In brief: The Kite Family by Hon Lai-Chu, translated by Andrea Lingenfelter; While We’re Here: China Stories From a Writers’ Colony, edited by Alec Ash and Tom Pellman
<strong>The Kite Family by Hon Lai-Chu, translated by Andrea Lingenfelter
With Hon Lai-Chu’s The Kite Family, Hong Kong publisher Muse continues the exploration of local literature in translation begun with Dorothy Tse’s Snow and Shadow. Like the former volume, this is also a collection of short fiction with a heavy dose of surrealism. And as in Diao Dou’s collection Points of Origin, Kafka seems much in evidence.
The title novella—the Chinese version of which won the New Writer’s Novella first prize from Taiwan’s Unitas Literary Association—is of a family particularly inflicted by a form of obesity:
Mother told me how Grandmother’s fat kept growing, expanding into the cramped room like some sort of practical joke, so that doctors, nurses and family members could no longer squeeze in and were forced to examine her from a distance... In the days leading up to her death, Grandmother became too enormous for any room to contain, and the family had to find a contractor to break down the wall between two rooms so Grandmother could stretch out properly.
This absurd and satirical turn is common in Hon’s writing, as in this other story about a young man obsessed with brains and drawing pictures of them:
The doctor stood, picking up an unfinished cranial drawing. He thought it was a map of the Northern Hemisphere and would be useful to have on hand when planning his upcoming vacation.
“Notes on an Epidemic” is the story that will perhaps resonate most immediately in a city that has been through SARS and other more recent health scares.
The stories communicate less by plot or characterization than by atmosphere, one that is that is on the whole insalubrious and oppressive. There is much that is dystopian; the result is usually disturbing. The collection has been fluently translated by Andrea Lingenfelter who also contributes an informative and useful introduction to the writer and her work. She writes that her
task is to recreate an author’s style in an English that echoes the rhythms of the original while also honoring the natural rhythms of English.
Only those who can access the original can evaluate whether she has succeeded, but the final result gives one confidence that she has.
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While We’re Here: China Stories From a Writers’ Colony, edited by Alec Ash and Tom Pellman
People who follow China online are likely to have come across theanthill.org, a sort of blog founded for “personal narratives with a sense of story”, and which soon expanded to short fiction and poetry. This virtual “writers’ colony” has now published a selection of these posts.
While We’re Here is an eclectic mix of narrative non-fiction and short stories—the distinction between which is not always clearly identified—with some poetry thrown in as well. Although some are of Chinese extraction, the writers are, almost without exception, expats. The writing does not in general seem to have been intended for the ages: most reflect the relative ephemeralness of magazine pieces. The book is thus perhaps best read as a reflection of a certain zeitgeist, the somewhat bemused perspective of strangers in a strange land that will wear off as foreigners in China cease to be pioneers. This sense of transition is, indeed, evident in several of the contributions as well, of course, the title.
The tension inherent in these writings is captured in a passage by Jonathan “Cao Cao” Kos-Read:
I used to browse the China section of bookstores – back when they existed. I wanted history, translations, novels. But the shelves were stuffed with “I went to China, did some random thing then wrote a stupid book about it”. River Town is the most famous example – and one of the few not awful ones – but they’re all basically the same: I went to China and studied kung fu and got changed, I went to China and taught English and learned about myself, I went to China and did something even more boring and learned/changed/whatever. It’s like a little sub-genre where people use China as a mirror for whatever neurosis they had coming in. It’s not even like they’re not genuine, they’re just monotonous.
People could get away with it then because China was so unknown. No one had any idea what it was like and so people who went there were genuinely adventurous.
I cannot be the only reviewer who has on occasion been tempted to write something along these lines. The pieces in While We’re Here are refreshingly self-aware.