The Mystery of the Other and Preoccupation with the Self: On Meng Jin’s ‘Little Gods’

In her now-classic feminist manifesto The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir talks about “the myth of woman”: “If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that women concerned are not feminine.” The concept’s aim, as argued by Beauvoir, is to cast women as “the absolute Other” so they will always remain a subject that, in turn, “justifies and even authorizes” the abuse of the ruling caste: the men.
As we see in The Second Sex, and in later feminist movements, such a political manipulation of “myth” does not only apply to women, but to all underprivileged social groups: ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people. When one says, “Oh, they are just different,” what he is really doing is reconciling ignorance and indifference. This manipulation of myth—with its concomitant ignorance and indifference—also creates problems in the portrayal of minority characters in fiction. Today, we are aware of the racism inherent in the so-called Western Canon. When white male authors wrote The Other—consider, for example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s The Jungle Book—they tended to exploit the racial and cultural difference to render an unfathomable myth, thus consolidating white supremacy. To me, the flaws of those authors reflect the pervasive racism of their times. But, to this day, a literary dilemma persists. On the one hand, fiction requires an element of the mysterious to keep readers engaged; on the other hand, does the mysterious—similar to the concept addressed by Beauvoir—perpetuate the unfathomable myth and abet readers’ inability or unwillingness to truly understand The Other?

There is, of course, another option: writers can kill the mystery/myth, can resolve it, at least, in the end and teach readers a cheap lesson: that every human, regardless of background, is similar by nature. But that methodology can be problematic. I remember discussing A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood with some workshop friends in Iowa City. A woman said the novel helped her realize that love between gays was no different than love between man and woman. “But that’s not the point,” a gay friend interrupted. “Every individual and every love story are unique. If an author only shows the similarity without touching on individuality, then he pleases his readers by simplifying the facts.”
As a writer of color, Meng Jin must know the stakes and inherent challenges in writing a novel set mostly in China featuring characters that are Chinese or Chinese immigrants . The setting and characters will be The Other to English-speaking readers—and this means the mystery of the novel will naturally be received as foreignness. Additionally, Su Lan the central character of Jin’s debut novel, Little Gods, is not a likable person by any conventional standard. The book opens with Su giving birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Su’s complicated personality. She is a woman who endeavors, deliberately, to erase all the traces of her past, a scientist who devotes so much time to her research that her daughter feels neglected and unwanted. Su also behaves in such a way that her husband suspects that all men—himself included—will fall victim to her cruel, manipulative games.
Yet, Jin offers insights into the debate surrounding literary mystery/myth. And, Little Gods retains an element of mystery to its very end, without simply feeding readers a pleasing political message. In a way, Little Gods responds to Beauvoir’s myth of woman: in essence, the myth of woman is conjured by other self-centered parties. In Su Lan’s case, the two parties are her daughter, Liya, and husband, Yongzong.
Mother-daughter conflict is all too common. A lack of maternal warmth may result in a daughter’s constant hunger for love and intimacy; an excess of motherly love, by contrast, may diminish a grown daughter’s adulthood. But, what underlies all these tensions is perhaps the reduction of women to motherhood. As Beauvoir put it, if the definition of motherhood “is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong.”
In Little Gods, Liya, cannot understand or appreciate Su’s longings outside the realm of motherhood; and this lack of understanding and ignorance mutate into a growing mystery in the narrative. Su’s scientific aspirations—she dedicates her life to reversing the flow of time—are to Liya a rival for her mother’s attention. Of course, this is understandable for a small child, vulnerable and sensitive. A childhood episode explains the root of Liya’s tense relationship with Su: one night, Liya woke to find her mother missing. Frightened, she went to look for Su, ending up in the house of a neighbor who called the police. Su had gone to her lab to finish some work; she is, of course, reprimanded for neglect. But her mother’s frustration at juggling her various roles cements in Liya long-standing feeling of shame. “As I got older,” Liya confesses, “as my mother and I grew apart, I would be visited from time to time by that grey-black failure. I would find myself crouching again behind my mother’s legs, watching my opportunity to save her walk away.”
Immigration reinforces and perpetuates Liya’s inability to understand her mother. Su encourages Liya to learn English and to “sound exactly like an American.” However, the urgency of cultural assimilation pulls against maternal intimacy. “When I realized what was happening,” Liya says, “that with every new word of English I was becoming more and more unlike her, it was too late. I wanted to be exactly like my mother and she wanted me to be nothing like her.”
Indeed, prioritizing work and imposing integration on her daughter could be seen as maternal failures. But, as Liya later learns—when she takes Su’s ashes back to China after her mother’s unexpected death—a daughter has her own blind spots. Liya failed to recognize Su’s flesh-and-blood humanity, her pains, passions, and introverted personality. Additionally, Liya doesn’t grasp the hidden gender issues until she comes of age and reads Su’s letters: “Did you know Einstein was cruel to his first wife? And probably to his second? He was a bad father too. He had a daughter he never met—no one knew what happened to her. He had two sons. One died in a mental institution, alone.”
The heartbreaking story of Liya and Su Lan reminds me of a short essay I stumbled upon years ago. I forget its title, but still remember the opening: “Before grandma’s funeral, I only knew that I’d lost my grandma; but after that, I realized that my mother had lost her mother.” We are all likely to only perceive our relationships, and that is a major reason why The Other always appears so mysterious, almost impossible to comprehend.
Su’s husband, Yongzong, shares the limitations and faults of all mediocre, self-absorbed male characters in fiction. As his family’s only son, Yongzong has “no chores,” and picks “the best pieces of meat at meals.” Growing up taking his family’s care and attention for granted, Yongzong lacks sympathy even for those closest to him. After Su first visits his family, she speculates as to the magnitude of his mother’s illness, a fact to which Yongzong—then a trained doctor— had never paid enough attention. On an aesthetic level, I find Yongzong’s narrative the most suspenseful and intriguing
Take the love triangle between Yongzong; his high school best friend, Bo; and Su. Yongzong suspects he and Bo are made pawns in Su’s game of romance. But, the text also suggests a loss of primacy in adulthood is what really unsettles Yongzong. Su, like every woman, is free to choose her significant other, and this process is inevitably replete with confusion, regrets, and reluctances. Yongzong, habituated to viewing women as object of desire, fails to tackle the complexity of relationships. And only by blaming all his problems on Su, can he gloss over his incapacity for love between equals.
What I admire most about Little Gods is the intersection of Yongzong’s personal failures and China’s epochal political event. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are among the few things American readers know about China, a writer must fight the temptation to take advantage of that existing knowledge. Meng Jin refuses to let politics define her fictional characters. In the novel, the marriage between Yongzong and Su is failing before the political storm rages. The main reason is fundamentally personal: Su’s pregnancy changes her body and makes her ugly; at least it seems so to Yongzong. However, the coming political movement provides Yongzong an opportunity to leave his mediocracy and selfishness at home—and to appear as a respected, responsible citizen on the streets. Su’s observations sound the alarm for today’s protesters:

Have you seen these children? If you watch them for even a second you can see they just love the attention, they love hearing the sound of their own voices followed by thunderous clapping, they love hearing their words repeated and chanted by the mob, and that’s my husband too.            

Later in the novel, Yongzong, irresponsible husband and father, will accuse his wife of being indifferent, irresponsible, and unpatriotic. In this way, his hatred for his wife finds legitimacy in a politically charged context.
Besides the brilliant and beautiful depiction of the myth/mystery in the eyes of egocentric beings, Meng Jin exhibits a rare appreciation of the depth of humanity. Su’s most striking attribute is a desperate need to wipe away the traces of her past. In a country that values history and rootedness, her conduct seems uncanny. However, toward the end of the novel, in an earnest effort to better know her mother, Liya learns Su’s choices have everything to do with China’s decades of poverty and her people’s toxic tendency to glorify self-sacrifice and suffering.
In the same chapter of The Second Sex where the aforementioned quotes appear, Beauvoir calls out for women to be recognized as human beings. “To discard the myths,” she announced, “is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth”
Little Gods is lyrical, stunning, full of wisdom, and the fruit of Jin’s pursuit of truth. Seventy years after the publication of The Second Sex, I find myself possessing a more flexible attitude toward the concept of “myth” and the more commonly used literary term “mystery.” After all, there is always the myth and mystery of humanity, which authors shouldn’t ignore or simplify. Yet, we must not allow any myth or mystery to excuse self-involvement, and every truth-seeking author must not facilitate readers’ unwarranted complacency.
Bonus Link from Our Archive:– Writers to Watch: Spring 2020

Giving Voice to Shame and Fear: The Millions Interviews Jonathan Franzen

“There is infinite hope, only not for us.”

Jonathan Franzen began his New Yorker piece, “What if We Stop Pretending with this quote from Kafka. Franzen was referring, of course, to climate change, a topic he has been obsessed with for several years. His outlook was depressing: we wouldn’t be able to save our planet, and the symbolic expressions of unrealistic hope—ride your bike to work and the climate won’t get hotter—only served to deny the imminent disaster.

Not surprisingly, he was butchered on social media soon afterwards. People called him a “climate fatalist.” This new label was only one of many other labels people had given to him. When he warned that Internet utopianism was a lie technological oligarchs had fabricated to manipulate users, people mocked him as a “technophobe.” When he handed out 10 rules for novelists on Literary Hub, young people turned up their noses at his “elitist” and “condescending” attitude.

During my recent self-quarantine, The Initium Media in Hong Kong asked me to interview Franzen about his engagement in the public discourse. I had mixed feelings about the assignment. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the last thing I needed was for someone to take away whatever remaining hope I’d been clinging to. Nevertheless, I dialed his phone number. We talked about his experience in the crisis, the unsolvable problem of death, the notion of literary salvation, freedom of thought in the digital age, and humanity. I had expected to meet a much angrier man, bitter and cynical from everything that Twitter had said about him. Instead, he was patient, calm, and sincere. He was curious what I was doing in his hometown of St. Louis.

I find Franzen’s views sobering, rather than depressing. He rejects wishful thinking, but I do find a profound sense of hope in his words. “Freedom of thoughts persists,” he told me, when I expressed concern over the pressure to conform on social media, “but whether we are able to express them and whether we dare express them is a very different question.” Moreover, since death is unresolvable and disaster unavoidable, we might feel more urgency than ever to hold onto what we love. As he wrote in “What if We Stop Pretending,” “As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.”

The Millions: I happened to read your latest essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth, during my recent self-quarantine. The wide-ranging topics in the book—from climate change, to technology and oligarchy, to bird-watching—feel all the more relevant and sobering. How have you been handling the Covid-19 pandemic?

Jonathan Franzen: I’ve been declining all interviews about the pandemic. I can talk about my personal experience in the last six weeks, but the essence of the crisis right now is total uncertainty. Uncertainty about the virus and its transmission, even more uncertainty about how it’s going to play out economically and politically, and I’m no more clairvoyant than the next man. All I can tell you is that Santa Cruz was one of the first communities in the country to do a shelter-in-place order, and that Kathy, my spouse-equivalent, and I are following the rules. The county still has fewer than 100 cases, so I think the measures have been effective. We’re suffering, along with everyone else, for not being able to see people. I’m also suffering because I can’t leave the area to go bird-watching, not that I expect anyone to cry about that. But I can still go to my office, which has its own bathroom. I’ve been working away, trying to finish my new novel. In terms of my work, the crisis has probably been a net gain.

