolk, slowly sinking into the horizon; instead I see the gold light, dyeing the entire sky. I used to regard the color gold as more artificial than natural—a royal hue claimed exclusively by the emperor in the olden days, or the vulgar bling the newly rich like to wear in the modern day. Never have I seen it shimmering thus in the boundless sky, and I am transfixed by it. If you go back to classical Chinese poetry, you will probably see that the image of sunset usually refers to “sorrows” and “sadness.” Li Shangyin, a famous poet in Tang Dynasty, wrote in “The Leyou Tombs,” “To see the sun, for all his glory, / Buried by the coming night” (translated by Witter Bynner). The sunset in Chinese is often called a “night sun” or a “slanting sun,” both metaphors of the very last light that one can hold in his life. The other day when I was waiting for a bus at around 7:30 p.m. in Iowa City, I saw the sky blazing and all the clouds outlined by the gold sunset light, like the gilded bronze reliefs in Gates of Paradise in Florence. I felt as if cherubs were about to jump out of one of the clouds. In 30 minutes’ ride, the horizon was still burning gold. I wondered, if I kept heading west, would I see a line of gold horizon forever? The sunset light conveys a message of hope rather than despair. Now I understand why the distinguished poet Carl Sandburg wrote the opposite of how Li Shangyin responded to the sunset: I tell you there is nothing in the world/ only an ocean of tomorrows. / a sky of tomorrows. / I am a brother of the cornhuskers who say/ at sundown: / Tomorrow is a day.  The glowing gold lends infinite power to look forward to tomorrows. In order to dig deeper into American culture when I came to Iowa, I attend a weekly Bible Study with Elva Craig, a fellow of Faith Baptist Church in Iowa City. Elva asked me a question when we were in the very beginning, reading Genesis: “The sun and the moon were not created by God until the fourth day of creation, and so where do you think the light came on the first day?” I have never thought of such a question before. “Well, I don’t know exactly myself,” Elva said. “But I pictured that on the very first day, God opened a window from Heaven to let the light of Heaven flow to the Earth.” There is some difficulty here—heaven was created after light rather than before light, on the second day. But I liked her interpretation. I thought many people in Western context might have a similar picture in mind when reading Genesis for the first time. Light thus becomes a crucial symbol in Western culture—the Lord’s first gift to lift men out of darkness. Little by little, the concept of light broadens, and it incorporates richer content. Enlightenment Europe vividly depicted how “light of knowledge” is shone on men. Light seems to determine aesthetic criteria in the Western culture too: When decorating houses, people in America install plentiful windows, as glass is friendly to sunlight. You like to tile the floor of toilets with white ceramic tiles as those will bring more light in to make the place brighter and cleaner. City parks in Europe and America are patches of wide-spreading grass where one can enjoy as much sunshine as possible. Oh, how you love to bathe in the sun! Even when the beauty of a woman is presented in oil paintings or in literary works, the woman must be lit; otherwise, her beauty cannot be seen. Once, during a thaw, the bark of the trees in the yard was oozing, the snow melted on the roofs of the buildings; she stood on the threshold, went to fetch her sunshade and opened it. The parasol, made of an iridescent silk that let sunlight sift through, colored the white skin of her face with shifting reflections. Beneath it, she smiled at the gentle warmth; drops of water fell one by one on the taut silk. This is how Gustave Flaubert describes Emma in Madame Bovary. Without the sifting sunlight, Charles couldn’t catch her beauty. Perhaps that is why God created light on the first day. Ancient Chinese people contributed many inventions to human civilization, but we did not invent glass, nor did we use glass often (even though we did have it as early as the late Spring and Autumn period, i.e., early fifth century B.C.). It seems to me that the reason is more due to aesthetic considerations than practical ones. Glass lets in too much sunlight, rendering the space totally exposed. Ancient Chinese people frowned at the idea of a complete view of a place. How boring! How unromantic! They preferred shadows to light. [millions_ad] In traditional East Asian architecture, we cover the window frames and door frames with paper. Paper softens the strong sunlight. The shapes of window frames and door frames—flowery patterns, shapes of Chinese characters—can cast their long mellow shadows to the inside of a house. Toilets become poetic, too! The fabulous Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki praised the Japanese toilet as “a place of spiritual repose.” Like Chinese ones, it is built outdoors, keeping a modest distance from the main building, and is usually set under a thatch roof in China, or in a grove “fragrant with leaves and moss” in Japan. “No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden,” Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows. These lines are by far the most beautiful words I have ever read of a toilet. Our city parks are also different from their Western counterparts. Traditional Chinese city parks were designed in such a way that as you take a step forward, you capture a different glimpse of the same view. For example, our conventional parks are often dotted with pavilions. When you glance at a pavilion from far away, you see it surrounded by the stream and plants. When you near the pavilion, you will see how the roof, columns, and railings altogether frame a certain part of stream and only one or two plants, just like a Chinese painting—the Chinese poems carved on the columns echoing the verses inscribed by an artist on the margins of his painting. Then, when you go inside the pavilion and look out from one of its windows, you will notice in a corner where we place grotesque-shaped stones (“fake mountains” in literal translation) near the plants, in a way to mimic the bridges, mountains, and animals. Thus this corner becomes a miniature of nature itself. You never get a single view of a Chinese city park. Instead, you need to walk to discover the innumerable possibilities for beauty. When drinking wine (baijiu, soju, and sake), we use colored ceramics or potteries, and often we inscribe Chinese characters on them or carve them into plantlike or animal-like shapes; then we can enjoy the colorful and interesting shadows in the cup when drinking. If you have watched a few traditional Chinese operas, you would probably notice that Chinese beauties on the stage are likely to hide half of their faces behind their painted fans or long, well-embroidered sleeves. To us, these sleeves and fans render the women even more glamourous. Instead of having a full picture of what the woman looks like, we imagine her looks, her voice, and her character based on our limited sight of her. In our fantasies, her beauty is infinite. Also, we dare not look directly at a woman as it is considered very rude in our culture. What we can do is to steal a look at a tiny little part of her and complement our delight as well as regrets with our imagination. A woman’s eye floated up before him. He almost called out in his astonishment. But he had been dreaming, and when he came to himself he saw that it was only the reflection in the window of the girl opposite. Outside it was growing dark, and the lights had been turned on in the train, transforming the window into a mirror. The mirror had been clouded over with steam until he drew that line across it. The above paragraph is from Snow Country, written by Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner for literature. His angle of showcasing a woman’s beauty is distinct from Flaubert’s. He lets the male narrator capture a glimpse of only a small part of the woman: her single eye. It could seem more terrifying than pleasant for Western readers. This kind of gaze is very common for a man in Eastern countries to meet a woman. Zhou Zuoren, a great prose writer in modern Chinese literary history, depicts the beauty of his first love only by showing her feet, as her feet are the only sight he dares to catch—he merely glues his eyes to the floor. Whereas Flaubert eventually focuses on the light cast on the white skin of Emma, Kawabata blurs his literary camera with “steam.” Here, the steam, functioning similarly to the sleeves or the fans in traditional Chinese operas, holds the woman at a decent distance from her admirer, thus making her untouchable and more enigmatic. Beauty is not what we see in the light, but how we imagine what we cannot see. I am writing nostalgically of a traditional Eastern culture; it is all gone. Nowadays, we all install glass windows, tile the floor with white ceramic, and try every means to make our “home, sweet home” a “clean, well-lit place.” Modernization and Westernization have compelled us to abandon cherished practices. But I can’t help wondering: Can we reserve a little space for our own, where we worship our shadows, not your light? Image: Flickr/halfrain

Apply Aesthetic Pressure to the Language: An Interview with Paul Harding

