Today’s Book Review Seminar with Xi Chuan features Chris Lupke’s review of my translations, Notes on the Mosquito. Because it’s still forthcoming in print, I can’t reproduce the entire review, but here’s an excerpt of Lupke’s intricate and sensitive take on Xi Chuan’s poetry and its importance in China and the world:
The density of his poetry aside, the other trial facing me and any reader at this time is that we have no serviceable nomenclature for what Xi Chuan is doing, particularly his work of the past ten years or so. He is engaged in an unprecedented project to recast literary expression in contemporary China. And we do not know, cannot now know, whether the results of his project eventually will be the idiosyncratic work of one man, or whether he is setting a path, one possible path, for other poets to follow. Xi Chuan exists at a special time in Chinese literary history when form has finally matured in modern Chinese poetry, when the anxiety of influence can be tempered by several generations of earlier modern poets who bore the major brunt of being compared with the illustrious tradition of classical Chinese poetry and when experiments with Western poetic structures have by and large been cast aside. The successes of free verse poets from Taiwan such as Yang Mu, Yu Guangzhong, Wai-lim Yip (Cantonese, but educated in Taiwan), and others have established a solid corpus in the vernacular mode. Obscure poets from China have safely neutralized the once suffocating omnipresence of Maospeak. Through the use of internal rhymes, rhythmic repetition, alliteration and assonance, Xi Chuan is able to forge his work in an environment in which the so-called avant-garde (which to date has not been adequately defined in China) is the norm. Liberated from the twin strictures of classical Chinese and Western prosody, Xi Chuan has become a successful bricoleur, a world poet who interacts with the tradition, engages literary giants of China’s past within his work, and also establishes a dialogue with Western greats such as Homer, Petrarch, Baudelaire, Rilke, Pound, Gary Snyder, and others. His work is the product of a creative dialectics that violates Hu Shi’s admonition to eschew literary allusion while embracing his demand to articulate things in the vernacular. The conflicts that Xi Chuan bespeaks in his poetry are not those of a clash of civilizations, of traditional and modernity or East and West. Rather, they are internal conflicts, conflicts of the soul. His work is completely personal and untranslatable to others, not just linguistically but emotionally. But at the same time, his problems are genuine and are no different than those that give pain to each of us: the death of friends and family, frustration over failure, difficulty communicating to others, weakness and ineffectuality, humiliation, fear, lust, and limitation. “The one with the greatest vision is blind” 最具视觉功夫的人竟然是个瞎子, he flatly observers, “if Homer wasn’t blind, then whoever created Homer must have been” 如果荷马不是瞎子，那创作了荷马的人必是瞎子. And he concludes at the end of the same poem: “Nietzsche the last son of Dionysus, never touching a drop, still went crazy in Weimar” 尼采酒神的最后一个儿子，滴酒不沾，却也在魏玛疯疯癫癫 (109). Genius has its consequences. It’s not a game.
Hope you can attend!
Date: 1 November, 2012 (Thursday)
Time: 5:00 – 6:30 p.m.
Venue: G4302, Green Zone, 4/F, Academic 1, City University of Hong Kong.
“Can great lasting literature find a reader in America?” I think so, do you?
“Literature is not a boxing match, though sometimes it can appear that way given the polarizing passions it can generate.” So begins yesterday morning’s Times “View from Asia,” a piece by the reporter Didi Kristen Tatlow entitled “In 3 Awards, 3 Ways of Seeing China.” This is the second and more balanced piece she has published in the Times in a week. Indeed, over the last two months, three Chinese writers have won prestigious international awards, including the novelist Mo Yan (Nobel Prize for Literature), the writer/journalist Liao Yiwu (Peace Prize for the German Book Trade), and the Taiwanese poet Yang Mu (Newman Prize for Chinese Literature), but Tatlow’s piece misses some important opportunities that need to be addressed in one of the few forums where readers have access to such discussions. Tatlow’s piece includes fantastic comments from Hong Kong poet Leung Ping-kwan (a/k/a PK) and scholar Michelle Yeh that go a long way toward complicating the “either/or” nature of her first piece which now rather famously ends with the hyperbolic question, “Can great, lasting literature come from there [China]? The Nobel committee thinks so. Do you?” Tatlow’s more recent piece still gives the impression that Mo Yan’s award was given to the PRC ruling party rather than an author. Tatlow simplifies her discussion of Mo Yan with a single quotation from a government official, and she implies that the other two awards were somehow less ideologically implicated—i.e., awarded fairly. I cannot speak to the selection process of the Peace Prize for the German Book Trade, but as the Juror Coordinator for this year’s Newman Prize, I would agree that the Newman Prize represents an important, transparent international award for Chinese Literature. This award is conferred by the University of Oklahoma (named for Ruth and Harold Newman and established by Pete Gries), where a jury of leading international literary scholars weighs literary merit to find the writer who best represents the human condition in written Chinese (from anywhere in the world). Yang Mu won the award because the jury saw his work as a reflection of these high ideals. What Tatlow did not mention is that the Newman Prize honored Mo Yan in 2008, the year a Newman jury selected him for representing the pinnacle of these humanist ideals.
