Such a Bright, Wide Window:
John Barton in Conversation with Joyce Zhang

Joyce Zhang

Joyce Zhang, a Nanjing-based writer, created a sensation in China with the publication of her debut novel, Blue Nails, in 2001. She is also known for her translations into Chinese of works by Alice Munro and Lucy Maude Montgomery, among others, and she spent the winter of 2009/2010 in Edmonton. Malahat editor John Barton interviewed Zhang by email in the summer of 2014 about her essay in “At Home in Translation,” the magazine’s theme issue celebrating literary translation in Canada.

Her answers to his questions have been translated from Chinese into English by Daniel Fried.

In “Too Much Happiness: On Translating Munro into Chinese,” you mention that you were a visiting author at the University of Alberta. What brought you to Edmonton, what were your responsibilities as a visiting author, and how long did you stay?

It was pure serendipity that brought me to Edmonton. Previously, I hadn’t known a thing about the city or the university. By chance, in 2008 I had just quit a publishing job in Beijing, when a good friend passed away. In early 2009, a former university teacher of mine was at the University of Alberta; when she left for Canada she had taken with her my translation of Anne of Green Gables, which I had done when I was first getting published, and she suddenly suggested that I go to Canada as well, that a change of scenery might help me. Thanks to the support of the East Asian Studies Department [at the University of Alberta], it worked out that the university was able to invite me as a visiting writer.

I lived in Edmonton almost five months, and life was fairly relaxed; the university only required me to give two talks in East Asian Studies, one in Chinese and one in English. Apart from this, I didn’t have to go to campus, but I could just hang out in Canada and get used to the environment. The lecture in English was my very first, and as it was a great challenge, it left a deep impression on me. Actually, I just told a story, about an extremely unusual “children’s village” in northeastern China many years ago. The rural hamlets of the northeast have a fairly serious problem with family violence, but the situation in that children’s village was particularly extreme. Mothers in the region who could no longer stand their husbands’ abuse and killed them, were sent to a particular prison, and their children were gathered together, with a little village established for them near the prison. I’m a typical southerner and don’t have a deep understanding of northern village life, so I just used it for a lecture topic—and the instructors in [the Department of] East Asian Studies helped me practise a long time for this lecture.

What were your impressions of literary culture in Alberta? Did you give or attend any readings while you were in Edmonton? How different or similar is a writer’s life in Alberta to a writer’s life in China?

Because I was only there for five months and because this was apparently the first time that the university had issued an invitation to a mainland Chinese author, I didn’t have much connection with Albertan literary circles and did not take part in any readings; but I did have a long-term publication plan, and was hoping to introduce more Canadian literature to China, both folktales, novels, and poetry, and originally this possibility led to discussions between the University of Alberta and Chinese publishing houses, but unfortunately nothing came of it, because there wasn’t enough general familiarity with Canadian literary circles [in China].

So at that time, it was purely my own choice, as to what to read and learn about while I was in Canada. What I read the most of was childrens’ and young adult fiction, mostly because I was curious—the differences between Chinese and Western educations are so great. For instance, when we were teen girls, there certainly weren’t any dating guides or rulebooks for dances—it’s to the point where I’d have to say that Chinese children don’t have an open childhood or adolescence, because they must constantly read under watchful eyes, or studying piano, or taking tests. So I gave this sort of reading material a lot of attention.

I actually didn’t have much contact with or understanding of Canadian authors or their lives; for the most part I just lived my own life in Edmonton and guessed at others’ lives. I felt like life there was so extremely quiet—unless one deliberately went looking for excitement, it wouldn’t be easy even to meet anybody. Now China isn’t like this at all, for me and all other Chinese people, there is a constant mass clamour—if one wants quiet, one has to have massive determination to push away all the obstacles to silence. Chinese authors living in the city mostly all rush out at dinnertime to get together, probably it’s rare that anyone eats at home. Of course, there is a small portion of them who have great willpower to find quiet for themselves, read, write, and reduce their interaction with society.

What other Canadian writers are read in China or translated into Chinese? Are there others besides Munro of special interest to you?

In recent years, the best-known Canadian author in China has been Margaret Atwood, and scholarly circles had been anticipating that she would get a Nobel; her books are often translated and published. In addition, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is very famous. And here I have a point of pride—the publication of their work, as well now of Munro, has mostly been the work of Nanjing publishers and Nanjing translators. Apart from works by these authors, there have only been scattered published translations, and most intended as scholarly introductions, without great influence. However, recently, the reputation of Rawi Hage’s Cockroach has skyrocketed. And then again, perhaps the most famous Canadian writer in China is Leonard Cohen, not because of his literary achievement (comprehension of his poetry is too difficult for most Chinese people), but of course his music is enthusiastically received, and masses of artists and authors are fans of his. One could say that the first cafés to appear in the 90s were all playing his music while they were open, and now the cafés are still playing it after twenty years—though probably most are using pirated editions!