TM: Have you been using technology to connect with people lately?

JF: There’s been more email than usual, and I already spend a couple of hours a day doing email—the last thing I need is more of it. I’ve also done some Zooming, which I find tiring and really unsatisfactory. I’d much rather talk on the phone. To me, the devilish thing about the crisis is that it helps Silicon Valley, which I don’t think is anyone’s friend, unless you have money invested in it, in which case I guess it’s your friend. Trapping people in their houses, making them spend even more time on screens, forcing all the local businesses to close—it’s like a wet dream for the tech companies.

TM: Currently we are experiencing a sudden expansion of technology. Does that make you even more concerned about the future?

JF: My feelings about digital technology haven’t changed much since the middle of the ’90s. I thought it was hypercapitalism then, I thought the utopian rhetoric was a ridiculous lie, and now it’s even more hypercapitalistic. Now we have good evidence, like the presidency of Donald Trump, that these technologies, particularly social media, have on balance made the world a worse place, not a better place.

TM: Looking on the bright side, some people argue that the crisis actually helps us prepare for bigger disasters like climate change. Do you share that view? Why so and why not?

JF: It’s too early to say. My thinking about our climate situation has been evolving over the last six years. The point I finally came to, last summer, is that the fabric of our world is very fragile. Political institutions are fragile; international relations are fragile; the global economy is fragile; the natural world and its systems are fragile. All these systems are going to be hugely stressed in the coming decades, as the climate worsens dramatically. Out of that recognition, I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the value of local community. We’re going to become ever more reliant on what’s close to us, and the pandemic is a kind of stress test: How is your local community responding? Are people obeying the rules? Are people being kind to each other? Are people supporting individuals and businesses that are in trouble? Where is your food coming from? Maybe it’s good that we’re asking these questions now, good that we’re getting a little taste of the future. But a novelist is the wrong person to ask whether something is good news or bad news.

TM: I really enjoyed the talk you gave at Google in 2018. You said that technology imagines that it is going to solve the problem of death, but that literature doesn’t think it’s a solvable problem. So, what’s the beauty of unresolvable problems?

JF: The problem of death is emblematic of a number of other intractable problems. Like, the fact that people can be both very good and very bad, which seems to be a fixture of our species—under certain circumstances, people become entirely bad. Or you cherish your spouse but you’re attracted to that neighbor of yours. Or your loyalty tells you to do one thing and your conscience tells you to do the opposite. You can mitigate some of these problems technologically, or politically, but you can’t actually solve the problem of death; you can’t even solve a problem as simple as boredom in a marriage. And that’s where literature comes in. Its earliest roots were intertwined with religious narratives, which also take on the permanently tough problems. The point of the narrative isn’t to make the problem go away. It’s to represent it, to recognize it, to fully inhabit it, to make something beautiful out of it, and to connect you to all the other people who’ve ever struggled with it.

TM: You also mentioned on a number of occasions that literature saved you. Could you elaborate on the notion of literary salvation?

JF: What would I have meant by that? I don’t think it literally saved my life.

TM: I suppose it’s not that we take refuge in the beauty of literature?

JF: Not so much. The moment I come back to is when I was 21 and went home to St. Louis. I hadn’t spent a holiday with my family for two years, and suddenly the literature I’d been reading at college made sense. It wasn’t just something you studied at school. It was a way to understand what was happening in real life. I could suddenly see the levels of meaning in a simple sentence that my mother uttered. I’d been listening to her all my life, but now I could construct a story about where the words were coming from. I could read the coded messages, and I’d been given that key by reading literature. Did it “save” me? No, but it gave me a way forward. Part of it was trying to be a writer myself, because I was grateful to the authors who’d given me the key and I wanted to give something back. But it was also a way of being in the world—of being attentive to the hidden levels, of not being so quick to judge other people. Maybe that’s what I meant by being saved.

TM: It also occurred to me that, in the past, people used to resort to religion for answers to the problem of death.

JF: Technology took over for religion and became its own kind of religion. People still have an unshakeable faith in the goodness of social media. People continue to believe that electric cars will avert catastrophic climate change. Billionaires believe they won’t really have to die, because tech will find a fix for that. As I said in the Google talk, it’s just so dumb. What exactly are you going to be doing when you’re 9,000 years old? That’s what you want? Really? Think it through for five seconds!

TM: You warned about the polarizing logic of online discourse, and the pressure to conform on social media. What do you think of the role of freedom in our digital age? Are we as free-thinking as we think we are?

JF: One thing I learned from my immersion in the literature of East Germany and the Soviet Union is that freedom of thought persists. With any kind of repression, there’s punishment for saying things that aren’t acceptable. The beautiful word is “anathema.” And so much is anathema nowadays, maybe especially on the left. You’re simply not allowed to utter certain things, even if they’re true. But censorship doesn’t mean that everyone stops thinking. It just means they become very cynical, very careful whom they speak to candidly. And I find this weirdly hopeful. It’s hard to sustain a totalitarian system because, at a certain point, the disconnect between what people are saying officially and what they’re thinking privately becomes so huge that the whole thing just becomes silly and falls apart. So I’m not particularly worried about freedom of thought. My own self-appointed job, as an essayist, is to try to give voice to what people are afraid to say publicly, ashamed to say publicly.

TM: You describe the role of an essayist as a firefighter. “While everyone else is fleeing the flames of shame,” your job is to “run straight into them.” Would you say more about the risks you are taking? Are they worth the effort?

JF: There are definitely things I’m sorry I said the way I did. A trivial example: In the mid-’90s, I wrote a piece making fun of the utopianism of Silicon Valley, and I had a throwaway line about what a ridiculous idea online dating was—how dismal it was to imagine a relationship that started that way. And now something like half the couples I know met online. There are lots of little things like that—you take a risk and you get it wrong. More recently, the risk has been total incineration on social media, but that’s not all that big a risk for me, because I don’t read the stupid things people are saying, and it’s more than offset by the response I get from people privately, on my public email account and in letters that come in the mail. If you only looked at Twitter, you’d think my last climate essay, in The New Yorker last fall, was universally condemned. If you read my email, you’d think the opposite.

TM: In the piece, “The Essay in Dark Times,” you talked about the lesson you learned from Henry Finder, your editor at The New Yorker. There are two ways to arrange materials: one is “This followed that,” and the other is “Like goes with like.” The second method sounds fascinating. Would you say more about your nonfiction writing process?

JF: I mentioned Henry’s lesson because it’s valuable. You can either organize material according to category or you can tell a story, and you want to make sure you’re always doing one or the other, if not both. The more fundamental question is: What makes me want to write something? Typically, at some level, I’m angry about something. Sometimes it’s injustice, a literal injustice, or a crime against nature, or the underappreciation of a writer I think is great, Edith Wharton, Christina Stead. Sometimes I’m trying to correct a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding of our climate situation, a misunderstanding of me personally. But most often, I think, I’m angry about simplifications. There is such a thing as moral simplicity—slavery in the United States was purely wrong, and so was the discrimination and racism and oppression that followed it. But most things are not so simple. When I hear politicians and activists and online screamers acting as if things were simple, leaving out important facts, it makes me really angry.

TM: Like you once said, you have skin in the game. You write what you care about.

JF: You’re right. But I have the luxury of that. If I don’t write a single piece of journalism or a single essay all year, it doesn’t make any difference, because I also have my novels.

TM: How do you evaluate subjectivity in nonfiction writing?

JF: Almost by definition, an essay is subjective. If I produce something purely objective, I’ve failed as an essayist. I actually never intended to be an essayist. It was Henry Finder who saw something in my first piece of reporting, a couple of subjective paragraphs, and he said I should do more of that. It’s safer to stick to facts, because they speak for themselves. With subjectivity, there has to be a tone, the sentences have to work on the page. The subjectivity has to earn the right to be in the piece. In “Essay in Dark Times,” I made a comparison between the anxiety I felt in Ghana in November 2016, about not seeing as many birds as I’d hoped to see, and my anxiety that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get enough electoral votes to win the election. Kathy was afraid I sounded like I was self-absorbed and didn’t take seriously how terrible it was that Trump was elected, although in the very next paragraph I talked about how terrible it was. I decided to leave the comparison in the essay, partly to make fun of myself and partly to convey the frame of mind of a person who’d been chasing birds for two weeks and was obsessed with seeing more of them. It just seemed kind of interesting. Even if it didn’t reflect well on me, I wanted to record what I was thinking, which was this strange conflation of Hillary’s Electoral College problem and my checklist problem.

TM: But obviously not many people share your passion about birds. So they may find the analogy insensitive.

JF: That would be too bad. I meant it to be ridiculous.

TM: Do people usually get your irony? Or do they usually perceive it in the wrong way?

JF: It happens all the time. I once called Michiko Kakutani the stupidest person in New York City. She’s given wonderful reviews to every novel of mine, but I was told that she’d trashed my book The Discomfort Zone. One of my friends reported screaming at her review, “She has no sense of humor!” And I was like, oh my God, did she really think I was serious? The book is full of stuff that could only have been meant ironically. I realized that if Kakutani, who’s the opposite of stupid, can miss the humor, then anyone can miss it.

TM: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed about the author-reader relationship over the years?

JF: The fundamental relationship is that I write something by myself and you read it by yourself. Through the magic of printed words on a page, we feel a connection. And that is still the fundamental relationship. In the social realm, writers are much more accessible to readers now than they used to be. I’m definitely more accessible, not on social media but through the public email account. I have some kind of personal connection with a lot more people, and I try to remember that this isn’t the important relationship. It isn’t me with the page and the reader with the page. But if I’ve had a hard day, and I come home and hear from somebody who seems to have been moved by something I wrote, it makes a difference. And it’s nice to be able to thank that person. I don’t write long replies, but I try to have a moment of person-to-person feeling, the same as I do in a signing line. I only have 30 seconds, but I want to be present as a person. It’s probably the ’70s in me, the Midwesterner in me.

TM: What’s the biggest difference between yourself as an essayist and as a novelist?

JF: To do a novel well is much, much harder. You enter an obsessive state that’s going to last for a minimum of two years, and the number of problems to be solved is three orders of magnitude greater than with even a long essay. With an essay, you start with a topic, and you either have something interesting to say or you don’t. If you do, then you know that, with enough revisions, you can get there. Once you get the hang of it, once you’ve got a voice, an essay isn’t that hard. But the novel just gets harder and harder. The more levels you master, the better you see how many more levels you haven’t mastered. It’s just really hard.

TM: Do you feel more alone when you are writing a novel?

JF: If you stretch that out temporally, yes. With this novel that I’m almost done with, I’ve only had two readers, and even they only get a chunk of material every two, three, four months. So, for long stretches—big stretches of a year—I’m completely on my own. With an essay, I get immediate feedback from the editor, and pretty quickly it will show up in print or online.

