6 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of The White Review is incredibly stacked. There’s an interview with Vladimir Sorokin. A piece by Enrique Vila-Matas. Poems by Gerður Kristný. Art by Mark Mulroney (we used to drink together and go to Rochester Red Wings games!).

But if that’s not enough, or, if you’re too cheap to spend the £14.99 (UK) / £18.99 (Rest of World) (which, to be honest, is pretty steep given the awful exchange rate . . . I could buy a hundred sandwiches for the cost of a subscription), you should definitely check out all the free online content.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Vertical Motion by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping (You can buy the entire collection here.);
  • To Kill a Dog by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Lanctot;
  • The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet;
  • The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke;
  • Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu;
  • Leg over Leg by Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies.

I don’t need Bookish’s algorithm to state that if you check out all of those samples, you’ll find at least one book that you’ll want to read.

25 September 13 | Chad W. Post |

Last week I had the opportunity to interview Can Xue as part of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. We ended up writing out our interview ahead of time, so I thought I would share it here. Enjoy!

Born in China, where her parents were persecuted as being “ultra-rightists” by the Anti-rightest Movement of 1957. As a result, her father was jailed, her mother and two brothers were sent to the countryside for “re-education.” Can Xue was raised by her grandmother, suffered from tuberculosis, and faced a series of hardships.

In 1983, she began writing, and here first short story was published in 1985. After that, there’s been no looking back, and, according to Wikipedia, as of 2009 she’s written three novels, fifty novellas, 120 short stories, and six book-length commentaries. Of these, six books have appeared in English translation—Dialogues in Paradise, Old Floating Cloud, The Enbroidered Shoes, Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories, Five Spice Street, and Vertical Motion—with Yale University Press publishing another novel next year, and a critical piece on Kafka.

Can Xue’s prose has attracted a lot of attention from writers and critics, including such great American writers as Robert Coover and Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions magazine, which has published a number of Can Xue’s stories—the first two people to mention Can Xue’s work to me. Her reputation has continued to grow, recently attracting high praise from The Mountain Goats frontman, John Darnielle, and being the featured author in the forthcoming issue of Music and Literature.

Frequently characterized as “avant-garde,” Can Xue’s writing operates under its own logic, a unique overlapping of images that explode “conventional” storytelling approaches, instead creating a sort of shifting landscape that forces the reader to engage closely with the text.

For example, here’s a bit from “Vertical Motion,” the title story of the collection that we published:

We are little critters who live in the black earth beneath the desert. The people on Mother Earth can’t imagine such a large expanse of fertile humus lying dozens of meters beneath the boundless desert. Our race has lived here for generations. We have neither eyes nor any olfactory sense. In this large nursery, such apparatus is useless. Our lives are simple, for we merely use our long beaks to dig the earth, eat the nutritious soil, and then excrete it. We live in happiness and harmony because we have abundant resources in our hometown. Thus, we can all eat our fill without a dispute arising. At any rate, I’ve never heard of one.

The mixture of Can Xue’s beautifully strange prose with such complex structures is the main reason so many writers and critics are intrigued, and frequently obsessed with, her works.

Chad W. Post: I want to talk more about Can Xue’s aesthetic beliefs in a bit, but for now I thought I’d start off with a few simple, scene-setting questions. First off, what made you decide to become a writer?

Can Xue:I decided to become a writer when I was thirty years old. But I think before that I had been preparing for this, actually, since I was three years old. I still remember those things which happened when I was three and four years old. At that time I always made stories up in my heart about people, about animals, about plants around me—simple stories, happy stories, exciting stories, even horrible stories. But all these stories had good ending. Sometimes these stories lasted several days, even longer. And in all these stories, I was a leading role. I loved to make up my own stories. But I didn’t get any chance to publish any thing until I was thirty, when my preparation was complete. After the situation in China changed, all the literary things happened to me naturally. I have been like an erupting volcano ever since.

