Four Asian voices.
Violence and Being Human A Conversation with Han Kang
by Krys Lee
Born in South Korea in 1970, Han Kang made her literary debut as a poet in 1993. She has since published novels and short fiction and won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Todays Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literary Prize. She currently works as a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. The Vegetarian, Deborah Smiths English translation of one of Han Kang's five novels, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. In The Vegetarian, a married woman rebels against strict Korean social mores by becoming a vegetarian, leading her husband to assert himself through acts of sexual sadism.
Here, author Krys Lee speaks with Han Kang about her development as a writer and the recurring theme of violence in her work.
Krys Lee: Can you tell us about how you became a writer? Was it something you aspired to be from a young age?
Han Kang: I was always surrounded by literary influences--my father is a writer too, you see. We lived in a humble home; we didn't have much furniture, and we moved around a lot. He loved collecting books, so naturally I was always surrounded by them--on the floor, in every nook and cranny. Everything except the window and door was blanketed by books. The library kept growing. I remember that books always felt "expansive" in the sense that they were in constant abundance, to the extent that I was surprised when I visited my friend's home and saw how it lacked books.
I read freely and absorbed the language, and my parents left me alone so I could read challenging novels as I pleased; I discovered that I loved reading. Writing came naturally, too. In my teens, I felt the common existential kind of angst over questions such as Who am I? What is my purpose? Why do people need to die, and where do we go afterward? All these questions felt burdensome, so once again I turned to the books that I believed held answers to many of the questions in my youth. They didn't have any answers. Ironically, that encouraged me. It showed me that I could be a writer, too, that it was for those who have questions, not answers.
KL: The visual arts, or a sense of the visual, feature strongly in your work. I was wondering where this interest first came from and how you found yourself using the point of view of the artist in your writing in The Vegetarian and Your Cold Hands.
HK: When I was young, my aunt, who was studying art, lived with us for a time. Her room was always full of her work, and I'd often model for her, too. It was difficult to stay still, frankly. That experience probably helped me understand the point of view of artists and their subjects in my work. I myself never really got into drawing. When I was at the Iowa International Writing Program, they gave me a stipend that allowed me to travel, and whenever I traveled to new cities in America, I was alone, so naturally I spent a lot of time looking at art in museums. I guess you could say I became truly aware of art in my twenties that way. I think I absorbed those experiences, and this is reflected in my writing.
I also like examining and exploring details. Snow falling on a black coat, for example. For a split second, the snowflake looks almost hexagonal. This also goes beyond the visual arts. This idea of looking deeply at and into something is, I think, part of the realm of literature. But recently I've also taken up drawing. I think in all these ways, I've always had an intimate relationship with art, so I think I write about it naturally, without any conscious purpose.
KL: I 'm paraphrasing Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who once remarked that loneliness has always been a subject that returns in his work--only in different forms. As a writer, a human being, I believe there are various ideas and obsessions that haunt us. Do you have something that you continue to explore that continues to return and haunt you?
HK: I feel like what you say is quite accurate. Of course, I wrote my first novel without being hyperaware of what exactly I was writing. Something inside me compelled me, welled up inside me, and I wrote because I couldn't not write. But as I continued writing, at a certain point, I realized that there are subjects that disturbed me and, because of that, became subjects that I clung to, others that continue to. I don't think that there's just one subject that I return to, but one important question I often return to is the question of human violence. For example, The Vegetarian depicts a woman who rejects an omnipresent and precarious violence even at a cost to herself. In another one of my novels, the female protagonist also recognizes the violence in language and therefore rejects language altogether. And although I didn't experience it firsthand, I was largely influenced by the large-scale violence throughout my youth.
KL: You mean the Gwangju Massacre [also known as the May 18 Democratic Uprising, when many citizens, including Jeonnam University students, were beaten and killed by government troops in protest against the Chun Doo Hwan regime in 1980],
HK: Violence is part of being human, and how can I accept that I am one of those human beings? That kind of suffering always haunts me. Yes. I also think my preoccupation extends to the violence that prevails in daily life. Eating meat, cooking meat, all these daily activities embody a violence that has been normalized.
KL: Even stepping on the ground is a form of violence, as grass itself is a form of life.
HK: True, true. However, although humans have embodied this violence, as they view this around and in themselves, they also have a natural instinct to confront or move in a different direction. I am moving more toward that now, and I want to explore human dignity and strength more deeply, since I wrote Human Acts, which deals with the massacre of Gwangju.
KL: How much does Seoul or Korea itself, a sense of "place," influence your writing?
HK: It is crucial to me. I moved frequently when I was young, attending five different primary schools. Now, wherever I go, I have the confidence that I can adjust. However, all the cities I resided in definitely have had an impact on my writing. For example, I lived for nine years in Gwangju before moving to Seoul, and the impression of that small city became a central part of my core self. It often appears in my novels as a city I call K. When I moved to Seoul in January 1980, it felt very cold to me--literally--compared to the warmer temperatures of the South. When did you move from Korea to America again?
KL: When I was three.
HK: It's not really comparable, but it was a big change for me. Gwangju was warm, and flowers blossomed even in winter. We moved to Seoul in January and found the city so cold; I shivered even when I wore a thick sweater and socks in bed. That's when I thought to myself, life will be very cold for me now. The grand scale of the city and its cold indifference felt like a premonition of what my life would be like in Seoul. Though I'm not scared of moving to new places, I'm the kind of person who struggles with and interrogates each place I live in as well as absorbs and am influenced by each place.
KL: A well-known critic, and your fan, once said that one has to prepare oneself and be in a different mind-set before reading your work. How do you interpret this?