As for my interests, because of the publishing plan I mentioned above, I have paid more attention to several poets, as well as some folklore, though because the plan never came to fruition, I can’t say I fully understand their work. I know that there is a Patrick Lane who went together with Munro to China, and who wrote a poem, “The Great Wall,” about a wall which was built before the speaker’s father’s birth, and which he has been repairing his whole life, replacing fallen stones, clearing away the weeds growing between the stones—it seems like the ancient past of China is a distant place for Canadian poets.

Which contemporary Chinese authors do you think would be of interest to Canadian readers, even ones not yet translated into English? What is it about their writing that would appeal to Canadians?

If one wants to know which authors could appeal to Canadian readers, then I would recommend a few younger authors born since 1970, first because this generation has grown up in a time of enormous social change, one defined by relatively strong individual characteristics; and secondly because, starting from this generation, most authors are free and continue to write without links to the system and therefore don’t easily come in contact with sinologists or are easily noticed abroad. So I’ll introduce four younger authors, two from Beijing and two from Nanjing, who in China are all fairly well known as authors with potential.

I’ll first mention that Chun Sue has already been introduced to North American and European poets and authors; her early work, Beijing Doll, was particularly in vogue. Chun Sue is a Beijinger, born in 1983, and is a typical rebel of her generation, driven by life’s fetters to a mad love for literature and self-expression. She’s an author and poet with a strong New Beijing style, caring about politics, direct to the point of arrogance, and with a curiosity about the world from start to finish, and an open field of vision. I think that this is why she would attract Canadian readers; there is about her a sort of thirst for power, and yet also a determination to smash that power—a paradox incompatible with the atmosphere of Canadian daily life.

The second Beijing author I’d like to mention is Ding Tian, who was born in 1971, and who is more of an old-style Beijinger in contrast to Chun Sue’s revolutionary and modern character. He is someone who likes traditional culture, comic dialogues and opera, and his writing style is very similar to a traditional storyteller’s—to North American critics, this sort of character would certainly seem overly expressive and dramatic, but I still think that he would be a Chinese author foreign readers would enjoy. For certain he is very old-style Chinese, and in this era of violent change, the fact that he is still able to maintain a persona as an “elite scion author” who drinks tea, listens to storytellers, and talks of all the sorrows and joys of life is rare and precious.

These two Beijing authors are both very urban; of course, one is old-urban and the other new-urban.

Turning to Nanjing authors, the style of the south is delicate and very different from the open and coarse lines of the north. I’ll first introduce a female author, Lu Min, who was born in 1973, and is a small-town writer—of course, the difference between Chinese small towns and Canadian ones is very great. Very possibly due to the high-density lifestyle of extended families living in small towns and because they are industrial bases (on the one hand the industrialization required a mechanized order, and on the other, it presses against one’s living space), there is almost no seclusion for private lives. It’s impossible for a town to have the kind of hidden layers that Munro describes; here the small towns are limitlessly preposterous. But Lu Min has a personally quiet air, meticulous, and in describing the raucous bustle and low-class life amid the excessiveness, she is full of warmth, so that I feel she would also be an author Canadians would like.

The second Nanjing author, Cao Kou, was born in 1977. He was born in a village, struggled to move to a town, only to move back to a village; he is someone who almost grew up at the same time as Chinese urbanization. Because of his hard life, his feelings are sharp, and the style of his work is relatively powerful. There is a unique feeling of ennui; he writes often of the blandness of village struggles, and the opposition between village, town, and city values, as well as the unreachable fantasies along the way. Two works of his describe this ennui, and their titles evoke this desire and dissatisfaction, Life in the Age of Saddam and Digging Down to America. The forceful expansion of personal life, the struggles of a small environment that are blown up to giant size, sadnesses crammed full of innumerable minor people, fantasy, and destruction—but perhaps the style of his work is more suited to American tastes, with its ideological power, its media stars rushing about, and its lurches between ideals and disillusionment.

A couple of times in “Too Much Happiness,” you make references to a financially challenging or straitened publishing environment in China, something that writers in North America would find familiar. Is it difficult for writers to publish in China as well as to find an audience?