This interview first appeared in Chinese at the Shanghai Review of Books on June 3, 2018. I spent my first Iowan winter day at home reading Tinkers, the 2010 Pulitzer Fiction Prize winner. Outside, snow began to fall. I poured myself a cup of hot tea, sat next to my window, and opened the book to its stunning opening line: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” Perhaps it was the snow, but my world quieted. Slowly I lost myself in the labyrinth of George's memory. When, finishing the last line, I looked up again—it was four hours later, the street lamps casting their long bluish shadows on a whole white land. Ever since then I’ve wanted to talk to Paul Harding, to ask him for his writing recipe, his marvelous use of time and lyricism. As a foreigner who grew up exposed to Emerson, Melville, and Faulkner, I was astonished to hear that in America only high school students are still reading them. I want to ask him about the literary tradition in this country, about the relationship between the self, history, and the present, and how art can reach beyond its creator’s self-obsession and connect to a larger world. So we had this conversation. Paul’s responses are illuminating and yet sometimes counterintuitive. Instead of encouraging young writers to find their own voices, he says he rids markers of his voice during revision and editing. In Paul’s view, writers and their writings are not a cause-and-effect relation; rather, it’s the subject that desires to be rendered in a specific way, and the writer who needs to listen to this hidden message. As far as literary tradition, the Bible to Paul is both the foundational literary text and a spring of democracy and humanism. (Paul’s forthcoming novel, Island, is coming out with Random House in 2019 or 2020.) The Millions: Before you switched your career to writing, you were a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat. What’s a musician’s life like? Does your past as a musician influence your writing? Paul Harding: Well, mine was a sort of “half-time” musician’s life. When we were not touring or recording or playing shows around Boston and New York City, which was often, I temped in all sorts of lousy jobs. I also worked in bookstores, which was lousy work, too, because it was retail, but wonderful because I read all the new fiction that came out. I loved working on songs with the other band members. We were not very good, but I was fascinated by arranging and finding different parts for different songs. I loved being in the studio, too, watching the engineers and producers use the studio itself, and the mixing boards almost as instruments in themselves. Touring was a lot of fun at first, but it grew very tiring. Most days are spent driving for many, many hours from show to show, getting to the theater or club, doing a soundcheck, playing the show, breaking down, sleeping in one motel room with five or six people, getting up in the morning, and driving all day again. Very wearying! But not entirely awful, because it’s interesting to show up in towns and cities you might never otherwise see, and find people in the middle of what they consider “normal life,” which is, from the outside, always clearly highly localized and eccentric in one way or another. Music absolutely influences my writing. I was a drummer—the “time keeper.” And I think of narrative prose as keeping time, too, of rendering characters’ experiences of time, of “being in time” in the philosophical but also, simply, immanent physical senses. I write by ear, by rhythm, intuitively. I can often tell what the tempo, time signature, accentuations are of a sentence or a passage before I discover its literal meaning. I think of Tinkers, especially, as lyrical, like incantation, song. TM: When was the first time you introduced yourself to others as a writer? How did you feel about it? PH: I suppose I went through some version of the self-conscious, pretty much coy mannerism of protesting that I was not a writer; I just wrote. Or something like that. I was never self-conscious about wanting to be a writer, or aspiring to be an excellent one, since neither is the same thing as claiming to be an excellent writer. But now, I accept the job title! From my point of view, I do in fact think of writing as a way or manner of being in the world, that in some deep senses, I do write, as a function of my being a person, of exploring, interrogating, describing the experience of personhood, of being an “I,” that utterly mysterious thing. I guess I also feel a bit like I’m not so much “a writer” but a writer of strange, oddly shaped stories and not much else. TM: The original inspiration for your debut novel, Tinkers, was your maternal grandfather. Why did you want to tell his story? Do you find your writing experience has changed your understanding of him or your family story? In what ways? PH: I did not feel compelled to tell my grandfather’s story in the general sense. I felt an urge to describe aspects of his life about which I remained curious after his death, which were mysterious to me, yet also formative, normative. It was also a way to remain in conversation with him, by means of aesthetics, of imagination. George, in Tinkers, though, ended up achieving his own kind of aesthetic critical mass, or momentum, and while he is my grandfather, my grandfather was not him, if that makes sense! It also pleases me to think of my own sons, and perhaps someday their children and grandchildren, reading the book and feeling as if it’s their own, highly local book of genesis: an anthology of family myths and legends. TM: Were some chapters of Tinkers workshopped before its publication? If so, what feedback did you receive? PH: Tinkers was originally a 15-page short story. It was one of two stories I submitted to apply to the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was not supposed to workshop it, but I did, because I ran out of material to submit. It was given a life-changing workshop by my teacher and now friend Elizabeth McCracken. Her reading of it was so subtle, attentive, solicitous. She not only taught me a great deal about the story but also how to teach. The feedback, as I remember, mostly had to do with the 15-page version being too elliptical, too obscure. So, when I had the chance, after graduating, to work on it some more, I expanded it from the “inside out,” so to speak. I had the entire plot, such of it as there was (which was and remains not much—plot does not interest me), so I just kept elaborating on the characters’ lives, building up layers of them, slowly, like a river piling up silt or something. In fact, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that if you took the five opening pages, the five closing pages, and the five pages right at the middle of the published book, you’d pretty much have the original story. So strange, art—so lovely. TM: Almost all readers said they marveled at the unique use of time in Tinkers. Time both constricts and expands, which reminds me of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but Tinkers is also very different. How did you come up with this idea? Did you doubt it at any point during your writing process? PH: I doubted it the entire process. Not what I wanted to do with time but whether I was in fact doing that, or whether I was just being clever, fancy, using pyrotechnics. But that was good motivation. Every twist, turn, redoubt, exploded or accelerated moment had to earn its way into the manuscript. Also, since most of the book takes the form of consciousness—and most of that the form of memory—I had built into the structure of the book that what I think of as a “quantum,” almost supraluminary nature of consciousness, where almost without apparent causality, you can be thinking of yourself as an infant next to a river watching your mother catch a fish and instantly next be thinking of yourself as a parent, feeding your son a bite of shrimp. Or whatever. That’s kind of a silly example, but I certainly had writers like Proust in mind, pushing on how prose that must be read diachronically—that is, in order, in lines of words, can be experienced by the reader as something like the synchronous apprehensions of full memories, and full memories shifting and moving and leading into and out of one another, and so forth. William Faulkner was a huge influence thinking about this. Also, the so-called “magical realists,” like Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes. Emily Dickinson, too, whose poems look so small and compact and yet have the transcendental, metaphysical density of collapsed stars. TM: Tinkers has an associative rather than linear architecture, as you put it. One tricky thing about this structure is that readers may get lost. Many writers embed perches for readers to rest and reorient. I read the countdown of George’s life as serving this purpose. Did you worry that your readers might lose their way? Did you provide guidance for them? PH: You have perfectly answered your own questions! Yes, I worried. Yes, I absolutely “staged” the book as a countdown to the instant of George’s death—incidentally, the eight days it takes for a traditional American or European wall clock to wind down. I figured that as long as the prose eventually looped back to “8 days before he died; 7 days; 6,” the reader would have a predictable point to which she’d periodically return and be able to clearly, concretely take stock of what was happening. I think that the narrative takes some getting used to, but once the reader knows the, as it were, rules of the thing, those rules are consistent and wholly organic to the deepest meanings in the book. I feel more or less that it’s fine to ask the reader to do some work, to actively participate in the reading of the book, so long as that work is rewarded two, five, tenfold with art that surprises, delights, activates deep human recognition—all that good, artful stuff. Two things I always tell my writing students are: Don’t write your stories for poor readers, and don’t write your stories for people who won’t like them. If you pick up a copy of Tinkers and read the jacket copy and maybe the opening paragraph or two, you’ll continue reading because you like what you read. The book does what it does, consistently, right from the very first sentence. TM: After Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize, did you feel any pressure on your second novel? Did you worry whether Enon would replicate the success of Tinkers? PH: I did feel pressure, and a lot of it. But I also recognized that I was a kind of minor, temporary protagonist in the larger Pulitzer Prize narrative or phenomenon. I certainly worried during my time as a private citizen—that is, for instance, when I lay awake at night, at four in the morning, say—wondering whether I could pull it off. But I either had to write a second book or disappear. Much better, I thought, to get on with it. I did not worry whether Enon would replicate Tinker’s success, although I certainly hoped it would. But being a lifelong avid reader, bookseller, and observer of all (or many) things literary, I knew the usual, very predictable risks. For example, I knew there’d be people who would not like Enon, no matter what, because it was just Tinkers II, and there would be people who would not like it because it was not Tinkers II. No matter. My job was to filter out all the noise best I could and be loyal and attentive to what was coming over the wire from inside the world of that book. TM: Enon, at least in its first part, reads more like a conventional novel—a lucid point of view with a plot that everyone can relate to. What things were on your mind when you were making writing choices for Enon? PH: It’s interesting, because you sort of learn things about writing on the fly. At first, because the opening felt more conventional, I tried to make it more, I don’t know what, experimental, or something like that. But that was me inducing meaning, coercing the material. What I found was that much of that book is precisely about this narrator, Charlie, having a more or less common, recognizable, conventional way of looking at and describing his life—a relatable, work-a-day kind of idiom for the love he has, for instance, for his daughter. When his daughter dies tragically and without warning, that idiom, the very language out of and with which his world and place in it has been constructed, is made instantly and totally alien, unrecognizable, insufficient for his experience of the tragedy. Much of the rest of the novel is simply a dramatic presentation of him desperately trying to improvise a new