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May-June 2024: Lau Yee-Wa 劉綺華

Lau Yee-wa author pic

Lau Yee-Wa is one of Hong Kong's most exciting emerging authors. She studied Chinese Language and Literature and then Philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, graduating with a Masters degree before going on to earn her Postgraduate Diploma in Secondary Education. Yee-Wa worked as an editor in a publishing house for five years before her short story 'The Shark' won the prestigious Hong Kong Champion Award for Creative Writing in Chinese in 2016.

Bio from Serpent's Tail

This month we're delighted to feature an excerpt from Lau's novel Tongueless, translated by Jennifer Feeley and published by Serpent's Tail in the UK and The Feminist Press in the US. You can also read it in the original language here. The book won a 2024 Pen Translates award, and the translation has received a Kirkus starred review, where it is described as "A taut, chilling novel about the weaponization of language as a tool of oppression".

Tongueless follows two rival teachers at a secondary school in Hong Kong who are instructed to switch from teaching in Cantonese to Mandarin—or lose their jobs. Apolitical and focusing onTongueless book cover surviving and thriving in their professional environment, Wai and Ling each approach the challenge differently. Wai, awkward and unpopular, becomes obsessed with Mandarin learning; Ling, knowing how to please her superiors and colleagues, thinks she can tactfully dodge the Mandarin challenge by deploying her social savviness. Wai eventually crumples under the pressure and dies by suicide, leaving her colleague Ling to face seismic political and cultural change alone as she considers how far she will go to survive such a ruthlessly competitive work environment.  Sharp, darkly humorous, and politically pointed, Tongueless presciently engages with important issues facing Hong Kong today during which so much of the city’s uniqueness—especially its language—is at risk of being erased.

Blurb from The Feminist Press

There's a fascinating review from May Huang in Words Without Borders:

“Tongueless” is an apt title for a novel about the politics of language, and the visceral ways in which power dynamics manifest through speech. There are many “tongues” in this book, reflective of Hong Kong as a multilingual city that speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and more; and Feeley has found inventive ways to convey these lexical variations in her English translation. Whereas in the source text, the contrast between Cantonese and Mandarin comes across in the different ways Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese speakers refer to “potato” (“薯仔” and “土豆,” respectively), for instance, in English this becomes a comparison between UK and US English: “he referred to aubergine as ‘eggplant’ and courgette as ‘zucchini.’” Feeley writes in her translator’s note that she often portrays Wai’s dialogue through faltering English, to convey her clumsy command of Mandarin, although the dialogue between Ling and other staff members appears in fluent English.