HK: I believe it's because my novels directly explore human suffering. Instead of shying away, I try to delve deeper. That's my tendency, as I'm always trying to discover the truth behind a person. So when I wrote about the Gwangju massacre, a tragedy with so much suffering, I think he meant that such material in my hands meant that the readers would have to prepare themselves to experience--feel--this suffering.
KL: I sense in your work a way of looking at words-regarding them as if they were visual images. In your book Huirapeo Shigan (Greek lessons, 2011) it is evident that there is a meticulous sensitivity to word choice throughout your novel. I'm curious about your precise relationship to language, in terms of your work.
HK: I've written a book of poems that I wrote over a period of twenty years that scrutinize words--images--in this manner. Personally, I think of language as an extremely difficult tool to handle. Sometimes it seems impossible. Other times it succeeds in conveying what I'm trying to say, but to call it successful isn't accurate; moreover, it's as if I keep writing even though I know it's going to fail, but it's the only tool I have. It's a relentless dilemma, and I think it's something that a lot of poets experience. Especially in Greek Lessons, the protagonist cannot speak and writes poems instead. Each sentence in a language has beauty and baseness, purity and filth, truth and lies, and my novel explores that even more directly. When the weight of words takes over, it is challenging to even speak sometimes. Despite this, we have to continue to speak and write and read. When I lose to my writing, I take a break. I said that I've written for twenty years, but I've sometimes taken a hiatus for a year or two.
KL: We talked previously about questions in novels, when you realized that writers didn't have all the answers. Chekhov once said that the role of literature is to pose questions. When you write novels, do you write focused on a specific question, or does it come to you organically in the process of writing?
HK: It's difficult to be continuously writing for a year or two. Writing Your Cold Hand (2002) took the shortest time for me, about a year, and the longest it took for me to finish a novel was about four years. It is always different. I constantly have burning questions in me, and the importance can shift as the novel evolves. Often, the next novel is born from questions that the end of my previous novel sparks. Questions and novels are constantly interacting. For example, in The Vegetarian, I questioned human violence and the human potential for perfection. However, we can't all just become plants. We have to live. Then how can we live in such a violent world? In Greek Lessons, assuming that it is possible to live, what should be the root of human nature? When the protagonist writes on a palm, she has her fingernails cut so short so she doesn't leave any imprints, and in another scene when two hands join, they form a few meaningful words. I wanted to give the feeling that these little things might be what make up humankind, a potential for something meaningful.
KL: I'm aware that you were once a vegetarian. How did this inform your writing of The Vegetarian ?
HK: I was a vegetarian in my mid-twenties, and at the time, everyone around me made it a mission to feed me meat. You know how it is in Korean society. It's a very collective society. It was difficult for me to be the only one to eat differently; regardless, I carried on until the doctor became concerned for my health and told me to reintroduce a little meat back into my diet. My personal experience definitely did influence The Vegetarian, and it was very interesting how the people around me personally reacted to my decision. It was a little humorous.
However, The Vegetarian has even more direct roots in a short story titled "Fruits of My Woman" (2000), published when I was twenty-six. The main characters are a man and woman, and one day when the man returns home from work, he sees that his wife has become a plant. So he moves her into a pot, waters her, and takes care of her. As the seasons change, the woman spits out her last hard seeds. As he takes the seeds out to the balcony, he wonders whether his wife will be able to bloom again in spring. Overall the story isn't so dark, and is also magical, but after writing it, I wanted to write it again from a different perspective. So I thought for years about how to write it. From the very first page, The Vegetarian came out very dark and different.
KL: The Vegetarian was published in Korea in 2007, and afterward you published three other novels. I think authors and writers in general feel like they learn something new in each novel that they write. Perhaps it is because of these realizations that come to us that we continue writing. I'm wondering, how does your work change you?
HK: I did change while writing The Vegetarian. I initially intended to write more than three parts and reveal more about the main character's nephew. However, when I reached the end of part 3 with the main character Yeong-hye, I knew I was done. It's hard to explain, but I somehow felt that I became stronger in the process of writing the novel.
KL: I'm not that familiar with the Korean literary market, but I get the feeling that writers in Korea are treated more or less as equals, regardless of their gender, which is rare in many countries. It is also a reversal of the situation in Korea today. Am I reading the situation correctly, or do you have a different perspective on this?
HK: It's true, and it's quite intriguing. I've never felt discriminated against as a writer because I am a woman. I think it's very normal and celebrated in Korea. One reason is because there are so many talented female writers, and without them, the literary world would be drastically reduced. I've thought about this issue before, since I realize that the respect and gender equality in the Korean literary world is unusual compared to most countries and see that as one great strength of Korean literature. However, even in other artistic fields, it's different; for example, the local film industry is extremely conservative. Male film directors are still the rule for most of the Korean film industry. It's something to think about.
WLT's Sidebar Shorts with Han Kang
What are you currently reading?
Victor I. Stoichita's A Short History of the Shadow
What's up next on your reading list?
The Lives of Parrots because this creature intrigues me.
What place have you not been that you most want to go?
I hope to see icebergs someday. This desire doesn't have to be realized, though. Sometimes imagination is stronger.
What is the best bookstore in Seoul for international lit?
The Book Society, located In the old part of Seoul near Kyungbok Palace. It specializes in art books. The place Itself is uniquely decorated, and some corners look just like ruins of old books. You could spend all day there.
When you lived in the US midwest, what most surprised you?
Infinite cornfields. Overwhelmingly strong wind. I talked with a kind woman on the greyhound bus to Chicago, and she said I was the first foreigner she had ever met in her life. I enjoyed the peaceful stay. There was plenty of time to write on your own.
What is the best place in Seoul for creative inspiration?