idiom for a universe in which his daughter has died. That improvisation intersects with his romantic, so to speak, imbibing of drugs and alcohol in an effort to give himself just a bit of distance from his own white-hot grief, almost as if the chemicals are like the mirror Perseus must use in order to look at the Medusa and not simply perish. And that combination becomes more and more phantasmagorical, of course, and populated by fairly specific New England ghosts and legends. I also realized that the story was a version of Orpheus and Eurydice, or Persephone and Diana, the narrative of losing someone so dear that you simply cannot accept it and try to go down into the underworld to fetch the lost loved one back. Tons of other stuff in there, too. Hopefully. But I did find myself with the technically confining structure of a first-person narrative, which I found the hard way is very, very difficult to sustain over a novel-length narrative. And I did find myself in the face of how our culture thinks about drug and alcohol addiction, which made for a very prominent foreground that many readers could not or would not subordinate to the character’s—the true subject of the book—human experience. Certainly, some of that was my shortcoming as an artist. Such is art! Fascinating to learn along the way. Interesting, too, when readers would come up to me and say, Oh, why doesn’t that Charlie guy just pull himself up by his big boy pants and get over it? Well, if he did, there would not have been a book! It’s like asking (on a much, much more sublime level, of course), Oh, why didn’t Hamlet just get on with his revenge? Well, because that’s the play. What would be left of Hamlet if he didn’t agonize? That’s what the whole play is about! If he didn’t agonize, he’d just murder Polonius, assert his right of succession, become a typically vengeful, murderous king, and the play would be two minutes long, and they’d have to bring out the jugglers and dancing bears! Anyway, Enon was and remains a tough nut to crack. Wholly necessary for me to write (I had close friends who’d lost children, whose experiences were partly why I chose to try to write such a book, and two close friends lost their respective only children while I was writing the book). I am deeply loyal to it. It remains a mystery to me. An occluded vision of something deep and dark and, to me, fascinating. [millions_ad] TM: You teach students to write precisely. What do you mean by “being precise”? How to be both lyrical and precise? Can you give an example? PH: I guess I have an idealistic, or Platonic, spirit in the use of language; my sense is of a perfect version of, say, Tinkers somewhere out there in or beyond the universe. What I got of it onto paper is the buckled, scorched, dented, imperfect version of it that I managed to fetch from my forays toward that perfect version and bring down through the atmosphere into the English. As it precipitates from that imaginary, perfect state into language, it distorts. But English is a pretty magnificent, flexible, rich, dense language. So I revised. And revised. And revised some more. There’s not a sentence in the book I did not go over 100 times, pushing on the precision of the language to see how close to perfect I could get. That pushing is, of course, aesthetic, too. It is applying aesthetic pressure to the language for precision, largely with the faith that every further degree of precision is a further degree of revelation, of beauty. When I began to realize this, it took a huge leap of faith, exactly because I thought of myself as a lyrical writer. Even the word itself, “precision,” seemed to contradict the very spirit of lyricism. It seemed surgical or like something from engineering. But again, it is used in this kind of writing to achieve aesthetic sophistication. The matter was one of learning to trust your subjects. If you sense beauty and lyric essence in your subjects, that means that beauty and lyricism inhere in them. That is, they are already beautiful and lyrical in themselves, before you even stumble by and notice. Which means that it’s not you, the writer, who induces those qualities, with “your” writing. You don’t happen along, sprinkle glitter and fairy dust on the subjects, and they become lyrical. That would be a form in itself of distortion, imprecision. It’s not a cause-and-effect phenomenon, where the writer “causes” subjects to be lyrical or whatever via her writing. The writer pays deep, sustained, considerate, selfless, solicitous attention to subjects she intuits are beautiful and lyrical, and if they indeed are, then the best—really, finally, the only—way to render those things is by precisely describing them as they are. That’s all the difference between poetry and writing that sounds poetic, between beauty and pretty writing. It seemed counterintuitive to me at the time, so as I said, it was a huge leap of faith. I had to be very deliberate, conscious of writing that way. It took a lot of work to make myself write that way and to keep writing that way. But it was faith well rewarded. It’s a wonderful mystery, but it works every single time. I should say that this way of thinking is undertaken in the context of writing about character, that is, about experience, so much of the beauty and lyricism also come from refracting, for instance, the description of a striking landscape through a character’s perception of it, experience of it, which in itself is something that, if precisely attended, strikes the reader as true, authentic, thus beautiful. I never write “objectively” about a stand of birch trees in the golden sun near a stream of cold clear water, but of a mind perceiving those things. So the mind and landscape become coextensive and so forth. TM: Nineteenth-century spirituality is rare to see in contemporary American literature (with the exception of you and your teacher Marilynne Robinson). Based on your reading experience, what do you like most about contemporary American fiction? What don’t you like about it? PH: The only contemporary American fiction I read is that written by my students! Not because I’m doctrinaire or anything, but because when I teach, I teach a novel-writing workshop in which we read and critique a full-length novel manuscript every week, no upper page limit. That’s a ton of reading, but the students are so good that I get to read a rough draft of a good or great novel every week. The rest of my reading time I devote to nonfiction—tons of theology, lately a lot of history, like John Foxe’s massive Actes and Monuments, which chronicles English history from the dawn of time, practically, through the reign of Queen Mary (I think). Anyway, what I love about the books I see from my students is a willingness to try new ideas, to write unabashedly big, smart, beautiful books. Generally, I dislike books that complain so much about, say, crass, white, middle-class materialism that they themselves becomes artifacts of the very phenomenon they allegedly lament. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel, as they say. What could be easier that pinching the noses of burghers? TM: One common critique is that contemporary American fiction is small. But our world is big and chaotic. We need a novel that is about the right size. What do you think of the “size” of contemporary American fiction? PH: Oh, that’s a tough one! “Size” has to be dictated from inside the work outward. There are a lot of 600-page novels that have about 75 pages of substance to them and the rest is just self-indulgent riffing. “Size” is properly about the seriousness and depth of idea, of subject. There’s nothing I like better than a big book. You get to live with it longer. It becomes like a friend or lover. Moby Dick, by now, is less a book than a place for me, an actual sort of aesthetic ontological dimension I go back to and live in periodically. I can do that with Melville because the book is 600 pages, but more importantly, each page is 100 pages deep in a sense. It’s so rich, dense, gorgeous, big-spirited, generous, genius. Every page is a feast! So if you crank out several hundred pages of received popular opinion about whatever this season’s version of the American dream or nightmare is, you’ve still written a small, sad little book. TM: Another contemporary writing trend is that, perhaps under the influence of postmodernism, writers are bold in trying experimental forms with their novels—very often by the use of visual art. But I find, quite often, those forms are a way to legitimize a weak plot or string together a collection of slightly related scenes. In your opinion, what’s the ideal relation between form and content? How to make experimental forms organic? PH: Well, I think you’ve given a great answer to another of your questions! This is very, very much a matter of personal taste. At this point, we’ve crossed over into personal aesthetics, so this is all purely a matter of my own preferences. But, for me, first, all good writing is experimental. You experiment with the material to see what works and doesn’t and how and why. I spend tons of time collaging passages, juxtaposing them in various ways, improvising and experimenting with them to see what tones, textures, nuances, harmonies, dissonances, revelations, etc., they generate on their own, almost independent of my own intelligence, as it were. But I do not ever induce form prior to writing or insist on form as I write. I mean, sometimes I do, but in the former case only to jump start the writing in a very early stage of a project, to invoke it, for example, but with the full understanding that the formal structure is a prompt or conceit that the material, if it’s good, will inevitably outgrow and shrug off, and in the latter case usually because I’ve unconsciously or stubbornly persisted in some formal conceit past its usefulness or necessity and have been disfiguring the material so that it accommodates the form. That’s an instance of the writing becoming the subject of the writing, if that makes sense. The writing is the predicate of the proper subject—for me, the characters, their experiences, the phenomenology of things. The writing is subordinate to the people whose lives it serves to portray (which goes back to what we were talking about in terms of precision). I often tell my students, never preserve a conceit at the expense of the story. One way to revise and edit for this kind of thing, I’ve found, is to listen for your own voice. Whenever I can hear my own voice in my work, I know that I have somehow improperly become the subject of the writing. It’s no longer about my characters but about me being clever, showing off, getting revenge or whatever. So to my thinking, form is an organic function of the process in that it is what physicists might call an “emergent property.” I’m probably fudging the proper definition of the concept, but roughly, I understand emergent properties to be ones that arise from the interactions of a system that could not be predicted