Writing Chinese

Category: The Publisher’s View

Muse Publishing and Dorothy Tse; Frank Proctor Interview

Snow_And_ShadowOne of Hong Kong’s most exciting young writers – Dorothy Tse – will be joining us in Leeds this week for our Writing Chinese symposium. In advance of Dorothy’s visit, we’re very happy that her publisher Frank Proctor, of the innovative Muse Publishing, has agreed to answer our questions about Muse and share his thoughts about Snow and Shadow, Dorothy’s first collection of short stories in English, translated by Nicky Harman.

If you’d like the opportunity to hear Dorothy read and discuss her work in Leeds on Saturday July 4th, please see our events page for how to register.

 

Can you tell us a bit about Muse; how did you get started? 

I founded Muse in 2005. Before that, I had been a senior executive for Newsweek magazine, based in Hong Kong. My vision was to capitalize on Hong Kong’s unique position at the crossroads of Chinese and Western traditions to creatively blend the two, starting with the launch of Muse magazine, which I envisioned as “Hong Kong’s New Yorker” — bilingual, with a blend of cultural reviews, narrative journalism, and literature. We published the monthly magazine until December 2010.

What was behind the decision to move from publishing a magazine to publishing books? 

Our original business plan was highly print-focused, and the digital transformation of media made it increasingly difficult to sustain a business model that would support a monthly magazine. At the same time, I felt that the digital era was opening up incredible new possibilities for book publishing, both digital and print. The internet has removed distribution bottlenecks, has made it possible for writers to tell stories in new ways, and has made global literature accessible to new audiences.

What are some of the challenges, and the rewards?

The reasons publishing attracted me in the first place are just as valid as ever: I am fascinated with the way writers articulate their ideas, and their ability to transform the way we see the world. Coming from magazine publishing, I needed to adapt to the long time horizon required to take a book project from the idea stage, through publication, and out to a wide readership. Yet I have found that the greatest reward is being able to immerse myself totally in working with one author for an extended period of time. I have the chance to get to know them and their ideas very deeply, and to understand their approach to writing. Then, I have the privilege of presenting their works to new audiences around the world.

How did you come across Dorothy’s work, and what made you decide to publish Snow and Shadow?

I first became aware of Dorothy and her writing through her role as a founding editor of Hong Kong Kong’s premier literary magazine, Fleurs des Lettres《字花》. Her writing appeared in its early issues, and she won some of the most prestigious literary awards in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

I was instantly jolted by the emotional intensity of Dorothy’s writing, a feeling that stayed with me as I read and re-read her stories. Her style is intensely direct, kind of an “in your face” surrealism.

Her stories revolve around urgent topics like personal identity, family relationships, and sexual exploitation. She has a keen eye for the ridiculous and bizarre, and she is willing to plunge unflinchingly into the grotesque. But as a reader, I couldn’t look away. The fantasies, dark humor, and shifting narratives that characterize Dorothy’s writing make her stories truly absorbing.

Moreover, Dorothy is part of a compelling “new generation” of Hong Kong writers, who are seeking to define the meaning of individual identity in a society that has slipped its cultural moorings. Hong Kong writing provides a singular window onto Chinese literature, yet surprisingly little of it has found its way to Western readers and reviewers.

We were also very fortunate to be able to pair Dorothy with Nicky Harman, a talented, experienced translator who intuitively understood Dorothy’s writing.

I loved the app for ‘The Apartment Block’; is this something you’re going to be doing more of? How do you think it changes our experience of reading and understanding stories?

I’m glad you like it!

I believe that digital media and the internet will play the central role in the way stories are told, and are already changing the way writers and readers interact. A publisher needs to be a digital pioneer to thrive. So I want to do at least one digital “experiment” with every book project. It is all about using different formats, both print and digital, to get the author’s ideas across and reach new audiences.