China’s domestic publishing industry these days is definitely not prosperous. The eighties and nineties were extremely good, and this is related to the then-recent “reform and opening” policies. At that time publishing houses were all state-owned, and authors all belonged to the Writer’s Association—but it wasn’t very fair to foreign-langauge books, because there was almost no consciousness of copyright, and international treaties hadn’t yet been signed, so most imported books were pirated—just taken, translated, and published. But at that time, because publishing was a matter of coordination between state agencies, the financing also came from the state, so there wasn’t much demand for profit. But starting in the nineties, the publishing houses did need to make money, and a few private booksellers opened, and authors outside the system emerged. Copyright was regularized as well, so, for purely commercial operations, there were plenty of new publishing opportunities. But for non-profit materials, pure literature or academic work, there started to be difficulties.

As for foreign copyright, the readership for books by foreign authors was composed of mostly intellectuals, and most intellectuals born around 1960 or earlier couldn’t speak a foreign language, so their knowledge of foreign authors mostly came from the award lists, such as the Nobel, the American Pulitzer, the English Booker Prize and the French prix Goncourt. But the difficulty of getting Munro published in China was a situation rarely seen in our publishing history—a future Nobel laureate unknown even to most academics—this may have been due to the fact that Sino-Canadian cultural relations weren’t close, but after she won, academic and publishing circles came under criticism—the fact that she had escaped their notice shocked many people.

The publishing situation of Chinese authors is actually also very complex. Everyone knows that in recent years China has been constantly evolving. Literary magazines belong to the old state institutions, while most publishing houses are newly commercial organizations, so that for the older generation of authors born in the sixties and earlier, who have already established names for themselves, it is very easy to publish in either magazines or with publishing houses. However, most later-born authors are ignored by publishers and don’t have any relationship with the Writers’ Association, so that these young authors are in a bind. Even if the literary magazine do promote them, the publishers won’t recognize or accept their endorsement. This situation makes it extremely difficult for young writers to mature, so they are disappearing in large numbers. Quite a few, as soon as they get some recognition, go straight into script-writing for television and quit writing fiction.

What aspect of Munro’s writing did you find most challenging to translate while you were rendering Too Much Happiness into Chinese? Have you translated or intend to translate any of Munro’s other books?

The copyright agencies decided to translate Munro in 2009. At the time, their ambition was quite large, and since they thought that she was such a great writer, in a spurt of excitement they bought up the copyright to six of her books: Dance of the Happy Shades; Lives of Girls and Women; The Progress of Love; The Love of a Good Woman; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; and Too Much Happiness. But translators weren’t easy to find, so after I took over and translated Too Much Happiness, I then took on Dance of the Happy Shades, and they eventually found two other translators to do the other four volumes. They spent a fair amount of time on this because they really wanted to introduce this calibre of author [to Chinese readers], and show how she matured. They thought it worth spending energy on this. So the six volumes were completed by three translators. But I really regret that after so much time and effort, the translation manuscripts had to wait until the Nobel was announced to be published. A month after, the copyright agency settled on a Nanjing publisher to put out the six volumes as a set, finally fixing what had been really an oversight of the publishing industry. Some in the media described it as a shame for the whole industry and for literary circles that a future Nobellist had gone almost unnoticed, as it were.

As for my own translations [of Munro], my experience with each book wasn’t identical. Too Much Happiness is mature, dispassionate, with its sentiments running deep and much just hinted at, complex threads of narrative, character psychologies that are fairly broad and deep, and quite demanding diction choices. Several puns that worked in English couldn’t be translated into Chinese. How does one reveal her complete intention, the sentiment? Most of my effort was spent on adjusting the word order, because English has a fairly demanding logical structure, with higher precision; Chinese is a non-structural language, so that word order is very important, and is critical for the expression of emotions. Because the first book I translated was Too Much Happiness, the second, Dance of the Happy Shades was much easier, as it was a work of her youth—as Chinese would put it, it was her stage of “pure freshness”—a lot of direct expression, non-complex plotlines, and the possible hidden subtexts also not as complex.

Beyond this, please allow me here to borrow your page space to thank Munro—to me, her works have been a great help. The friend I mentioned above who died, had committed suicide; for me, this truly was an extremely large personal trauma. What I particularly want to thank her for, are the two stories, “Dimension,” and “Too Much Happiness,” the life-struggles in which gave me giant hints, almost gave me partial answers—what I want to express here is the deep thanks of a reader and my respect for a great writer who can so deeply explicate life.

Were you aware that Munro visited China as part of a cultural exchange in the early 1980s; there was a book published in Canada about this visit called Chinada: Memoirs of the Gang of Seven (Quadrant, 1982). Do you think more Canadian writers should visit China? What do they have to offer Chinese readers by visiting, and what would they learn by visiting China and meeting writers there?