TM: I usually close my interviews by asking great authors to give suggestions for young writers, but I want to try something different here. I’m not a bird lover. I didn’t ask any questions about bird watching. But like many critics, I read the birds in your writing as a symbol. Birds reveal how inhumane we have become. Do you have some suggestions for those who want to be more humane, especially young people?

JF: That’s a big question. I do think reading a good novel is a way to be reconnected with one’s humanity. If you’re young and you don’t know what a good novel is, it’s a good way to discover your humanity. So, that would remain my first suggestion. If you don’t immediately know how to read a novel, I think studying with a good teacher, or talking about something with a book club, or just having a friend who you can read the same book with, can deepen your engagement and help you see all the levels of meaning available in a novel. So that would be one thing. The other thing would be to open your door and go outside. Even though you think you’re being very human and connected, texting, Instagramming, Facebooking, all that stuff, there’s a point of diminishing returns. You’re not actually getting that much from the screen, it becomes a kind of compulsion, and much of the discourse is either trivial or fake. Paradoxically, one way to find the self is to walk away from it. Even if you just go to a city park and spend time with a tree and look carefully, look at the bugs that are on it, the birds that are in it, it can be incredibly restorative. That would be my other suggestion.

The Chinese translation of this interview appeared first on April 19 in The Initium Media.

A Year in Reading: Jianan Qian

During our school years in Shanghai, we were always reading two books at the same time. One was our textbook, which sat open on the desk, protected by extra covers, lines highlighted and margins filled with tidy handwriting, reflecting our diligence; the other was the book we were actually reading, hidden inside our desks, probably dog-eared and without notes. As our teacher droned on and on, our souls slipped into the worlds of those books: some of us fought to be Kung Fu masters, others fell in love with someone magnificent.

Now, years later, I often hear people say that the books we loved in youth are not good, and that we liked them only because we desperately wanted to escape from the chore of schoolwork. This year, I spent a lot of time rereading the same books I used to sneak into my desk back in old days. And I mean to say this: We don’t need to feel apologetic about loving these books. Most of them still speak to us.

1. Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau

For most of this year, I was translating English Professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, into Chinese. I took the opportunity to reread Thoreau’s major works. Now, it’s safe for me to say that I still admire Thoreau. Not because I, as a city person, fancy the romantic idea of living in the woods, but because I appreciate his moral struggle and his life-long journey to elevate himself.

There have always
been two Thoreaus: one was the hermit by the
lakeside, a moralist who maintained his self-purity by disengaging with the
infected human society; the other was a politically responsible citizen who
would rather go to jail than support the unjust American government by paying
poll-tax and who tirelessly called on his people to do the same, to commit
civil disobedience.

Walls’s biography inspires me to see the two contradicting images as one. Thoreau saw the interconnectedness of all reality—“A man is a bundle of relations” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)—firstly in nature, where the newly-built hydraulic machinery threatened the lives of innocent fish. He defended the fish in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Later, he extended his defense to include all oppressed forms of life: slaves controlled by their owners, Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants, Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest…He was not merely interested in self-cleansing, either; he aimed to be the “chanticleer” (Walden) who would wake his neighbors with the dawn and remind them to live up to Higher Laws.

In
a time when we are so easily lost in the trappings of material success, perhaps
we can always turn to Thoreau for insight and courage. As Walls beautifully puts
it:

When [Thoreau] wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he meant not an ascetic’s renunciation, but a redefinition of true wealth as inner rather than outer, aspiring to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art. “There is Thoreau,” said one of his closest friends. “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough.” (Henry David Thoreau: A Life)

2. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

One often has to defend their love for Haruki Murakami in the same way one must defend their love for J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It is true that there are certain books that you will never truly understand—and, even if you do understand, you will never experience that same electrifying feeling—unless you have read them at a certain age. This speaks to my experience with Norwegian Wood, which we carefully kept away from parents and teachers during adolescence and which offered us an exciting glimpse into what then seemed to us the mysteries of adulthood.

Earlier this year, I reread After the Quake, a collection of stories Murakami wrote after Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake. This time, I must confess that I enjoyed the book even more. I remember I used to adore “Thailand” and “All God’s Children Can Dance,” but now my favorite piece is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.” In this story, an average Japanese salaryman is chosen by Super-Frog to save the metropolis. When this ordinary man doubts himself for lacking any traditional heroic qualities, Super-Frog convinces him otherwise: “Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it’s for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo.” Amanda Lewis, in her essay about Murakami and his un-Japanese style, suggests that Murakami’s exploration of “the needs of the individual” is his refusal of “the essence of the Japanese mind,” which often contains an undertone of “a disregard for the sacredness of human life.” (Amanda Lewis, “The Essence of the Japanese Mind: Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize.”)

I am not saying I like all of Murakami’s works—some of them are disappointing—but the books that enthralled me when I was young—Norwegian Woods, After the Quake, South of the Border, West of the Sun—have quite a lasting charm.

3. The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner

My American friends often find it unbelievable that I read Sound and Fury when I was a teenager. Back then, I read its Chinese translation; Li Wenjun, the translator, carefully inserted footnotes to offer the much-needed context when time-shifting occurs. So I didn’t find it too difficult. This year, to write a script for a Chinese radio show, I reread the book in English. Because I already had the plot in my mind, I was able to appreciate the beauty of Faulkner’s writing.

Quentin’s
section stunned me, as it had years ago. What seems like nonsense—long, chaotic
sentences without quotation marks is also pure poetry. Of course, the young
Faulkner—he was only 31 when he wrote this masterpiece—was probably also
showing off his mastery of different prose styles. His genius may overawe all
the aspiring young writers of today. But it is fine to feel intimidated; that
is how we push ourselves to write better.

P.S.: As a woman of color myself, I am aware of the race and gender issues in “the Western canon.” So, I would also like to recommend the best history book I have read this year: A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights Movement by Jeanne Theoharis. Theoharis argues that politicians have twisted the narrative of the civil rights movement. Now, we feel as if American democracy is a self-correcting and self-renewing system. However, the struggle of African Americans is proof of the system’s problems, not of its perfection. By glossing over the complexity of history, the current narrative turns us away from the still-dire racial present. The most deep-rooted racism, Theoharis suggests, doesn’t take the form of violence; it lies in the way parents assert their rights as taxpayers to maintain a dominantly white “neighborhood school.” Racism happens not only in the Deep South but also in New York City, in Los Angeles, in all those big cities which purport to embrace diversity.

Besides, while we appreciate the problems and values of the literature of the past, we can also keep an eye out for the potential classics of the future. I enjoyed reading The Study of Animal Language by Lindsay Stern and 99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai. And I am also looking forward to reading the following books, all of which boast excellent reviews: In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow, The Travelers by Regina Porter, and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Yes, these authors are all my workshop buddies at Iowa, but I will feel honored to have been one of their first readers.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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Unsettling the American Dream: The Millions Interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen

When Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Iowa Writers’ Workshop in May, everyone—including me—was starstruck. He talked about a prevailing belief back in his college years at Berkeley. “People say literature saves the world,” he said. “No, it doesn’t. But social movements do.”

At a time when democracies around the world keep making bad decisions and young writers feel the urge to facilitate social changes, Nguyen’s role as one of the leading public intellectuals in the literary world is both inspiring and motivating. He is aware of the underrepresentation of minority groups in literature, but he also understands that great fiction is much more than making one’s community look good. He views the customary writing adage “Show. Don’t tell.” with suspicion. As writers, we need to make great art and bring to light vital social issues, he says, rather than simply trust that readers will understand.

In the following interview, we talked about the aesthetics and politics of his brilliant novel The Sympathizer; how his literary education has nourished his writing; and how he deals with opposition and hostility from people with very different worldviews.

The Millions: I’d like to start by talking about The Sympathizer. Like everyone, I was hooked from the beginning: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” This distinctive perspective challenges the binary thinking that people often have. We cannot use words like “good” or “bad” to describe the narrator; we cannot use words like “failure” or “victory” to describe the war. How did you come up with this premise?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I had to write a novel. And I wanted to write an entertaining novel—that was also a very serious novel at the same time—and a novel that would grapple with politics, history, and obviously the Vietnam War.

The spy novel was the genre that was a perfect fit for all of these concerns. And also because I enjoyed reading spy novels, so I knew the genre very well. And as a writer, I gravitate toward both highbrow literature, like modernism, and so-called lowbrow literature, the genre literature. I don’t agree with any of these classifications, but the spy novel would allow me to bridge all these things.

Lastly, the idea of making a man of two minds and two faces was there from the very beginning, because I wanted the novel to be a cultural critique as well. I wanted the novel to deal with both cultural divisions—the so-called East-West divide—but also ideological divisions between capitalism and communism in the Cold War. So that’s where the man with two minds came from. And in order to make that seemed organic and not simply something that I was forcing onto the book, I made him a mixed race—half Vietnamese and half French—and someone who was both infatuated with capitalism but also a devoted communist. Putting all of these elements into his character made these theoretical ideas very organic as the plot unfolded.

TM: To follow up on that: In his book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said that this American world yields “no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” He ever feels his “twoness”: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts,” “two warring ideals in one dark body.” Also, the opening of The Sympathizer pays tribute to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wonder if African-American literature has influenced your writing and the way you perceive the Vietnamese and other previously colonized Asian communicates (e.g. Korean, Filipino)? If so, how?

VTN: I have another book called Nothing Ever Dies. And the title comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And in my book, the section where I talked about W.E.B. Du Bois, the quote that you just mentioned to me, and Du Bois’s notion of the inevitable twoness of the Negro that he sees himself through his own eyes and those of others, is also true in many ways for Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. You see that also in the work of someone like Chang-Rae Lee, in the thoughtful Native Speaker.

It’s no doubt that African-American literature has been very influential on me. I think that African-American writers have created, in the United States, the body of literature that is both most politically committed and yet also most aesthetically elevated. I mean, the masters, the most accomplished practitioners of African-American literature—like Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and many more—have demonstrated that you can be both politically and artistically engaged at the same time. And that if you are, in fact, a minority in this country, you need to do both at the same time. So, their model of aesthetic and political commitment was very important for my own work.

TM: Who are some of the other writers you most admire, and what else do you feel you have learned from them?

VTN: You know, I had a very good literary education as a student when I was growing up before I went to college. So that meant that I had read some of the modernist and classical literature of the West. And then when I got to college, I also encountered African-American literature and Asian-American literature, including Maxine Hong Kingston. And so I’m trying to bring all these different strands together. So Asian-American literature in general has been very influential to me, including Kingston, but also, for example, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, which I mentioned, and many other works, because they foreground Asian-American experiences. And among other Asian-American writers that I haven’t included, there would be the classics like John Okada, Carlos Bulosan, Frank Chin. Contemporary writers, after Kingston, like Susan Choi—her book, The Foreign Student—or Julie Otsuka, in her novels about the internment.