prior to that system being set into motion (or whatever—I think it must have something to do with thermodynamics). Form emerges from the inside out, then, rather than being something the writer thinks of abstractly, intellectually, rhetorically beforehand and then induces onto a plot or set of characters or whatever. Of course, some authors can do this brilliantly. But as you suggest, a lot of writers try fancy formal stuff because there’s no necessity to the work. There’s the mortal danger of constructing something that is purely ornamental. Which is in no way to suggest writers should not use such experimentation as a way of getting to things they find true and essential. But there’s also the risk of a shallow level of appeal. Look! The whole novel is written backwards! How clever. Who cares, you know? It’s not strictly the same thing, but the spirit is similar when the American jazz critic Whitney Balliett described musicians who are technically brilliant but have no vision or soul as possessing “mere virtuosity.” TM: “Tradition” is a word Americans don’t often mention. I was told by workshop friends that only high school students read Faulkner. In your opinion, what’s American literary tradition? What are the greatest things that young writers can learn from reading them? PH: American literature by now is so vast it’s hard to describe it as a single tradition. Historically, the tradition probably began with people like Jonathan Edwards, the theologian, who was a magnificent writer. I think of the tradition, if somewhat narrowly, as arising from the New England Reformed Protestant tradition that led to Transcendentalism. I see that vein as being disciplined by the idea of the primacy of personal experience. Not in a romantic sense but in the deepest intellectual, aesthetic, moral, spiritual sense of using your brain as much as possible to ponder experience itself—the experience of being human, of experiencing a self, the experience of being human as a self. That leads to all sorts of pretty lovely democratic, humanist implications, having to do with allowing every person the freedom to experience her own given humanity, free from coercion, having to do with the premise that every person’s experience has the same ultimate value, and so forth. It’s not the same thing as radical relativism, or simple license to do whatever you’d like. Parts of the literary and philosophical traditions arise from the earlier theology of what was called the “I and thou” of things. A person activates, cultivates, deepens her own self to the extent that she cares for and dignifies other people’s selves, lives. Pondering one’s own experience makes one more sensitive to the experiences of others, or that’s the spirit of it. Empathy, pretty much. Not a naturally occurring impulse, always, perhaps, but through the discipline and the habit of deliberately thinking as deeply and constantly as possible about such things, one can, so the thinking goes, meaningfully participate in the true value and valuing of human beings. That’s a pretty radically abbreviated description of what I think of as humanism. In America, but also wherever such thinking has any efficacy, I think it’s fair to say people’s lives are enriched materially and spiritually. In America, such thinking and art, broadly, helped to give rise to things like the abolitionist movement, then civil rights, labor rights, women’s suffrage, an overall lessening of discrimination against and disenfranchisement and of various groups of people. Emerson and Thoreau certainly wrote and thought in that tradition. Emily Dickinson. Herman Melville. Later, Faulkner, for sure. One of the problems of keeping the heart and soul of such a tradition intact is that all those writers, regardless of differences of denomination or faith or however you’d like to describe it, wrote from within the literary and cosmological traditions of the Bible. Well, if only high schoolers read Faulkner these days, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that no one at all reads the Bible. The book has become so encrusted in ideological nacre that it’s almost impossible for Americans to approach the book and what’s in it as they would, say, Moby Dick, which is not necessarily to say secularly but as literature, which is not to demean religion but to elevate narrative, poetry, song, art to the level of the sacred. Anyway, not knowing the Bible is a certain state of illiteracy. It’s not a value judgement (in my judgement!) but a factual description having to do with the simple, unalterable fact that the Bible is the headwater of so-called “Western art.” You don’t have to like it, but it is the case. To the extent that people are ignorant of that tradition, they are separated from what I’m sketching as a kind of stipulated “American tradition.” Basically, I love the combination of the most sublime, sacred, essential aspects of human experience with the impulse that those things are available to everyone, no matter how high or low they appear in life. Think, again, of Faulkner’s characters. Think of “unlettered Ishmael” in Moby Dick, all those sailors who sign their names “X,” and to whom Melville gives the language of kings and prophets and angels. I love William Tyndale, who made the first translation of the Bible into modern English, and who almost miraculously, single-handedly invented modern literary English by putting the kind of aesthetic pressure I’ve mentioned on it to raise it to a level where it was fine enough to render the sophistication of Biblical literature. His stated goal was to make a translation so lucid and clear that it could be read by the boy out plowing the field. There’s something essential and recognizable to me in that idea in the best parts of the American tradition of democracy, imperfect, severely compromised, often corrupt, battered and embattled thing it has always been. TM: What is the thing you wish you knew when you were just beginning to write Tinkers? PH: Easy: nothing! For me, writing is not engineering, in the sense that I do not care much about efficiency. For me, the inefficiency of writing—improvising, discovering, screwing up, searching, finding, not finding, interrogating, exploring, unveiling, revealing—is what yields art. You can’t think it up first, then type it. The putting of language on the page and seeing what meaning you’ve released into the world and shaping it, revising it, building it up, layering it, scraping it back down, and all that is what I love about making beautiful artifacts out of words. There were plenty of technical things it may have been nice to know ahead of time, but I don’t really think much about them, because once you know them, the problems you consider only get deeper. I mean this as a guarantee, a promise to all writers, when I say that one of the best things about writing fiction is that it only gets harder the more you know, in some ways, and that is, to me, a wonderful thing. Whatever I learned writing Tinkers, when I turned to Enon, it was not as if but in fact that I had to learn to write all over again. Fantastic! What good fortune!

The Moon Is Beautiful Tonight: On East Asian Narratives

1. Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style. “Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.” That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters. Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring? It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense. The disconnection between the couple doesn’t escalate into a separation or a divorce. Even though the wife admits she hates her husband, she still succumbs to his lust and even takes an active part occasionally. The husband eventually suffers a stroke and dies, not because he learns about his wife’s adultery, but because of his own long-time debaucheries. Therefore, the husband’s death functions more as a twist than a climax leading to a falling action. The story has no confrontation. For example, when the daughter moves out, she does so under the guise of wanting a quiet place to study. The mother suspects the real reason but the family never discusses it overtly. The family remains unbroken, at least in appearance. A similar use of alternating narrations divulging the miscommunication in a relationship can be found in quite a few Anglo-American novels: Evan S. Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, and, most recently, Margot Livesey’s Mercury. But, unlike Tanizaki’s work, these stories tend to create a dramatic build that invites a self-revelation. Take Mercury. Donald, the husband, gradually realizes that he and his wife, Viv, have grown so apart that she needs a gun to protect her real love, a horse. Their disconnection, the core conflict, is slowly revealed and climbs to an irrevocable moment, the climax—Viv fires the gun and shoots Donald’s friend. The relationship is thus damaged: Viv goes to the jail, leaving Donald unsure about his feelings. All those inner emotions breed the characters’ actions, which in turn transform the family dynamic. The narrative is thus an analytical search for the reason why their intimacy falls apart—since when did they stop listening to each other? Fates and Furies, set in a more traditional matrimony in which the wife assumes a domestic role while the husband works to support the family, also dedicates itself to uncovering the hidden face of a relationship. The wife’s side of the story wrenches apart the husband’s golden boy formula and indicates that she’s the real puppeteer of the “happy marriage.” Both novels are seeking the “truth.” In The Key, by contrast, the disconnection between the couple is established as a premise rather than a conclusion: Ikuko, my beloved wife! I don’t know whether or not you will read this. There is no use asking, since you would surely say that you don’t do such things. But if you should, please believe that this is no fabrication, that every word of it is sincere. I won’t insist any further—that would seem all the more suspicious. The diary itself will bear witness to its own truth. This is from the husband’s first letter. It’s clear the couple lack mutual trust at the beginning of the story. In that regard, Tanizaki has no interest in discovering an underrepresented or repressed voice or exploring a mystery within the relationship. He cares more about the dark psychology of human beings: the pleasure we take from jealousy and infidelity, and our sadistic tendencies. Unlike his Western counterparts, Tanizaki isn’t using the case of a problematic marriage to teach a lesson. The dark side of humanity is what all of us are born with; a mishandled past trauma or a long-time subjugation are both oversimplifying the complications of relationship. In Tiger Writing, Gish Jen uses the word “interdependent” to describe the East Asian mode of self-conception, as opposed to the “independent,” the West’s mode: The first—the “independent,” individualistic self-stresses uniqueness, defines itself via inherent attributes such as its traits, abilities, values, and preferences, and tends to see things in isolation. The second—the “interdependent,” collectivist self-stresses commonality, defines itself via its place, roles, loyalties, and duties, and tends to see things in context. As a Chinese woman, I am surprised to see Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife dare say to her in-law, “Next time you want to see your grandchildren, you give me a call.” Likewise, American audiences may consider those East Asian women who are obedient to their in-laws’ unreasonable commands weak and cowardly. At the danger of stereotyping, according to our conventions, those women are strong and mature because they embrace a holistic picture of family and understand that humility is the key to a harmonious life. Gish Jen also talks about her father’s distinct memoir-writing mode. After describing the Chinese traditional morning-greeting rituals, she concludes: This is not a modern, linear world of conflict and rising action, but rather one of harmony and eternal, cyclical action, in which order, ritual, and peace are beauty, and events spell, not excitement or progress, but disruption. Stormy as the relationship in The Key is, the marriage remains stable—the couple copes with the commotions of life within an orderly framework. A peaceful, present story—like the rituals in East Asian everyday life—is thought beautiful. 