Some good galleries and art museums. Small independent bookshops, which have boomed since a few years ago.
What is your favorite nonliterary activity?
I walk a lot.
As a child, what was your favorite book?
Our collection of monthly and quarterly literary magazines at home. I would spend all afternoon going through all the photographs, poems, prose, and short stories (poetry and short stories are much stronger than novels in the tradition of Korean literature) even though I didn't understand everything then.
How is your home library organized?
It doesn't look organized quite properly, but miraculously I am aware which books are on which shelves.
What is the best piece of advice you give your creative writing students?
I don't feel I am teaching anything to my students. I am just sharing books I adore with them. The only advice is to read. That's all.
Krys Lee is the author of Drifting House and Howl Became a North Korean (August 2016), both published by Viking/ Penguin. She received the Rome Prize and was a finalist for the BBC International Story Prize. Her work has appeared in Granta, Narrative, the San Francisco Chronicle, Corriere della Sera, the Guardian, and others. She teaches creative writing at Underwood International College in South Korea.
A Contemporary Korean Reading List
by Han Kang
One Hundred Shadows
Trans. Jung Yewon
Tilted Axis, Sept. 2016
Trans. Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West
Seven Stories, 2005
No One Writes Back
Trans. Jung Yewon
Dalkey Archive, 2013
Trans. Don Mee Choi
Action Books, 2014
Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers
Don Mee Choi
Action Books, 2008
The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness
Trans. Ha-yun Jung
At Least We Can Apologize
Trans. Christopher Joseph Dykes
Dalkey Archive, 2013
The Private Life of Plants
Trans. Inrae You & Louis Vinciguerra
Dalkey Archive, 2015
Trans. Inrae You & Louis Vinciguerra
The Dog Thief
Trans. Myung-Hee Kim
Tamal Vista, 2005
A Greater Music
Trans. Deborah Smith
Open Letter, Nov. 2016
Trans. Deborah Smith
Deep Vellum, Jan. 2017
Your Republic Is Calling You
Trans. Chi-Young Kim
Mariner Books, 2010
Writing a Life Back into the World
by Bernice Chauly
In the wake of her father's death, a Malaysian author discovers the writer within and ends up writing herself into her country's narrative.
My father's untimely and tragic death when I was four made me a writer. It was that simple, really. There was a need for words, and words were what I turned to.
In the course of growing up in Malaysia's third-largest city, Ipoh, a town that had a rich, checkered past of being the "town that tin built," I immersed myself in books--books left by my father and mother. My father was Punjabi-Sikh, English-educated at St. Xavier's Institution in George Town, Penang, then as a Colombo Scholar at Kirby College in Liverpool, England. My mother, Cantonese-Buddhist, Chinese-educated, then sent to Melbourne University in Australia. They had varied interests--poetry, literature, art, geology (my father was pursuing his master's in geology at the time of his death), huge tomes on World Wars I and II, dog-eared, faded stacks of National Geographic from the 1960s, multiple volumes on Malaysian flora and fauna--birds, butterflies--invertebrates, vertebrates, carpentry, maps and rocks--books I still have in my library.
I suppose I read to fill that gaping hole inside me, that nameless void that kept me up at night and rendered me angry, confused, bewildered as to who and what I was. "So what are you? Why do you have such a weird name?" Growing up with mixed identities--half this and half that--in Malaysia was common then, but it was not named. I did not know who I was, and my father's death had created a chasm that needed to be crossed. I felt that I had been "cast out," abandoned by the world, and I was utterly alone.
My mothers insistence on buying me at least two new books a week was one of the few joys I had, apart from being able to sit in the curved rattan chair on the second floor of our semidetached house with a plate of biscuits, a glass of cold water, and a thick book. The afternoon sun would dip and it would be night, but still I sat and devoured everything, reading books cover to cover, then some again. In the Ipoh public library where my mother would leave me on weekends, I huddled in soft, dark spaces and read quietly for hours.
I also wrote a little, using essay assignments to play out my imagination; characters were marooned in deserts and stormy seas, in outer space. My teachers were supportive. I attempted poetry, but the images were the same--death, tombstones, epitaphs, an obsession with Edith Sitwell. It was necessary, but the poems were terrible.
My decision to take English literature in the fourth and fifth form was an important prelude for what was to come. My mother found me a tutor, Brother Vincent Corkery, one of the last Lasallian Brothers left in Ipohs St. Michael's Institution. Brother Vincent was from County Cork, in Ireland, spoke with a soft Irish curl, had crinkly blue eyes, and loved literature. How I looked forward to those classes! They were held in the brothers' quarters of that beautiful school--up the narrow, worn concrete staircases, past the neo-Gothic eaves into the dark and cool rooms, which smelled of holy water and starched cassocks, away from the rowdy shrieks of boys. I would ring the doorbell--three short rings for Brother Vincent--and he would appear, fresh after a nap, and we would sit for two hours, reading and talking about literature. We read Bernard Malamud, Doris Lessing, Hemingway, Frost, Yeats, Keats, George Bernard Shaw, and Shakespeare. He made me memorize passages from Shakespeare--Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster ...--made me pronounce words with gestures and feeling, and made my hair stand on end when he read out a passage so beautiful, so evocative, so pained. I learned beauty; that words had power and a meaning that lasted, that stayed on my tongue and my skin.
I did well enough in the O-level state exams and, as expected, got A's in the English language and lit courses. As a result, I was offered a government scholarship to study English and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) in Canada. This marked the beginning of many things, but more importantly, the first step toward my life as a writer.
