Fu Ping, A Novel, Wang Anyi, Howard Goldblatt (trans) (Columbia University Press, August 2019)
Fu Ping, A Novel, Wang Anyi, Howard Goldblatt (trans) (Columbia University Press, August 2019)

Nainai has lived in Shanghai for many years, and the time has come to find a wife for her adopted grandson. But when the bride she has chosen arrives from the countryside, it soon becomes clear that the orphaned girl has ideas of her own. Her name is Fu Ping, and the more she explores the residential lanes and courtyards behind Shanghai’s busy shopping streets, the less she wants to return to the country as a dutiful wife. As Fu Ping wavers over her future, she learns the city through the stories of the nannies, handymen, and garbage collectors whose labor is bringing life and bustle back to postwar Shanghai.

Anyone who has ever studied literature has probably come across the now rather hackneyed line by the American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), “A poem should not mean, but be.” Steven Carter, the Yamato Ichihashi Emeritus Professor of Japanese History and Civilization at Stanford University, notes that the Japanese poet Shōtetsu (1381-1459) expressed similar sentiments long before MacLeish. “A truly excellent poem is beyond logic,” he wrote, “One cannot explain it in words; it can only be experienced of itself.”

The backstory—as given in the publisher’s blurb—to this English-language debut seems itself worthy of at least a short story:

 

One of Taiwan’s most celebrated authors, Wang Ting-Kuo … began writing fiction when he was 18 and quickly took the literary world by storm, only to disappear from the literary scene when his soon-to-be father-in-law gave him a devastating ultimatum: either give up the precarious life of a writer or give up my daughter. Having made his fortune, Ting-Kuo returned with a vengeance with My Enemy’s Cherry Tree which has since won all of Taiwan’s major literary prizes. This novel marks his English-language debut.

First published in Japanese in 1995 and now in English translation, The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami takes the form of ten short stories linked by a central character, the titular Mr Nishino. Each encapsulates one of ten affairs Nishino conducts through his life ranging from schoolboy romance to extramarital liaisons. Sadly, despite his notable talents as a lothario, Nishino cannot make any of these trysts last.

More than 70 percent of the thousands of documented migrant workers who depart Indonesia for overseas jobs each year are women. The reason for this remarkable statistic is simple: the well-established demand for Indonesian housemaids in the wealthier countries of the region, particularly Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Around 45 percent of registered foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are Indonesian; in Singapore the figure is 60 percent.

Short story anthologies for a given country or genre tend toward the predictable in their choice of stories, gathering the one or two most well-known from the most well-known authors. This is not the case with The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories. Edited by translator and scholar Jay Rubin (Disclosure: I edited Jay Rubin’s novel, The Sun Gods) and introduced by the best-selling writer Haruki Murakami, both heavyweights in Japanese literature, this collection does include stories from the famous—Natsume, Tanizaki, Mishima, Kawabata, Yoshimoto, and of course, Murakami. However, their stories are not necessarily those found in more traditional anthologies, and many of the stories are from lesser-known writers. In short, the collection has a unique, often edgy, surprising quality.