When writing The Sympathizer, I wanted to write a novel that was a so-called minority novel and that was unapologetic about being a person of color in the United States, but also a novel that could contend with both the Vietnam War canon and American literature as a whole. Hopefully it will be an American novel that will also have a presence internationally. So that was why it was important to The Sympathizer to directly confront the Vietnam War, so that I could contest the narratives of American writers of the Vietnam War, like Tim O’Brien, just to name the most famous example. And in writing The Sympathizer, I had my eye directly on how this novel would fit at the canonical level of American literature. Because I had studied writers like Herman Melville and William Faulkner, I wanted this novel to gesture at these major novels and their major concerns, their major themes about American literature and culture.

And finally, in writing The Sympathizer, I was also reading European modernist literature, because I always felt that this was not going to be the great American novel; this was going to be the European modernist version of the American novel. So that would be writers like Dostoevsky, Louis-Ferdinand Celine from the 1920s in France, Antonio Lobo Antunes from the 1970s in Portugal. So I really wanted this to be a novel that was both very specific to being Asian-American and American, but also to have those global ambitions as well.

TM: You grew up in the age of “narrative scarcity.” In other words, there were not many stories told from an Asian-American point of view. Because of this, minorities cared more about their representation as a group on the big screen or in fiction. Did you consider the potential reaction of your readership while you were writing? Did you do anything to avoid being misunderstood or misinterpreted?

VTN: I was worried about those kinds of things. When I wrote my short story collection The Refugees, most of which was written before The Sympathizer, I was concerned about how my audiences would respond to my work, both Americans in general but also Vietnamese readers. And when I wrote The Sympathizer, I decided that I no longer cared what my audiences thought, that in order to write the novel that I wanted to write, I had to stop caring. Because even as conditions of narrative scarcity were true, which they are, I don’t think a writer can allow herself or himself to be shaped by those conditions. We should be aware of narrative scarcity, but we can’t let our writing be shaped by that. For example, the anxiety that because there are so few stories about us, we have to write our stories to make our own community look good, whatever that community is.

The Sympathizer is written from the perspective of a communist spy. And when I did that, I knew that my community, which is the Vietnamese-Americans, many of them would reject the novel because communism is completely antithetical to Vietnamese-Americans. But I couldn’t care about that. And then I knew many Americans would reject the novel because the novel was a very strong critique of American culture. But I couldn’t pay attention to that either, not to write the novel I wanted to write. So that can be a tricky position for writers who live in narrative scarcity, we have to be aware of that condition. We have to fight back against it, but we can’t let our work be driven by the anxieties around narrative scarcity.

TM: Have any of your family members read the novel? What was their feedback like?

VTN: I don’t know about how many members of my own family have read the book. I don’t ask. That could be an awkward question to ask. But I think they are very proud of me, as are many people in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community. So when The Sympathizer came out and got uniformly great reviews, it made, I think, very little difference in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community, because like most communities, they don’t read, not on the average, right? I’m exaggerating a little bit. I mean, certainly, some Vietnamese-Americans sought out the book, and I got some very good feedback from them. But I also knew that a lot of Vietnamese-Americans were not reading the book, because they didn’t read books or because they heard it was from the perspective of a communist spy, and they just refused to engage. But after the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, all of a sudden, all these Vietnamese-Americans that never read the book and might never read the book were suddenly proud of me. And in Vietnam, the case was similar. But I think the difference the Pulitzer made is that it made more of them read the book. So in Vietnam, for example, even though the book is not available, apparently young Vietnamese readers who can read English will seek the book out in English. Because I encounter quite a few of them, who are foreign students in the United States and who told me that the book offers them something that is completely unavailable in Vietnam, which is history that is completely antithetical to the government’s point of view.

TM: If I am not wrong, the narrator is loosely based on Pham Xuan An, the Vietnamese man most beloved by American journalists during and shortly after the war. Can you say more about how you balance historical fact with fiction? What do you expect your readers to take away from a setting that is both real and imaginative?

VTN: In writing The Sympathizer, I felt that I had a fairly unique opportunity to engage with real historical events and real historical characters, because so much of what I knew about the war in Vietnam, and how it affected Vietnamese people, is fairly common knowledge in the Vietnamese refugee community but is not talked about widely or known widely to the rest of the world. It was actually relatively easy to construct the plot of the novel, because almost all the events are drawn from history. Very little in the novel in terms of major historical events are made up. And yet, for most people, this would be a completely new story. Writing this historical novel, I had an easier time probably than a lot of other historical writers would writing about events that are more widely known. And the major challenge was to put in enough historical detail so that the events would be convincing without writing a history book where there would be too much information. And so I always had to read much more than what actually appeared in the book. But the history from the book is drawn both from my fascination with the Vietnam War—over the last 30 years, I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies—but also from some very specific research I had to do for the novel. So, for example, while I knew that the Fall of Saigon had happened and I knew the general outlines of that, I still had to go and read 10 or 15 books on the Fall of Saigon in order to construct first 50 pages of the novel at a level of novelistic detail that would be compelling for the reader.

TM: Did you collect oral history?

VTN: No, that’s a completely different skill set for journalists. That’s not the book I wanted to write.

TM: Back when you visited Iowa City in May, you discussed your decision to open the novel in Saigon. You said that if the story had begun in the States and ended in the States, it would have been all about the life and death of the American dream. This inspired me to think about the prevailing immigrant narrative. Even though a lot of those stories intend to challenge the American dream, they are still built upon the assumption that the immigrants are attracted by the American dream in the first place, which, like you mentioned before, “affirms America to Americans.” But you identify as a refugee writer. Can you say more about the potential differences between a refugee narrative and an immigrant narrative?

VTN: I think that immigrant and refugee narratives overlap. We cannot completely separate them all the time. But as you were saying, immigrant narratives generally have a trajectory of moving from one country to the other country. And the immigrant narrative implies settling down in the new country. So we leave one home and we build another home. In the context of the United States, where the immigrant narrative is very strong, that idea of settling in the United States inevitably affirms this American mythology of the American dream. So that even when immigrant stories talk about how difficult life in the United States might be because of racism or economic challenges and so on, nevertheless, the very existence of the immigrant story itself—the immigrant novel that we’re reading—is evidence of the success of the immigrant story and the American dream.

The refugee story introduces other elements that can unsettle the immigrant and American dream story. These elements include, most critically, the fact that many refugees that come to the United States have come because of something the United States has done in their country of origin. The refugee writers, simply by acknowledging that history, introduce some troubling elements into the American story. So the existence of Vietnamese refugee writers talking about Vietnamese refugees, acknowledging the history of the war in Vietnam, means that the Americans who read these books or anybody who reads these books has to at least acknowledge this war took place. Now, the problem is, where the refugee and immigrant narratives overlap is that many refugee writers still, in the end, even as they acknowledge the refugee origin, including American intervention, often end with settlement in the United States. So that in the end, the refugee story looks like an immigrant story. And that’s why I think a lot of Vietnamese-American literature that deals more with refugees ends up focusing on what happened in the United States.

Writing The Sympathizer, I did not want to do that. If I look at the way that American literature has dealt with the Vietnam War, it’s bifurcated. It’s mostly Americans who get to write about the war in Vietnam, and it’s mostly the Vietnamese who write about the Vietnamese refugee experience in the United States. And when there are refugees who write about both parts, they write about their civilian experiences of the war in Vietnam and then the refugee resettlement. The Vietnamese soldiers who could write these war stories don’t write in English. So typically their story is only available in Vietnamese. What that means is that Americans still get to define the war. And so The Sympathizer is unique, I think, in this landscape by refusing the immigrant story, using the refugee narrative to demonstrate these contradictions of American intervention, and directly confronting the actual war in Vietnam, in a way that Americans are not used to. So I think that’s how the book is different, by deploying the refugee perspective.

TM: In your opinion, what is the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story? Do you have to train different muscles for different genres? If so, how?

VTN: I spent 20 years writing that short story collection The Refugees, and I think I exercised a lot of muscles, but maybe very different muscles and I never really coordinated everything together. So even now I could not explain to you what I’m doing in each of those stories and why I made the decisions that I did. It was, for the most part, a very intuitive process of trial and error in writing each story, which is very frustrating to me. Because I’m not a natural short story writer and I don’t have very good understanding of the short story form, it took a very long time to write that book. But I was exercising muscles.

So when it came time to write the novel, all of a sudden, it felt that I could put all these muscles together and work much more quickly, much more powerfully. And in the context of the novel, it felt much more natural. So it wasn’t as though there was no connection between short stories and novels; it was that they exercise different physical/mental capacities that I had. And with the novel, I feel like I can explain almost every single decision that goes into the book, and I can explain almost anything about the book that you could ask me about. It took two and a half years to write that novel versus 20 years for The Refugees, even though The Sympathizer is more than twice as long. So I don’t think I could have written The Sympathizer without having first written The Refugees. That being said, I would never want to go back to writing short stories and try to exercise those muscles again.

TM: Do you read to exercise your muscles?

VTN: Yeah. I tried to read books that personally move me both in terms of their story and concerns, but also how they move me at the level of a sentence. So unfortunately, I often pick up a book, I’ll read the first sentence or first paragraph, and I will decide immediately if I’m going to continue reading. I have so little time; I cannot afford to waste time on a book that doesn’t move me in every respect, but especially at the level of a sentence. Unfortunately, you know, in my life now, I have to read a lot of books that I would not necessarily pick up except that I’m reading books because I’m doing favors for other people and writing blurbs and things like that.

But in terms of reading for my own work, I tried to find books that I think are going to teach me something about some kind of literary technique or political concern that I need to know. So with The Sympathizer, it was very important for me to have discovered, again, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night or Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, because both of those books were doing things at the level of the sentence and at the level of politics. And the whole novelistic forms were not typical. They were very inspiring for me. And then finally when I’m actually writing, I try to read poetry, because the rhythm, the use of images, the use of sound, and these kinds of things are very important for me, in terms of trying to construct sentences and deploying images that are almost as concentrated as what you would find in poetry.

TM: I really enjoyed the introduction you wrote for The Displaced. You said something beautiful about memory. Your personal memory of displacement cultivates sympathy and empathy in you; remembering the best of humanity allows us to form an ideal that we can hope and work for. But others may go in the exact opposite direction for the same reason. Their past trauma teaches them to be self-centered to protect themselves; their recollections of the worst of humanity become the reason why we must close off our borders. Currently, the two groups cannot even have a conversation with each other. What’s your suggestion for a writer who aspires to speak to the latter group?

VTN: To the ones whose minds and hearts are closed? I think it’s very difficult because writers live and work oftentimes in environments and an entire marketplace that are different from the environments and marketplaces of people who are opposed to immigration and to refugees, for example. As writers, we like to believe that if we write an important story, the story will move people and change hearts and minds, because that’s our background; we’ve been moved by stories. But the people who really need to have the hearts and minds moved are oftentimes the people who are not going to be reading what we write, either because they don’t read literature or because they’re reading different kinds of books. And I can tell, based on my own personal experience; because I can go on amazon.com and see on my author page where my books are being sold, they are sold mostly in the so-called blue parts of the country, the coasts and big cities. But there are huge swaths of America where the books are not sold, and that is oftentimes a rural or red America. So that means that authors—especially literary authors who are writing fiction and poetry and so on—we have to be realistic about what our writing can actually do.