My mother died in 2007, after a short and swift battle with cancer. She was sixty-six. At twenty-one, a failed love affair in Melbourne had left her brokenhearted, so she returned to her father's house--a shop house in Ipohs old town--depressed and without a degree. A friend suggested she take an interior design course in Singapore. This, too, failed. The last resort was to take a teaching degree at the Malayan Teachers College in Penang, and it was there, in 1966, that she met my father. He had returned from England, was tall and handsome in a Sikh turban, had traveled and hitchhiked through England, Wales, Ireland, and seven countries in Europe--he was a man of the world. They fell madly in love, but it was forbidden. It was unheard of then for a Sikh man to marry outside of the race and religion, yet my father wrote beautiful love letters to my mother, in his mad scrawl--My darling Jane--on thin blue sheets of paper, letters that she kept at her bedtime table, letters I now have. They married, of course, without family consent, in a small church in Kelantan, on the east coast of Malaysia, and lived a simple life as teachers, until I was born. I became the peacemaker to my Chinese and Punjabi grandparents, and my father and mother, who had fought to love and live, were finally happy.
On January 6, 1973, on Miami Beach, Penang, my father drowned. He was thirty-three years old. I was four, my sister barely a year old, and my baby brother in my mother's womb, unknown to her. My mother's grief had no words, but there was pain--a deep, searing pain--that would slice itself into my family, again and again, for years. Months after his death, my mother wrote this in her journal: "Surin and I. For Bernice, Janice and Baby. May 1973." She writes, in entirety, the great love affair that was, Surin and I.
My parents left letters, postcards, journals, scrapbooks. They wrote with a beautiful lyricism, with nuance, with grace, love, and so much sadness. And in Winnipeg, Canada, one cold winter night, I started writing. I suppose that kind of clarity I had then, halfway across the world, was needed. My name did not seem so out of the ordinary; people were amazed that I spoke "like a Canadian--where did you learn English?" For the first time in my life I felt accepted. Not judged, not teased, not questioned over and over again. "So what are you?"
I started writing about my childhood in Ipoh, of growing up in my Chinese grandfather's shop house, of the "old town," of the narrow streets, of my grandmother's cooking, of the butcher's shop, of pigs and slaughter, of tears. Of growing up Chinese, yet yearning to be Indian.
As an English student at the University of Winnipeg, I took courses that I had only dreamed of--women's studies in literature. Creative writing--creative writing! I took commonwealth literature, I took philosophy and sociology, Greek mythology, I had professors who inspired and intimidated me. I was learning so much, and I was writing. Poetry. There were lunchtime readings--I heard Rudy Wiebe, Leon Rooke, Irving Layton--the Canadian greats. I started writing more and more. And then I fell in love with the women. The writers whom I called my personal canon--Plath, Sexton, Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Kate Chopin, ELD., Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Aphra Behn, Erica long, Louise Gliick, Carol Shields.
One day my English professor, Judy Kearns, asked me, "Bernice, do you have feminist writers in Malaysia--do you have writers or poets like the ones you admire so much?" Tier toothy smile left me momentarily stumped, stunned, and then I said, "Err ... am not sure ... hmm ... I don't think so." That admission left me perplexed; did we not have any female writers in Malaysia? Did we not have confessional poets? Did we not have satirists? Memoirists? Women who wrote their lives with passion, fervor, and ambivalence? I kept saying, "Surely, surely, there must be someone." Someone.
Twenty years after I started writing about my childhood in Ipoh, my mother died. In that time, I had written and published three books of prose and poetry, I had made documentaries and written plays, started a publishing house, and year after year kept writing this memoir of sorts--bits and fragments of my parents' lives, bits of personal histories, here and there; the book became like a ghost that haunted me, year in, year out. And after my mother died, I knew that I had to write this book. This book--bookended by death. My father's death made me want to write, and my mother's death gave me the freedom to finish it.
So how would I write this book? I needed references, I needed to see what had been done in the past, how other female Malaysian writers before me had written trajectories of their lives. Plow it could be done. After all, we had a rich and varied literary tradition, we had the hikayats; the fantastical tales of anthropomorphic heroes and heroines, stories inspired by the Mahabharata and Ramayana, mystical lands, djinns, epic battles between warring forces, seafaring characters with fearless blades, princesses who had to be wedded and then saved, and we had the "pantun" or pantoum, the lyrical, gentle, and gorgeous Malay poems, with metrics and rhyming patterns, with solipsisms, sinew, and stunning beauty.
For two thousand years, the Malay Peninsula had Elindu, Buddhist, and Islamic influences that spanned the vast Srivijaya, Chola, and Majapahit empires. In the sixteenth century, the Malaccan sultanate came to an end with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1511 and the Dutch in 1641. The British landed in George Town in 1786 and stayed until the outbreak of World War II; traumatized by the brutality of the Japanese Occupation (1941-45), they returned to reclaim the country at the end of the war and in 1957 negotiated with Malay rulers and nationalists a peaceful transition to independence in 1957. With its multiethnic population of Malays, Indians, Chinese, Eurasians, and indigenous tribes, we had multiple narratives to tell, in multiple languages. But were we? As with many countries in Southeast Asia, oral traditions were the primary form of narratives, and the penglipur lara or storyteller was a revered figure in village life. But we were the sons and daughters of immigrants, our families fled famines, hardship, and came to Malaya in search of better lives, and with them came their stories, too. There were stories of diaspora, of hardship, of love, of wars. With the politics of race came the politics of language. The Malay nationalists wrote in Bahasa Malaysia, the Chinese and Indians wrote in English, Tamil, and Mandarin, and the language of postcolonialism was born.