Another factor made me decide to become a writer, I think, was because of the circumstances in China. I was born in fifties, that was an idealistic time—people in China were very poor then, almost no one could pursue material wealth. My parents were firm communists, their hearts were very pure. So, in my family, the only thing that children could pursue were spiritual things. I remember the most enjoyable thing in my life was reading. I read and read, never stopping until today.

CWP: I could make some pretty good guesses about this, but what authors to do see as influences on your work?

CX: In my younger years (from thirteen to twenty-five), I loved Chinese writer Lu Xun and Red Chamber, the ancient novel. And I also loved Russian writers—Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and so on. In the late seventies, I got ahold of some western classics, and I was so deeply engrossed by them! I think the authors I loved most are these: Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Kafka, Goethe, Borges, Calvino, Bruno Schulz, and Rilke’s poetry.

CWP: Over the past thirty years you’ve generated quite a number of pieces, ranging from critical essays to novels to novellas to short stories—how are you able to produce so much? Or, more to the point, what is your writing process like? (I read the interview in Asymptote, and the bit about not editing your work, and your amazing output, reminds me of Cesar Aira.)

CX: Maybe my writing process is unique. Everyday I write a page. I just get my pen and a notebook, sit down and write for an hour. Then I leave it as it is. I never have a structure in my mind beforehand, and I never revise my fictions—both short ones and long ones. This is how I write my fiction. For thirty years, I write almost every day, even during festivals. I had never been to a festival. That’s why I have produced so many works.

CWP: For a lot of readers your works can seem “challenging,” at least at first glance. Do you have advice for readers who are first approaching your work?

CX: Yes, I always give advice for readers when I publish my works. In my mind, my ideal readers are these: those who have read some works by the modernist writers, and who love metaphysical thinking and material thinking—both capabilities are needed for the reading of Can Xue.

CWP: Before getting more deeply into your aesthetic beliefs, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the literary scene in China. From an American perspective, it’s always been a bit difficult to get a handle on what’s going on in contemporary literature, although with Mo Yan being awarded the Nobel Prize, and websites like Paper-Republic starting up, that’s starting to change. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another Chinese writer writing anything like you do. What is the writing scene like in China these days? How has it changed over the past thirty years?

CX: A good question. I also think that the Chinese know much more about America and the West than you know about China. In China, in the early eighties, a group of young writers studied western literature quite deeply, and these western classics opened their field of vision. They produced quite a number of good works. Can Xue was one among them. The group are all born in fifties or sixties—a very idealistic group. That was a literary era full of hope. But since the nineties, almost everybody in this group has changed their mind. They felt that they had had enough the West, and now want to return to their own tradition, which is much greater than the Western tradition. So their works, except a very few writers, have become more and more traditional, more and more readable. People welcomed this great regression. But I think this returning is the death of a language and a soul. Because our own cultural tradition has not got enough strength to support a new writing, the only way to develop it is by blood transfusion. I think as a Chinese writer, I should criticize my culture severely, only having done so, I get the possibility to develop it.

As for my own writing, the readers in China think that I’m very difficult but unique among Chinese writers. I dare say, no fiction writers in China has studied the Western literature and Western philosophy so exhaustively like Can Xue.

CWP: Although there are a lot of pieces of yours that have yet to be translated into English, you are one of the most translated Chinese writers, with books published by Northwestern, New Directions, Yale University Press, and Open Letter. How did you first get translated, and what has this process been like for you?

CX: That’s a long story. In 1986 in Shanghai, a student gave two of Can Xue’s stories to Ron Jansson, my earliest translator. He read the stories and decided immediately to translate them into English. He did the work with a Chinese colleague, Zhang Jian, and got more stories and two novellas published—three books altogether.

In the mid 1990s, Ron Jansson got very ill, so my English versions weren’t published in the United States continuously. Then Karen Gernant found Can Xue and she got in touch with me. Karen, along with Chen Zeping, have done a lot of work—also three books, including Vertical Motion from Open Letter and Five Spice Street, a novel published by Yale Press. Also a libretto for an opera performed in Germany, and some essays. They are continuing their translating now. I think Karen is a talented translator, and she and I have a lot common topics in literature.

