“Celia, Misoka, I” by Xue Yiwei

Xue Yiwei Xue Yiwei

We are used to novels by expats written in the language of home and then occasionally translated back, sometimes as a curiosity, into the language of the place where the work is set. But the expats are usually Western and the language English. Xue Yiwei’s Celia, Misoka, I, translated from Chinese by Stephen Nashef, is a rare example of this process operated from the other side of the mirror. 

The story begins when the narrator, a middle-aged Chinese widower, notices a young Korean woman, around the age of his university-aged daughter, looking lost on a city street. When he asks if she needs directions, she replies that she wants to climb to the top of Mount Royal to view the city from below and isn’t sure which way to turn. He immediately thinks back to ice-skating with his daughter years ago on public outdoor rinks, one of his favorite memories of her childhood. Montreal has a couple dozen such rinks and the narrator especially likes the one at the top of Mount Royal next to the quaint Beaver Lake. To revisit this special place, he decides to take the Korean student up to Mount Royal and begins a conversation on their walk.

 

I was curious about why she had chosen to come to Montreal in the winter, and she said she had specifically chosen this time to come. Winter was her favourite time of the year, something that could be traced back to her father, or more specifically to Vivaldi. Her father was an accomplished amateur violinist and one of his favourite pieces to play was “Winter” from The Four Seasons. She said the piece was part of the spiritual bond she shared with her father.

 

Celia, Misoka, I, Xue Yiwei, Stephen Nashef (Dundurn, March 2021)
Celia, Misoka, I, Xue Yiwei, Stephen Nashef (trans) (Dundurn, March 2021)

This last part strikes the narrator the most. He laments his crumbling relationship with his own daughter after she left home for university and wonders what went wrong. He misses his daughter even more when he and the Korean student reach the top of the mountain, so he starts skating again, day after day, always bringing both his skates and his daughter’s old pair, even though she isn’t with him. The mountain top is always empty apart from two women who never seem to interact with one another. One, Celia skates and skis, while the other, Misoka, writes in her wheelchair outside in the cold along the shoreline of Beaver Lake. The narrator is intrigued by the solitary actions of both women.

Before he learns Misoka’s name, the narrator finds the courage to ask how she can stand writing outside for so long. Her answer: what she’s writing is even colder. The narrator has made other Asian friends in Montreal over the years and he’s curious about Misoka’s background, so he asks if she’s Chinese or Japanese. At this question, she clams up and simply says she values her privacy. The narrator feels shame and embarrassment.

 

I had not expected our conversation to turn as inhospitable as the weather outside. I strode  back to my locker and began changing into my skates with my back to the pavilion. I did not want to look at the woman I’d just talked with. I was unable to look at her. I felt both guilty for inadvertently touching on something she did not want to talk about, and embarrassed by the way she had so unreservedly refused to answer my question. But lurking behind these two emotions was another: fear. I was afraid I had offended her so much that she would leave the pavilion, leave Mount Royal, leave my life and maybe even my thoughts. My curiosity had brought us together and I did not want my stupidity to make her disappear.

 

After this initial hiccup, both Celia and Misoka, albeit separately for most of the story, give the narrator something to look forward to each day. As he gets to know them, he learns each has her own lonely stories with a connection to China. These conversations cause him to reflect back on his own lonely years in China that inspired him to emigrate with his wife and daughter. And, in doing so, he is finally able to think clearly about the future and how he wants to live his life.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.