In my search for a contemporary, postcolonial female narrative written by a Malaysian writer, I found only two books: Shirley Geok-lin Lim's Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands (Feminist Press, 1996) and Hilary Tham's Lane with No Name: Memoirs and Poems of a Malaysian-Chinese Girlhood (Lynne Reiner, 1997). Both were published in America and came to me halfway across the world in a box from Amazon. Lim was born in Malacca to a Baba Nyonya or Straits Chinese family in 1944: "I was conceived and born toward the end of the bleakest period of the war ... at the peak of Japanese torturous repression, and of food shortages and mass starvation." Tham was born in the seaside town of Kelang in 1946, "in the house of the Soy Sauce Compound. Mother said it was just after the British came back to Malaya and the Japanese occupation troops moved out." Both memoirs were written in America, both authors had married Jewish husbands, both wrote poetry, both identified as Asian American writers and feminists. Both had experiences of missionary schools and of loving English literature through the encouragement of the nuns and the brothers. Both studied at University of Malaya, were fellow students swept up in a liberalism and autonomy of thought and discourse that was infectious; there were probing philosophical concerns, doomed love affairs.
Structurally, Lim's book is more chronological. It begins with life with her family, the kinds of familial and cultural affectations that came with being a "girlchild": "The house was full of brothers, except for me, third born. I was a despised female, but I was also the only girl whose tears, whines, requests, whims and fancies my father responded to ashamedly.... How can I prove that I am not who I am?" Lim writes with brutal honesty, writes of being hungry "for almost two years," charting incidences when her father beat her, beat her mother--"She lost two teeth to his fists"--and the pained loss of abandonment when her mother leaves her and her brothers and father, forever. "Was it the fear that all she could look forward to with him were years of hard labor, sexual betrayal, and violence?... Sometimes I think she abandoned us because she did not want to see our many hungry faces.... I will never know. She was there and then she was no longer there." The scenes from her childhood are vivid and visceral: we see a hungry child longing for a mother and a father whose affections are given to other women; we see the consequence of loss and abandonment, and the thirst for knowledge that would give her the "first weapons to wreck my familiar culture."
Lim goes to a convent and learns to write the alphabet; she hears the first strains of poetry, which were to chart a lifelong love for language and literature. She writes of the nuns, "Mother Superior was always white. A few white sisters, Sister Sean, Sister Patricia, and Sister Peter taught the upper grades; or they performed special duties, like Sister Maria who gave singing lessons, or Sister Bernadette, who taught cooking and controlled the kitchen and the canteen. Sister Maria was the only one who was recognizably French. Her accent was itself music to us as she led us through years of Scottish and Irish ballads." I, too, remembered the nuns of my primary school. There was Sister Cyril who taught catechism and is the reason why I still say the Hail Mary with an Irish accent. There was Sister Clare who taught English, and Sister Martha whose visions of heaven and hell haunted my dreams.
Lim's account of her primary and secondary years are filled with alacrity, a love for books and libraries, of boredom and willfulness, sexuality and shame, all things I could relate to. She visits her mother (whom she calls Emak or Malay for mother) in Singapore, meets her mysterious Chinese lover, gets involved in a terrible car accident, and then, months later, loses her virginity dressed in a Jantzen shirt, skin-tight green ski pants, and five-inch stilettos to a man called Rajan in an apartment where "the air conditioning was already humming." I was astounded by Lim's account of losing her virginity: these were taboos--things that had to be kept silent--and Lim just kept pushing the boundaries of all that could be said and not said. Her time at University of Malaya was punctuated with the dizziness of independence and the end of empire; she discovers Shelley, Yeats, Keats, starts writing poetry, and is alarmed when one of her professors accuses her of plagiarism. She writes openly of multiple lovers, a fleeting affair with one of her teachers, and the great love she feels for a man called Iqbal, of cohabitating with him, cooking lavish dinners of rich curries, imported cheeses, endless bottles of red wine, and eventual heartbreak when she decides to leave Malaysia on a Fulbright scholarship to America.
It is America that gives her a voice, that notion of self-exile perhaps; in its isolation, motherhood, marriage, and death, she is able to find freedom to write of a Malaysian homeland, "an imperative to make sense of these birthmarks; they compose the hieroglyphs of my body's senses," by feeling an absence of place, being absent in Malaysia, "myself absent in America," she is able to write about "moving home."
In contrast, Tham's book does not trace the notion of a time line. Perhaps more organic in structure, there are vignettes of life and of growing up, quirky titles like "The Soy Sauce Compound," "The Odd Job Man," "Egg Noodles," "The Nuns," "Leila's Wedding." There are also more photographs and poems, which are intertwined between the texts. Her startling dedication page reads like this: "The idea of writing my memoirs goes against the grain of my upbringing. Though I had breached the taboo with my poems, prose feels like a greater violation." I thought this was shocking, this idea of "going against the grain," of "breaching taboos with poems," of "prose as a greater violation." I had begun to understand that there were risks involved, that there was the possibility of ostracizing family, that truths were not necessarily going to be appreciated. In the last page of the prologue, she says, "I love the American bone-deep belief that anyone can be anything if you work hard.... That not pursuing the dream is a disgrace; failure to achieve is not. This concept is the most liberating and empowering gift America has given me. Without embracing this ideology, I could never have written about the real faces between the preserved faces of my life, my family, and my people."
This concept was liberating, but I was cautious. That being in America allowed her to write this? That perhaps the liberalism of my Canadian education also allowed me to see the possibilities of writing as an Asian woman--yes, that the fears of breaching cultural taboos was real, we all had to "save face"--to stave off inevitable Asian shame that would plummet entire families into silent humiliation, scorn, and closed doors--but it had to be written. After all, what else would be the point? Silence was the norm, and that norm was no longer possible. Writing about all that was personal, what was real and felt in our stories, was vital and necessary. So, it was possible, and Tham had done it, as did Lim. There were now ways of writing these stories down. Being away in a foreign land had given us perspective. But Lim and Tham had not returned; they had stayed in America, had children and careers, and lives. I had decided to return to Malaysia; I had decided that I needed to be in the country, in the land that had birthed me.