After Munro won [the Nobel Prize], many Chinese newspapers published stories on her visit to China, writing that she spent her fiftieth birthday in China, in June 1981, and that she was very disappointed in the authors’ roundtable discussion she had: “The writers were a little more careful than I expected—and I had expected them to be careful. As I remember it, there was not much communication there at all. They talked about writing in the service of the State pretty much; and how well the State cared for its loyal servants. Quite possibly they’d been chosen precisely because they’d shown no signs of being interested in writing the way we do. But I was a little disappointed—no, very disappointed—at the time, because I hadn’t expected quite so firm a party line. I had thought things were opening up enough so we could talk of literature in other ways.” [Alice Munro, “Through the Jade Curtain,” Chinada: Memoirs of the Gang of Seven. Quadrant Editions: Dunvegan, Ontario, 1982. 53-4.]

The only one who made an impression on her was the Beijing author Wang Meng, and in her essay she praised him, saying, “Then, of course, there was Mr. Wang, who was so marvelous. I often think of him and wonder how he’s doing. You felt such a sense of humour there, and of irony, and several levels of thinking about things. It was comforting for me to know that such humour existed, and had survived, in China.” [“Jade Curtain,” 53.] Here I can also pass on to Ms. Munro, that the Mr. Wang she had thought of became China’s previous Minister of Culture, and at present he is a member of the legislature. In addition, the newspapers also published Munro’s description of China: “There is no alone in China. You know, the way the streets are just full of people, day and night; there was just this moving river of people in and out of the buildings, on the streets. I’d never, never had that feeling of crowds, especially crowded fields where so many people were working.” [“Jade Curtain,” 51-2.]

Of course I think more Canadian authors ought to come to China for a look, perhaps even live here for a while. Frankly, I don’t think that roundtable discussions are of much use beyond their propaganda purposes, so if things are set up for propaganda, the possibility of meaningful interaction isn’t great—haha, if one is talking with Chinese people, it had best be over dinner!—Our domestic media also has expressed doubt as to the ability of Chinese authors to interact with the outside world. To my own thinking this is because China has had a rough century, intellectuals’ mentalities are complex, and then also most Chinese people aren’t habitually public-affairs-minded, but are more introspective. Not many are strong at verbal self-expression, even if they are extremely agitated mentally so, even if you make them ask questions and interact, it will still be rather difficult for them, and as things are still like this, it will take some time to change. Of course, the younger generation of writers is somewhat more open, so they would be better able to take the initiative for exchanges.

Specifically about Canadian authors coming to China, and interacting with Chinese authors, what they would be able to bring to any discussion, or receive in return, I can only speculate. Frankly, in the process of globalization, Chinese authors really very much like foreign literary works and are thirsty for foreign interaction, but considering the cutting-short of their education during the Cultural Revolution and the political background, the older generation of authors has very little foreign-language ability, and these language barriers are their primary current difficulty. I believe one would need some patience in any exchanges of conversation, as well as extended periods of exchange.

My generation of Chinese people grew up listening to [the Manitoba folk song] “Red River Valley,” and in fact I used images from “Red River Valley” several times in my first novel, so even though it was still a closed era, everyone had a sort of feeling for this far-off “Canada”—personally, I think that it must be easier to begin a connection through lyrics, folk songs, and folk tales. And Canadian authors ought to be able to discover many different things through Chinese authors. In Chinese people’s eyes, Canada is a peaceful, distant place, but in China one is lodged among all kinds of transitions, constantly receiving all kinds of intellectual influence from the West, transmuting from an agricultural to an industrial power, and everything that’s happening leaves its traces on Chinese people, including culture workers. The [Chinese news] reports that talked of Munro’s visit to China twenty years ago, mentioned she saw Beijing, Xi’an, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, but China is really very large, and there are so many people that the differences between north, south, east and west are great, and those between village and city are great, and any given city with its own history will be different from other cities, because of differences in local culture and dialect, with barriers to mutual exchange between them almost as great as with European countries, so that it would really be worth it for Canadian authors to make multiple visits, and stay longer and interact with many more Chinese authors—they would certainly have a very rich, subtle, and complex experience.

Besides this essay on Munro, have you written anything else about or set in Canada or in Alberta, in particular?

Up until now, I have written several very short pieces of fiction set in Canada. But because my chances for contact with average local Canadians was very limited while I was in Canada, I actually wrote about Chinese who had immigrated or who were studying abroad in Canada. These were very short stories because I felt my time and experience weren’t sufficient enough to dive deeply into a complex story; and then I didn’t choose Edmonton in particular as a setting, first because I didn’t dare say I knew Edmonton well enough to use it and secondly because I was writing in Chinese and most Chinese readers’ concept of Canada only includes Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, as well as some Inuit folktales.

