- Ye Ting-xing (Author)
A Leaf in the Bitter Wind. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Judy Fong Bates (Author)
China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry. Sister Vision Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Andrew Parkin (Author) and Laurence Wong (Author)
Hong Kong Poems. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Carol Volk (Translator) and Ying Chen (Author)
Ingratitude. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Maria Noëlle Ng
What constitutes Chinese writing? The simplest answer is, perhaps, that it is writing by someone of Chinese identity. The writers reviewed here, except for Andrew Parkin, fulfill this requirement. But these writers and works also raise new questions regarding the category of Chinese writing. Three of the writers were born in China but write in Canada. Although Canada enables some writers to publish by providing political freedom or financial support, Canada itself does not always play a role in these works. So these texts are in a way written from a displaced intellectual consciousness. None proves this point more forcefully than the autobiography by Ye Ting-xing, A Leaf in the Bitter Wind.
Born in 1952, Ye now lives in Canada. But her autobiography revisits the tumultuous years in Chinese history which saw the establishment of the Communist State, the deification of Mao Zedong, the decade of the Cultural Revolution and its many collateral damages to Chinese society, and the gradual introduction of Communist-style capitalism. As historical narrative alone, these events are intriguing and make for compelling reading. Ye’s memoir combines historical events with the personal; what could have been merely spectacular and exciting becomes frightening and tragic. A good example of the grand spectacle being brought down to a human level is Ye’s memory of the Red Guards’ pilgrimage lo Beijing during the height of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s.
Pictures of enthusiastic young people wearing red kerchiefs saluting Mao in Tianman Square are often used to propagandize the massive support that Mao had or to show the danger of crowd and power. Ye provides a record of such an event from the perspective of a participant. Although her "bourgeois" background prevented her from avidly supporting communism, Ye is nonetheless intoxicated with the idea of travelling to Beijing for the first time at the age of fourteen. However, the journey from Shanghai to Beijing is described as a chaotic experience fraught with political quagmire. The transportation system breaks down since it was not prepared for the hordes of people. Ye sleeps on the luggage rack, her "face inches from the curved ceiling. The train was hot, the air a stew of odors: unwashed bodies, cigarette smoke, urine." Being politically somewhat naive, Ye is in constant danger of compromising herself in conversations with strangers from a more politically correct working-class background.
But, in spite of the harrowing journey and severe illness upon arrival, Ye is swept away by the anticipation of seeing Mao in person. While publicity photos show clean and happy youths shouting support for their leader, Ye’s record provides the behind-the-scene details: the marchers are searched; they are under the surveillance of the PLA soldiers; they must not move unless allowed to do so; they have to sing and read from the Red Book as hours creep by. Then, "from far away, came the rumble of engines, then hysterical chanting ... I was on my feet yelling at the top of my lungs like everyone else." Tears stream down Ye’s face as motorcades pass. Less than two years later, Ye is exiled to a prison labor farm in the province for not coming from the correct class.
Life on the prison farm includes back-breaking hours of work, insufficient food, unsanitary living conditions, and political intrigue. But Ye survives six years of such inhumane treatment, including an operation for acute appendicitis during which the anesthesiologist leaves the room and the power is cut off. Ye’s life seemingly improved after several years of study at Beijing University, is appointed official translator for the government of Shanghai, gets married and becomes a mother. Ironically, at university, she also meets and falls in love with her English teacher, who eventually helps her to journey to Canada. Ye’s autobiography ends with her settling in Canada while attempting to gain custody of her daughter in China. It is not Ye’s fault that her life is more exciting and breathtaking during the Cultural Revolution than in the more peaceful years. The trailing-off of her history only shows that we all live within a historical framework much larger and, often, more interesting than ourselves.
Also born in Shanghai is Ying Chen, who emigrated to Montreal in 1989 and writes in French. Ingratitude, first published in French in Montreal and Paris, is a first-person narrative of a dead young woman. Fantastic as it sounds, Chen’s matter-of-fact style somehow allows the reader to forget the impossibility; indeed, Chen’s writing makes the presence of a dead narrator both acceptable and natural.