2. The plot difference in these modes of writing also brews structure variance. Very often, the wandering quality of East Asian stories confuses and bothers readers from outside this context. Matteo Pericoli, viewing The Key through the lens of architecture, compares its structure to “two buildings made of huge fin walls whose cantilevering floor slabs slide into the other’s like the pages of two books.” According to him: The floors of the “double” building therefore alternate, as though one of the buildings has even numbered floors and the other only odd. To go from one level to the next—say, from the fifth to the sixth floor—we’d have to go downstairs, exit one building, enter the other, and go back upstairs. To Pericoli, this is a “huge” and also “meaningless” effort. I can see his point, but again I notice the structure difference roots from our distinct ways of thinking. But what if Ikuko reads this, what will she be likely to do? Will she worry about me, and try to control her sexual instinct? I hardly think so. Even if her reason demanded it, her insatiable body would refuse to comply. Short of my collapse, she will never stop insisting on gratification. Doubtless she will ask herself why I am writing this. “He seemed to be doing so well lately,” she will think; “but he’s been forced to give in, hasn’t he? I suppose he means to frighten me, so that I’ll be less demanding.” The Key is full of similar fantasies where the narrator projects his thoughts onto his wife and even presumes her response in order to modify his imaginative behaviors. Paranoid though it may seem, this psychology is very typical in East Asian culture as I experience it—we tend to make conjectures about others’ reactions to the extent that we can be trapped in our endless imaginations, rarely taking action. Last year when I came to the U.S. for the first time, I struggled to ask American friends for a ride, even though they expressed their willingness to help—“Just give me a call.” But I didn’t dare ask, afraid that my need would inconvenience them. In China, the car owner would ask me each time she goes out—“Jianan, I’ll go get groceries from Walmart this afternoon. Would you like to come along?” As you can see, it’s the car owner who foresees my reluctance to bother her and thus makes a further move to anticipate my need. In the fabulous Japanese film director, Shunji Iwai’s 1995 movie, Love Letter: it is only after the main character passes away that his dream girl finally discovers he loved her, when she finds her name written on numerous library cards in their high school. Recently a story went viral in China and Japan; it tells of a Japanese programmer who coded the name of his love into a video game he’d invented. But he never confessed his love, remaining single in his entire life. “But why?” I remembered my American peers widening their eyes when I told such stories. It’s not the humiliation we may suffer if being turned down, but the concern that passions might upset the loved ones’ harmonious life—we don’t want our personal happiness or sadness to become their psychological burden. We prefer doing “small, good things” (Raymond Carver) to brighten up their days without asking for anything in return. This one-sided caring, or so-called “pure love,” is considered the highest form of romance in East Asian culture. Jun’ai, the Japanese word for “pure love,” means “genuine, dedicated love” according to the Japanese dictionary. Turning to Tanizaki’s work, readers are urged to journey back and forth between the husband's and wife’s respective projections and even paranoias; how many of them are true remains a mystery. Again, Tanizaki has no interest in diagnosing the marriage; he embraces a larger scope: because our ways of communication can never do justice to the chaotic, ambivalent, and ever-changing human mind, mutual understanding becomes a luxury we can ill afford. [millions_ad] 3. Apart from the recursive quality of narrative that may read as repetition or lack of focus to Western readers, the profusion of objects and details in East Asian texts may also seem unnecessary and baffling. One critique I often receive from my workshop is that I need to trim down certain details in my writing, particularly in the beginning. I didn’t understand why the slow pace bothered my American peers until, again, I stumbled upon a very similar narrative mode used by Gish Jen’s father. “Written over the period of a month and totaling thirty-two pages, it does not begin à la David Copperfield with ‘I was born’; in what we will come to recognize as true interdependent style, my father does not, in fact, mention his birth at all.” (Gish Jen, Tiger Writing.) Instead, Gish’s father opens with an elaborate family history and a comprehensive depiction of their household—another example of an interdependent mind. Different from Western stories that value the personal, concrete textures of life, a successful East Asian fiction must relate to a larger social-historical picture. I enjoyed reading Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker recently, but it also struck me that if the same story was written by a Chinese writer, it probably wouldn’t receive the same amount of attention. Right from the beginning, it is clear that the story would focus on a woman’s personal dating experience: Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines. In her 1943 story titled “Sealed off,” Eileen Chang, a then emerging Chinese writer, dealt with a very similar subject matter—romance as a game between narcissism and self-pity and women’s one-sided creation of the object of their love. By contrast, Chang’s story opens with almost a panorama of the people living in that moment, which may seem clunky next to the concise opening of “Cat Person:” The tramcar driver drove his tram. The tramcar tracks, in the blazing sun, shimmered like two shiny worms oozing out from water: stretch, then shrink, stretch, then shrink. Soft and slippery, long old worms, slinking on and on and on…the driver stared at the wriggling rails, and did not go mad. The tramcar would have gone on forever, if the city hadn’t been shut down. It was. The streets were sealed off. “Ding-ding-ding-ding” rang the bell. Each “ding” was a small, cold dot: dot after dot, they formed a line that cut through space and time. The tramcar stopped, but the people on the street started rushing around: those on the left rushed over to the right, those on the right rushed over to the left. The metal shop gates came rattling down, all in a single sweep. Matrons tugged madly at the bars. “Let us in!” they cried. “At least for a little while! There are children here, and old people too!” But the gates stayed tightly shut. The two sides glared at one another through the bars, feeding off each other’s fear. On the tram, people were fairly calm. They had somewhere to sit, and though the tram interior was shabby, it was still quite a bit better, for most passengers, than their rooms at home. Chang goes on and on to portray almost every passenger in the tramcar; in fact, the main characters, Wu Cuiyuan and Lu Zongzhen don’t appear until seven paragraphs later. These seemingly redundant descriptions extend the themes. The story is set in Japanese Occupied Shanghai, when Japanese authorities often blocked the road to search and arrest underground resistance fighters—thereby “Sealed Off.” It is in this very short time and on this temporarily stopped tramcar, two strangers, out of pure boredom, begin to flirt and even think they are in love. Chang doesn’t only show women’s particular anxieties when embarking upon a romance, but also the general selfishness and indifference of people—even war fails to make them compassionate. Without this elaborate opening and an echoing ending, the story would be too narrow to hold standing in modern Chinese literature. One famous anecdote of Sōseki Natsume, an outstanding Japanese novelist in the Meiji period, follows that he taught his students the appropriate Japanese translation for “I love you” should be “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”  East Asian stories lay great emphasis on the richness of themes, which, too, may derive from our unique ways of communication, where “beating around the bush” is common, to avoid any possible conflict and embarrassment. Similar cultural implications are embedded in our stories to channel our emotions, but it is often the case that Western readers fail to decipher them and are thus bewildered and even bored. A striking example is the translation of the 1968 Nobel Prize laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s early masterpiece, “The Izu Dancer.” Shockingly, the English translation appeared at first in an abridged form; Edward Seidensticker, the translator, streamlined the plot by cutting the parts which he thought irrelevant to the center theme. “The Izu Dancer” mixes elegant reminiscences with lyrical fiction, telling a high school boy’s first romantic encounter with a young traveling performer. Again, it may hardly fit in the West’s category of “love story,” because nothing dramatic ever takes place. The two closest points towards intimacy are perhaps when the Izu dancer addresses the protagonist as “a very nice person” and when she comes to see him off at the port. No kiss, no hug, not even a vocal goodbye; they just keep gazing and waving at each other. After a close study of the curtailed version, I am very sad to find the most scintillating details of this story were all “pruned.” In the opening chapter of the original, the narrator runs into an elderly man in a