I summoned my memories: Poh Poh--Grandmother--How did you come to Malaya? How old were you? What was the Japanese Occupation like? These were questions I asked my grandmother as a child, in my halting Cantonese, in between helping her chop vegetables and set the table for long family Chinese lunches. I had two other aunts who had died? Or were they left for the nuns on the doors of the convent? About my great-grandmother being kidnapped by Japanese soldiers and escaping in the middle of the night after being guided out of the jungle by a white butterfly. About my mother eating nothing but sweet potatoes for two years and having worms infest her belly again and again. About having to dig holes by the riverbank to hide from the Japanese. About eating tree bark, seeing heads on sticks, with crows stuck on dead eyes.
Tham's multiple narratives in the section called "The Soy Sauce Compound" also showed me the possibilities of writing from different points of view. There were monologues--"Brother remembers ... Mother remembers ... Father remembers ..." Three perspectives on the same aspect of family history. The multiplicity of memory. The possibility of more than one narrative. Tham writes vividly about descriptions of food, something so intrinsically Malaysian: "It was fascinating to watch the egg cooking--to see its transparent albumen turn solid and white. Then the noodle man would swirl the yolk and white together with his steel spatula, stir-frying the noodles and egg together until little specks of white and gold on the noodles, like dandruff on golden hair." In "The Nuns," she says, "My earliest ambition was to become a nun." I could relate to this--after all, when one is imbued with anger and doubt, religion is an opiate that is seemingly able to feed all one's worldly needs. The nuns and the brothers played significant roles in our lives, and this felt vocation was indeed a possibility for many of us who studied in the missionary schools. Lane with No Name thus offered me yet another alternative of a female Malaysian memoir.
But the pervasive issue was this: both Lim's and Tham's memoirs were written in a state of exile. As Lim writes in her essay entitled "Semiotics, Experience, and the Material Self," "Asian women writers in the twentieth century were and continue to be marginalized by gender.... In nations where national identity has been forcibly equated with a national language policy, by their choice of writing in English ... the Asian women writer, like women everywhere, continues to be constituted by a Male Other.... When the society is Confucian, Hindu, Muslim, Christian ... the female is always a colonized subject.... Colonial and postcolonial women have suffered a double-colonization.... In order for the woman to write in this doubly colonial world, the self must be in exile, she has to leave the rule of her community and become, if only in her writing, undomesticated, wild."
So where was I to begin? And how would it end? I was not a writer in exile, nor did I think, in 2007, that the postcolonial narrative or schism still applied--to me. In the ten years since Lim's and Tham's books appeared in America, a lot had changed in Malaysia. There were emerging voices; stories were being told that hadn't been told before. In 1998 the Malaysian Reformasi propelled ordinary Malaysians into the streets in the tens of thousands, people revolted against the decision by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to sack, arrest, and then imprison his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, for sodomy, a crime that was still punishable by draconian, outdated colonial laws, laws used to silence us. There was a salient, visceral anger on and off the streets; a pervasive sense of self began to invade us--a once-silent people who were not going to be silent any longer--voices needed to be heard. Voices that were no longer afraid, voices that were part and parcel of the Malaysian narrative.
So the work began. I interviewed aunts on both sides--some refused to speak to me, citing that all-familiar strain, How can you write about this! I asked and probed, traveled across Malaysia to speak to Manji--my Punjabi grandmother, alive still, in her nineties--to London, Devon, and the depths of the Welsh countryside, and finally to my ancestral village in the Punjab, India. There would be no rest for two years, until the book was done. But I had lived with it for twenty-three years; the proclivities of (re)imagining and (re)writing a hundred years of family history set against the backdrop of the Chinese/Punjabi migration and diaspora would allow me to excoriate my grief and set my ghosts free.
French-Algerian writer and theorist Helene Cixous wrote, "In order to start living/writing, there must be death." She, too, had lost her father, and she wrote of a sense of "eviction" from the world, that something so traumatic as losing a parent was likened to a sense of being cast out from the world of the living.
And so the book was written, in multiple narratives, navigating bloodlines, curses, histories. I had to write myself into my country's narrative; I had to be named. I was not in exile; I chose to write from the present, with my feet firmly on Malaysian soil; I chose to be visible, to be seen. It was a risk, an act of faith.
My father's death had evicted me from the world, and the only thing to do was to write myself back into it.
Bernice Chauly is the author of five books of poetry and prose, including the award-winning memoir Growing Up with Ghosts (Matahari Books, 2011). She lectures in creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and is the director of the George Town Literary Festival. She is currently editing her first novel, which begins during the Malaysian Reformasi movement of 1998.
Prayer Flags and Kinship Rivers
A Conversation with Wang Ping
by Amy Lantrip
Wang Ping emigrated to the US from China in 1986 and is currently a professor of English at Macalester College. She is a writer, poet, translator, photographer, and a lover of rivers. Her Kinship of Rivers project was created for people living near the Mississippi River and the Yangzi River to make river flags, signifying a connection between the two river communities. The project soon grew, with communities from all over the world contributing river flags. Some of Wang Ping's notable works include American Visa: Short Stories,_Foreign Devil: A Novel, and The Magic Whip: Poems. Her most recent verse collection, Ten Thousand Waves, features diverse voices that discuss issues facing modern China. While her native language is Chinese, Wang Ping writes in English, making her works easily accessible to US readers. We sat down together when she visited the University of Oklahoma in October 2015 to serve on the 2016 Neustadt Prize jury. Her nominee was Ghassan Zaqtan.