Recently, Yale Press has found a new translator for Can Xue—Annelise, a young woman. She’s translating my new novel—The Last Lover. I’m very happy to get these precious friends in the United States!

CWP: Do you work closely with your translators? I believe that your forthcoming Yale book is being translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, a young, extremely talented translator—how did she end up working with you?

CX: Yes, I work closely with Karen, Chen Zeping, and now, Annelise, I read their translations, and give my comments. Yes, I also think Annelise has a high talent for languages. Sometimes her English translation is better than my Chinese original!

CWP: OK, this a very long intro into a slightly different part of the conversation, so bear with me. I want to first read a bit from your afterword to Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories:

The particular characteristics of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.
I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventions, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Since writing this, has your approach, or thinking about your aesthetic changed at all?

CX: Basically, my stance, my way, and my thinking is always the same. But I’ve developed a lot since that time. My new thinking is that my experimental fictions have the same core as Western Philosophy. And in a sense, these kind of works are a new development to Classical Philosophy. Now I’m trying hard to open up a road for Western Philosophy, which has come to a standstill for many years.

CWP: In reading the recent Asymptote magazine interview a few things struck me, namely that when you talk about your aesthetic or the reasons you write the way you write, or the way that readers can only properly “understand” your stories is by struggling to understand them, your focus seems to be mostly on the process of creating and the creative process of reading. For me, this ties in with a comment you made about your fiction being “a performance.” In what way do you see your fiction as a performance? How does this relate to your view of yourself as an “experimental” writer?

CX: Yes, I think that you are absolutely right! You understand Can Xue very well. In the nineties when I studied Western literature, I found a metaphysical structure in these writers’ works: Borges, Kafka, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, Calvino, and so on, even in the Bible. According to this structure, you can read their works as the process of creating and reading. Very few writers have this talent. Meanwhile, I found that Can Xue’s works had the same structure as these writers. And I felt that it was not painstaking, it’s an natural thing like giving birth. But why do all these first-rate writers have a same structure? After a hard and long period of studying, I have understood that the structure is just the structure of Great Nature, of course, it is also the structure of humanity. I expect that for great times to come to us, we artists should give performances, waking up people’s souls, I feel it’s a very urgent thing to do. This kind of literature actually means that one stands out, acting one’s own being. That’s why I said it was a performance.

19 July 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of Asymptote is now available, and GOD DAMN is it loaded. Just read this intro note from the editors:

Every translation is a conversation, each translator in dialogue with the original author, each language speaking to another. Asymptote’s Summer issue is full of such conversations, perhaps most notably our exclusive interview with best-selling author turned translator David Mitchell, who together with his wife, K.A. Yoshida, translated a memoir of autism by the 13-year-old Naoki Higashida. We also got to speak to Tan Twan Eng, the first Malaysian Man Asian Literary Prize-winner, and avant-gardist Can Xue, whom Susan Sontag singled out as the one Chinese writer worthy of the Nobel Prize. Ottilie Mulzet finds her conversation partners translating Hungarian masters László Krasznahorkai and Szilárd Borbély. Q&As with playwrights Maria Cassi and Chantal Bilodeau, meanwhile, shine their light on this issue’s Special Feature: Self-Translation in Drama; or, when a translator is faced with her worst enemy: herself!

Writing doesn’t always have to be straightforward or even legible, as the asemic writing of Michael Jacobson shows. 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize winner Fady Joudah’s elliptical essay on translation challenges the reader, just as Rachel Shihor’s parabolic fiction does (and you can learn more about contemporary Israeli fiction in Yardenne Greenspan’s overview). Our Fiction section has crystallized around the theme of departure; whether in László Krasznahorkai’s tantalizing short piece, Wu Ming-Yi’s tale about the cast-out second sons of Wayo Wayo Island, or Melanie Taylor Herrera’s “The Voyage,” set in 17th century Panama, all these stories address just what happens when we leave all that we have and are behind. The lyrical black-and-white photographs of Guillaume Gilbert, our guest artist, extend this theme throughout this issue, capturing frozen moments just before.

