Monthly Archives: June 2014

Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian edited by Mabel Lee

Mabel Lee (editor), Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian (Vagabond Press 2014) – translated by Mabel Lee, Naikan Tao and Tony Prince

1ml This is the second book I’ve read in Vagabond Press’s admirable Asia-Pacific Writing series, and like the first – Poems of Yi Sha, Shu Cai and Yang Xie, edited and translated by Ouyang Yu – it features work by three poets translated from Chinese.

Strikingly, neither Mabel Lee nor Ouyang Yu mentions any of the poets who appear in the other’s book. The only overlap between their respective histories is a mention of Bei Dao, whom Ouyang Yu says is now regarded as ‘uncool, pretentious, even boring’ and whom Mabel Lee honours as a key figure in the post-Mao era. Clearly the story of recent Chinese poetry can contain multitudes.

Mabel Lee’s poets are a generation older than Ouyang Yu’s. Where his introduction discusses the way his poets turned away from the revolutionary zeal and protective obscurity of their Mao-era predecessors, she takes us further back, to the surge of translation of European literature into Chinese at time of the May Fourth movement (1915–1921), then forward through the turbulent decades that followed, the repression of the Cultural Revolution, then the process that began in the late 1970s, of Chinese writing ‘extricating itself from decades of stringent political censorship’.

These three poets were part of that process. They all came of age during the Cultural Revolution and were publishing poetry by the early 1980s. Hong Ying (born in 1962) and Yang Lian (born in 1955) left China soon after the brutal crackdown in Tienanmen Square on 4 June 1989, now live in London and are translated into many Western languages. Zhai Yongming (also born in 1955) lives in Chengdu (where the pandas are) and is something of a celebrity there as an artist and owner of White Nights, a wine bar ‘that functions as a literary and arts salon’.

Hong Ying, Mabel Lee tells us, writes as a form of self-treatment for trauma, and much of her poetry has a dreamlike, painfully introspective feel, like this from ‘Whose Mother?’:

She is linked with all words of grief
In endless gloomy rain
She delivers good fortune to my hands
I see clearly
Black ants crawling all over the road
Dragging along a crowd of silent monks

In the early 1980s Zhai Yongming was thrust ‘into a role model position for other aspiring women poets’. Her poetry is much more outward looking than Hong Ying’s, dealing with social issues, including but not at all limited to issues concerning women. The book’s sole endnote explains that her poem ‘Lament for Scholars’ relates to an incident she witnessed during the Cultural Revolution, in which the renowned actor Feng Zhe was publicly humiliated, later to be ‘tormented to death’. This factual background enriches the poem hugely for the ignorant reader (that is, me) and makes me wish for more. For example, I’d love to know the story behind a sequence of poems about a six-month stay in a village, with lines like this in ‘The Second Month’:

Shouts are heard on Cold Food Day
And to comfort the dead the villagers practise self-restraint
As I search I always wear a faltering smile
My inner wound linked to their eyes in a straight line
How can I enter Jang’an Village?
Though every day there are corpses of drowned infants and of brides who have swallowed poison

Is this telling us about the brutal conditions of village life, or is the speaker projecting something of her own inner suffering onto the villagers? I know I could look it up somewhere, but a note would help with the immediacy of first reading.

Mabel Lee describes Yang Lian’s poetry as possessing an exuberant male sexuality. There’s no sex as such in these poems, but there is a wonderful swaggering energy that carries all before it. here are some lines, picked almost at random, from ‘Dance: Swimming Naked with Li Bai’:

A cup of wine moulds the shape of a throat
A deeply private action _exposed to the public eye
Shakes the body’s _ defects become blindingly beautiful
Once you’ve jumped into the sweet stench of that river you’re drenched
From being submerged in it for a thousand years

I struggled with this book, partly because of my lack of familiarity with cultural/historical contexts, partly because I was constantly aware of the translators’ struggle to do more than paraphrase (though none of it has the English-as-a-second-language feel,of Ouyang Yu’s translation). On the way to writing this post I did some haphazard research (ie, a quick trawl of my bookshelves): I read T S Eliot’s comments on Ezra Pound’s translations from Chinese, in which he writes of the need for a great poet to communicate the poetry of another culture; I reread J P Seaton’s introduction to The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry, which explains some of the complexity of translating from Chinese to English, and tells the history almost to the point where Mabel Lee’s introduction begins. I decided that my ignorance is profound, and that for me to really grasp the work of these poets would take serious commitment to study on my part, or a translator-poet of genius to hand me something on a platter. For now, I can be grateful for the glimpses I have gained from this little book, and hope to be able to build on them in time.

awwbadge_2014 I’m probably pushing the boundaries to count this as part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge. But Mabel Lee is an Australian woman, and translation is a form of writing (the book doesn’t say it in so many words, but I think she translated Hong Ying and Yang Lian’s poems, while Naikan Tao and Tony Prince translated Zhai Yongming’s), not to mention her lucid introduction. Maybe I should count it as half a title, which means I’m up to 6.5 books. I don’t remember how many books I signed up for. Assuming it was 10 – the ‘Franklin’ level – I’m on track to have completed the challenge by the end of the year.