Amy Lantrip: Welcome to Norman, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Wang Ping: Thanks for having me; I am happy to be here.
AL: The collection Ten Thousand Waves is written in English, and many of your other works are as well. Why do you choose to write in English?
WP: I do write poetry in Chinese, but now I live in America. I have been living here since 1986. So English is actually becoming almost my first language. I think and dream in English, and my audience speaks English.
AL: So would you say that your audience is mostly American?
WP: Americans or Chinese who can read English. And some of the stuff really can't be translated into Chinese.
AL: So you think it is easier ... more free-flowing?
WP: Yes, and some of the content is not suitable, especially when it concerns Tibet. I do talk a lot about Chinese migrant workers in Ten Thousand Waves, which concerns me a lot. I was a peasant for three years in China, and when I went back to China, I traveled along the Yangzi River. I visited villagers and factory workers who used to be farmers. So I recorded their stories and tried to bring out their voices.
AL: Yes, and some of those voices are in the poem "The Price of a Finger," where you quote factory workers and owners about workplace safety. You also include a poster that shows how much pay a worker will lose depending on what body part they lose. What were you trying to convey with that poem?
WP: I want to tell what is going on in China. The interesting thing is, I met a Chinese poet from NYU who read the book and grew up in that city, Yongkang [the city in which "The Price of a Finger" takes place]. She grew up with all those workers, and her mother owned a few workshops like that.
AL: So she was surprised at the conditions, which she did not know about?
WP: She knew about it, but she kind of suppressed it. And [after reading the poem] everything just came back to her. She was very touched, and even wrote a book review.
AL: "The Price of a Finger" is actually one of my favorites. I first saw it in another publication, an anthology of Chinese poetry.
WP: Really? I did not know that. People use my work without letting me know, which is fine. I am so against the idea of private property in literary works. I think literature should belong to the public. Of course I am all for making a living. But at the same time, when money is involved, when you have to protect your work as a kind of private property, it is kind of against the very nature of poetry and literature. Great literature belongs to everyone, you know? It belongs to the heart and the soul. You are talking to the soul of the public.
AL: In Ten Thousand Waves, the title poem is based on a true story about Chinese immigrants who drowned in the UK. Why did their story inspire you to write a poem?
WP: I didn't pick them; their story picked me. You know, immigrants cross borders all the time. Not just Chinese; people will always cross borders to make a better life. I wrote a poem in the 1990s about a group of Chinese people whose ship foundered in the sea near Rockaway.
AL: By New York City?
WP: Yes. A lot of people drowned. When that happened I was hanging out with Ai Weiwei. We were both very concerned with this tragedy, and we wanted to do something. The Poetry Project from St. Mark's Church asked me to do a reading with Allen Ginsberg, the author of "Howl." So I wanted to write a poem about those people. I heard that about twelve bodies were not claimed, so they were buried in a public cemetery in New Jersey. I wanted to visit the cemetery, and I asked a friend from New York who was a former Marine and had a car to take me there. On the way, we just kept getting lost. And you would think, this is a public place--we have the name, we have the address, that it would be very easy. But we just kept getting lost! It was almost like we were going through a maze, and we were almost there, and then this huge storm came out of nowhere. So we couldn't drive, and we had to pull over and wait for the storm to go away. When it finally went away, the cemetery was closed. So I thought, okay, I understand that the spirits of these people don't want me to get too close, but I am still going to write this poem. And I remember when I finished it, I used so much blood, I couldn't see. I went blind for a day.
AL: You put so much energy into it?
WP: Right. So I read the poem alongside Allen Ginsberg. He performed "Howl," and I performed that poem. It was really intense. Then a magazine published the poem, and it was selected by Adrienne Rich for the Best American Poetry anthology of 1996. And then ten years later, I was invited to the University of Pittsburgh, and in the audience was a British filmmaker, Isaac Julien. For some reason, I chose to read that poem--I hadn't read it for ten years. But that day I chose to read the poem. After that, he came up to me and said, "You need to come to England to go to Morecambe Bay. I am making a film about the tragedy."
AL: The 2004 incident with Chinese immigrants from the poem "Ten Thousand Waves"?
WP: Yes, the cockle pickers who died there. So I went there, and he commissioned me to write a poem for his film. It took me almost two years to write the poem, because for all twenty-one people, I wanted to give each a voice. I traveled to China and visited their hometowns.
AL: Yes, each person in the poem has a personality. I felt I knew them just by that little bit.
WP: Yes, so I really believe that those people picked me to write this poem. When I was writing it, I just knew that their spirits were passing through me. I feel very honored to be chosen by them.
AL: Speaking of the spiritual, you have called Tibet your "spiritual home." What about Tibet inspires you?
WP: Well ... I really feel that I was a Tibetan many times in previous lives. When I first stepped on the land, I just felt really at home. All of my life I feel I am a gypsy.
AL: Wandering around like a nomad?
WP: Yes, like a nomad. I felt really at home in Tibet. I really like the teachings of the Dalai Lama. The compassion and being kind, how the body and the mind are temples.
AL: You also talk a lot about the environment of Tibet.
WP: Yes, the land; it is so hard to describe the land. I really think it is a sacred land. It is just so high up, and carries so much weight. It is so barren and yet so rich at the same time. It really forces you to strip everything. We are so weighted down by all the decor and masks that are so unnecessary, and we don't know it. We think everything becomes so important, but in reality most of the things we feel attached to are not necessary. I don't think anyone can feel untouched when they are in Tibet. There is something there, and that is why I urge people to go there.