Beginning with an ekphrastic and closing with a meditation on sculpture, the poetry in this edition is profoundly concerned with the elemental: the basic structures of our physical and metaphysical worlds. Pierre Peuchmaurd’s eye observes and unflinchingly records, Kim Kyung Ju’s inner world is overwhelmed by its contact with the outside world; Ihor Pavlyuk, our first Ukrainian author, like a mussel, senses “the whisper/ Of distant tides.” The attitude is one of “feeling the whole hunger,” of attempting to express something large via the small and the sensual. Each poet is presented with an audio recording in the original language, sometimes, as with Ulrike Almut Sandig and Enrique Winter, with astonishing musical accompaniment.

Again: godDAMN.

Of most interest to me is the interview with Can Xue,= whose Vertical Motion we published a couple years back.

You’re a remarkably prolific writer, having written over a hundred short stories and dozens of novellas and critical essays. Yet only a fraction of those works have been translated into English. Are there any works of yours that have not been translated that you would like to see translated?

At present, two of my full-length novels have already been translated. And it was recently announced that the latest [translation] of my novella The Last Lover, which is currently still being edited, will be published by Yale University Press in the spring of 2014. Dozens of medium-length and shorter works have been translated into English. I estimate that some 13 million Chinese characters of my works have been translated—is that really a small amount? My output is very consistent, and that’s very difficult for a writer to do. My wildest dream is to get all of my works published in the United States.

With regard to your writing process, you’ve said in interviews that your writing comes from your subconscious, and that a good writer should not know what he or she is writing. What do you think of when you begin a story?

The subconscious by itself is actually not the deciding factor; every individual has a subconscious. The key lies in whether you can unleash it to create. Here there is a complicated mechanism, and I can only explain it from the vantage point of philosophy and art. In five or six years, I plan to write a book, Philosophy of Art. In that book, I’ll elaborate my thoughts on these issues based on my experience practicing art and the fruits of my intensive research into Western philosophy. I’ve already been writing for over thirty years, and the writing method I use is precisely the creative method of modern art: Reason monitors from afar. Emotions are completely unleashed. I turn towards the dark abyss of consciousness and plunge in, and in the tension between those two forces, I build the fantastic, idealist plots of my stories. I think that people who are able to write in the way I write must possess an immense primitive energy and a strongly logical spirit. Only in this way can they maintain total creativity amid a divided consciousness. In China, I have not seen a writer who is capable of sustaining that kind of creativity for many years.

The structure in your work can be so difficult to discern—both in terms of narrative structure and in the way the images connect to one another—that it’s hard to imagine just how you shape your stories. How do you edit a Can Xue story?

I never edit my stories. I just grab a pen and write, and every day I write a paragraph. For more than thirty years, it’s always been like this. I believe that I am surrounded by a powerful “aura,” and that’s the secret of my success. Successful artists are all able to manipulate the “balance of forces“—they’re that kind of extraordinarily talented people.

In addition to the piece by László Krasznahorkai,= the other piece that got me excited is this interview= with David Mitchell

In a way, [Mitchell’s] last two books beautifully set the stage for The Reason I Jump, a memoir by then 13-year-old Naoki Higashida and now translated from the Japanese by Mitchell and his wife, K.A. Yoshida. This is their first translation. As a portrait of a boy whose ‘disability’ inhibits his communication with the outside world, this slim work is unparalleled, and though its aims may be humble and small in scale (to help explain the reasons why Higashida, and by extension other, similarly autistic people, do the things they do), the revelation of a previously illegible mind suddenly legible on the page is not.

Like Reif Larsen, you’ve already had to answer many questions posed by translators about your work, but did you yourself have any experience as a translator before this book? And what do you now think of translation as a creative activity?

