Sunday, November 8, 2015

Chutzpah! New Voices from China, edited by Ou Ning and Austin Woerner

Edited by Ou Ning and Austin Woerner
Translated from Chinese
2015, I read Advanced Review Copy
281 pages, short stories, non-fiction

Many thanks to the University of Oklahoma Press for providing a review copy of this book.

Chutzpah! was an innovative, short-lived Chinese literary journal. In the 16 issues published between 2011 and 2014, Chutzpah! brought writing by minorities and people from the margins of Chinese society - including Chinese-language writers from other countries. While the main magazine was in Chinese, every issue included an English-language supplement, "Peregrine," featuring translations of popular stories from previous issues. This collection, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, presents 16 pieces selected by the magazine's founding editor Ou Ning and English language editor Austin Woerner.
What made Chutzpah! special, both to Chinese readers and to Sinophiles abroad, was its focus on younger and lesser-known Chinese writers, its stylistic eclecticism, its broad definition of what constitutes "Chinese writing," and its independent voice - registered in the more liberal Guangdong province, and beholden to a media conglomerate rather than to a government sponsor, it was able to publish more adventurous work than other publications of its kind in China. - Preface
The works presented in English translation here reflect these characteristics of the magazine. Of the 16 works, there are 14 short stories, 1 creative nonfiction piece, and 1 essay, representing a variety of voices and styles. Because of this eclecticism, I have chosen to review each piece individually, with some overall comments at the end of this post.

When a man is trapped under a building during an earthquake, his soul travels into his past, revealing the actions and decisions that led him to become an alcoholic, depressed marketing representative.  

This story is a surprisingly hilarious take on a near-death experience, mostly because of the snarky comments of the main character as narrated by his friend. An example from the moment of the earthquake:

His last thoughts before he blacked out were: This is some booze. When it puts you down, the whole world comes rattling down with you.

According to Xu's biography, his work usually focuses on the less-fortunate classes of Chinese society. I greatly enjoyed his simple, wry humor, and would happily read more of his writing.

Read Xu Zechen's short story "Galloping Horses." 

  • “A Village of Cold Hearths” by Sheng Keyi (China), translated by Brendan O’Kane

It is the Chinese Cultural Revolution. A village works together to produce a (purportedly) record-breaking crop, but when it is not as big as predicted, the villagers begin to accuse each other of hoarding grain. As the famine becomes worse, the paranoia and punishments become extreme. Meanwhile, one young man in the village carries on a romance with Fish, a mermaid he met on the bank of the nearby river.

This is tied for my favorite story in this collection (with “The Failure”) because of the wonderful way the author combines the terror and cruelty of the Cultural Revolution with the fantasy of romance with a mermaid. Fish's origins are in the misogynistic culture of rural China; she represents China's "missing girls" - the female children who have been abandoned or aborted because of the now-defunct One Child Policy and the cultural preference for boys. She is very intelligent, and continuously warns her lover Liufu of the danger to the village. Liufu not only ignores her warnings, but he actively participates in the raids and punishments so as not to get caught himself. 

Read Sheng Keyi's short stories "The Girl Who Sold Phones" and "Little Girl Lost."

  • “The Balcony” by Ren Xiaowen (China), translated by Eleanor Goodman

Zhang Yingxiong is lazy and unemployed, something that his father never ceases to remind him of. But when his father dies and their oldhouse is bought by the government to make space for development, Zhang Yingxiong has to find some way to make money – and maybe also to get revenge on the man who negotiated for the purchase of their property.

This story channels the struggle between property owners and development officials in urban China, where it has become all too common for the government to buy land at a much lower rate than the market price. The author takes us into the neighborhood and demonstrates the effect that this has on the community. As a story, though, I didn't like this one very much; the plot didn't fit together very well and the ending was very abrupt. Which is probably the point, to say that life is messy and there's nothing these characters can do about their situation. 

  • “Retracing Your Steps” by Zhu Yue (China), translated by Nick Admussen

You are in an incredibly simplified world, in which

There is only one kind of plant - the cactus, in all its different varieties; and there are only two kinds of animals - grizzly bears and rabbits. The rabbits are all brown and they're enormous, as big as the grizzlies. The bears eat the rabbits and the rabbits eat the cactus.

This world has a single road that goes to somewhere or nowhere, with desert on both sides. You are a wandering swordsman driving along this road and following an enemy. Literature is knowledge, money, and power in this world, so you are trying to determine what your enemy has read. 

I loved this story. By setting up an incredibly simple world, the author is able to focus on the human relationships between the characters. The relationship of the main character (who is always referred to in second person, as if you, the reader, is in this world, like a videogame) and a hitchhiking woman is really interesting, because the two choices are to settle down with her or to continue your present life. As for the man you are tailing, he has read so much literature, and therefore gained so muych power, that he eventually goes mad.

Read Zhu Yue's short stories "The Death of Zernik" and "Chaos of Fiction." 

  • “Paradise Temple” by Lu Min (China), translated by Brendan O’Kane

Fu Ma is at the graveyard to pay tribute to his dead grandfather with the rest of his family. His grandmother organizes this every year, so he has to go – even though he doesn’t really get along with his relatives. He leaves as soon as possible to meet up with a girl he occasionally sleeps with, which may make him feel better about his life. 