Dorothy’s story ‘The Apartment Block‘ really lends itself to this kind of app. The story is a series of short scenes from a single mysterious apartment building, woven together over an uncertain time period. There are multiple possible explanations for how the events and people in the building might fit together; so the app lets users click on the doors of the apartment building in any order, to “create their own narrative.” People really enjoy the app, and it reinforces the strange juxtaposition of time, place, and characters in the story.

What’s next? Do you have any plans for the publication of more Hong Kong fiction in translation?

Our next book is The Kite Family, a collection of short stories by Hon Lai-chu, another award-winning Hong Kong author. It is scheduled for publication this year.

Thank you so much to Frank for answering our questions, and we’re very much looking forward to reading more from Muse!

This entry was posted in authors, The Publisher's View.

New Models of Publishing in East Asia, by Peter Gordon

peter gordonWhen we were starting up the Man Asian Literary Prize, it was decided—after much deliberation—to specify that it would be for “works as yet unpublished in English.” This was not so much with the goal of bringing relatively unknown writers to light, although it did do that; rather it was because not a great deal of Asian fiction was being published at the time. If the Prize had required “publication” as a condition of entry, therefore, it might have ended up rewarding commercial serendipity instead of intrinsic literary merit.

Things have improved in decade or so since. Much more East Asian literature is appearing in translation and the English-language Indian market has exploded. Print-on-demand and electronic publishing have greatly lowered barriers to entry. If one were to start the Prize again now, one might not reprise the “as yet unpublished” criterion.

Chinese fiction, both in translation and some written directly in English, has increased manyfold in this period, albeit from a very low base. But this overall progress has been driven more by publishers in the main anglophone markets than by East Asian publishing itself. English-language publishing in the region remains intrinsically difficult.

It is the rare book that sells extensively outside of the publisher’s home market and Asian markets for English-language books are particularly small and fragmented. While Hong Kong, for example, is a city of seven million, the English-language market is much smaller: perhaps between 250,000 and 500,000, i.e. the size of a single not-very-large city in the UK.

The wider Asian markets do not in fact offer much additional opportunity. A novel set in Hong Kong might resonate for Hong Kong readers, but isn’t inherently any more appealing to the average Singaporean or Filipino reader than one set in London or Sydney. The logistics are also daunting: distribution within Asia is more pro forma than commercial. Freight within Asia is hardly less costly between America or Britain and Asia (in part because the planes leave Asia full of Asian-made products and generally return much emptier), and volumes are in any event small. It is one thing to consign books to a shop across town but quite another to consign them across the sea. Asian publishers cannot usually afford the sorts of terms their larger Western publishers offer. The result is that it is relatively rare to find Hong Kong books in Singapore, the Philippines or Thailand and vice versa.

Print-on-demand technology in the West may allow Asian publishers to avoid the need for trans-continental shipping and the cost and inventory risk of overseas warehousing, but availability alone does not lead to sales. Asian publishers remain a long way from the main anglophone markets.

Penguin China, in an-exception-that-proves-the-rule sort of way, is pretty much the only multinational publisher regularly publishing in English out of East Asia. The majority have been non-fiction titles by non-Chinese authors, often with an already-defined readership. Even with Penguin’s heft and global distribution, these hasn’t yet amounted to a breakthrough for regional English-language publishing.

The growth of English-language publishing in India is another exception that proves the rule: this is driven by the astounding growth in domestic demand, not by publishing “for export”. East Asia’s English-language publishers lack a market the size and depth of the developing Indian one.

This is not to say that no regionally published English-language book is ever a commercial success. Everyone can probably point to a few, and we at Chameleon Books have had several ourselves. But there aren’t really enough of them to go around.

* * *

Electronic publishing does not change this picture substantially; indeed, it might make things worse. E-publishing certainly makes it easier to publish or to get published—there are no financial or other barriers at all now. But if “getting published” consists of little more than uploading a file, it ceases to be a meaningful objective in itself. Nor has e-publishing magically eliminated the need for editing, fact-checking and other sorts of quality-control that have until now normally been a concern of, and major cost-centre for, publishers.