And we have to recognize that if we have a message that is not just an aesthetic message but also a political message, oftentimes we have to do different things to get that message out there, which is why I write op-eds. And I go give lectures in different parts of the country, because people who read my op-eds oftentimes are not people who are reading my books. And even in the context of the publications I write for, like The New York Times, Washington Post, or Time, they’re certainly not leftist, and sometimes they’re not even liberal. And so it is actually gratifying to see sometimes that people, like even childhood friends of mine who would not read my books, get Time. Or when I go give lectures, I have to go sometimes to very red parts of the country. And even if I’m giving these lectures in the blue parts of a red area, like a university, sometimes there will still be people who show up who are hostile to what it is I have to say. So they have to listen. And I have to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes I get some very difficult questions from people who come from a completely different perspective. So the work of changing hearts and minds is oftentimes not just at the level a book, but also at the level of personal interaction and going out there and having these kinds of conversations, trying to meet people where they’re coming from.

TM: How do you deal with hostility?

VTN: I think that I’m still relatively fortunate, because I know that women and women of color, especially in particular, get the criticism much worse than I do. As for me, I still get hostility, but it’s oftentimes restricted. You know, people will write me emails, they will send me letters that are very critical, but they’re still polite. The worst I heard is “Go back to where you came from,” which is bad, but not that bad compared to what people may actually have said. Social media allows people to have much more direct confrontations; people will send me messages on Twitter, or Facebook, or through my personal website. And sometimes, rarely, the conversations will be face to face. So people have said things very critical to me in an audience. But again, that doesn’t happen that often. And it’s happened less since I won the Pulitzer Prize. And so I think there are all these layers of insulation that I have that other people, particularly women and women of color, may not.

How do I deal with that? In a face-to-face moment, it’s important to have those moments, to not back away from that and to have that conversation. I don’t have a problem with that. And then with other kinds of written communication, sometimes I’ll respond. And sometimes these conversations will have an immediate dead-end, because the other person is so angry that we can’t have a conversation. But sometimes we exchange a few emails or communications, and we actually move forward a little bit in terms of understanding each other a little bit more.

TM: That brings me to my next question. How has the Pulitzer Prize changed your life as a writer? Have the changes been good, bad, or both?

VTN: Both. I mean, obviously I’m not complaining. There are negatives, challenges, but they’re completely outweighed by the positives. And the negative is that there has been a huge imposition on my time. So I’m about a year and a half behind in delivering my novel to my publisher. If I were to quantify how much time the Pulitzer cost me, that’s how much: a year and a half, because of giving lectures and responding to people and blurbing people’s books and things like that. The positives are that I’ve earned a lot more money. Because of the Pulitzer Prize, there’s no doubt about that. And that’s afforded me more time to write, my audiences have grown. I went from having no foreign edition to 30 foreign editions of The Sympathizer, because of the Pulitzer. So it’s turned me into more of an international author.

And it’s given me the prestige and the opportunity to speak to audiences I would never get to speak to before, both in terms of lectures but also in terms of op-eds. So I think the Pulitzer has, in every way, transformed my status as a writer, and it’s made me want to live up to that status, to use the Pulitzer for good and for other purposes.

The final challenge of the Pulitzer power play is what people will say about the novel that I’m writing now.

TM: I don’t want to get writers to talk about their ongoing projects. But in one of your previous interviews, you mentioned that you are working on a sequel to The Sympathizer. I only want to ask this question: What do you hope to achieve with this sequel?

VTN: Well, I think I want to write a good novel. That’s the most basic thing to do. And I want to write a novel that lives up to The Sympathizer, both in terms of its entertainment, but also its politics. And, let me set the expectations low and say, it won’t probably be better than The Sympathizer, but I hope it was at least be good and can live up to the reputation of that first novel.

But besides that, I think, going back to our earlier conversation about how I situate myself in terms of other bodies of literature and so on. Obviously, narrative scarcity, one of the problems for the so-called minority writer is that we get pigeonholed. We write a book that’s ostensibly about “our experience,” in my case, being a Vietnamese refugee in the Vietnam War. And we’re allowed by dominant culture to own that little piece of territory with the expectation that we won’t break out. That’s a trap. Because on the one hand, we want to break out; on the other hand, we don’t want to feel as if somehow we can’t write about what we just wrote about. I think about Philip Roth, arguably and possibly a minority writer, but definitely a majority writer. And no one now would ever say, “Oh, Philip Roth is only a Jewish writer, because he only wrote about Jewish experiences,” right? For me, the challenge is the same. That in the second novel, in the sequel, I’m still dealing with Vietnamese people, Vietnamese refugees and so on, which I’m not reluctant to do and I’m not apologetic about. But also, at the same time, I want to make the claim that just because I’m still writing about Vietnamese refugees and the consequences of the war, it doesn’t mean that it’s “only” about these things. In fact, we can write about these things, and yet they still are universally important. It’s up to me to prove that. But it’s also up to me to challenge readers who would not be able to see that.

TM: One last question: What are some of the habits that you think aspiring writers need to develop?

VTN: There are so many, but I think if there’s only one, that is to write a lot. Some writers would say you have to write every day. I don’t think that’s true. But I do think it’s true that you have to write a lot. No one ever became a writer by writing 100 hours. I think almost everybody has become a writer by literally thousands of hours. So however you choose to do it, you’ve got to do it. Whether it takes you five years or 10 years or 50 years. You can’t be a writer unless you do that.

And what goes along with writing a lot is enduring a lot. You have to endure rejection, obscurity, mockery, miscomprehension, apathy, that no one cares that you want to be a writer. And, in fact, life will constantly throw obstacles in your way. For me, one obstacle is I live in California, so to spend thousands of hours writing I have to sit in a room and not go outside and enjoy the sun. That may not be much of an issue in Iowa but it is here in California. So we endure and sacrifice a lot. So if you cannot write a lot, if you cannot endure, if you cannot sacrifice, then you should probably choose another passion.

The interviewer would like to thank Alyssa Asquith and Philip Kurian for their generous and thoughtful contributions to the interview.

Translation as a Condition of Life: The Millions Interviews Aron Aji

Before I took the translation workshop with Aron Aji at the University of Iowa, I had translated two novels from English to Chinese. Literary translation struck me as hard labor, often times low paying. But Aji’s class turned out to be a life-changing experience for me.

When I began translating from my native Chinese to English for his class, I thought I must be “faithful” to the original text (words, phrases, and sentences) so I wouldn’t lose or distort the work’s meaning. But my initial translations were too awkward to resonate with any of my English-speaking classmates. I had a meeting with Aji in which he asked me to read him the Chinese text. I did. And I was astonished to see that he—someone who doesn’t speak Chinese—could correctly point out the rhythm, cadence, and emphasis of every sentence. He showed me that sometimes I could move away in order to get closer.

I had always wanted to share Aji’s brilliance with more translators, readers, and literary tourists in between languages and cultures. So we had the following conversation shortly before I left Iowa in July.

In this interview, he points out problematic nature of the words “mother tongue:” the phrase is itself a social/ideological construct that serves the power of modern nation-states. One’s command of language is not determined by birthplace, but by practice. He also speaks about our current “Age of Translation,” when myriad speakers can skirt the many gatekeeps in the publishing industry and find new voices, forms, and ideas to enrich our literary world culture.

The Millions: You were raised in a household where four languages—Ladino, Hebrew, Turkish, and French—were spoken. What was that experience like? How has that upbringing shaped you as a translator?

Aron Aji: I was born and grew up in Izmir, the second most cosmopolitan city in late Ottoman period and the early Turkish Republic. A port city, Izmir was home to several Levantine communities, including Greek, Italian, French, Armenian, and others. Practically speaking, many residents of Izmir interacted in a rich translational space because quotidian life, from basic commerce to business, brought them into contact with people outside their respective language communities.

TM: What was a typical day like in a multi-lingual city like that? For example, what language did you speak when you bought groceries?

AA: Our multi-lingual house was located inside the larger multi-lingual city, although by the time I was born Izmir saw an influx of newcomers from the provinces, and Turkish became the language of small trades, say, while buying groceries. Before I attended elementary school, I had significant exposure to Ladino (the Spanish spoken by the Sephardic Jews who had arrived in the city in 1492, after they were expelled from Spain), French (the lingua-franca practiced among the Levantines), and Hebrew (our liturgical language). My grandmother did not like speaking in her broken Turkish and insisted that we all learn and speak Ladino. In my childhood, though, there were still Jewish vendors who paid home visits and spoke Ladino as well. I still remember Sabetay, the plump kosher-wine vendor, who carried the bottles in the many pockets of his large poncho. Of course, our holiday dinners, especially Passover, involved readings and commentary in Hebrew, Ladino, and, for the benefit of the young, Turkish. When relatives visited from South America, we all spoke in Spanish and French. Through formal schooling, Turkish became my primary language but, in retrospect, I think the other languages already had strong formative influence in my life. And beginning with middle school all through college, I attended schools where the primary language of instruction was English. It is fair to say that I always experienced a language in relation to (an)other language(s) since my meaning most often took shape in one language and I needed to express it in another language. In short, translation as a condition of life.

TM: A decade into your American life, you started translating Bilge Karasu as a way to reconnect with Turkey. Why is that?

AA: In my first decade in the U.S., English became my almost exclusive language—in which I taught American students, conducted research, wrote scholarly papers and my own poetry, and cultivated social relations; it nearly overwhelmed my other languages as it gradually worked itself deep into my arteries of cognition. I still remember crying one morning when I woke up having dreamed in English!

TM: It took over your subconsciousness!

AA: Yes. I decided to translate back to Turkish because, without the active presence of another language in my life, I felt I was becoming less critical, less creative, less expressive, in short, a narrower and impoverished version of myself.

TM: Why Karasu?

AA: The author himself is a language artist, a semiotician, a translator from six or seven languages, and a writer with an expansive cosmopolitan vision—the ideal interlocutor I needed at the time. Karasu is credited for pushing the boundaries of the Turkish language and for inventing an authentic literary vernacular with greater capacity to interface with world literatures. His writing is characterized by what I’d call a “translational aesthetics” and therefore naturally lends itself to translation, you could even say, calls itself to be translated. For me, recreating him in English necessitates reconstituting those translingual, transcultural relations that have shaped his work in the first place.

TM: Did you feel you were enriched by translating Karasu? In what ways?

AA: In my ostensibly monolingual environment in the U.S., Karasu’s cosmopolitan voice felt intimately familiar. He drew from literature and languages that had shaped me and that I no longer had natural access to, except when studying literature. While translating him, I think I became much more aware of how I used language, what of my experiences were lost or enriched when expressing them in different languages. The multi-lingual brain has its own reflexes and switches among languages with great ease, but understanding the leaps and stops that happen during these switches helped me get better at controlling them and, I’d like to think, putting the snarl of languages to richer expressive use.

TM: Once you talked in class about the difference between the translators who work from their mother tongues and those who work into their mother tongues. What are the respective strengths and weaknesses of the two types of translators?