Now, one week later, it seems as though it has been decided that this year’s Nobel committee has forgone the category of literature and simply awarded two peace prizes. Peace prize winners are heroes (to many though perhaps not all) as their lives reveal brave choices under unimaginable conditions. These choices and their ramifications become public record, and that record is the primary text of their cultural production (their writings, then often become paratexts that derive their import from the centrifuge of their lived experiences).
Novelists and poets, on the other hand, simply are not heroes in this sense, and they receive awards according to the cultural prestige they accrue based on their creative contributions to literature and culture. The Nobel Prize for Literature like the Book Prize, Pulitzer Prize as well as the Newman Prize and the Neustadt Prize (for which Mo Yan was a nominee in 1998), are conferred upon literary merit, an artistic basis that does not diminish Peace Prizes but complements them by way of further clarifying the work (and sacrifices) of political figures (who often are writers and/or orators). Such a distinction is essential and should be vigorously protected at such times as these. The value of literature lies in its innovative, creative labors, and running sensationalist pieces that reduce authors to simplistic pawns in geopolitical chess matches discourage people from engaging this labor (especially when it comes in the form of literature in translation) and this is simply not good stewardship of our common culture. This does not mean that geopolitical conversations should not take place, but that literaturists need to be bolder and assert the importance of the work writers do and why it is deserving of (critical) attention, for authors are linguistic technicians building the languages we need to describe the shifting, multiple worlds around us. I think that moments like these should entice literary critics to engage the public culture more directly and defend not Mo Yan alone, but literature more generally from the grip of language unable or simply uninterested in digging into the work literature is/does.
Chinese Literature Today
University of Oklahoma
Mo Yan 莫言, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, continues to be a topic of conversation. Following yesterday’s posting of “A Westerner’s Reflection on Mo Yan,” here are three other links to the relationship between Mo Yan–and by extension, Chinese literature, if not China–and the world.
Then Julia Lovell, translator and author of The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, weighs in on the political responses in China and the “intellectually lazy … Western observers” in “Mo Yan’s Creative Space.”
Then, looking at Yang Mu 楊牧 winning the Newman Prize, Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 winning the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, and Mo Yan winning the Nobel–all in the space of a few days–Didi Kirsten Tatlow looks at “In 3 Awards, 3 Ways of Seeing China,” quoting observations from P K Leung and Michelle Yeh.
In the zone of rain shadows, at the moment of losing
My winding way, the star is the only guide
Your contemplation is an ocean, you are endless brooding
At night, in the morning, at the moment when mountain shadows
Retreat from my side table, we recall the time before exile
Click here to read all three.
Yang was nominated by UC Davis professor Michelle Yeh, co-translator with Lawrence R. Smith of Yang’s collection No Trace of the Gardener (another volume, translated by Joseph Allen, was published as Forbidden Games & Video Poems: The Poetry of Lo Chʻing [羅青]). The other nominees were Hsia Yü 夏宇, Yang Lian 杨炼, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, and Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, nominated by Jennifer Feeley (U. Iowa, USA), Michel Hockx (U. London SOAS, UK), Wolfgang Kubin (Bonn U., Germany), and Zhang Qinghua 张清华 (BNU, PRC), respectively.
Rare for contemporary Chinese poetry, all nominated poets have single-author collections available in English translation. Coincidentally, three of the nominees–Hsia, Zhai, and Ouyang–have had their only books in English published by Zephyr Press.
“The Pocketwatch,” a new translation of a Huang Chunming story (by Howard Goldblatt)
Translations of Yang Mu’s poetry (by Arthur Sze and Michelle Yeh)
Translations of Ye Mimi’s poetry (by Steve Bradbury)
Dylan Suher essay on Qian Zhongshu, that also serves as a review of Humans, Beasts and Ghosts: The Collected Short Stories of Qian Zhongshu (translated by Christopher G. Rea)
Also see the January 2012 issue for my translations of Xi Chuan‘s “Beast” 巨兽, “The Distance” 远方, and “Poison” 毒药, and hear a recording of “The Distance” read in Chinese by Huang Yin-Nan.