Like print-on-demand, e-publishing gives Asian publishers immediate access to a global market; but, also like print-on-demand, access does itself generate sales. The problem of generating focused attention remains, and has if anything gotten harder as the market gets noisier.

* * *

East Asian publishers, alas, are unlikely to have much effect on the aggregate availability of Chinese fiction in English. Attempting to make an impact, even electronically, thousands of kilometres from one’s home base is difficult, perhaps prohibitively so. It is proximity to the market, not the authors, that matters.

However, much of this discussion is of course predicated on the future publishing ecosystem—the process of getting words to readers—looking like some variant of what we have today. But it may not.

E-publishing has removed the physical and logistical constraints to the unit of text we have called “the book”: there is no inherent reason—other that commercial exigencies due to printing—why text should be consumed in units of about 100,000 words or a few hundred pages. Physical books, furthermore, may be bought and kept, or borrowed and returned, sometimes signed, sometimes collected. E-books, however, may end up being read more like magazines and newspapers: consumed and then set aside. This model for publishing fiction exists, of course, in magazines and journals. And for some genres such as science fiction, it has long been a prime mechanism for publication.

Should a considerable amount of writing move from individually purchased books to something that looks more like a subscription, the economics will be very different, as will the relation of writer to publisher and publisher to reader—and writer to reader. The current model of writer>publisher>distributor>bookseller>reader may be superseded by one that looks more like writer>publisher>reader, or writer>e-seller>reader or maybe publisher>reader (with writers being on contract), but in any case, one with fewer levels and transformed relationships.

When Chinese enters the picture, the model is complicated by translation. Sometimes, it will remain linear, i.e.  writer>publisher>(publisher/translator)>… Or the translated track may be parallel to original language publication, e.g. writer>rights agent>translator>publisher… or writer/translator>publisher… Translations are usually of books that have already proven themselves domestically, but in a subscription model where writers write to spec, one may end up with writer/translator pairs, perhaps writer/translator>e-packager>reader.

These developments are unlikely to help East Asian publishing per se, because the costs and main marketing issues—being far from the largest markets—will remain. But traditional publishing is a bundle of many potentially disparate functions—recognizing good writers and material, supporting these, editing, translation, marketing, distribution, sales, finance. E-publishing may result in this being unbundled into constituent parts with different combinations of cost and revenue centres. Exactly what it means to be a “publisher” under these circumstances may be a matter of debate, but there may be configurations in which East Asian industry professionals’ proximity to the sources of the content—the ability to work closely with authors and translators—is more a catalyst of direct commercial opportunities than it is at present.

Current industry structure makes it difficult for East Asia’s English-language publishers to make more than a tangential contribution to the availability of Chinese writing in English. But should the entire deck of cards be thrown up into the air, who knows where they will come back down?

 

Peter Gordon is publisher at Chameleon Press and editor of the Asian Review of Books.

 

This entry was posted in The Publisher's View.

Structo Magazine and Literature in Translation

Issue13Full
Our translation competition deadline is fast approaching!

We’re very proud to be working with Structo magazine to publish our competition winner, so in the run-up to the deadline, editor and designer Euan Monaghan joins us to tell us a bit more about Structo and their interest in translated literature.

 

Can you tell us a bit about Structo and its ethos?

Structo is a print and digital literary magazine, founded back in the mists of 2008, which publishes short stories, poetry, interviews and essays from all over the world. An issue is published every six months, and each one goes online for free three months after it’s released in print. I’m very proud of what Structo has become; the quality of the writing we publish is really excellent, and our authors are a diverse bunch. We have an open submissions policy, and we read everything blind. Although the team enjoys—and we publish—a wide range of writing, we have a particular fondness for stories which falls between genre, especially slipstream fiction.

When did you start publishing translations? Has this always been something you’ve been interested in?