Looking back: June 1964, 1974, 2004

Yesterday, searching for the name of a book I read in the early 70s, I dug out the little notebook where I listed every book I read from 1961 to 1974 – from ages 14 to 27.

As pure self indulgence – after all, what’s a blog for? – here is most of 1964:

It was my last year of high school so I didn’t read a lot. It’s interesting to notice that before heading off to boarding school I read science fiction, crime, and a coulpe of James Bonds. After that, it’s religious books (I was on my way to being a member of a Catholic religious order), Charlotte Bronte (but not Jane Eyre), Goodbye Mr Chips, some Belloc, some Chesterton and some Paul Gallico. I know I also read Wuthering Heights and Macbeth, both more than once – evidently I didn’t count study texts as reading material for the purposes of this notebook.

By 1974, now 27, I had abandoned my unfinished MA thesis in Aust Lit and was working at Currency Press, publisher of Australian plays.

1974 June

In June – 40 years ago this month – I read 10 books and went to the theatre once. Religion had been replaced by C G Jung: I read two books about him, and one on the I Ching (which he sometimes used to diagnose children and others). There were two novels by Herman Hesse, which I don’t remember at all. Kind of work-related, I read some Sophocles, some Patrick White and some Peter Handke. (I’m surprised to find I read the Peter Handke eight months or so before I saw Peter Wherett’s brilliant production at the Nimrod in Belvoir Street with Kate Fitxzpatrick and Peter Carroll.) I went to Melbourne to see a Jack Hibberd play, at the Pram Factory with Bill Garner and the fabulous Evelyn Krape.  I also began reading a history of North Queensland, which a note says I took more than a year to finish. And there’s a book each from Bruce Beaver and Robert Adamson. Nothing by women.

I stopped making a note of my reading in my late 20s, so I’ll skip to 2004, just 10 years ago, when I was keeping a blog, the precursor of the one whose entries now appear in the right-hand column here. It turns out in June 2004 I read an amazing 25 books,  almost all of them for my work at The School Magazine. So I was paid to read fabulous novels by Terry Pratchett, Geraldine McCaughrean, Allan Baillie, Susan Cooper and Gillian Cross, picture books by Julius Lester & Jerry Pinkney, Alan Ahlberg & Peter Bailey, Colin & Jacqui Hawkins, and Anna & Barbara Fienberg & Kim Gamble, and poetry by Myra Cohn Livingston. Good work and I was lucky to get it!

On my own 10 cents in June 2004, I read three volumes of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic, and – some suffering is self-induced – The Da Vinci Code.

So here I am in June 2014, two books read and three on the go. My recent excursion into self-improvement with Alain de Botton is perhaps an equivalent of the religious texts of 1964 and Jung in 1974. I’m still reading weighty Australian novels, poetry (this time from China as well as Australia), history, and comics artists.

Maybe by 2024 I’ll have kicked the addiction.

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel

Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin 2012)

Questions of Travel Cover

A number of my friends gave up on this book, one as early as page 80.

At page 80, by contrast, I was on the edge of my seat. Things had moved slowly, true, as the novel traced the lives of its two protagonists in roughly alternating chapters bearing their names and the decade: ‘Laura, 1960s’, ‘Laura, 1970s’, ‘Ravi, 1970s’ and so on. By page 80 we’ve reached the 1990s. Laura Fraser, an Australian in her 30s, is travelling in Europe and her small inheritance is running out, so something has to give. And devastation surely looms for Ravi Mendis, a young Sinhalese man whose wife is a Tamil activist. It’s not exactly a thriller, and my interest hasn’t really been in plot developments. Nor have the characters grabbed my emotions. What is really keeping me in there is the unfailingly elegant writing, and the way subject of travel has been held up to the light like a multifaceted stone, reflecting endless variations.

