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Why This Book Should Win – Snow and Shadow by Guest Critic Christine Palau

Christine Zoe Palau is the speechwriter at the Korean Consulate in Los Angeles. She plays accordion, writes theatre reviews for the Noho Arts District, and has recently completed her first novel.

Snow and Shadow – Dorothy Tse, Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman, Hong Kong
Muse Magazine Project

Dorothy Tse’s collection of thirteen stories will force you to experience life in ways you’ve never imagined. While often outlandish, the stories make perfect sense on a metaphysical level. Her paragraphs are paintings that transport you to bizarre places (bartering amputated limbs for sex, why not?). You don’t necessarily want to become a part of these worlds, but you do recognize the truth in them.

You will want to read these stories aloud to hear the rhythm of the language. And that rhythm, no matter how gruesome the image (an elephant-sized fridge filled with bird corpses), will make you feel as if there could be no other way to say what was said.

Absurd, surreal, and morose. Kafka, Gogol, and Cortázar might pop into your head. A wife turns into a fish; a father donates his head to his son; and another father can’t distinguish between reality and a cop series he’s obsessed with. Maybe this sounds familiar, but I assure you it’s not.

For all the savage imagery of death and dismembering, the stories are filled with life and longing. The longing for sleep comes up quite a bit. A whole story is devoted to that. In “Bed,” the need for proper sleep becomes a compulsive desire.

“I longed for the lights to go out quickly, and the bed to settle into a whirlpool as thick and black as tar so I could sink into a bottomless sleep.”

The sleep that’s so coveted in “Bed,” and in some of the other stories, seems to be more connected to one’s personal freedom. Dreaming is the only time we’re really free, when we can’t control our thoughts or be controlled. Ultimately it’s the unconscious mind that takes us on these cathartic journeys that distract us from reality, and sometimes even help us transform our realities.

“The Muted Door” is a story of displacement, desire, and dialectics. It’s also my favorite.

“The door is constructed in such a way as to conceal the fact that it does not exist. Precisely because entering and departing leaves no trace, it becomes necessary to suggest it by means of this pantomime. Thus all doors are symbolic, and we can only grope our way blindly. Nothing limits us, nothing protects us. Decisions are impossible.”

This is followed by a stranger, as he’s called, not being able to find the apartment he’s supposed to deliver pizza to. It’s his first day on the job, his first pizza, and the fifty-minute deadline already passed. The stranger is at “an experiment, now abandoned, in the history of housing development in City 24,” also known as the Displacement Apartments.

“For the residents, the apartments are like face-down playing cards on a table top moving around, taking their doors with them in a completely random way. That is to say, when the residents leave their apartments, they have to go through the process of finding them once more, with no rules to follow.”

And when they do leave, they bring a suitcase with them so they can camp out in the corridor when they can’t find their way home.

“Their apartment is as unreachable as the motherland. Some will find themselves pressing a stranger’s doorbell as if longing in this strange land for a chance encounter with a substitute lover, or seeking to make temporary use of a warm bath, soft bedding, and comfort.”

It’s impossible to read Tse’s stories and not think about the political situation in Hong Kong, especially given the themes of metamorphosis, memory and forgetting, and exile that flow throughout this collection.

In an essay for Drunken Boat titled “The Imagination of Collapsible Umbrellas” Tse compares the arrested protestors in Hong Kong with the revolutionaries in the movie Snowpiercer, “when the leaders and intellectuals in the train think they have control of the overall structure of ‘reality’ and believe dictatorship is the best way to ensure human survival in a harsh environment, only those who dare to take a risk can break out of the unimaginative ‘reality’ and turn an unknown path into a possible way out.”

Which brings me to the final story, “Snow and Shadow,” about, perhaps, the most twisted love triangle ever. Speaking to her serving woman moments after she grafts human flesh onto the face of a deer, the princess, Snow, says, “No one can achieve real happiness unless they liberate themselves from the castle of destiny.”

This struggle for liberation is at the core of each of Tse’s stories. Anything is possible, and that’s both exciting and terrifying. With Snow and Shadow, translator Nicky Harman has earned a place in my heart alongside George Szirtes and Edith Grossman. I will seek out her work, because I know that her translations honor the original by grasping the psychology of the author, the characters and the worlds they inhabit, resulting in the truth—ugly and beautiful—every time. Isn’t that reason enough to win the BTBA?



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