It’s something we’ve become increasingly interested in. We published a few translations before issue eight, when our poetry editor Matthew Landrum came on-board, but given his background and interest in translation, it seemed like an obvious avenue to explore more frequently. It was one of the reasons he was such a strong choice for the role.

You tend to include poems in both the original and translation. Why do you think it’s important for readers to be able to see the poem (or prose, for that matter) in its original language? 

It think it’s very important for poetry in particular. From the new issue, we’re also including phonetic transcription of non-roman alphabets—Thai script in issue 13. I enjoy getting a sense of the changes that are made as a poem moves from one language to another, even though I don’t necessarily understand the original. Sounds might become softer or harder, more or less musical; tonal emphasis might shift. It’s like hearing a piece of music transcribed for a different group of instruments.

We’re really grateful for your support of our translation competition. Can you tell us a bit more about your interest in contemporary Chinese writing (either from the mainland or Hong Kong)?

My interest was sparked around the same time that I began the magazine. The Southbank Centre in London hosted the China Now festival in 2008, and I think for many people in the UK this was key to discovering contemporary Chinese literature, and arts more generally. I particularly remember a couple of great stories by Zhu Wen and Yan Lianke in The Guardian, and my interest has remained with Chinese short fiction since. Late last year, Clarkesworld magazine ran a very popular crowdfunding campaign to translate and publish Chinese science-fiction. That should be fascinating.

Thank you to Euan and the Structo team, and we’re looking forward to reading the winning translation in issue 14, to be published in Autumn 2015!

You can find out more about Structo on facebook and twitter.

 

 

This entry was posted in Talking Translation, The Publisher's View.

Telling Stories: Yan Ge and HopeRoad Publishing

Yan-Ge

It’s nearly November, so it’s time for our next Author of the Month, and we’re very excited to be welcoming Yan Ge to the project, and to Leeds! Recently chosen by People’s Literature Magazine as one of ‘China’s Twenty Future Literary Masters’, Yan Ge’s writing is funny, warm, and insightful, turning a sharp eye on families, relationships, and small town life. She’ll be joining us on Saturday November 1st for a public talk, alongside her translator Nicky Harman. This promises to be a fascinating insight into the process of writing and translating. It’s free, and everyone is welcome! In the afternoon, we’ve got our translation masterclass, led by Nicky and Yan Ge, and we’re really looking forward to seeing some of our Writing Chinese network there! At the end of the workshop, we’ll be revealing officially opening our inaugural translation competition, so if you can’t be there on the day, keep your eye on this space for more details…

Yan Ge’s novella White Horse, translated by Nicky Harman, was released last week by HopeRoad Publishing, and we’re delighted that Rosemarie Hudson, from Hope Road, has taken the time to answer a few questions. HopeRoad is an independent publisher, supporting voices that are often neglected by the mainstream publishing world. Here’s what Rosemarie had to say:

White-Horse

Can you tell us a bit about what sets HopeRoad apart from other publishers?

There are so many writers, particular in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who are writing amazing stories but find it extremely difficult to reach their audience. This is due mainly to the big publishing houses not affording them time and money.  HopeRoad was set up for the purpose of telling the stories of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

Why e-books? What are the challenges and advantages of publishing this way? And do you see this as a future trend, particularly for world literature?

The advent of the technology drove me to decide on e-books over print although recently we have dipped our toes into paperbacks. There are more advantages than challenges when publishing e-books. The main advantages of digital publishing are the speed in which the book reaches the market, and the fact that your stock is not tied up in a warehouse. Also, of course, the book has a global reach and the cost is more affordable to those who can’t afford print.  And of course the reader has so many choices of readers on which to download their chosen book.

How do you choose which titles to publish?

When choosing a title there are so many questions one has to ask.  Did I enjoy the read, will the buyer like it, will it sell? First and foremost, I must like the book.