According to the author's biography, she "writes to combat the falsity of life with the falsity of fiction." This seems to be a good way to sum up this story, which is a pretty standard tale about the disillusionment of youth in today’s world. I didn’t find it particularly interesting. 

Read Lu Min's short story "Xie Bomao R.I.P." and essay "A Second Pregnancy, 1980." 

  • Excerpt from “A Dictionary of Xinjiang” by Shen Wei (China), translated by Eleanor Goodman 

Sometimes I get tired of traveling. No, traveling gets tired of me; the wilderness is sick of me, all the toing and froing is sick of me. I flee, escaping from the infinite distance into my study: The final spiritual lodging? Or a paper tomb? Now the breath of the wilderness paces with me in my room as I flip through this book, flip through that book. Five thousand books collect five thousand kinds of dust, old and new; five thousand kinds of breath envelop me. 

This beautiful piece of travel writing describes the people of Western China, in the Tianshan. I loved the language, even making my husband read it aloud. My favorite section was the one on merceles, a type of liquor made out of grapes that is not quite wine. 

  • “The Failure” by Aydos Amantay (China), translated by Canaan Morse

A young Khazak man who was born and brought up in Beijing takes a 2 month position teaching Chinese in a small town in Western China. This posting is emotionally fraught: he feels loved and accepted for the first time, but he is still not quite Khazak and not quite Han Chinese. When one of his students falls in love with him, he is torn between the possibilities of his Khazak heritage and the life he has always known in Beijing. 

This is the other story that is tied for my favorite. The author is a Khazak person who grew up in Beijing, so it seems that parts of this story are semi-autobiographical. The character is in a difficult position: as an ethnic minority, he does not fit in with his peers in Beijing; since he did not grow up in the Khazak area and does not speak Khazak very well, he does not fit with other members of his ethnic group either. At the same time, he sees Khazak culture for what it is: not perfect, but much better at creating intense social relationships than the big city he came from. It is a nuanced view of ethnicity and cultural differences that I found very refreshing. 

  • “Dust” by Chen Xue (Taiwan), translated by Howard Goldblatt

A masculine lesbian in Taiwan makes a living of cleaning other people's houses. With three others from diverse backgrounds, she founded a company that deals with the most difficult of clean-up jobs. Meanwhile, she tries to deal with her emotions about her mother, who had a hoarding problem and is now living in a nursing home after a stroke. She is beginning a romance with Anna, a quiet, sweet woman. 

It was refreshing to read this beautiful story about both emotional and physical cleaning. The narrator's voice is so clear and imbued with emotional resonance that she seems like a real person. Her emotional and psychological struggles are both very ordinary and profound. They are true. The same goes for the lovely, understated romantic moments with Anna. I am excited to read such a fresh voice from Taiwan, and I would love to read more work by this author. Perhaps I should try to find an anthology of Chinese-language LGBT writing, if such a thing exists. (If it doesn't, maybe someone should make one. Hint hint.)   

  • “The Curse” by A Yi (China), translated by Julia Lovell

Zhong Yonglian accuses her neighbor of stealing and eating her chicken. When the neighbor adamantly proclaims her innocence, Zhong Yonglian pronounces a curse: “’If you stole my chicken, I swear your son will die this year. If you didn’t, my son will.” Of course, Zhong Yonglian's chicken reappears a few days later, and her son reappears... well, you'll have to read it to find out. 

This story does a good job of demonstrating the difference between small-town ideas of what people do when they leave and what people actually do when they leave. Despite not hearing from her son for a long time, Zhong Yonglian believes that he is doing wonderfully in life. She eventually finds out that the reality is different, but by then it's too late. I didn't particularly like this story, mostly because of the stupidity and small-mindedness of Zhong Yonglian. All of this to-do over a missing chicken, which shows up a few days later. Sigh. 

Read A Yi's short stories "Who's Speaking Please?" and "Petty Thief" and essay "Two-Bit Lives." 

  • “Unfinished-To Be Continued” by Li Zishu (Malaysia), translated by Nick Rosenbaum

You use the word "arrive," not "find." This is correct. Though you've walked many a road to get here, this is not a place that can be found. It does not exist. Or perhaps one might say, it merely exists in those impossible parts of the world. It is fictional, only a place at which to arrive. 

You have found a set of books that belonged to your now-deceased father. Reading them, you are troubled; it seems that probably, maybe, your father had an affair with the author. Or are you just seeing things in the stories and trying to make them fit this narrative? You explore this fictional city and make contact with the woman, the author, who may or may not have been an important, albeit secret, part of your life.

This is another story written in second person, placing the reader in the position of main character. While the writing itself was beautiful, I have no idea what is really happening. Yes, I know that not knowing is the point of dreamlike stories like this one. But I the questions raised throughout this narrative intrigued me, and I wish the author gave us a few more answers. Is this a real city? Just something in a story? Did my father have an affair with the author??? 