This is my debut as a translator. The exercise has confirmed my long-held suspicion that my translators are three times cleverer than me, with a better command of English as well as the ‘into-language,’ plus a knowledge of the mysterious art and science that is translation itself. As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word-nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock.

Someone once said that all writing is translating—if only translating the language of thought onto paper. Similarly, fiction, in some ways, is about bringing characters to life through ventriloquism; do you find it productive to also see translation as an act of ventriloquism, and in this case a double act of ventriloquism (both of culture and of an outsider’s psychological space)?

The theory of translation is fertile and deep, but I’m too much of a beginner to go weighing in here, especially considering that Asymptote’s readership must include some of the best translators on Earth. All I tried to do was render The Reason I Jump into a book that Naoki would have written had he been born in the UK and not Japan. That intention was my guiding principle and my Sir Alan Sugar who dealt with my hesitancies and second-guessings and prevarications accordingly: You, my friend, are fired.

9 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Amid all the ALTA excitement (I’ll post some sort of roundup later today—I’m still recovering), this post about what John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats went up on Fader, and contains a ton of really great statements about Open Letter and international lit in general:

Before that, I read Can Xue’s Vertical Motion from Open Letter Books—they’re a translation house in Rochester. Over half of what I read is literature in translation; it’s a real passion for me. The Can Xue book is incredible—short stories that I’d call “surrealist,” but it’s a kind of clear-eyed surrealism, as if dreams had invaded the physical world. The stories slip from simple descriptions or accounts of life into strange scenes of unreality that nobody in the stories is really surprised by. Except for the title story, which is a beautiful narrative about creatures who live under the earth and find the surface. [. . .]

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Merce Rodoreda, who I got turned onto by Open Letter a few years ago when they published Death in Spring. It was amazing, so I read the collected short stories, which were good but not as good; and then I read A Broken Mirror, which is just a shatteringly great book about the brief rise and slow decay of a family. One of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a total mystery to me why she isn’t widely worshipped; along with Willa Cather, she’s on my list of authors whose works I intend to have read all of before I die. Tremendous, tremendous writer.

I second ALL OF THIS. Especially the bit about A Broken Mirror—that book is the one that turned me onto Rodoreda and led to our publishing Death in Spring and the stories.

It’s pretty awesome to see someone of John Darnielle’s stature praise us, and although it doesn’t mean nearly as much, I HIGHLY recommend the new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth. Maybe we’ll use a clip from this on the next podcast . . .

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Lily Ye’s review of Vertical Motion, this week’s Read This Next title. Vertical Motion is coming out next month from Open Letter, and is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.

For an “experimental” Chinese writer, Can Xue has received a good deal of attention in the U.S. She’s had books published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale University Press, and Henry Holt. Additionally, her stories appear in Conjunctions on a regular basis.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s enthusiastic review of her latest collection:

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

Click here to read the entire review. And click here to read three of the stories.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

In her story “A Village in the Big City,” the protagonist is visiting an old neighbor, Uncle Lou. During his visit, he finds that Uncle Lou’s floor (the 24th) has suspended itself in midair while Uncle Lou’s cousin who is “so ugly that he can’t associate with others” waits outside the apartment:

The person was on the stairs, which is to say he was in midair. Judging by his voice, he must be hanging in midair. I couldn’t bear to shout again, because I was afraid he would fall. Maybe the one facing danger wasn’t he, but I. Was he saying that I was in danger? I didn’t dare shout again. This was Uncle Lou’s home. Eventually he would have to return. Perhaps he had simply gone downstairs to buy groceries. It was a nice day. The sun was out, so it was a little hot in the room. So what? I shouldn’t start making a fuss because of this. When I recalled that someone outside was hanging in midair, I started sweating even more profusely. My clothes stuck to my body; this was hard to endure.