We’re really excited to have Yan Ge and her translator Nicky Harman visiting us in Leeds. Can you tell us a bit about how you first came across ‘White Horse’, and the decision to publish it?

We’ve worked with Nicky Harman before and she kindly introduced us to Yan Ge and her fabulous novel White Horse,  I am so delighted she did.

Thank you to Rosemarie for taking the time to answer our questions! Specially printed postcards with the e-book code for White Horse will be available to buy at our event on November 1st.

 

 

This entry was posted in authors, The Publisher's View.

‘Where there’s darkness there’s literature’: Chen Xiwo Q&A and Book Club

Well, we’ve officially launched our project, and we’ve been absolutely delighted by the response, both to our call to join the Writing Chinese network, and to our first event!

chen xiwo talk

Chen Xiwo’s visit to Leeds, along with his translator Nicky Harman and publisher Harvey Thomlinson, provided a fantastic start to Writing Chinese. We were especially pleased that Nicky, who has done a huge amount to help us with getting the project set up, could be here to talk about her work!

The narratives in The Book of Sins involve voyeurism, pain, violence and incest, yet they are also, as Nicky points out, very moral stories, and there is tenderness there, as well as violence. The transgressions they depict are never gratuitous, but charged instead with political and social meaning. They are also shot through with a strain of pitch black humour, something which spilled over into Chen’s entertaining Q&A!

From the very first question, ‘Where does this darkness come from?’, we plunged in to a discussion of censorship, sexuality, politics, writing and knives. When asked about his experiences of living in China, and the censorship his work has undergone, Chen remarked that, ‘Where there’s darkness, there’s literature’. Despite the difficulties, despite the fact that writers have more freedom to write elsewhere, Chen insisted that living in China is vital to his work, and our audience was fascinated to hear about his experiences.

So thank you to everyone who came to the event, and for all your questions! We’d also like to say thank you to our wonderful interpreter Feng Lin, who did an absolutely great job. And if you weren’t able to come in person, you can take a look at a video excerpt from the reading and some of the questions.

We also held our first book club meeting yesterday, in Costa Coffee in Blackwell’s Bookshop, to discuss ‘The Man With the Knife’. Tea was enjoyed, arguments were had (politely, of course), and we very much enjoyed delving in to the disturbing but often very funny depths of the story. And don’t worry if you missed out, because the discussion will in fact be continuing all month on our forum! So please do let us know your thoughts and questions.

But don’t say you weren’t warned…

 

 

 

This entry was posted in authors, Talking Translation, The Publisher's View.

Chen Xiwo: Rebel, by Harvey Thomlinson

46-Logo makedoTo continue our countdown to Chen Xiwo’s visit to Leeds on October 9th, Make-Do Publishing‘s Harvey Thomlinson tells us about Chen, his work, and his refusal to compromise. 

In June 2007, the Fuzhou office of China Customs intercepted a package addressed to a teacher of comparative literature at a local university. The customs officers ascertained that the package contained twelve copies of a book that had been mailed by a Taiwanese publisher to the academic, who was in fact its author. The book, a collection of short novels called The Book of Sins (冒犯书) was quickly deemed ‘prohibited’ because it contained the ‘pornographic’ and ‘anti-human’ novella I Love My Mum.

What happened next was possibly unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic of China. The author, Chen Xiwo, launched a legal case against China Customs for confiscating his book. For centuries, Chinese writers had more or less accepted the right of the authorities to act as censors of their work. If a work was banned then writers would typically agree to make a self-criticism. But Chen Xiwo went to court, and an uproar exploded in the Chinese media at the absurdity of a writer having his own book confiscated.

The scandal surrounding Chen Xiwo’s novel I Love My Mum in many ways epitomizes a writing career characterized by a refusal to compromise. Chen Xiwo is a child of the Cultural Revolution, and his work preserves the flavour of that Zeitgeist: the demand for an impossible ‘purity’, coupled with first-hand knowledge of the amoral darkness at the heart of human nature. Above all, an appetite for unrelenting struggle. For many years Chen went unpublished. Even when, in the early 2000s, he began to win recognition and prizes, his work continued to divide opinion due to its pessimistic view of human nature and its preoccupation with dark sexuality.