teahouse. A horrible scene: the man, suffering a stroke years ago, is bruised and swollen all over, as if he was drowned. Beside him stand piles of yellowish letters and moldy medicine bags—he asks every traveler for any potential prescription to cure his illness. The narrator, in a indifferent tone, describes the elderly man as “a monster in the mountain” and says he can’t believe the man is still alive. In the ending chapter, there is an echoing scene cropped in the English. When the narrator boards the return ship, a stranger who looks like a miner asks him to escort an old woman to her destination. After the accidental death of her son and daughter-in-law, she is left with three little grandchildren; she holds a girl with either hand, a baby on her back, “her eyes look empty and miserable.” The narrator agrees to help. In Chinese, we have a particular term to refer to those seemingly unrelated details, Casual Touches (闲笔). We believe the best writers are not those who show a refined mastery of a self-contained story, but who can add beautiful touches here and there effortlessly to stretch and strengthen a story’s meanings. In Kawabata’s case, the two vignettes are crucial to the narrator’s self-awareness. In the beginning, though born into a privileged family in Tokyo, the protagonist loses his parents at an early age. Taking the tragedy personally, he grows cynical and apathetic. (He calls himself a “misanthrope.”) We feel no empathy in his observation of the old sick man. But the love toward the Izu dancer gradually connects him to the lower-class people and to anyone who might previously have seemed unrelated to his life. From the dancer’s family, he realized that most people had suffered, were suffering, and would suffer much more hardship than he had. (Eikichi, the dancer’s elder brother, lost his second child on his performance trip; the Izu Dancer probably wouldn’t avoid entering into prostitution later on.) Therefore, he understands human woes are universal and inevitable. Also, the cheerfulness and kindness of Eikichi’s family moves him, affects him, and revives his capacity to give and love. I did not know when evening came, but there were lights on when we passed Atami. I was hungry and a little chilly. The boy opened his lunch and I ate as though it were mine. Afterwards I covered myself with part of his cape. I floated in a beautiful emptiness, and it seemed natural that I should take advantage of his kindness. Everything sank into an enfolding harmony. In the original, the old woman is mentioned again—she functions like a test for the narrator’s compassions, and thus confirms his maturity. This eventual self-reflection is also trimmed and modified in English. […] I was immersed in a beautiful emptiness. Now I felt free to accept people’s kindness. I imagined taking the elderly woman to get her ticket at Ueno Station. Of course I’d do that. Everything blended into a harmony. In his book review “Orphans,” Mark Morris points out “The Izu Dancer” is about cleansing, purification: “A narrative vision that generates impulses of release, near jouissance, by means of an effacement of adult female sexuality and its replacement by an impossible white void of virginity.” But without those seemingly unessential details, Western readers may take it for granted that Japanese culture—or East Asian culture—worships female virginity in an obsessive, if not morbid, fashion. But Kawabata has carefully built the links between the dancer’s innocence and human kindness and empathy, the protagonist’s personal romantic feelings and his connections to life in a general sense. Sexuality, in this regard, is not the West’s notion to mark a teenager’s independence, to mark the time that he needs to leave his parents and start his own life—Kawabata means quite the opposite, sexuality lifts an individual out of his self-absorption and engages him in a larger social landscape, with his people and country. In East Asian context, the notion of pure love teaches us to give and care with no intention to win or take. “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” The line conveys genuine feelings not only because the one who says it is shy, but also because they want to express gratitude to the loved one, as if to say, “you’ve opened my eyes/heart to the beauty of life.” The conventional love in East Asian context doesn’t necessarily culminate in the union of a small family, but in the contribution of harmony of society. Sadly, it is often the case when Westerners find themselves unable to translate our subtleties and inferences, they may tag those as distracting and, if not having the liberty to cut them, would probably skip them altogether. Image Credit: Pexels.

What Gets Lost in Translation Gets Transformed

1. One day before I came to the residency in Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gu Xiang, a young Chinese novelist, chatted with me in Shanghai: Last week I came across two young men in the countryside. They were both migrant workers in a local factory. Standing on a bridge, they talked about how to get some fish from the stream below. As a young writer craving new stories, I hid myself behind a bush and eavesdropped on their conversation. They came up with quite a few plans, but all were rejected because of the various inconveniences they may cause. For example, they couldn’t fish because they didn’t have a fishing rod. After about three hours of scheming and observing, one man said to the other, well, let’s forget about the whole plan and go home. We can find some eatery to have some fish if we want to. The other man replied, sure, but I don’t think I crave fish. So they headed home. And I ended up with no story. I told Gu what she just said could be developed into a typical Carverian story—a chronicle of blue-collar despair.  However, my response was not a tribute to the great American short story writer but quite the opposite. A boring piece without a real narrative: this formed all my impressions of contemporary American short fiction. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Richard Yates, and John Updike—the list can be prolonged endlessly—all read very similarly, if not the same, in Chinese translation, and even their different subject matter does not help. They seemed to speak in a unanimous voice about the similar, repetitive, and desperate contemporary American life. Not until I reread these works in English and carefully compared the original texts with Chinese translations did I realize that translation plays a pivotal role in influencing readers’ understanding of these works. It is both interesting and sad to see how the so-called “translation style” has compressed these very different writers into one boring contemporary American voice. The beauty of the language is always the first to go. Perhaps all of us have heard the saying “three moves equal one house fire.” Unfortunately, things can be even more dismal to those writers who build their style on symbols—a single move brings off a catastrophe. Take John Updike’s short story “Separating.” The story is about Richard, who struggles with how to break the news to his children of his separation from his wife. Updike employs at least two major natural images to lay clear Richard’s inner life—the wave and the mountain. Hearing his daughter’s harsh comment on the separation, Richard bursts into tears at the family party. Updike writes, Richard’s crying, like a wave that has created and crashed, had become tumultuous; but it was overtopped by another tumult, for John, who had been so reserved, now grew larger and larger at the table. Except for the challenge a translator has to meet such as some wordplay here (e.g. the alliteration of create and crash, and the stress on the word tumult), the image of the wave is even more tricky because it is linked somewhere later in the story: “They sat on the crest of the rise, shaking and warm from their tears but easier in their voices, and Richard tried to focus on the child’s sad year…” As we all know, crest in English does not only refer to the top of a wave but also the top line of a mountain or a hill. Therefore, the crest here connects with both the afore-mentioned image, “wave” and the later important image, “mountain,” which represents the psychological burden on Richard. When Richard’s wife tells him to deal with Dickie, their mature elder son, in person, Updike depicts Richard’s gloomy moment as “The mountain before him moved closer, moved within him; he was huge, momentous.” Then, after breaking the terrible news to Dickie, Updike says, “He felt immensely lighter, saying this. He had dumped the mountain on the boy.” Clearly, the two symbols here carry significant weight of the tension within the family throughout the story. But it is almost impossible for the Chinese translator to retain the double meaning of the word crest. Having tried his best, Yuan Honggen, the Chinese translator of Updike’s short fiction collection, writes, “They sat on the top of a hill, shaking from their tears while warm in heart…” The abstract connotation of crest becomes a concrete place mark where the party is held. Thus, the Chinese readers are no longer able to track the symbols that are embedded in the story. Of course we can argue whether Yuan’s choice is good enough in terms of rendering the symbolic structure of the short fiction. But one reason why a translator has to forsake some symbols is a simple wish not to let the translation read awkwardly to the target readers. Eudora Welty, the fabulous southern American writer famous for her skillful mastery of symbols, offers another example of how style is flattened in translation. As the translator of her short story “Livvie”, I am amazed by how many vivid symbols she implanted in her detailed depiction of Solomon’s house. The story has plenty of contrasts, old and young, life and death, etc. To attain the full effect of those contrasts, Welty brings out a particular pair of symbols, spring and winter. With that in mind, the readers will find that the details of Solomon’s house work very well on both realistic and symbolic levels. The core of the house, Solomon’s bed, oozes winter: the iron bed, the snow-white curtains, and the thick quilt Solomon clutches though it’s the first day of spring. Nevertheless, the outside of the house seems already bathed in the light of spring. There are “fern baskets hanging overhead from the ceiling” and “dishpans of zinnia seedlings” in the corridor. But one specific detail that puts me under tremendous pressure is “one easy chair with high springs.” I feel certain that Welty manipulates the double meaning of spring on purpose, but in Chinese translation, in order not to let the text sound jarring, I have to translate the phrase into “one easy chair with thick cushions.” From time to time, I feel that we translators are knocking out the rungs of an exquisite ladder the author fabricates in order to help his/her readers claw through multiple levels of the story; after