AA: Let me reiterate my views on this topic. There are hundreds of bilingual translators who translate into their second language, including English, especially when translating from languages that native English speakers don’t. The so-called minor languages are crucially dependent on bilingual translators. In the end, quality is the best measure of successful translation.

One’s proficiency in a language has little to do with one’s birthplace. Proficiency requires training, study, and practice. What do we make of people who have been professionally functioning in a second-language environment for many years, even if they happen to have been born elsewhere? I would even argue that English, one of the most absorbent languages in the world (because it is in constant contact with myriad languages, flexed and morphed as it is by myriad speakers across the world) obtains much of its richness also because of its capacity for diversity. It would be good to read up on the topic of native-language in order to re-examine our assumptions about the so called mother tongue, which is really a political/ideological construct that has been utilized to defend stratified societies by designating people as insiders and outsiders. For translators—who are dedicated to listening to the world’s voices—such designations should be anathema. I’d recommend two award winning scholarly studies: The Invention of Monolingualism by David Gramling, and Beyond the Mother Tongue by Yasemin Yıldız.

My point is that translation into one’s mother tongue would not by itself lead to excellence any more than translating into one’s second language would by itself lead to deficient translation. As much as I, too, love the poetry of feeling my mother tongue in my bones and blood, I would not be able to translate into it for the very fact that my literary knowledge/experience (the four decades of studying literature and writing about it) has been in English. I owe my proficiency as a literary translator to the considerable command I have obtained of a range of aesthetic and linguistic strategies by immersing myself in—and critically examining and reflectively internalizing—literary works written in English, both historical and contemporary. Likewise, I would venture that someone who translates beautifully into one’s mother tongue does so because of the mature sensibilities and skills one has developed in that tongue (by perfecting it as an instrument and as the substance of art) and not because one was born with it.

Our artistic sector is already plenty regulated by the so-called gatekeepers (publishers, editors, reviewers, award juries, etc.) who consider it their job to let awfully little of the world’s voices to be heard widely, especially in English. So, I say, let a thousand translations bloom. Our hard and often insufficiently understood work is the only way we will widen the reception of world literature in English, not merely because we translate them but because in doing so we also lend English greater capacity to express, and express well, the diverse voices of our world.

TM: In the literary translation workshop at the University of Iowa, we only read and discussed the English translations, in the same way we assessed works that are originally written in English. Is this how translation is traditionally taught in the States? What are the upsides and downsides of this approach?

AA: Your question is one of the most-commonly asked questions for us. Only on the surface, we may seem to read and discuss the English translations in the same way we assess works that are originally written in English. However, our pedagogy has greater ambitions than making translations read as if they were originally written in English. We encourage students to understand literary translation as discipline that combines creative art and critical, reflective practice across both the source and the target languages and poetics. By critically reflecting on the English translation, we always direct the translators back to the original text, back to the relationship or the so-called equivalency they have construed, in order to critically examine their effort, to reflect on the instances of semantic shifts, stylistic inconsistencies, sonic fluctuations, etc. Inconsistencies in register or diction or syntax—which we observe in the English—often reveal a misinterpretation of a characterization or point of view or style in the original. So, for example, when a sentence in the English translation feels overworked, if the rhythm of the clauses feels mechanical rather than natural, or if the diction fluctuates across registers, we notice these as literary inconsistencies, as interferences in our reading experience. And when we ask the translator to walk us through the same sentence in the original, we—and the translator—can detect the causes of these inconsistencies. These causes almost always derive from imperfect decisions in translation. Back and forth, back and forth, we go. The aim is to help the translator to improve consistently in the discipline of translation, which is often practiced in solitude and requires strong and refined skills of self-criticism and self-reflection.

As you’ll recall from your own experiences here, the workshop also affords the emerging translator the unparalleled opportunity to work side by side with equally dedicated practitioners who are as invested in their peers’ development as they are in their own development, since these two are pedagogically interlinked at all times. Because translation always entails negotiating between pairs of languages, one student’s strategy to resolve incommensurability when working, say, between Hindi and English, can provide unforeseen solutions to another student who is working, say, between Italian and English.

TM: What are some of the translational terms that you think we need to redefine or reassess nowadays? What is your view on domestication and foreignization?

AA: As with translation practice, terms and theories, too, need to be approached critically and reflectively largely for two reasons: first, because they emerge in a given time, in a given cultural space, and they would well benefit from reassessment when applied elsewhere; and, second, because, over time, terms and theories themselves can undergo a kind of domestication, assuming a deceptive over-familiarity, that may belie their original intent. Venuti’s terms, domestication and foreignization, are perfect examples, and are seldom appreciated for their original complexity. Whenever someone labels a translation as domesticating or foreignizing, I prefer to ask them to explain what they mean exactly. Translation terms and theories are, to borrow a term from Buddhism, useful means, and without critical reflection, they lose their usefulness.

Let me work with an example. When a translation retains certain words in the original language, is it a foreignizing or a domesticating translation? Often, it is labeled as foreignizing. But which words are retained in the original? Are they truly foreign? Or are they chosen because they are relatively familiar because they can be deduced relatively easily? Because their unintelligibility does not affect the general sense of the text? Or because they have been cleverly glossed in the translation? And how many “foreign” words should we retain so that the translation is sufficiently “foreignized?” There are other, more crucial questions: does the foreignization strategy succeed in bringing the reader closer to experiencing what is truly foreign in the foreign text? Or does it end up creating greater distance? Are the foreignizing elements in the translation foreign to the reader in the target language but perfectly familiar to reader in the source language? Cultural markers—say, names of foods, kinship relations—most frequently retained in the original language to foreignize a translation, are arguably the most familiar to the readers in the original. Any translation strategy—foreignizing, domesticating, feminist, or other—needs to be determined critically, reflectively—in light of the literary characteristics intrinsic to the original and the need to translate them as successfully as possible.

TM: When we talk about translation, we often focus on how “faithful” it is. In your opinion, what does “faithfulness” mean in literary translation?

AA: “Faithfulness” is a very problematic term in relation to literary translation, or any translation, for that matter. For starters, it has a dogmatic character, designating either the original text or a third (often illegible) source or maxim as the sole, fixed, and perfectly transparent source that can authorize a translation. There is no such source. “Faithfulness” is also linked with the general assumption that something always gets “lost in translation.” Well, on one level, something gets “lost” in reading, too, or as any creative writer can attest, in writing as well. Take, for instance, Wordsworth’s famous adage, “spontaneous overflow of emotions recollected in tranquility.” Wouldn’t you wish you could ask him just how much of the “spontaneous overflow” got lost in the “recollection?” This is in the nature of expressive, interpretive arts, whether creative writing or translation. But anyone who has known an accomplished translator will also know that the risk of “loss” is never a license for unfaithfulness; on the contrary, it is the very force behind our disciplined vigilance to achieve the closest approximation possible in translation. Instead of asking, is this the correct translation?, we ask is this translation the result of correct effort?—the result of a disciplined, critical and reflective practice.

TM: This may be a silly question. But readers always want to know which translation is better, especially of classics and renowned works. In your opinion, how can people assess the quality of literary translations if they don’t speak the source language? How do you judge whether the translator’s effort is “correct” if you have no more information than the English translation itself?

AA: As you know, I am deeply suspicious of the terms “correct” or “better.” I’d like to think that no self-respecting, professional translator sets out to translate sloppily. While it is true that the book publishing market seldom gives us enough time to complete translations, I think most literary translation that gets published in English is still very good, thanks to the serious efforts on the part of translators and editors. And, to be honest, judging translations by their “correctness” or “newness,” is also a function of the book trade rather than translation practice. Much of what is perceived as translation criticism takes place in the narrow confines of book reviews, which are part of the book trade and marketing. Likewise, if publishers want to revive sales of a classic, or want a share of the market, they will claim that their edition is a “new” or “better” or “authorized” translation—god knows by what criteria.

The task of appraising a literary translation requires a patient and methodical investigation of the translation process, the decision-making, the re-creative strategies, the intellectual and aesthetic considerations that shape and inform the translation. Such higher-order concerns cannot be addressed through sound-bite size quips in book-reviews; they deserve space and a full-fledged critical discourse similar to literary criticism.

In terms of classics or renowned works available in multiple retranslations, one of the best forms of appraisal would be comparative analysis. When set side-by-side and read with care, the retranslations can reveal the different strategies that each translator employed and to what end. Perhaps, one translation prioritized sound and rhythm while another aimed at contemporizing diction or foregrounding a particular thematic thread in the original that had not been adequately acknowledged. When reading comparatively, we also learn to recognize our own expectations, our own reading preferences. We become reflective about how translations should be read.

TM: I remember the day you taught me to translate “My Poor Girlfriend” by Zhu Yue. After you showed me how much liberty I could take as a literary translator, I suddenly realized that only by being “creative,” was I able to grasp the soul rather than the frame of the original work. But people don’t really talk about the creative side of literary translation. In your opinion, how important is that? How much liberty can a translator take to be creative?

AA: Oh, I loved reading Zhu Yue’s story in your beautiful translation. I think your translation succeeds because you balance creativity with a keen understanding of the original language in the story, especially the humor—which itself holds a slanted gaze at the language in the first place. When translating a text, we don’t only ask, what it means, but also how it means what it means—how it sounds, how it’s shaped, how it evokes feelings, how it brings about its intended effect, how it wants to be read, and so on. Investigating these how questions requires, on the one hand, close reading, careful critical analysis, and, on the other hand, creativity and imagination so that we can attempt to recreate the text, reimagine its body and soul, in the new language. We do so by bearing on the expressive faculties of the new language that are often incommensurable with those of the original language; by reconstituting metaphors, by transplanting the original idiolect in the soil of a new language; by tuning the new language to sing the music of the original. All these operations and more require a great deal of creative intervention, reimagining. Without creativity—measured, justified, skillfully deployed creativity—literary translation would be like whistling an opera.

I should also add that creative license is not a substitute for understanding a text fully and recreating it correctly. A creative solution to a problem we don’t fully understand often exacerbates the problem rather than solves it.

TM: I am constantly enthralled by the many “magic powers” that you possess. One of the most fascinating powers is that you can capture the sound of a language, whether you speak that language or not. How do you do that? How important is the sound? Perhaps many people’s attention goes straight to the meaning of the text. What are other linguistic aspects that we tend to ignore but that affect the aesthetics?

AA: You are much too generous. I wish I had magic powers. Mine are probably well-practiced skills combined with years of literary study. As you recall from our workshops, we approach language on at least five levels—semantic (lexical meaning), phonetic/sonic (sound), grammar and form (physical, visual, durational properties of language), pragmatic (the intended effect), and emotive (mood, tone, pathos). A literary work reveals how it wants to be read on all these levels simultaneously. Focusing only on lexical meaning risks missing out on much of what constitutes the poetics of a literary work. Any unit of text—be it a paragraph or even a sentence—is like a little dramatic play. It has a beginning, rising action, climax, denouement, and end. It packs a great deal of emotion to elicit our response. We must pay attention to its duration, to the event of its unfolding. Understanding its meaning/message, while obviously good and useful, is only part of experiencing the language fully.