In 2007, The Book of Sins was published by China’s prestigious People’s Literature Publishing House (Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe). For some, this collection represents the pinnacle of Chen’s writing career to date. Like the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue film series, each story was supposedly inspired by one of the Ten Commandments. However, one story was missing from the collection as published in China – deemed beyond the pale even for a collection of such literary merit: I Love My Mum.

Even those who are not generally inclined to side with China’s censors may feel some empathy in this case. I Love My Mum concerns one of the deepest human taboos, incest – and it doesn’t pull its punches. Because of its status as a cause célèbre and the extreme reactions it provokes, I Love My Mum has in many ways become the work by which Chen’s writing is judged.

Chen Xiwo is from Fujian province, which he credits with having helped to shape his values. Fujian, in southeast China, adjacent to Taiwan, has historically been on the margins of the Chinese empire, usually receiving attention from emperors only in times of crisis. Fujian was also one of the first parts of China to feel the influence of western cultures, both in the late Qing dynasty, when the area enjoyed a commercial flourishing, and in the 1980s after Deng launched his opening-up policy and it became the host of one of China’s special economic zones. Yet in the first half of the twentieth century, on the ‘frontline’ of many of the conflicts that consumed China in those decades, Fujian became poor. These currents combined to give the province the flavour of a region apart, and may have helped contribute to what Chen describes as his ‘distance’ from the Chinese mainstream.

In the 1980s, Chen Xiwo got the chance to go to college where he studied with ‘Misty Poetry’ school poet Sun Shao Zhen (孙绍振.) Unsurprisingly, Chen was a radical student, to the forefront of the debate and ferment that developed in a more liberal intellectual climate in the middle of the decade. His parents grew concerned that he would get into trouble and decided to send him to study abroad. With prescient timing, he left for Australia in 1989, just a few months before the Tiananmen uprising. The events of 4 June confirmed Chen’s belief that it was better for the moment for him to develop his career outside of China. He soon moved to Tokyo where he embarked on a PhD in comparative literature, and altogether Chen was to remain away from China for seven years.

It wasn’t only developments in China that kept him away for so long, however; he had embarked on a love affair with Japan and Japanese literature. It was during this period in Japan that many of Chen’s important preoccupations as a writer took shape. Out of sympathy with prevailing realist currents in Chinese literature, he admired Japanese writers’ characteristic concern with individual psychology rather than social responsibility, with weirdness rather than conformity. His affinity for the dark concision of writers like Yukio Mishima and Junichiro Tanizaki is evident in his own work.

Chen’s stay in Japan also allowed him to further develop his interest in the theme of ‘perverse’ sexuality — although he disavows the term, as he regards all sexuality as ‘perverse’. To fund his studies Chen worked for a time as a Tokyo ‘mama-san,’ which may have influenced the topic of his ultimately unfinished comparative literature doctoral thesis: S&M. Chen’s view that ‘sex is always the first prohibition of power’ owes a lot to his reading of both the Marquis de Sade and French philosopher Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

In Chen’s view, Japanese literature was far superior to Chinese in its treatment of sex. Chinese writers wrote about sex in a superficial way, or else treated it purely as fun. Rarely did even the Chinese classics, like Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅), focus on the dark side of human sexuality. Chen’s works explore the link between dysfunctional society and dysfunctional sexuality, arguing that ‘extreme’ sexual behaviour is often the sign of a soul and a culture in a poor state of health. This terrain is one Chen returns to again and again.

Chen eventually returned to his native Fujian province and took up a comparative literature teaching position at a university there. In the early years of the twenty-first century his work finally reached a wider audience through the internet. Chen’s talent was gradually recognized; and in 2001 he won his first major award, the Chinese Literature Media Prize (华语文学传媒大奖), with My Dissipation (我们的苟且). This brought him to the attention of the literati, and his works won further awards.