In “Too Much Happiness,” you say: “This was the greatest impetus and determination Munro had given me: the closest connection that an author, or even anyone expressing herself, has is with the environment that had shaped her.” I find it fascinating that Munro’s enduring affinity for her place of origins—in particular, southwestern Ontario, which some now refer to as “Munro Country,” and Canada as a whole—has motivated you to reaffirm to link to your own environment. Have you written anything since your return to China about Nanjing? If so, in what ways in particular has Munro’s example influenced what you have written about it?

There is a great difference between my personal experience and Munro’s: my father is from Shanghai, and as a university student during the Cultural Revolution, he was sent out west to work in the desert; my mother is a northerner who was sent west after graduation. It was only a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution that I was able to come with my father to Nanjing, and I grew up on a military base. Consequently, I can’t speak the native dialects of either my father or mother, nor did I learn a western dialect, and since I lived on the base in Nanjing, I also never really learned Nanjing dialect. So from my youth until now, all I’ve ever spoken is official Mandarin, and have therefore grown up into a person who is seen as an outsider, no matter where I am, as if I have never had a hometown, or feelings of belonging and identity. But the military university around which I grew up actually did very much resemble the small towns Munro describes—it was its own little town with just one kind of identity, relatively good conditions, and interpersonal relationships which were both close and closely controlling; since the world beyond certainly had every kind of suspicion, assumption, and prejudice about the military bases, communication and exchange with the outside weren’t easy. So my own experience was as if I were constantly floating from one place to another, without any of the stability of elapsed time, or feeling of closeness for a set place. Because of this, I suppose anyone could guess how important the feeling of having a definite hometown would be to me.

So, after I came back to Nanjing [from Canada], I spent a long time trying to fill in the gaps of my understanding of this place. I had lived away from Nanjing for almost ten years, and this was a decade during which all of China had been transforming violently: the buildings were higher and higher; the farm villages had become towns; ancient buildings were unearthed and preserved. Actually, in returning to Nanjing, I had to relearn most of the roads and also had to relearn my own family history and its relationship with the fates of the nation and of the city. There were really a lot of blank spaces in my knowledge which I needed to fill.

Because there was so much I had to supplement, my progress in writing about this history could not be considered quick. Among the stories I’ve finished, one is set on Ninghai Road in Nanjing—this is one of the most famous streets in the city. Before 1949 it was where Nationalist Party members and major financiers lived. Of course at that time China’s capital was in Nanjing; it was only moved to Beijing after 1949, and then Ninghai Road changed hands, to a different set of bureaucrats. What I wrote about was a story of the early 90s, after the reestablishment of communication links with Taiwan, and a Taiwanese visitor came to the house of a veteran’s son, saying he was his cousin. Because the mainland was still quite closed then, it was still a curious thing to have a foreign visitor, and the children of the family were glad to receive the visitor’s gifts, and they said they hoped to see him again. But the grandfather knew the truth, that the cousin would not come back, because during the war he had shot his own brother, this cousin’s grandfather.

The reason why I started by writing a story like this is because something similar had happened in my own family: because of the civil war, and political differences among its educated members, our family suffered a painful split. And because Nanjing was the Nationalist capital, apart from the fact that one can still see all the Nationalist buildings, there were many stories and family traditions passed down—just like in Munro’s fiction. All this bygone time has, by a certain form of its own, subtly influenced—or even decided—the lives of those who have come after.

These few years since I began translating Munro, both the fiction I’ve finished and that which I haven’t, I’ve acquired from her a better grasp of relationships, and how to recognize and express in fiction what they have hidden, to see that it is seemingly irrelevant details that make up characters and narratives. It has also been a help outside of fiction, helped me to understand things that happen or could happen in life, how relationships develop and how they are pushed. This has been the easiest thing for me to learn, because in my writing skill, I really don’t have as powerful an unconscious as Munro, and that which exists in my own mental ocean is perhaps just a series of personal tides and swells, a more chaotic and unordered world. I also need to point out, though, that when the series of Munro’s works came out, I said of Munro in a local interview, “She is a disciple of [human] nature, an understander of people, one’s best confidante,” and then many people started describing her as a “confidante-style author”—so many readers, like me, are grateful for Munro, how, on our behalf, she better understands people, understands the world, and provides us with such a bright, wide window.

John Barton

John Barton

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