As can be seen here, Xue’s protagonists, who are often the narrator as well, are oftentimes just as perplexed as her readers may be, only heightening the sensation of unease. Even the narrator is unsure what is happening around them, though this is the very world that they inhabit, and there is a feeling that there is something they should know about this world that everyone around them takes for granted (Uncle Lou is not at all disturbed by the floating building) but they are unable to come to grips with. Another example, from “The Brilliant Purple China Rose,” in a fairly conventional seeming set-up, a couple, Jin and Mei, live next door to Ayi, a busybody neighbor:

When Mei turned around to close the door, what she saw in the room startled her: a rat was sneaking back and forth under the tablecloth on the dining table. There had seldom been rats in their home. Was it really a rat? [. . .] Shaken, Meid stood in the room and said, “Rat.”

Jin’s gaze left his book and he glanced at her. Then he returned to the book and said:

“The rat is Ayi. You needn’t worry too much.”

Jin is completely unperturbed. No explanation is given for how or why Ayi has turned into a rat, and the reverse transformation back from being a rat is never addressed in the slightest. I wavered reading this story, wondering if I had missed something obvious: Was this metaphorical or literal? And most of all, how does Jin know, why doesn’t he care, and why does Mei simply accept this explanation?

This is Xue’s incredible success in obstructing external signification through the transformation of familiar elements into unfamiliar. We have seen humans turn into animals, but not like this—we cannot successfully connect her fiction to known narratives. Xue destabilizes the very idea of familiarity, upends what the reader believes is knowable, by stripping away the expository that we have come to expect. The reader becomes like one of the “little critters” in the titular story “Vertical Motion.” These creatures can neither see nor smell and can feel only through their skin. Twisting and turning, they dig through the earth, remaining always underground. Gravity lets them know which way is up, but they never know how close or far they are from the surface.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next activities, we just published an interview with Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping about their translation of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion.

Here’s an excerpt:

Read This Next: You’ve been working with Can Xue for a while now. How did you first discover her work?

Chen Zeping: We had read some of her short stories along with some by other avant-garde writers. After translating one story for Manoa and one for Conjunctions, we continued translating stories by Can Xue whenever either she or editors invited us to do so.

Karen Gernant: Another translator, Herbert Batt, was serving as guest editor for an issue of Manoa that was published in 2003. He asked us if we would like to translate some stories by the avant-garde writer Can Xue. We translated five, of which Manoa’s editor Frank Stewart selected one. Can Xue evidently liked our work, for when Conjunctions editors Brad Morrow and Martine Bellen solicited a story from her for an issue that also appeared in 2003, she turned to us to translate the story.

RTN: Can Xue’s writing is simultaneously straightforward—it’s not complicated to read from sentence to sentence—and complex—the straightforwardness masks a great deal of narrative depth. As translators, does this style pose any special challenges?

CZP: I understand that the translators’ job is to transfer the works into another language in such a way as to convey the original. We avoid adding any interpretation if we do not have to. In most cases, CX’s stories have their own surface logic so that sentences are also logically connected.

KG: As Chen Zeping suggests, we translate what we see on the page, allowing readers to interpret these words as they choose. We think that readers must enter into Can Xue’s stories in order to understand them. But we do not think it’s our job as translators to lead readers toward that understanding.

Click here to read the whole interview.

2 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Vertical Motion, a new collection of stories by Can Xue, which is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping and coming out from Open Letter in mid-September.

Super-intern Lily Ye explains why we selected this book for RTN:

This week we’ve chosen Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, a collection of truly fantastic short stories. We chose this book for many reasons. To start off, we haven’t been featuring any Asian writers so far, and since we say we’re committed to promoting literature the world over, we’d like to start correcting this oversight. Read This Next followers can also look forward to an advanced preview of a collection of short stories by celebrated Taiwanese author Huang Fan coming this September.

Can Xue (actually a pseudonym meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow” for Deng Xiaohua) has received praise from Robert Coover and Susan Sontag, has been likened to Kafka multiple times, and has been hailed as an innovative writer to be admired not just within the bounds of Chinese literature, but in world literature. Growing up in the Cultural Revolution during which her parents were sent to the countryside, Xue only received a formal education up through elementary school. She learned English on her own and has written books on Dante, Borges and Shakespeare.

Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping in collaboration, Vertical Motion features stories that do not complicate their language, but draw complicated worlds nonetheless. Readers will be dropped into settings and times which seem almost familiar, almost recognizable. Plants that grow underground, blind beaked underground creatures, cotton candy that can be summoned from thin air—all of Xue’s stories challenge what you think you know, what you think you should know, and what you think you can know. Read the title story and two more in the advanced preview to start exploring.

Click here to read “Vertical Motion,” “Red Leaves,” and “Elena.” And check back later in the week for an interview with the translators and a full review of the collection.

21 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

OK, so I didn’t get to writing up all the things I wanted to this week, but before taking off for Amsterdam and the Non-Fiction Conference (see next post), I thought I’d share our Summer 2011 catalog.

With a little luck, I’ll highlight each of these next week, with excerpts and the like, but for now, here’s a list of all five titles along with links to their Open Letter pages, where you can find cover images, jacket copy, links to excerpts, author bios, etc., etc.

  • Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Excellent collection of Monzo’s stories, and the second book of his that we’re publishing. Next up: 1000 Morons.

  • Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson, with an introduction by Enrique Vila-Matas

This is the first of three Chejfec titles we’re publishing, the other two being The Dark and The Planets. First came across Chejfec in a post by Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading linking to a recommendation at Hermano Cerdo written by Enrique Vila-Matas about how totally awesome this book is. (Or some similar Spanish phrasing.) We then went on to buy the rights to all three books thanks to a brilliant excerpt that was in BOMB magazine.

  • Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs, translated from the Czech by Kača Poláčková

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. And the second Open Letter book in which guinea pigs are subjected to uncool things. I get the strangest reaction from friends when I try and describe just how funny the narrator’s guinea pig “experiments” are. Like the one with the record player. Or the stove. Or the bathtub. . . . Um, yeah. But seriously, it’s hysterical—mainly because of the voice of the befuddled, clueless narrator. And we have some awesome promotions in mind for this . . . none of which involve the harming of physical, living guinea pigs. Promise.

This new collection by Can Xue (who has also been published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale, and Conjunctions) is the first Chinese title to come out from Open Letter. She’s a very interesting, unique writer who reminds me a bit of Rikki Ducornet. The stories are a bit surreal, surprising, and, at time, disorienting in a very pleasurable way.

We published Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronje last fall to some good attention. She’s a stark, interesting South African writer, and in the end, I think Book of Happenstance is an even better book than Cronje . . .

More all next week . . .

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.

There are a few instances in this paragraph in which the reader is forced to reorder the sentence in order to understand it. Like with the placement of “opinions differ” in the first sentence, and “because at the oldest” (what’s the oldest? the points of view?) in the second. Fixing these sorts of knotty sentences is what one does when editing a translation—even if you don’t know the source language.

Here’s the first paragraph as it appears in the finished book:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person’s guess is as good as another’s. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the other, she’s twenty-two.

For a book like this—essentially a surrealistic romp that obeys its own internal logic—it’s important that the writing is clear and direct. In short, the “plot” of Five Spice Street is that Madame X and Mr. Q have had an affair, and everyone on Five Spice Street has their own opinions about it. About how old Madame X, about whether Mr. Q is attractive, about whether Madame X is conducting strange rituals in her bedroom at night, about how the affair started, etc. It’s a novel of voices that constantly contradict one another and that—instead of advancing a linear plot—sort of over-stuff the book with details and speculations and unrelated anecdotes.

This is a very chaotic novel, which isn’t to say that it’s not interesting. Can Xue has a way with images, and the occasionally dashes of humor are great. Five Spice Street is a truly unique novel—in the style in which it’s written and in its overall aesthetic.

