“Over the years, I stared at her whenever I got the chance, drawn by the way a room’s energy inevitably centered on her. She had thick grey hair, chopped short, in which she was always losing her hands. She could silence a room with those hands. I witnessed countless moments when she would interrupt someone then outline the ways in which that person was very, very wrong. And I found myself feeling both admiration and sympathy for those who had been silenced.” Karen Shepard remembers her grandmother.
I think I like Ah Cheng because he is crazy, and crazy people transcend the cultures that produce them.
The premier English-language translator of modern Chinese fiction, Howard Goldblatt, says flatly that Western audiences don’t read Chinese books. However, with last year’s Nobel Prize win for Mo Yan (and the rave review his novel Pow! received in the Times), Goldblatt and other scholars are hoping that could change.
In the Wake of Finnegan: A Q & A with Xujun Eberlein
This week’s Q & A is with the China-born and now Boston-based Xujun Eberlein, a short story writer, blogger, essayist, and contributor to LARB.
I contacted Xujun in part simply because I was curious to learn her reaction to two recent literary-minded and China-focused New York Times pieces. One focused on the surprisingly brisk sales in China of a book by James Joyce, while the other was a commentary by NPR Beijing bureau chief Louisa Lim on trends in censorship and the popularity of Chinese “officialdom novels.” Both brought Xujun to mind, since she has often reflected on the flow of books and ideas between China and the West and she has written an essay on the “officialdom novel” genre.
She was good enough to break up her Lunar New Year trip back to Chongqing to speak with me.
Jeff Wasserstrom: Do you have any thoughts on why Finnegans Wake might be selling so well in China?
Xujun Eberlein: I was curious about this myself. I’m in Chongqing for Chinese New Year and I went to the Xinhua Bookstore downtown on Saturday (February 9) to have a look at the book. A young staff member led me to the desk where the Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake (the yellow cover at the center of the above photo) was on display with other new and noteworthy books. As you may see from the photo, next to Finnegans Wake is the translation of polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, which has a supplementary band to note the author is a Nobel Laureate. The red cover on the right is a Chinese popular novel titled Love SMSs. I asked the young man how Finnegans Wake was selling there and he said “Not bad.” He noted that its sales were similar to One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. When asked what kind of readers were buying it, he said “mostly young people.”
Now we kind of wish they’d start aggressively advertising Finnegans Wake in the United States, too. Imagine a billboard (or maybe a few miles of separate billboards) spelling out this word along the side of a highway: klikkaklakkaklaskaklopatzklatschabattacreppycrottygraddaghsemmihsammihnouithappluddyappladdypkonpkot
In ancient times, there was a famous chef named Pao Ding, who was an expert at carving up cows. In modern times, there was a man who was an expert at sizing them up—my father. In Pao Ding’s eyes, cows were nothing but bones and edible flesh. That’s what they were in my father’s eyes, too. Pao Ding’s vision was as sharp as a knife; my father’s was as sharp as a knife and as accurate as a scale. What I mean to say is: if you were to lead a live cow up to my father, he’d take two turns around it, three at most, occasionally sticking his hand up under the animal’s foreleg—just for show—and confidently report its gross weight and the quantity of meat on its bones, always to within a kilo of what might register on the digital scale used in England’s largest cattle slaughterhouse.
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
Su Hui’s 841-character poem can be read forward, backward, horizontally, diagonally, and vertically.
Yea, sure, a 20-million-year-old lake beneath Antarctica is cool and all… but what about a 300-million-year-old forest beneath a Chinese coal mine?