the ladder falls apart, the readers can only rest on the surface of the fiction. One of the major reasons I found contemporary American short fiction boring in the past is that all that is left after the “move” of the story to Chinese is an undramatic plot. The use of symbolism aside, even the very distinct American writers’ prose style can hardly be differentiated in Chinese translation. The day was fair. Brilliant. All that June the weather had mocked the Maples’ internal misery with solid sunlight—golden shafts and cascades of green in which their conversations had wormed unseeing, their sad murmuring selves the only stain in Nature. (John Updike, “Separating”) …He (Francis Weed) had traveled faster than the newspaper or the rain, and the weather in New York was sunny and mild. It was a day in late September, as fragrant and shapely as an apple. Trace listened to the story, but how could he get excited? Francis had no powers that would let him re-create a brush with death—particularly in the atmosphere of a commuting train. Journeying through a sunny countryside where already, in the slum gardens, there were signs of harvest. (John Cheever, “The Country Husband”) These two passages read quite different in English, but one may find the Chinese translations of the two texts pretty similar. The weather was fair and sunny. Throughout June the sunny weather seemed to pit against the Maples’ internal misery. Their conversations had inched along as worms did in golden shafts and layers of green, unbeknownst to others. The shadows of their sad murmuring forms the only stain in Nature. (Yuan Honggen’s translation) The Speed of his travel exceeds that of the newspaper or the rain. The weather in New York was fair, sunny, and mild. This is the weather in late September, fragrant and fair like an apple. Trace listened to him, but how could he get excited? Francis had no capacity to recreate the atmosphere of how he fled from death—particularly on a commuting train. The train pulled along through a sunny countryside, and the poor family had already shown the signs of harvest. (Shi Xianrong’s translation) Judging from the language, those two translations are rendered in fine standard Chinese that forms the so-called “translation style.” “Translation style” is beautiful in its own way, but, as I see it, it is also a process whereby handicrafts production is replaced by machine manufacturing. In the two cited translations, a progressive shade of meaning in Updike’s word choice of fair and brilliant is lost in Chinese, which makes it little different from Cheever’s more concrete choice of sunny and mild. To make things worse, Chinese translators are in a habit of using four-character/syllable idioms as a proof of their high command of their mother tongue. Therefore, the meters of those lines are similar, which leads to a similar rhythm. The day was fair. Brilliant. 天气不错,阳光明媚。 tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh the weather in New York was sunny and mild. 纽约的天气很好,风和日丽。 XXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh A default use of the four-character/syllable idioms does not only apply to the description of nature (the setting of a story so to speak), but in fact everything. For example, a line in the opening paragraphs of Eudora Welty’s “Death of a Traveling Salesman” sounds like this: …He had had a very high fever, and dreams, and had become weakened and pale, enough to tell the difference in the mirror, and he could not think clearly… ……病中他高烧不退,幻影重重,体力衰弱,面色苍白,一照镜子就知道自己的变化,而且他脑子也混沌不清…… (Wu Xinyun’s translation) ...XXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh… In the Chinese rendition of A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, a certain basic rhythm develops like a steady drumbeat in the background, which I doubt Welty would like. Besides, due to the linguistic difference between Chinese and English, the counterparts for certain English verbs do not exist in Chinese. The verb worm, if the translator purports to keep to the precision, can only be translated as something similar to “moves like worms,” and the additional simile in translation makes it read closer to the simile Cheever puts in his original text, “fragrant and fair like an apple.” The same is true of the adjectives that end with “-ing” (e.g. exhausting). Chances are that such adjectives as “exhausting” very often cannot secure their alternatives and have to be translated as “makes someone exhausted,” which does not only give the author a wordy style, but also equates the phrase “makes someone exhausted” with “exhausting.” Disaster strikes the passive voice. In “The Country Husband,” Cheever elaborates on a vibrant scene of a female prisoner, who is now the main character Francis’s maid, during WWII. The prisoner arrived sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. She stood by the cart while the Mayor read the accusation and the sentence. Her head was bent and her face was set in that empty half smile behind which the whipped soul was suspended. Here, the passive voice inherent in Line 3 can only be rendered an active voice in Chinese, otherwise it will sound verbose even to the most patient reader. But Cheever utilizes the passive voice intentionally to contrast with the prisoner’s later spontaneous actions: “she undid her hair and let it fall across her back” and “the prisoner pushed her (a woman) aside and undressed herself.” The following three sentences are what I plan to have the undergraduates ruminate in my creative writing class, but sadly these are also the examples of certain nuances of prose style that are not working in Chinese. (1). No tear was shed by her. (2). She shed no tears. (3). All came to the funeral but no tear was shed. The first sentence can only be translated identical to the second sentence in Chinese, and the third sentence has to become “All came to the funeral but no one shed tears.” The cited excerpt of Cheever’s story also contains another example of how certain nuances of syntaxes make no sense in Chinese. (1). The prisoner arrived sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. (2). Perching on a three-legged stool in a farm cart, the prisoner arrived. (3). Here was the prisoner, sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. (4). The prisoner came all the way here on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. Sadly, these four sentences can only be rendered as “the prisoner came, sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart.” Very often, the difference in the source text, as striking as that between “Her bedroom light burned” and “Her bedroom light was on,” has to be erased. The difference of word choice does not go alone; it takes the mood with it. Good writing relies on good description, which turns readers into sensory participants in the story. Ironically, if the key adjectives or verbs are unable to find their equivalents in the target language, the whole vivid description is hollowed out. …He (Francis) took her free hand, letting his fingers in between hers, climbed at her side the two concrete steps, and went up a narrow walk through a front garden where dahlias, marigolds, and roses—things that had withstood the light frosts—still bloomed, and made a bittersweet smell in the night air. (John Cheever, “The Country Husband”) The adjective bittersweet here is of crucial importance because it does not only give a visceral sense of how those flowers smell, but also foreshadows the bitter aftertaste of Francis’s ephemeral romance. Unfortunately, the translator is not able to locate a word that can convey the two shades of meaning, and he chooses the adjective “扑鼻” which means “tangy.” The Chinese readers are therefore disconnected with the concrete fragrance of the flowers, the names of which, by the way, are purely exotic and do not ring a bell in the Chinese context. Furthermore, “扑鼻” is a cliché word in Chinese, a word that carries hardly any valence—a typical consequence of relying on “translation style.” 2. The same is true the other way around—the translation from Chinese to English. Yu Hua, one of my favorite Chinese writers, loses his signature writing style in English and becomes someone like a distant relative of himself. Yu Hua’s early short story collection came out in a new English translation with a subtitle that did not exist in its original Chinese version: Stories of Hidden China. As Drew Calvert put it in his book review published in the Boston Review, “(The subtitle) may seem like a marketing ploy to give the book an exotic appeal. It may also seem redundant: isn’t it standard for writers of fiction to explore life’s obscure realms?” This “exotic appeal,” according to Calvert, shapes the mentality of English readers, for whom “the default response has been to view it through the lens of modern politics.” Yu Hua, a highly stylistic and apolitical writer in Chinese, is transformed to a less artistic but highly political writer to accommodate an English-speaking audience. In China, Yu Hua is known as an avant-garde writer who emerged in the 1980s. His avant-garde elements of style include his clear and concise language that fits into what the French critic Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero,” suggesting a break-up of Bourgeois writing. Yu boldly confronts violence in his work, interweaving it with minimalist prose. In contrast, though the violence is retained within the totality of the plot in the English translation, Yu’s signature language is rectified and polished by the translator, thus losing his avant-garde style. Yu’s narrative in Chinese is often compared to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Like Camus, Yu employs a lot of independent clauses. But in the English translation, perhaps in order not to let the readers feel the language is too fragmented or even broken, these independent clauses are connected by conjunctions to form complex sentences. Consider the opening paragraph of “No Name of My Own” as an example. In Allan H. Barr’s translation this paragraph is rendered as follows: One day, as I crossed the bridge with my carrying-pole on my shoulder, I heard someone say that Pug-nose Xu Asan had died, so I laid down my baskets and took the towel that I wore around my neck and rubbed the sweat off my face while I listened to them talk about how it had happened… But if translated literally from Chinese to English, this paragraph should read like this: One day, I crossed the bridge with the carrying-pole on my shoulder. I heard them say Upturned-nose Xu Asan had died. I put down the carrying-pole, took the towel hanging on my neck, rubbed the sweat off my nose. I listened to them talk about how Upturned-nose Xu Asan had died… It seems the two translations bear no major difference, but it needs to be pointed out that Yu refuses to use such linking words as as and while. The narrator of this story is an old man with an intellectual disability—his limited command of the language only allows him to make