Nevertheless, Chen’s relationship with the literary authorities remained difficult. It was impossible for his work to be published without being cut or banned, which engendered considerable misunderstanding of his writing in China, where he was sometimes viewed mainly as a pornographer even by (especially by) his fans.

ii

I Love My Mum is often held up as proof of Chen’s anti-humanism. In fact, despite his interest in Foucault’s ideas, Chen draws back from Foucault’s contention that ‘human nature’ is a bourgeois construct. On the contrary, as the structure of Book of Sins with its framework based loosely on the Ten Commandments, suggests, Chen has traditional moral concerns. The novella does not merely advance a generalized bleak view of human nature, but a view of China specifically as a society ruined by its lack of freedoms and failure to place ‘people’ at its centre.

Chen deliberately sets I Love My Mum in a city that has been corrupted by the lust for wealth. The opening paragraph establishes the context after the police captain has been too zealous in his ‘cleaning-up’ operation. His superior reprimands him, saying: ‘The sex industry is a pillar of our city’s economy. Do you want us to get rich? Well, a city has to rely on whatever resources it has. What we have here is prostitutes.’

The murderer’s ‘amoral’ reasoning, far from being aberrant, echoes:that of the captain.

 ‘Morality?’ He laughed coldly. ‘Morality is for those who have enough …’

Chen’s China is a society where rank crimes such as the Tiananmen killings and the Cultural Revolution have gone unacknowledged, leaving a corrupting stench. When the neighbours in the story visit the house and the mother blocks the doorway, they comment that a sour smell seeped out from behind her body.

In Chen’s analysis, it is natural that political crimes should find their parallel in the sexual realm. For Chen, China is held back by a pathological inability to acknowledge wrongdoing. As the police captain reflects: … how often do we think about our souls? We continue on our individual paths to destruction. At the very start of the story, Chen makes it clear that the captain’s job is as much to cover up crimes as to uncover them: we first encounter him not arresting suspects but letting them go. Later, the murderer senses that the authorities do not really want to confront his crime of killing his mother. They are ready to downplay what he has done, to find excuses rather than confront the horrors of our human nature.

In Chinese society, Chen argues, there is no interest in truth; only in ‘business as usual’. Indeed, Chen shows that language itself is primed to deflect and conceal reality: the phrase ‘talking nonsense’ is used by all three main characters to deflect unpleasant realities. In Chen’s view, one symptom of this lack of moral awareness is failure to confront one’s true sexual desires, as when the police captain refuses to admit that he masturbates:

I had done often, of course …  But to his face I lied. I am a cop, I couldn’t admit to that.

Despite appearances then, I Love My Mum is very much a political novel. For Chen, in a China groaning with hidden corruption, the ‘morality’ of the narrator lies precisely in his eventual willingness to admit to his foul deeds, to shout them out. In Chen’s view, this kind of honesty is the best that can be hoped for in China at this time, and marks the beginning of a ‘human awareness’. Chen thus draws back from Foucault’s contention that ‘human nature’ is a bourgeois construct, and remains invested in a concept of the human which, however problematic epistemologically, remains the foundation of resistance to power.

Chen’s refusal to compromise has bound him in a lifelong love–hate relationship with the Chinese authorities. One suspects that Chen obtains a measure of satisfaction from it, as he once wrote the following: ‘In this sort of country where there is no hope, to continue to seek the courage to keep living is precisely to embrace an S&M relationship where one finds pleasure in being abused’. Yet this tension continues to fuel the creativity of an important voice of conscience in contemporary China. Chen Xiwo’s powerful works are an urgent cry for China to confront its social and political ills, and for his readers to acknowledge their most subversive desires.

This entry was posted in The Publisher's View.

© Copyright Leeds 2017