AL: That sounds like a nice commercial for tourism.
WP: (laughs) Well, I never travel for tourism; I always travel with a purpose.
AL: Let's talk about water and the Kinship of Rivers project. Why is water so prevalent in your writing, and how does that connect with the Kinship of Rivers?
WP: Well, we are water. Seventy-five percent or so of us is water, right? I was born in Shanghai, which is the end of the Yangzi River. Tibet, my spiritual home, is the source of that river and many major Asian rivers. Now I live on the bank of the Mississippi River, and I teach my students about rivers. One year I went to Tibet to do a small art project. We had six artists, and we made a little piece of fabric art and then sewed them together. The person who was in charge asked me to bring it to the Great Wall of China. Instead, I wanted to take it down the Yangzi River. We wanted to make two, one at the end and one at the beginning of the river. So he agreed to that. I hired a guy to take me to a high mountain, which is about five thousand meters.
AL: What is the name of the mountain?
WP: It is called Mila Mountain. Up there the air is very thin, and I was struggling to tie the flags among the millions of Tibetan prayer flags, and I wanted to add the small banner to the other flags. I knew the flags were there, but I did not know the magnitude. I was stumbling and gasping, trying to tie it. When I finally did it, I stepped back. The banner was small and insignificant, but when it joined the prayer flags, suddenly it became a great force. And I thought, wow, I am going to do something with this. I am going to travel along the Yangzi and the Mississippi and get people together to make prayer flags. I want the two rivers to become sister rivers.
AL: Through the prayer flags?
WP: Yes, and I also want there to be an exchange of culture. Poetry, music, art, food, theater. China and America.
AL: So it is a symbolic gesture for the two rivers, two countries, two peoples.
WP: Yes, two continents. So they will just join. And I want to have some kind of bloodline. When you think about it, all of the water wants to go to the rivers, and all of the rivers want to go to the ocean. So we are really just one body of water. We are all connected through rivers and through water. I tried to come up with a good title for the project. I thought maybe "bridges" or all kinds of things, and nothing came to me. Then one night it came to me through a dream: "Kinship of Rivers." All good titles come to me through dreams. "Kinship of Rivers."
AL: I like it because it suggests not only China and America but the world, because rivers are everywhere.
WP: Yes, and I want to extend it to all rivers. I have included many rivers in America and Canada; we have gone to the Ganges and Amazon. I am going to the Amazon again soon. And I am going to the Po River in Italy. I will take all of the 2,500 flags to Everest again. I took them to the north face of the mountain in 2013, but the security was so tight. They only opened it up for three minutes, so I recorded. We were going to go last year, but a week before our departure the earthquake happened. But we are scheduled to go in May 2016. This is amazing, because when I first thought of this project I thought that I would love to have the Dalai Lama bless it and bless the flags. Everyone said, "Oh, you are crazy!"
AL: Yes, I would think it would be hard to get through to him.
WP: Yes, but guess what? Last year, His Holiness met with me privately and blessed all the prayer flags. He met with me in my most difficult period. And he received me ... when I entered the room he grabbed my hand and put it to his heart and talked to me like that. And he held my book and we took a picture. Isn't that amazing?
AL: Yes, so amazing, and nowadays you have to take a picture or else no one will believe you.
AL: Well, perhaps we should leave it there, I don't think we can say anything better after talking about the Dalai Lama.
WP: Yes. And after that everything got so much better. Thank you for having me; it was great to be here.
Amy Lantrip is a recent graduate of the University of Oklahoma with degrees in Chinese and Asian Studies. She will pursue advanced studies beginning in fall 2016 with a research focus on Chinese diaspora and minority literatures.
by Ming Di
What One Leaf Tells In the wind, questions to heaven bang the white poplar. Answers fracture-- a thousand white leaves. A thousand blameless mouths. A thousand. Ten thousand colorless excuses; I pick one up. Grip tightly as though holding the whole tree. Indeed, Qu Yuan says, the leaf, more than the tree, tells the truth about the tree. Indeed, Tang people say the leaf or leaves of autumn. But all I see is one leaf.
The image Is a deconstruction of leaves. The character "leaf" is made of two parts, mouth [??] and ten [??] Kou (mouth) Is a component of jiekou (excuse) and koushi (evidence); shi (ten) Is a pun with shi (truth) In Chinese.
Ming Di is a poet from China, author of six poetry collections in Chinese and one in collaborative English translation, River Merchant's Wife (Marick Press, 2012). She is the editor of New Cathay--Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Tupelo, 2013) and co-translator of Empty Chairs (Graywolf, 2015).
Birdisland All day I daydream, an island so quiet in water that even the water doesn't know I am here. A bird rises over a peak where I awake. Winding below is my body, four limbs, a river. All night my eyes open wide, dark, like the shadow of a bird's eyes reflecting in water. The eyes of the bird open in mine, dark. Above me a bird island is singing light and sun-filled, good morning. With my eyes in its eyes the bird sees what I see: my home with coconut trees and bananas. But it longs to leave me, dreaming its own daydreams, in midair becoming its very own island.
These two words resemble each other in shape, and both contain an eye. They differ in that "island" has a mountain [??] inside its body. Both echo in sound with hao (good) and zao (morning) in Chinese.
Carolann Caviglia Madden's work has appeared in Women in Clothes (Penguin, 2014), Souvenir, Yalobusha Review, and elsewhere. She Is a PhD candidate at the University of Houston.
Translations from the Chinese By Carolann Caviglia Madden with the author
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|Title Annotation:||COVER FEATURE|
|Author:||Lee, Krys; Madden, Carolann Caviglia|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Cover story|
|Date:||May 1, 2016|
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