The novel begins with the narrator lying in the funeral home waiting to be cremated and, in flashbacks, following gradual emotional disintegration and her plans to kill herself. Although the novel is set in China and the characters are Chinese, it is not the kind of fiction that requires specific social and historical knowledge to be appreciated. The political situation in China plays virtually no role in Ingratitude. Instead, the reader is imprisoned in a destructive conflict between the narrator, Yan-Zi, and her domineering mother. In a recurrent tirade-lament about her inescapable tie to her mother, Yan-Zi muses on the scar on her mother’s belly: "Sometimes, in the public baths, we eyed each other in silence ... I came out of there! ... But the dark line on this stranger’s belly cried out to me: You can’t get away from me, I’m the one who formed you ...." This ownership of the body and mind legitimized by the traditional concept of filial relationship oppresses Yan-Zi so much that her only solution is to kill herself, thus robbing her mother of this ownership.
Because much of the book is written with ironic detachment, Yan-Zi’s anguish and despair often lurk in the text as if the narrator herself were unwilling to admit to such debilitating emotions. Yet this glancing treatment of emotional turmoil can have a powerful effect. In a particularly moving scene, Yan-Zi remembers catching her mother in a moment of unguarded happiness chatting to a neighbour: "It was a sunny afternoon. She was on her bedroom balcony. Her entire body was radiant... I imagined myself in her arms, my forehead nestled between her breasts ... She noticed me standing there and walked toward me ... I must have looked stupid, because she immediately hid her smile, erasing any sign of life from her face, and began to ask me about my homework." For a brief moment, the daughter sees her mother as a warm and benign woman, instead of the harridan portrayed throughout the novel. Because the reader is never allowed another point of view, it is easy to empathize with Yan-Zi against her mother.
Yet her mother is not a Medea-like villain. She is, according to Yan-Zi, strict, humourless, possessive, protective, and not particularly intelligent; all these are rather ordinary human failings. But in Ingratitude, the mother-figure dominates as if she were the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This disproportionate reaction against her mother seems to indicate that Yan-Zi’s problems lie as much within herself as in her mother. Perhaps an under standing of the all-important role that family and filial piety play in Chinese consciousness will help explain Yan-Zi’s alienation and hostility.
Chen often relies on the flesh to provide her with images. A good example is Yan-Zi’s description of her own corpse following her suicide by taking sleeping tablets: "Summer continues to corrupt autumn with a strange heat. People are still wearing short-sleeved shirts ... A smell of urine emanates from my body. They finally promise to burn me as soon as possible." With quiet humour, Yan-Zi adds: "But now Mother and Grandmother are engaged in a pitched battle over what clothes I should be wearing when I’m cast into the fire." This mixture of cerebral irony, corporeal descriptiveness, and black humour makes Ingratitude one of the most original works from a contemporary Chinese writer.
Unlike Ingratitude, China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry are stories set within the specific context of Chinese immigrant culture in Canada. Unlike Ye Ting-xing and Ying Chen, Judy Fong Bates came to live in Canada at an early age and her stories reflect her knowledge of the lives of Chinese immigrants. The collection has a wide range of tones and situations, from poignant remembrance of cultural isolation, to jaunty narrative of cultural clash, to ghoulish treatment of Chinese superstition. But the overall theme is the difficulty of living in two cultures.
In "My Sister’s Love," little Irene is a Chinese Canadian who is happy with life in the small town until her half-sister Lily arrives from Hong Kong. Elegant, tall, with "ivory skin, the texture of flower petals," Lily never fits in. Her life changes when a man thirty years her senior becomes interested in her. Tom Leung is a wealthy Chinese Canadian; aware of the significant age difference between them, Leung suggests that he become Lily’s Chinese godfather, a kind of guardian and benefactor. Bates hints at a Humbert-Lolita relationship wilh the ready compliance of the young woman. The story would have more punch if Bates had said more about the attraction between the couple, instead of expediently writing off Leung and marrying off Lily.
Covering the familiar theme of mixed-marriage between Chinese and non-Chinese, Bates uses a perky style in "The Lucky Wedding" to narrate Sandra’s dread of telling her family that she has married a "lofon, a white foreigner." Like Yan-Zi’s mother, Sandra’s mother also possesses her daughter in many ways: "Her mother was lodged in her head like a permanent resident, an unwanted guest, who wasn’t budging. When she woke up in the morning, she saw her mother’s disapproving broad face, floating above her like a rain cloud." Although Sandra wants a small reception, the celebration rituals turn into a western reception and, on a separate day, into an elaborate Chinese banquet. Having experienced similar situations, I can vouch for the realism in Bates’s descriptions. However, these scenes of cultural misunderstanding do not adequately convey the psychological threat that tradition can pose to someone who has accepted a different culture.
