Xi Xi 西西 has been awarded the 2019 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, and on March 7, at the University of Oklahoma, Tammy Ho, who nominated her, read a speech about her work.
Both Xi Xi’s prose and fiction have inspired my own writing over the years. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, I wrote a short story modelled on Xi Xi’s A Girl Like Me … Xi Xi does not always write from the perspective of women, of course—her range is too great for that and her concerns and interests too broad—but her writings that do explore the daily lives of women and their interior thoughts and feelings have, no doubt, given voice to many women and emboldened them to start writing themselves. And Xi Xi’s poetry about the small, often ephemeral, things that make life more delightful and contemplative, the people she meets, the places she frequents, the tales of seemingly insignificant individuals—what we call 小城故事 (small city stories)—have touch that is simultaneously light and profound. Xi Xi’s approach to poetry has also informed my own verse: to take inspiration from what can be seen, concretely felt, happily or patiently experienced—to take inspiration from life and living itself.
Here’s a let-down of a travelogue: Irish poet Harry Clifton went to China and wrote about it for The Irish Times. At the invitation of Bao Huyi 包慧怡, and also led around by Zhai Yongming 翟永明, he nevertheless manages not to be able to write anything of particular insight into contemporary Chinese poetry–despite the article’s tag being about how “Harry Clifton was bowled over by nation’s teeming life on trip through its poetic heartland,” despite being in the company of two of China’s most interesting poets.
This wonderfully preposterous event, involving Chinese professors, university students, joint-smoking hill-tribe poets and illiterates off the street, left me with an abiding conviction – that there is such a thing as inspired misunderstanding between peoples of goodwill comically ignorant of each other, which creates an energy that never would otherwise have existed. Beneath the flashing lights and projected texts on the walls, with Ms Zhai in her feisty hat puffing away in front of me, I realised something as old as the transfer of Zoroastrian texts up the Silk Road was happening, and with roughly the same level of comprehension.
Yes, there is “inspired misunderstanding,” but there’s also just not really connecting. I hope the next time an English-language newspaper commissions a poet to write something about a trip to China, the paper can be sure that the poet will do the appropriate research to make some sense of what goes on during the trip.
Disappointed with W.H. Auden’s Chinese sonnets, which he calls “all gigantism and moralising abstraction, with the human reality lost in its shadow,” Clifton promises “to write [his] own Chinese sonnets, with the life of the place inside them.” 加油!
The Cikada Prize 2018 is awarded to the Chinese poet Xi Chuan!
Founded in 2004 to commemorate the 100th birthday of Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, the Cikada Prize is given to East Asian poets whose work “defend the inviolability of life.” They write:
This year’s winner is Xi Chuan (official name Liu Jun), poet, essayist, translator, born in the city of Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, in 1963. Xi Chuan studied English literature at Beijing University from 1981 to 1985, and was a visiting scholar to the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa in 2002, and Orion Scholar to the University of Victoria, Canada in 2009. He is currently teaching Classical Chinese Literature at the School of Liberal Arts, Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.
The prize was handed out during a prize ceremony in Beijing, arranged in close cooperation with the Swedish Embassy.
4 June 2019 will mark thirty years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, when the Chinese government crushed the nascent democracy movement led by students and workers. The ensuing decades have brought tumultuous changes to the culture, politics, economics of China and the whole world. To honour the struggle of the democracy protesters, mourn their defeat, and take stock of the last three decades, Cha: An Asian Literary Journalis convening a special feature of translations and original English works, to be co-edited by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming and Lucas Klein, for publication in the June 2019 issue of the journal.
We are looking for high-quality and
previously unpublished poems, stories, remembrances, essays, and works
of creative nonfiction, either originally written in English or
translated from any of China’s languages into English, on the topic of
the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and its aftermath.
Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The subject line should read “Tiananmen—[Your name]—Genre”. The deadline for submissions is 31 March 2019. Please follow our guidelinesclosely.
Ha Jin 哈金 has written a biography of Li Bai 李白, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, newly published by Pantheon–and Gina Elia has reviewed it for SupChina.
At points, her review gets into the intricate issues of what different contexts do to and for our readings of specific texts:
I, for one, feel that this understanding of Li Bai the man, rather than Li Bai the legend, causes the beauty of his poetry to resonate all the more. For example, Ha Jin explains that Li Bai wrote his poem “Please Drink” while in the midst of a lovely moonlit night he spent with two friends drinking, joking, and shouting out improvised lines of original poetry to one another. The scene represents a rare moment of levity and delight for Li Bai in a life largely full of failure and disappointment. My favorite part consists of the last few lines of the poem, which reads, “Let us buy wine and enjoy it at any cost. My dappled horse and gorgeous fur robe, let your boy take both to the shop and exchange them for good wine so we can drown our sorrow of ten thousand years.” Before I read Jin’s book, I read these lines as a pleasantly-worded ode to the delights of drinking. Reading it again in the context of Li Bai’s personal life, it takes on a more nuanced and bittersweet air to me. Now it speaks to me as an observation of the fleeting and transient nature of moments of joy in life, which is otherwise mostly fraught with difficulties.
But for all of Jin’s valiant attempts at excavating the man from the myth under which he’s buried, it is admittedly difficult to separate fact from legend when discussing someone who lived over a millennium ago, and Jin occasionally does fall under the trap of mythologizing his subject. Take the poet’s ethnicity, for instance. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Li Bai may have been born in Suyab, Kyrgyzstan, and that his family relocated to Sichuan when he was a young child. After explaining this, Jin writes, “The truth is that the poet has long been uprooted from any specific place and belongs to the world,” a lovely turn of phrase implying that this important part of Li Bai’s family history is irrelevant to appreciating him as a poet.
Yet in the next paragraph, Jin insists that it’s fair to consider Li Bai Chinese at least in his heart, since he wrote about China as his home throughout his life. The author says, “For our purposes, it is entirely reasonable to assume that he was an overseas Chinese — a Chinese from a foreign land — if not a half Chinese.” For our purposes? What purposes? The attempt here to urge readers to consider Li Bai Chinese — in essence, if not in reality — perhaps reveals a bias of the author.