The musical play on the theme of travel continues to be the book’s holding power: people travel through time, and markers of the passing decades – in clothes, public preoccupations, communication technology – are carefully noted; they travel in different modes – as tourists, refugees, travel-guide researchers; they walk, ride bikes, fly, catch buses; they travel with joy and ennui and hope of starting over; their motives for travelling are probed – a recurring question for Laura is, ‘What are you doing here?’, a question that resonates ever more broadly as the novel progresses.

I did come close to giving up a little past halfway: where nine full pages are given over to enumerating a days’s activities of someone working in a publishing company, including 52 emails. That, and an accumulation of observations of physical and social Sydney as seen through foreign eyes with no discernible progress of the stories just about did me in. But, you know, many narratives lose momentum just after the midpoint: in a rom com’s soppy montage after the characters have finally had sex, the extended recap in a police procedural, the conversation where the action hero spells out his tragic back story. So I was prepared to weather the doldrums, keep hoping for a breeze.

The breeze came. It’s a very impressive book that I can imagine being read a hundred years from now (if people still read) as a compelling portrait of an age when people travelled as never before, out of desperate need, from heedless self-indulgence, or as a nameless quest, a pilgrimage without a shrine. Especially in the first quarter, there are turns of phrase and observations that made me catch my breath. These were offset by some passages where minor characters are pilloried in what I suppose counts as satire, but comes across as snobbery. And even when terrible things happened to the main characters, the sense that they happen to fill a general schema gets in the way of a direct emotional response. Among all the images of travel, for example, images of flowers, especially flowers in a vase, are deployed brilliantly: and the brilliance has an unexpected effect of creating emotional distance at moments that should pack a huge wallop.

I’m deeply impressed by this book. I completely get why critics and judging panels have lauded it. But it’s already fading from my mind.

awwbadge_2014 Questions of Travel is the sixth and biggest book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group go to the theatre and read the news

Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual  (Hamish Hamilton 2014)


This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, an excursion to see a play in which one of us was performing – The Young Tycoons by C J Johnson, about the heirs apparent to two media empires. In deference to our nominal reason for meeting, we agreed to have a look at a book that’s at least tangentially related to the play. (We also read a fascinating piece of journalistic gossip for which, in lieu of further discussion, here is a link).

Before the meeting: This is a high-grade self-help book. If there’s an overall thesis, it’s this:

News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs. Without anyone particularly rooting for this outcome, more tentative but potentially important private thoughts get crushed.

‘The news’ is discussed in six main categories: politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster and consumption. In each category, de Botton discusses the way the news cycle  and the currently widespread addiction to it mitigate against thinking. There are plenty of interesting observations and insights, many of them obvious on reflection, though when dealing with addictions there’s no harm in stating the bleeding obvious. I had an uneasy feeling that ‘I’ the reader was being invited to feel superior to the ‘we’ that de Botton describes as manipulated by the news media. Maybe that, and a tendency to glibness, is something that comes with the territory..

After the meeting: It turned out, unsurprisingly, that I was the only one in the group, apart from the actor, who had read the book. We weren’t going to have much of a discussion in the foyer of the Eternity Theatre anyhow. But the conjuncrtio of the play and the book prompted at least one interesting reflection. In the chapter on disaster, de Botton compares the way heinous behaviour is typically described in the press with its treatment in ancient Greek tragedy:

The plot lines of [ancient tragedies] were unmitigatingly macabre, easily matching anything our own news could provide … But … in order for a horror (a meaningless narration of revolting events) to turn into what Aristotle called a tragedy (an educative tale fashioned from abominations), the philosopher thought it was vital that the plot should be well arranged and the motives and the personalities of the characters properly outlined to us. Extreme dramatic skill would be required in order for the audience to spontaneously reach a point at which it recognised that the apparently unhinged protagonist of the story, who had acted impetuously, arrogantly and blindly, who had perhaps killed others and destroyed his own reputation and life, the person in whom one might at first (had one come across the story in the news) have dismissed as a maniac, was, in the final analysis, rather like us in certain key ways.

C J Johnson is no Sophocles, at least not yet, and The Young Tycoons is a chronicle play rather than a tragedy, but it illustrates the point. The younger generation of the Murdoch and Packer families appear in the news as glossy celebrities, fair game when brawling with old comrades in a Bondi Street or being patted on the hand by a distraught patriarch before a Parliamentary Enquiry. In this play, stylishly delivered by a cast that has no weak links, we catch at least a whiff of just how appallingly constricted their lives are, and how callous they have been shoe-horned into becoming. I was reminded of Jamie Johnson’s extraordinary documentary, Born Rich, made a couple of years before this play was first staged in 2005.