Someone who has not accepted that she is living in Canadian society is Lee Ming in "China Dog." While attending the funeral of her husband’s father who has committed suicide, Lee Ming is reminded of a curse placed on the family. This curse obsesses her, to the point that she consults a fortune teller to assuage her fear. In the story, it is not really made clear whether the practices of the fortune teller are just so much mumbo-jumbo. Suffice it to say that the result is not what Lee Ming has expected. Like the other stories in the collection, "China Dog" is competently written but somehow leaves the reader hoping for more depth or a more complex treatment of interesting issues.
Of considerable formal complexity is the collection Hong Kong Poems by Andrew Parkin and Laurence Wong. Some ol the poems were written by Parkin and some by Wong, but all poems are published in both English and Chinese. Some poems are lyrical evocations of tropical landscape, some elegiac reflection, some poems celebrate love and some describe social conditions. In "Song of an Illegal Immigrant," Parkin uses energetic, monosyllabic verbs to convey the urgency of the illegal immigrant’s decision to flee China: "I’ll hit the road and quit this place!/ I’ll hit the road and grab a better life!" With bravado the illegal immigrant boasts that he will "meet a sweet-smelling modern girl/ who’s pretty and rich and born to flirt" in Hong Kong. Wedged between the hope of flight and the illusion of love are pictures of hardship and loneliness in a sprawling metropolis. While the poem has verve and rhythm, Wong’s Chinese version conveys the meaning but not the sound. This is an obvious example of the problems presented by translating poetry from one language into a very different one. The difficulties of translation are also evident in Wong’s "Gazing South," written in Chinese. Wong’s language is inherited from hundreds of years of Chinese poetry. Images resonate. Even the title is an invocation of the many classic poems about the land south of the Yangtze River. But none of the references is transferable to English.
Poems with no overt reference to a literary tradition are more successful. A good example is Wong’s "Rhapsody on a Rainy Night." This poem originally appeared in a collection titled Winter in Florence. The nature imagery provides non-Chinese readers with languages and contexts that are easily understood. The Chinese version is written in the modern idiom, and since Wong translates it into English himself, the two versions are fairly compatible in style and meaning. Sometimes the Chinese and English versions are different and yet each has its own poetic beauty. For instance, Parkin’s "Storm and Bird" has a charming first line: "Outside the typhoon shakes the sheeted rain." In Chinese, "sheeted rain" becomes "big rain," and the alliteration of "shakes" and "sheeted" is lost. But then the Chinese version of Parkin’s "music of two opposing moods" is considerably more economical and elegant.
The technical and literary difficulties in translating the poems in this volume seem to echo the complexity afflicting writers who work within one culture and outside of another. Ye could not possibly have written her autobiography in China, yet it is all about China. Ying Chen’s novel on domestic conflict and neuroses has its origin in Chinese culture, yet it transcends the culturally specific and becomes something much more than an individual’s tirade against traditional constraints. Bates’s stories are records of immigrants who live both Chinese and Canadian lives, just as the poems by Parkin and Wong try to reach readers who think in both Chinese and English. Cultural complexity can be challenging and frustrating, but it is an essential element to our lives.
- This Yesterday of Today by Susan Rudy
Books reviewed: Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard and Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood
- Salutaire confession by Caroline Dupont
Books reviewed: La terre sans mal by Melchior Mbonimpa
- Par-dèla la frontière by Anne-Marie Fortier
Books reviewed: Audioguide by Bertrand Laverdure, La leçon du silence by Nicole Richard, and Vigile by Jean Gagnon
- Awash in Linguistic (and Intestinal) Doubt by Christine Stewart
Books reviewed: Expeditions of a Chimæra by Oana Avasilichioaei and Erín Moure and The Exile Book of Poetry in Translation: 20 Canadian Poets Take on the World by Priscila Uppal
- Unleash the Hound and Look by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry by Adam Dickinson and Anand Madhur, Unleashed by Sina Queyras, and Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art by Liz Kotz
MLA: Ng, Maria Noëlle. Chinese Speak. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 200 - 204)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.