simple sentences. Yu also dislikes the conjunction word but. Barr adds but whenever he finds the logic unclear, whereas, in the original Chinese text, but is nowhere to be found. Take another two sentences in “No Name of My Own” for example, “their goggling eyes blinked shut, but their mouths opened even wider;” “the kid was crying louder than anyone, but he asked me as he wept, ‘Hey, am I your daddy?’” But in these two cases implies the narrator has the capacity to understand a contrasting relation between two facts, whereas in reality the narrator should not demonstrate such a high level of nuance. Further, by adding but, the perspective in viewing Yu’s fictional world may go through a certain degree of distortion from Chinese to English. The second example is set in a funeral scene. The kid seems to behave properly according to traditional Chinese rituals (i.e. to cry very loud for his late grandpa), yet he does not really feel grief, given the proof of his derision of the narrator on the way to the crematorium. By getting rid of but, Yu entitles the narrator to offer his observation of the society without providing any specific understanding or interpretation. The removal of nearly all conjunctions in Yu’s original text does not only do justice to the narrator’s mental disability, but also, like the aesthetic effect Camus has achieved in The Stranger, maps out a genuine and objective panorama of the absurdity of the society; the mode of writing is intended to be, as Roland Barthes put it, “a transparent form of speech.” On a similar note, the repetitions in Yu’s stories are either trimmed down or refined in the English translation, thus failing to carry the weight of the embedded emotions of the original text. In “No Name of My Own,” the narrator meditates on death: “I know I’m an idiot. I know I’m getting old and will die soon.” But in the Chinese version, this line goes: “I know I am a fool. I know I, the fool as I am, am getting old. I know, the fool as I am, will die soon.” The word fool keeps bothering the narrator and thus causes the repetition. However, in the English translation, in order not to let the prose sound jarring, Barr deprives both the narrator and readers of the right to be bothered. In certain cases, the refinement of the original prose violates the authorial intention to keep away from bourgeois writing and intellectual writing. The title story, “Boy in the Twilight” tells of a series of brutal punishments a boy is given by a vendor after the boy steals an apple from the vendor’s stall. Yu’s violent world in Barr’s translation is rendered like this: Sun Fu swung his arm and struck the boy, knocking the apple out of his hand and connecting so firmly with the boy’s chin that he collapsed on the ground. He shielded his head with his hands, all the time chewing vigorously. Sun Fu, incensed, seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet. Here we need to pay special attention to two specific details. One is that such verbs in English translation as swing, knock, and connect are written originally as the same word in Chinese, da, which means “hit.” Yu ventures to challenge the lavish profusion in Chinese literary language before his time by using raw and simple word choice and sentences. That is, he does not only use his storylines to connect with regular people in China, but also lets the characters speak their minds using their own language. Thus, the violent world reads very authentically and vividly in the Chinese context. It is understandable that Barr’s variation of word choice is in a translator’s concern to connect with target readers. As James Wood comments in his review of War and Peace in a new English translation, “Flaubert, the agonist of style, swatted repetitions like insects, and today’s copy editor, no less than Tolstoy’s early translators, is post-Flaubertian in this way.” Yet we cannot deny the fact that Yu in English is forced to be more Flaubertian, closer to Bourgeois writing so to speak, something Yu has explicitly avoided throughout his writing career. The other detail that is worth mentioning is the last line in the paragraph above: “Sun Fu, incensed, seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet.” In the original text, there is no such interpretation as incensed, but it should be: “On hearing the chewing sound, Sun Fu seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet.” There are perhaps two reasons why Barr has made the modification: first, Barr, like today’s copy editors, cannot endure the repetitions; second, after cutting the repetition, he has to add the interpretation to smooth over the logic. But in doing so, Barr has also changed the original logic of this line in a very subtle way. Yu purports to emphasize that Sun’s brutal violence is all triggered by trivial matters such as an apple, the chewing sound, etc. The chewing sound in the Chinese context may also remind the readers of Japan’s infamous “Piano Murder” in 1974 (a man killed a female neighbor and her two young daughters because he could not tolerate their piano practice). Yu has no intention to remark that Sun is incensed. The trifles of daily life add up little by little to an eventual unbearable burden to Sun, and Sun is always on the lookout for a justified excuse to let out a flood of his repressed emotion—a mixture of boredom, grief, despair, grievance, anger, and perhaps something more. By trimming down the repetitions and appending “smart” interpretations, Barr has narrowed down the original, much broader scope of these stories. Yu also rejects the use of conventional metaphors in his works. But in Barr’s polished English version, certain images are given so much focus that they turn into metaphors in a perhaps inadvertent way. The opening paragraph of “Boy in the Twilight” is beautifully rewritten by Barr in English: “When a car drove by, it shrouded him in the dust stirred by its passage, plunging him into darkness, and it was a moment before he and his fruit re-emerged, as though unveiled by a new dawn.” In Chinese, however, this line is written by Yu in a very neat, curt fashion: “A car drove by. Dust stirred up covered him like the coming darkness. In a little while, he and his fruit re-emerged like the dawn.” This example alone may not become a serious problem affecting interpretation. Yet Barr’s elaboration on such natural imagery is evident throughout the text. One page later, Barr’s translation reads, “It was afternoon now. Dust flew as the boy fled along the highway.” A literal translation from Chinese would be: “It was already afternoon. The boy was running on the dusty road.” Neither dust nor highway are highlighted, as neither darkness nor dawn are highlighted in the first place. By imposing a new intellectual writing style on Yu and providing the misleading subtitle, Barr encourages the English readers to imbue these stories with political connotations: darkness may refer to the Cultural Revolution whereas dawn indicates the Reform and Opening period, and dust could represent the pain one experienced during the transitional period. However, in Yu’s original text, it is clear that he defies such interpretation. A final flashback in the story explains where Sun’s cruelty originates—the loss of his son, followed by his being abandoned by his wife. Yu’s stories deal with very personal relations and have no bearings with politics. Also, all of those images—darkness, dawn, dust, and highway—are never mentioned in the later part of the story, which means they should not be over-interpreted. Indeed, Barr’s translation is beautiful, but perhaps it is too beautiful to lend fidelity to Yu Hua, a writer who has no interest in receiving praise about the beauty of his writing. 3. Since there are certain linguistic and cultural gaps that translators may not be able to negotiate, what should we do? I cannot speak for all the translators, but I set some expectations for myself. First of all, get rid of the canard that all works should be rendered in a fine standard language, that is, rule out the “translation style.” As a translator, I am often caught in the fear that if I do justice to a strange prose style without refining it, the readers may think it is I, rather than the original author, who has a mediocre command of the language. But translators need to take such risks; otherwise we can see from the various examples mentioned above how different fiction writers are given one serene, unanimous voice. Second, try every means to retain the style of the author. Last semester, I was in Professor Aron Aji’s translation workshop at the University of Iowa. Whenever a certain word choice or a sentence structure read awkwardly in translation, Professor Aji would confirm with the translator first: “Does the word/line read awkwardly in the original language? In what ways?” The author’s style, like museum artifacts, are the treasures we must restore and feature in the translation. Third, give as much thought to the sound and sight of the prose as a poet does to his verses. Almost all the greatest writers care about the music of their prose. This is also something I learned from Professor Aji. Under his guidance, I am translating Zhu Yue’s short fiction collection from Chinese to English. I was surprised to hear one rule of his the first time: “if this is one sentence in Chinese, no matter how long it is, we need to make it one sentence in English.” I never asked him why, but I knew this has to do with the rhythm of the original text; until one day I happened to reread “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” by Flannery O’Connor, I came to understand more reasons behind this rule. All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder, but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration. Flaubert has just shown us Emma at the piano with Charles watching her. He says, “She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.” The more you look at a sentence like that, the more you can learn from it. At one end of it, we are with Emma and this very solid instrument “whose strings buzzed,” and at the other end of it we are across the village with this very concrete clerk in his list slippers… What I have learned from Flaubert’s second sentence in the quote is that if the translator breaks down the long line into several short sentences, which many translators do when confronted with a dilemma to decrease the difficulty of translation, readers may never get an opportunity to know how much a great writer like Flaubert can accomplish in a single sentence by constructing a bridge of various vivid details to connect the two sides of his fictional village. Translators are hunters who are always on the lookout for equivalents in the target language, equivalents of words, syntaxes, and rhythms, etc. Perhaps one thing we need to keep in mind in this fun but demanding game is that we also need to work hard to become the equivalent of the great author of the original text. Image Credit: Flickr/Gary Denham.