It is fair to say that I am quite obsessed with sound. Sound as a total embodied experience. Hearing is probably the most reflexive, persistent, autonomous of our senses. Hearing is also highly evocative. Sound experience entails, often at once, our physio-neural, intellectual, visceral, intuitive, emotional faculties. This is what I mean by sound as a total embodied experience. It is a complex site of meaning-making. We experience sound in three interrelated dimensions: either epistemically, that is, by interpreting sound as signifier of previously stored information in our mind; or acoustemically, that is, by responding physically or emotionally to such auditory/acoustic properties as timbre, vibration, rhythm, pitch, ratio, harmony, and so on; or synestethically, that is, by involving all the other senses in simultaneous associations across visual images, smells, tastes, tactile memories. This last one often is spontaneous and intuitive. A text sounds itself out through vowels, consonants, syllables, punctuation marks, syntactic cadences, and so on. Here is one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
I want to experience this poem as a soundscape, by reading it out loud, by paying attention to the movement of my lips, the hollow of my mouth, to where in my body, in my musculature, I experience certain cadences, by imagining tastes, images, memories that correlate with the sounds I hear. My task as a translator would be to create not so much a similar sound texture but a texture that can produce close approximations of the total embodied experiences of sound I had when reading and experiencing the original. I find this work especially fruitful since I am translating from my native tongue (the sounds of which are still rich, embodied experiences for me) into a language in which I’ve studied poetics.

For me, all the levels of language I mentioned earlier converge in sound. Learning to read for sound takes time and patience, but it is a competence that, once obtained, made dramatic difference in my translation practice and, I’d like to think, my teaching.

TM: What is your ideal picture of “World Literature?” What do you think translators can do to contribute to that picture?

AA: In the current era of globalization, we are experiencing a renewed interest in translation since virtually every form of global circulation–goods, information, human beings—depend on translation. Circulation of international literature, too, has gained great momentum as well as circumference. Works travel faster and more widely. An author’s sphere of influence—both the influences on and those of her writing on others—has widened considerably, too. More and more of the writers who hold International Writing Program residency in Iowa City are self-professed global writers rather than identifying with any particular national literature. They read extensively foreign works in translation more than they do works in their national canon. Consequently, literature is emerging and experienced in a persistent state of “border” and “movement,” actual or imagined. There is a dynamic exchange and interchange of styles, genres, narrative norms, the effects of which can be seen not only at the level of diction, sentence, syntax, but also in how they perceive, interpret, and express/represent reality. Times of great movement like ours are always difficult to understand from within, when we are ourselves part of the movement. While David Damrosch and others speak compellingly about “world literature,” works written with keen awareness of the global context, I am not sure that we are experiencing a categorically different kind of literary and artistic production. Certainly modernism and post-modernism were international in orientation and influence, albeit in a narrower “world.”

TM: In your opinion, is there an aesthetic standard of great fiction that is shared universally?

AA: I am happy to leave the question for the critics and writers to resolve. As a translator, I am overjoyed by the energetic circulation or literature. In the dynamic, global context translation has obtained greater significance as a medium through which we are immersing ourselves in the language of the other, in the way languages interact with each other. We are making rich discoveries about other cultures and our own; we are observing how languages/societies shape meaning, concepts of selfhood, otherness, how they negotiate ambiguity and difference, how they manage and adapt to change. And consequently, I’d like to think that we are encouraging cross-fertilization and new creativities. In Bhabha’s famous dictum, “newness” enters culture through translation.

TM: In New York Review Daily’s article, “Your English Is Showing,” Tim Parks points out the growing trend of European novels that are written in a kind of “international vernacular, shorn of country-specific references and difficult-to-translate wordplay or grammar” so that they “would be easily digestible in an Anglophone context.” The same can be said of China and I presume most of the non-native English speaking countries. How do you feel about this current writing trend? What lessons should translators draw from this phenomenon?

AA: To some extent, I agree with Tim Park’s assessment, but, again, I am not sure that the problem he diagnoses is unique to our contemporary era. Every era has had its lesser works that enjoyed wider purchase and circulation. In our era of hyper-circulation, perhaps the great works are, at times, being overshadowed by the lesser and more “digestible” ones. But I’d like to believe that great literature outlasts the vicissitudes of its time, and ours will, too. I am more interested in (and excited by) the new challenges that global literature presents the translators. There is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question that I use in my public talks: How do we translate a Syrian novel written in Arabic, by a refugee author who cites the Japanese novelist Murakami as her main influence, whom she read in English translation, in Germany? How do we translate the growing number of multi-lingual authors—refugees, emigres, expatriates—writing in more than one language, often coming to literature in their second or third language? How do we meet the growing need for translations across borders, within regions, especially those with histories of conflict and forced silence? In a period when we are witnessing the evisceration of foreign language training in U.S. universities, who should (who can) translate the world’s voices? How do we support the emerging wave of bi-lingual translators (heritage speakers, transplants, etc.) who are no longer the odd minority that I certainly was 25 years ago when I dared to translate into my second language? What are the new forms of translation—collaborative, author-translator, translator teams, etc.—that we should actively encourage and train for? And, as importantly, how do we cultivate a learned, critically discerning readership for literature in translation so that we widen the discourse community around our work and the work of world authors? One of the exciting developments in the U.S. is the growing number of undergraduate-level courses, tracks, and programs in translation and global literacy with the aim to foster this kind of learned readership and more rigorously trained translators. These questions illustrate the magnitude of the challenges before us, yes, but they are also indicative of the crucial relevance of translation in determining the future of global circulation of literature.

TM: Would you give some suggestions for aspiring literary translators?

AA: As with all forms of art or vocation, literary translation, too, requires a great deal of learning, a great deal of practice. Think of a skill that you learned to practice well. It probably took patience, many failures, slow and steady progress, and, as importantly, learning from others who are masters of that skill, whether it is cooking, woodworking, or playing an instrument. Literary translation, too, involves a process of maturation. Don’t be impatient to see yourself in print. Read great literature, read great translations. Take time to deepen your sense of the practice, to widen the intellectual and aesthetic space in which you practice it. Your relationship is not with words, but with languages, with the cultures and traditions that continuously give shape to those languages, and to you.

Image credit: Unsplash/Jelleke Vanooteghem.

Mirror, Mirror: On the Nature of Literature

Because of the mirror I cannot touch the me-inside-the mirrorBecause of the mirror I get to meet the me-inside-the mirror     —Yisang, “Mirror,” translated from Korean by Jack Jung
God has created nighttime, which he armsWith dreams, and mirrors, to make clearTo man he is a reflection and a mereVanity. Therefore these alarms.     —Jorge Luis Borges, “Mirrors,” translated from Portuguese by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland
Sometimes it takes a probeand a camera’s eye to show you 
what you’re looking for.       —Maureen Doallas, “How Argument Go.”
1.
Many people, especially during their teenage years, spend a lot of time gazing at themselves in the mirror. One of my dorm-mates in high school was a pretty dancer. One day she started to get up an hour earlier every morning—the reason, she said, was to study. She did get up early, but she spent that extra hour looking in the mirror and combing her hair. Boys do similar things, too. Walking to the cafeteria during high school, I occasionally passed by a boy: Feet glued to the hallway, he held a stainless-steel spoon and kept glancing at the reflection of his face.
I never took a fancy to mirrors. They bear ill omens in childhood stories. Narcissus, in Greek mythology, grows infatuated with his reflection in the water and eventually dies of unrequited love. The magic mirror in Snow White stirs up the queen’s jealousy and causes a series of misfortunes to befall the innocent princess. My fear of mirrors developed when I turned 14. Two weeks after a friend broke her mirror at lunch break, she was diagnosed with leukemia. That night I did some googling and found that breaking a mirror was considered bad luck in many cultures. I knew I was being superstitious, but immediately checked all three mirrors my mother kept at home to make sure they were stable.
I don’t know whether this is related, but whenever I hear people say great literary works “mirror” society, I pause. The mirror analogy seems universal and timeless. A genre of literature known as Specula Principum became popular in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Specula Principum, which translates to Mirrors for Princes, provided political instructions for rulers. One of the most famous compilations of Chinese history completed in Song Dynasty (1084 AD) is titled Zizhi Tongjian or Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government.

Last year, Shanghai Translation Publishing House, a leading press in China, asked me to translate Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being for their forthcoming project, The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor. I was surprised to find that in her time (the 1950s), American critics and readers wanted to enforce an orthodoxy of sorts on fiction writing:

They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel’s scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life. (“Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”)


 In the same essay, O’Connor quoted Van Wyck Brooks, a literary critic, biographer, and historian, who called for literature to return to its “traditional” role as a “mirror and guide for society.” To O’Connor, such literature would only “satisfy tired readers” and flatten the originality of the American Southern voice. Interestingly though, the same orthodoxy is actually the literary tradition in China that still prevails today. All the best contemporary works in Chinese are about typical characters involved in big social movements. To Live by Yu Hua chronicles the fate of Fu Gui, an average Chinese man, during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Sorghum by Mo Yan revolves around a group of peasants fighting Japanese invaders during World War II.
As a writer, I—like all other responsible citizens—agree that we need to be socially engaged. But something feels wrong about the aforementioned demand: first the words “typical,” and “social forces.” These terms suggest the life of an individual is unimportant unless it is tied to social movements, and that the artistic elements of fiction are only a vehicle for the work’s larger societal message. Second, the word “fidelity.” I never really liked that word. In her essay “Erasing the Signs of Labor under the Signs of Happiness: ‘Joy’ and ‘Fidelity’ as Bromides in Literary Translation,” poet and translator Sophie Collins discusses the feminine connotation of the word fidelity—women are required to be faithful to men. Fidelity implies a subordinate nature: Translations are asked to be the handmaids of the original texts, fiction that of reality, society, and nation.
I can see why the mirror analogy persists. The reflection of a mirror is objective, dehumanized, and thus faithful. But that doesn’t work in fiction writing (or in nonfiction writing). Art is a selective process, and selection is inherently subjective. If we require writers to exactly follow the orthodoxy, to record the “typical” in a “faithful” fashion, then we are done with fiction.
2.
For the contemporary American reader who respects and cherishes original voices, perhaps there is no need to defend the importance of writers’ subjective feelings. But subjectivity doesn’t only involve insight and point of view. It also contains presupposition and judgment. We are now more conscious of racism, homophobia, and sexism in older American works of literature; and we demand a more faithful representation of minorities in present-day writing. So, the idea of fiction as a mirror endures—writers should be fair, balanced, and objective.
In practice, being fair often turns into being generous. Writers may feel obligated to “correct” for the prejudices of the past. They believe that their writing should reflect their values or group identity. Feminists may avoid showing any female character that is too frail or emotional; minority writers feel the urge to present a positive picture of their ethnic group. As a result, fidelity takes the form of loyalty; art serves as the handmaid of collective values.
In August 2018, after my op-ed was published in The New York Times, I was targeted by cyber bullies. I wrote the piece two days after I learned of my mother’s stroke. Grief, guilt, and grievance overwhelmed me; I couldn’t help but unleash my feelings on the page. I criticized the pragmatic tendency of Chinese culture and medical institutions that are dominated by nepotism and wealth. My Weibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, was soon filled with hundreds of angry and hateful comments. My countrymen called me a “traitor” who “drank her mom’s blood to lip the American dick.”
After the storm passed, I told my friends at home I didn’t care what people had said. But that was a lie. For four months, I wasn’t able to write down a single Chinese word. My English writing also became difficult. I kept torturing myself with the following questions:
1) Was I smearing my country?
2) For whom was I writing?
3) Was my writing contributing to my country anymore?
And soon I had the answers:
1) No. All the points in my essay were facts.
2) When I write in English, I write for readers who speak that language.
3) Probably not.
The last answer killed me. Growing up in China, I had been taught to be patriotic and responsible. What value does my writing have if it doesn’t do my country any good?

