The omitted 10 percent – by Mazin Saleem
“Writing is like dreaming,” which is why Bi Feiyu hadn’t thought you could make a career out of it. But after thinking more about the nature of imagination, he decided that, “in the way a bird needs wings to reach great heights but also claws to steady itself,” writing is not just a flight of fancy, it has to be grounded in reality – one that he’s since written about in novels like the Man Asian Literary Prize-winning Three Sisters. Chan Koonchung is also aware of this reality, and also the ways people try to forget it; in his novel The Fat Years a whole nation can’t or won’t remember a missing month. Using a make-believe premise to point out a real-world problem, Koonchung has written, in part, a satire but also something larger: the book is itself the sort of reminder that it calls for. As Feiyu, paraphrasing Milan Kundera, at one point says, writing is “the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Both authors are at the Free Word Centre to talk about their books for Chinese Fables, an event arranged by English PEN’s Writers in Translation committee. It’s a rare chance to see two acclaimed and controversial Chinese writers at the same time – Feiyu in his dark jeans and jacket, with shaved head, smiling continually and talking through an interpreter; Koonchung with glasses, grey hair in long curtains, a Hong Kong media professional speaking softly in English. Koonchung himself has Mandarin as a third language, and so sometimes listens with the audience to Feiyu’s interpreter, other times offers her his help. She takes notes then explains to Feiyu what’s being said from behind a held-up piece of paper.
Writers’ talks can seem counter-intuitive. You take the relationship between the reader and the writer, with all the paradoxical intimacy-in-solitude it entails, and you turn that inside out: a crowd of readers listening to a writer being spokesperson for their books. But with writers whose books have been translated or suppressed, is there something more important going on? A banned book in another language might in fact be taken as symbolic of the whole reader/writer relationship, a concentrated example of the barriers to meaningful communication, and the value of it. Events like Chinese Fables are here to point out those barriers and try offer a way across.
Significantly, both authors, when asked about literary influences, mention what for them are ‘writers in translation’ – J M Coetzee, Thomas Hardy. (The question here being how many modern writers in the West are able to cite inspirations out of it.) “When I was young,” Feiyu says, “seventeen, eighteen years old, this literature felt like it stripped you naked, got to the heart and bones of you. It was a shock, but also exciting.” For Koonchung, it was his journalism professor in the US who turned him on to American authors (giving him the ol’ Hemingway ‘no adverbs’ advice).
Koonchung and Feiyu might be playing to their audience by mentioning these names, but for the audience themselves, there’s always that temptation to place literature in translation within a context of authors you’re familiar with: reading Three Sisters as, say, a Tolystoyan family saga; the mass ‘What if?’ premise of The Fat Years as being in the style of José Saramago. Is this a domesticating impulse? Or is it an attempt to give literature in translation a place within a wider ‘story of literature? The answer depends in part on the intentions and effectiveness of the translation itself.
Koonchung says he never doubted his novel would be treated well by his friend and translator Michael S. Duke. Though The Fat Years is a thriller and not a comedy, the humour in it – often a first casualty of translation – has been preserved. Similarly, Feiyu says, “I completely trust the translators [Howard Golblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin]. It’s because I trust in fate. I always say if you like the book, that’s because of me. If you don’t like it, blame the translator.” He reassures the audience that he is joking.
When asked if there’s anything characteristic, though, about Chinese novels, if it’s true, for example that they often have to tread a thin line between the political and the literary, Koonchung acknowledges that authors like him do write within a grey area of the acceptable. But this is more, he says, down to current political circumstance: as happened in 2008, the boundaries of the grey area shift without you necessarily knowing how or to what extent. “And so you take calculated risks.”
He’s taken his own risks, smuggling copies of The Fat Years from Hong Kong to mainland China in a suitcase. After being read by sympathetic critics, who reviewed it as a genre piece while cryptically referring to its more subversive content, the novel soon built a reputation, with one Beijing-Shanghai socialite buying 200 copies to hand out to her party guests. Despite this move from under- to overground, he’s not worried about repercussions just yet: the book was published in Hong Kong, has a science fiction premise and is set in the future. Legs crossed, hands in a steeple, he shrugs, “But who knows what my future holds.” He compares the government to a cat, patting you gently with its paws, but in doing so, reminding you that it could, if it wanted, use its claws as well.
Feiyu is more optimistic. It’s become, to his mind, too easy and unthinking for critics and journalists to complain that Chinese literature is in a depressed state. Ironically, the shifting focus of the authorities on to other, more widely accessed media like TV and the internet has taken some pressure off literature. Similarly, the corporatisation of politics in China, what he sees as the growing obsession with money – this too has seen focus shift away, giving literature more slack.
In any case, books like Three Sisters have concentrated more on the psychology of characters, and how historic changes affect his characters’ inner lives. At the Hong Kong Book Fair he was asked why he didn’t describe his characters’ outward appearance. He explains that when imagining a new character, he is more likely to ’embrace’ them than visualise them, and so he gets a sense of their temperature, tension, heartbeat, rather than their face. Though he’s praised for his female characters in particular he insists he writes people, not genders, is in fact sure no author could write just in a male or female voice. “To me fate and character are more important.”
Not to say that he thinks that writers have no political responsibilities. He isn’t alarmed, he says, when the authorities want people to forget things; he’s alarmed when people themselves want to forget. But this is understandable, “forgetting is a part of how human memory works,” and people are prey to their emotions when it comes to what they are and are not willing to remember. Which is why writers have to remind their readers that an obsession with money, the forgetting of the past that results – these are not ways for a nation to go forward. That’s why his next novel will address the younger generation.
Koonchung, too, is wary about the present optimism in China. The phrase he uses in his novel is ‘90% freedom’. Even this percentage the Chinese people are yet to digest. Though there has been an information explosion, it’s only served to highlight what’s being omitted. It’s true for example that, unlike before, Hong Kong news is reported on state channels all over mainland China. But a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong will still only be seen in the local news. Similarly, more books are available than ever, but there are still books and topics that some people would have you forget. Young people not only lack access to information about calamitous events in China’s past, they don’t believe there is such a lack. The danger, Koonchung says, is that new freedoms are quantitative and not qualitative: “They point at the various media and say ‘Look how much of it there is! How can we not be free?'”
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/chinesefablesbifeiyuandchankoonchung/