  • “Philosophy in the Boudoir” by He Wapi (China), translated by Nicky Harman

A girl from Shanghai goes to the Thailand border with her friend Milly. She gets drunk, and after watching a porn film in which one of the women is murdered, she decides to have BDSM sex with one of the local men. When he tries to choke her, she kills him. Or at least, that's what she remembers. Milly remembers differently, and swears that nothing of the sort happened. 

I kind of liked the central question in this story: did this thing that the narrator remembers so clearly actually happen, or is her friend right and she just imagined it? How can two people have such different memories of the same events? These events have a profound psychological effect on the narrator, who spends years trying to find information about the man she thinks she killed. Or did kill. It would drive anyone crazy. 

  • “An Education in Cruelty” by Ye Fu (China), translated by A. E. Clark

This essay deals with Chinese culture’s obsession with cruelty. From the Cultural Revolution to children’s games, the author argues, cruelty is something that has become a part of Chinese culture. And that’s not a good thing.

I found this essay fascinating, and it helped me interpret some of the other pieces of Chinese literature that I have read. Based on this, I guess you could say that the main character of My Time as Emperor is interesting because cruelty is so ingrained in Chinese culture. Perhaps that novel is trying to make a the political statement that cruelty is not something new to Chinese culture after communism was introduced; rather, it is something that is longstanding and unfortunately widespread. Regardless, this essay provides a different lens to look at Chinese writing, including the stories in this anthology. 

  • “War Among the Insects” by Chang Hui-Ching (Taiwan), translated by Lee Yew Leong

The spirits of all Qin emperors before Yingzheng were now part of the flock; only momentarily did they become men before transforming into birds.

There was something about Yingzheng that prepared him to overturn ancestral etiquette, all the past emperors knew. But what, exactly, none of them could say. They only knew time, the fact that with time all life goes to seed. That the soul would return to the flock, its time on earth having been merely a field trip to gather data, to add one more computational variable to collective knowledge. 

This is the story of the young emperor Yingzheng and how he came to the throne.

This seems to be some sort of meditation on the vicissitudes of life and power, and the meaninglessness of it all. But, again, it is written in a dreamlike style that I find inaccessible and unappealing. You might enjoy it if you like Can Xue’s The Last Lover

  • “Monsters at Volleyball” by Lu Nei (China), translated by Anna Holmwood

A class from the School of Chemical Engineering is finishing their apprenticeship at a factory outside of town. During their breaks, they sneak out to play soccer, peek at the women's volleyball team, and smoke.  When one member of the class is beaten up by a student from the more-prestigious Technical Academy, who are also doing (better) apprenticeships at the factory. It seems like an all-out war might break out in retribution, but then they decide to settle it over a volleyball game. 

Unlike the other writers in this collection, Lu Nei has a history of working menial factory jobs since the age of 19. His intimacy with lower-class subjects is evident: everything from the profanity-laden speech to the seriousness of the rivalries indicates his observational skills.  It is this roughness that lends the story its charm.

Read Lu Nei's short story "Keep Running, Little Brother.

  • “Who Stole the Romanian’s Wallet?” by Wang Bang (China/UK), translated by Nicky Harman and Yvette Zhu

Shuangxi is a Chinese immigrant working in a massage parlor in London's Chinatown. Unlike some of the others in this establishment, she actually does give massages. One day, a Romanian customer leaves his wallet in her room. She does not know how to find him, and she doesn't want to let the other workers know that she has it. When she returns from a job across town, she discovers that the wallet has gone missing - and the culprit could be any of the other people in the massage parlor! 

Poor Shuangxi! She becomes so frantic and doesn't know what to do when the wallet goes missing. She is terrified because she doesn't want to be accused of stealing it, and if it goes completely missing, how will she return it if the customer comes back? When she opens the wallet and sees the money in it, she immediately worries about the Romanian - it must be his whole salary! she frets. I always enjoy characters who are legitimately good people, and this is that kind of story. 

Read Wang Bang's short story "Free!

  • Excerpts from “Nine Short Pieces” by Li Juan (China), translated by Brendan O’Kane

The final selection in this anthology is a collection of short pieces that rest somewhere between fiction and literary nonfiction. A woman writes exquisite descriptions of the fabric she sells online. The narrator (author?) reads a thick book of fairy tales in traditional Chinese at nine years old, something that she cannot replicate years later as an adult. Hulun Bes is a deep dark forest, and if you don't sing while walking through it at night you will never escape. A writer plans to write a book about a big fish, and tells people about it for years before actually starting. 

From the standpoint of the writing alone, this piece is probably my favorite in the collection. What exquisite, beautiful, beautiful writing, perched somewhere between life and stories! Of these short pieces, my favorite is the one about the book of fairytales. I have never before read a description of this phenomenon, of having read something as a child that to my grown-up mind seems impossible. How did I read that then? I can't now. And yet the stories are in my brain, waiting in an unformed place in my memory - and if I can just jog that memory, they will all come rushing back.

Read Li Juan's short stories "The Road to the Weeping Spring" and "The Han Children of Kurti."

A wonderful ending to a wonderful collection of stories. I cannot recommend this anthology enough.

Chutzpah! New Voices from China is available on Amazon US/UK/IN and from Wordery and Book Depository

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