In my darkest moment, I started reading Philip Roth, the great American author who, as Brett Ashley Kaplan puts it, was once considered an “enemy” by his fellow Jewish people. Roth’s characters are not pleasant. Take Goodbye, Columbus, his first major work. The Patimkins are filthy rich and snobbish, while Neil’s working-class family seem like boorish fools. But because the portrait is so raw, I can relate to Neil’s desire to fit in with the upper-middle class Jewish American community. Aunt Gladys sounds exactly like my working-class relatives in Shanghai. I understand Neil’s feelings about living with her—he fears being drowned in the unintellectual life that he despises, and he is afraid that all his hard work will come to nothing. Neil is not pleasant either: He bears the defects of both sides. Reading Roth, I know I am Neil, and Neil is me.

I probably sound like I was seeking legitimacy in Roth’s work. Perhaps I was. But I recall my days as a writer in Chinese. After my first collection, People Grow Old, But Never Die, came out in 2014, a friend brought her husband to meet me after a reading. It turned out we’d gone to the same high school. We talked about our shared memories and had a very good time. He said he couldn’t wait to read my stories. Two days later, he was the first person who posted a negative comment online. My friend told me that the dark picture of the neighborhood in my book offended him.
Back then I didn’t question whether my stories were a faithful representation of the lower-class Shanghainese, because, like many authors, my first book is largely autobiographical.
Take “A Sick Tooth,” the short story that earned me a China Times Literary Award in Taiwan in 2011. The father is useless and timid, like my father; the mother extremely economical and pragmatic, like my mother. They are good people, only stricken with poverty. But, looking back, I wonder what good that story did for my city, Shanghai. Or for my parents. As Czeslaw Milosz’s famous quote goes: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
But my Shanghai stories never aroused controversy; the readers who enjoy my book find in it their own images, not happy ones though, mostly their deep-buried woes and sorrows. Will the image of Shanghai and Shanghainese be tarnished by my stories? I would not be arrogant enough to think so. The question of whether my stories were useful to my city never arose while I was writing. Lost in a world of insults and curses that people hurled at me last year, I forgot the nature of art. Art is good in and of itself, as Thomas Aquinas puts it. For all my writing, I am performing painful self-reflection and I would be grateful if my readers would do the same after reading my work.
Back in my school days, Japanese horror stories were very popular. There was one titled “Miss Mirror.” One day, a young doctor works the night shift. While washing her hands in the restroom, she sings spells into a mirror. Soon, the image of a ghost appears in the mirror. After I came to the States, I learned about the legend of Bloody Mary. If you chant her name into a mirror, she will emerge.
These thoughts about mirrors came to me randomly, while I was still considering my writing identity. It struck me that I do hope my writing serves as a mirror, not an ordinary one, but a magic mirror that can summon ghosts. I have a theory about the abundance of ghost-in-mirror stories around the world: The ghost is not “the other;” when we look at ourselves long enough, we see our own grotesqueness.
Humans are born self-centered. If I don’t remind myself of the dark and ugly side that I have, I would become a narcissistic being, like in Greek mythology. I need the magic mirror on the wall to tell me the fairest girl is someone else. I may end up feeling unhappy, but at least I can have true self-knowledge. The same can be said of every individual, social group, generation, culture, and nation. As Flannery O’Connor said it, “The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character.”

3.
In real life, I am all for inclusion and acceptance, for political correctness, that American obsession. I owe everything I have here to social justice advocates. But sometimes I wonder: What would be Philip Roth’s fate if he were a young writer today?
Author and professor Brian Morton, in his essay “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite,” points out today’s college students’ tendency to condemn canonical authors for moral failings. I love the comparison he draws between reading literature of the past and time traveling.     

When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.

Morton’s analogy reminds me of a story about Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master during Meiji era. Once a university professor came to ask for his teachings. While serving tea, Nan-in kept pouring hot water into the cup after it was full. The professor looked at the cup and said, “It’s already full. No more water.” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions. How can I teach you Zen?”
If we are too full of our own opinions, we will never be able to see the richness of our predecessors. We must recognize our own limitations (or at least accept the possibility of our limitations) so we can begin to appreciate the merits of others.
On the other hand, racism, sexism, and prejudice persist. In “The Snow Queen,” one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales, a wicked hobgoblin makes a mirror that reduces everything good and beautiful to nothing. When this mirror breaks into billions of pieces, the shards fall across the earth and become embedded in people’s hearts and eyes, causing them to only see the bad and ugly in other people.
As a writer, how can I be sure that I am not making the same wicked mirror? What is the dividing line between being critical and being hateful? How much liberty can writers take to reveal the darker side of our collective selves?
My answer is: as long as I am making the mirror of truth, and as long as I am using the mirror to reflect myself.
Writers are often called truth seekers. But what is truth? Etymologically, the Middle English word for “truth” is “trewthe,” which derives from Old English word trēowth, which mean fidelity and is akin to the Old English word trēowe, which means faithful. Here it is again: fidelity. That doesn’t help: fidelity to what?
In an indirect way, Flannery O’Connor addresses my question. As a Roman Catholic, the nature of truth is transparent to her: It is with God and with mystery. In a letter she wrote to Alfred Con, then a freshman at Emory University, who felt lost in college, O’Connor says: 

Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash [clash of different world religions] doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth.

I am not religious, though Christianity appeals to me intellectually. However, while translating O’Connor, I realized that she, like all the great writers of the past, shines a light on my narrow-mindedness. Like Alfred Con, I have become biased by “the stimulation of an intellectual life that happens in college.” Meanwhile, without realizing it, I have been experiencing what O’Connor calls a “shrinking of the imaginative life.” Nowadays, truth has mutated into its many degraded kin: values, reality, perspective, and group image. Exposed to them, I took the side of the majority and stuck to it. I rested my skepticism. I have stopped looking for God (truth).
Perhaps, truth is something that transcends all the comprehensible things around us. It is not something that we hold in our hands or that we fight for, but something that keeps us searching and wondering.
Truth also affords writers the liberty to be unfaithful to its degraded kin. In 2016, shortly before I came to the U.S., I asked Gish Jen at her reading in Shanghai the same question that I ask myself today: Immigrant writers take bits and pieces of their native land with them; how can they deliver a full faithful picture of their homeland or ancestors’ land to a foreign readership? Jen’s answer was refreshing, and recalling the moment now, I feel even more grateful. “They can’t,” she said. “Nobody can give a full faithful picture of his/her homeland. But writers have the liberty to be disloyal. And we pay the price for being expelled from Plato’s Republic.”
Today, I find many writers, myself included, driven by the moral demand to write “what it should be” instead of “what it is”—that is, we use the “correctness” of our values to determine “what it should be.” But, as I see it, writing for or against certain values creates propaganda. The problem with the creation of this type of propaganda is that we close our eyes and let our values do the seeing for us. In doing so, we give ourselves the illusion of flawlessness and absolute correctness. When we are complacent in this way, we have turned away from truth.
In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, the mind—the higher self—is compared to a bright mirror. There was a fierce debate between the Northern and Southern Schools in seventh-century China: one school believed that the mirror needs constant cleaning; the other believed that it was fundamentally pure, free, and unconditioned.
This is a polemical debate, and I am no expert on Zen. But this bright mirror matches my ultimate image of the mirror of truth.  To me, a look at our internal ghosts won’t result in a distorted reality, like it does in “The Snow Queen.” When looking in the mirror, we also see our fundamentally good higher selves. We see what we could be. Allow me to once again quote Flannery O’Connor: “to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.” Speak to the mirror. Don’t shy away from anything we see. Grope your way out of the darkness and the unknown. Ultimately, we will see the light, in every corner of the world, in others, and in ourselves.
Image credit: Snapwire/Will Milne.

A Year in Reading: Jianan Qian

My 2018 experience, perhaps like everyone else, is much swamped with all sorts of political news that keeps me in dread and panic. As a result, my reading life is divided into three categories: (1.) I consult history-related books to try to understand our current age; (2.) I read fiction works that match my ambition to live a big life and write a big book; (3.) I translate essay collections from English to Chinese for work. The following three books are the most impressive one in each category:

1. The World of Yesterday
It feels very strange and even terrifying to find every line in this masterly memoir of the 20th century resonating. Stefan Zweig described his childhood as the age of scientific accomplishments—the invention of electric light, telephone, and train—and recalled a unanimous belief that men would eventually vanquish “the last vestige of evil and violence.” From his portrait I felt as if I’d seen my childhood in the Age of Information again—the arrival of personal computers and Internet made us believe that all borders could be trespassed and that the spirit of democracy would soon triumph. But now, seeing the growing dark side of social media and Internet in general, I realize that I too was being naïve.

Zweig quotes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in his last chapter: “The sun of Rome is set. Our/ day is gone. / Clouds, dews, and dangers come;/ our deeds are done.” I read it with great sadness, but I try to remind myself that even at the night of humanism, we still have our own inner light to illuminate at least the path ahead of us.

2. The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s stunning debut novel, The Sympathizer, has received much critical acclaim, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Reading such a profound and beautiful book, everyone can have very different takeaways. As a fiction writer, I am amazed by how Nguyen can make so many contrasts and contradictions all fit extraordinarily well together in this spy novel: the protagonist’s confession is grandiloquent and yet genuine, the narrative voice has a character but not a name, the conventional idea of fraternity and kinship is challenged and yet confirmed. Any summary or depiction would only narrow the scope of this great work. It is the book about the size of our large, chaotic contemporary world.

3. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
I have spent my first post-workshop year translating Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners into Chinese for Shanghai Translation Publishing House. This towering canonical American author has refreshed my thoughts on the nature and aim of fiction. Fiction, as she put it in a Catholic way, is about mystery incarnated in specific and concrete characters. O’Connor, in her time, needed to confront the general readers’ demand that novels should demonstrate a “positive image” of a social group, i.e. the South, the Catholics. As a writer in a second language, I am facing the same demand that my China stories should only show the bright side of my country. O’Connor’s response is not only refreshing but also encouraging to me: fiction writers need to show what it is rather than what it should be; the latter means that we have closed our own eyes on the real world.

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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.

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.

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.

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.