It’s also a novel that’s best approached in small doses. Taken as a series of individual scenes, or mini-tales, it’s a pretty compelling read. But with the constant shifting of events, of details, of every possible “fact” presented in the novel (everything seems possible, nothing seems true) creates a sense of constant flux that may or may not really add up to anything in the end.

Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories contains an afterword in which Can Xue explains—kind of—what she’s up to in her writing. And although this was specifically written for Blue Light, I think it applies rather nicely to Five Spice Street as well:

The particular characterists of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.

I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventionas, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Kudos to Yale University Press for launching the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series and for including in it such a wonderfully strange, unconventional novel. This bodes really well for the series as a whole.

Order from Harvard Book Store.

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Can Xue’s Five Spice Street (click here to order from Harvard Book Store; click here for the review), which was recently released by Yale University Press as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series.

Before getting into the review itself, I want to mention that Can Xue and Isabel Allende are appearing together at the 92nd St. Y on April 13th at 9:00pm. And that this might be the most unlikely pairing of authors I’ve ever seen. (If you read my review, you’ll probably know what I mean.)

Here’s the opening to the review:

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

“When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.”

(For the rest—including the edited version of that paragraph—click here.)

2 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

It’s no surprise that more and more Chinese literature is making its way into English (there were 11 original works of fiction and poetry that came out in the U.S. in 2008, and through the first half of 2009, I’ve already identified 9), but this spring has a number of titles that look really fantastic, and that we hope to review in full in the not too distant future.

I started reading Five Spice Street by Can Xue on my trip to New York, and am amazed at how bizarre it is. On the surface things seem somewhat normal . . . well, maybe. Any book with a half-dozen containing a half-dozen page argument (one that involves 28 people) about a character’s age is pretty cool. Can Xue’s been published by Northwestern and New Directions in the past, and as one of the first books in Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series it should get some pretty decent attention.

While in NY, I also picked up a copy of Yu Hua’s Brothers an enormous novel that was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize. Yu Hua was profiled in the Times Magazine, and I’m sure this is just the start of the review coverage. (The crap line “The novel, which will be published in an English translation later this month, may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction” will inevitably catch the eye of a lot of reviewers . . . That, and the size of this book—it’ll break your wrist!—and the fact that Random House is bringing it out.) Here’s the rest of the Times Magazine description:

Certainly, foreign readers will find in its sprawling, rambunctious narrative some of China’s most frenetic transformations and garish contradictions. “Brothers” strikes its characteristic tone with the very first scene, as Li Guang, a business tycoon, sits on his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of space travel even as he mourns the loss of all earthly relations. Li made his money from various entrepreneurial ventures, including hosting a beauty pageant for virgins and selling scrap metal and knockoff designer suits. A quick flashback to his small-town childhood shows him ogling the bottoms of women defecating in a public toilet. Similarly grotesque images proliferate over the next 600 pages as Yu describes, first, the extended trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Li and his stepbrother Song Gang witness Red Guards torturing Song Gang’s father to death, and then the moral wasteland of capitalist China, in which Song Gang is forced to surgically enlarge one of his breasts in order to sell breast-enlargement gels.

Following up on the post last week about Columbia University Press, this May they’re bringing out the fantastically titled There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Naiqian Cao. I’ll read any Asian titles Columbia brings out, but this sounds particularly interesting:

In this genre-defying book, the author’s affection for vivid personalities and unflinching realism comes through in a stark portrait of adultery, bestiality, incest, and vice in rural China. Set near the border of Inner Mongolia, among a cluster of cave dwellings in Shanxi province, these intense vignettes describe the base desires and dark longings of a life lived in virtual isolation.

Finally, coming out from Penguin in April is English by Wang Gang, which, according to the Penguin site, is about a twelve-year-old boy learning English in the stifling atmosphere of Xinjiang in China’s remote northwest during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Editor John Siciliano highly recommended this to me, and I’m planning on reviewing it once we receive a galley . . .

(Paper Republic. is by far the best place online to get information about Chinese literature both translated and untranslated. Definitely worth checking out.)

....
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