Tag Archives: Ouyang Yu

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.

Yi Sha, Shu Cai, Yang Xie translated by Ouyang Yu

Ouyang Yu (translator), Poems of Shu Cai, Yi Sha & Yang Xie (Vagabond Press 2013)

Vagabond_Press_Asia_Pacific_Poetry_3This is the third title in Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series, but it’s the first I’ve read. The series, according to the Press’s website,

aims to create an open space for the sharing of cultural knowledge, understanding and enjoyment across national, political and language boundaries.

Working ‘in close collaboration with a growing community of writers, translators, editors and artists’, Michael Brennan, Elizabeth Allen and the rest of the small Vagabond crew have produced a dozen or so elegant volumes in the series, including work from China, Japan, the Philippines and Burma. At the Vagabond event at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, the ‘open space’ that the series aims to create was tangible in the diversity of writers and translators who were there in the flesh.

Ouyang Yu, who wasn’t at the Festival (I believe he’s a Melburnian), is a tireless writer, translator, scholar, editor and activist for Chinese literature in Australia and vice versa. His first translations of Yi Sha appeared in the second issue of Heat in 1996, twelve years before Bloodaxe Books published Yi Sha’s Starve the Poets!, describing it as his first English publication outside China. If you want a background to this book, and an overview of Chinese poetry in recent decades, you could do a lot worse than listen to ‘Neither Red Flags Nor Peach Blossom’, Parts One and Two, Poetica programs from 2013 in which Ouyang Yu speaks at greater length than his short introduction to this book allows.

The three poets in this book represent three historical stages in Chinese poetry. After the revolutionary zeal of the 1950s and 60s and the deeply coded elusiveness of the ‘misty poets’ in the next two decades, Yi Sha aimed to have poetry ‘enter into an era in which it speaks like a human being’. The poetry scene was split between the intellectual camp and the camp to which Yi Sha belonged, which emphasised oral poetry, story telling and (to judge from these poems) a degree of scurrilousness. At the end of the 1990s, Shu Cai introduced the ‘Third Road’, that belonged to neither camp, and was open to influence from the rest of the world. Yang Xie, born in 1972, belongs to a younger generation, and writes, as Ouyang Yu says, ‘a poetry that taps into the violence of daily life in small cities, with an inquisitive eye for detail’.

There’s a lot to enjoy here: the gutsy vulgarity of Yi Cha, the contemplative lyricism of Shu Cai, and the Yang Xie’s graphic narratives.

I found it a hard book to read, though, probably because of Ouyang Yu’s response to the translator’s inescapable dilemma: faced with the choice of making his translation read naturally or beautifully in the new language, or keeping readers aware that they are venturing out of the confines of their own language and culture, he has gone the latter path. Very little here reads as smooth English. In fact, it’s sometimes as if the poems have been translated from Chinese into English-as-a-second-language: prepositions feel slightly off, commas and definite articles appear in strange places, and the vocabulary is occasionally stilted. For example, the opening lines from Yi Sha’s ‘The File’:

at grade 3 junior high
when i first came into contact with chemistry
i was passionate about the experiment
and devoted myself to the research
i wanted to develop an air
that stank worse than carbon monoxide
i wanted them to be taken back
that day I was successful
the whole class withdrew from the lab
in panic

I think I chose this because I relate to the story, having once emptied a chemistry lab in ten seconds flat by exposing some potassium to air. Here, leaving aside the fact that carbon monoxide is odourless, maybe the original is just as flat as the translation, but it feels as if what we’re getting is a kind of report on the poem, which we then have to reconstruct as well as we can, each reader for him or herself. I’m no poet, but I can’t see that anything is lost if it is taken all the way into easy, spoken English, something like this:

in grade 3 at junior high
when i first did chemistry
i loved the experiments
and threw myself into research
i wanted to make a gas
that stank worse than carbon monoxide
i wanted to make them all sit up and notice
the day i succeeded
the whole class stampeded from the lab

I have an uneasy feeling that I’m out of my depth in commenting in this way on the work of such an eminent translator, but my experience in reading these three poets was all too often that the translation was simultaneously giving and taking away: showing me these interesting and exciting poems, then making it hard work to grasp them. Maybe, of course, that’s exactly how it ought to be.


NSWPLA Dinner, a report from the trenchers

Last year a woman premier presented the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards at the Art Gallery. Tonight a non-Labor premier, just as rare a beast in the 10 of these dinners I’ve been to, did it at the Opera Point Marquee, … Continue reading

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist

The 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist seems to have been announced without the usual Macquarie Street gathering for PowerPoint and photo ops. That probably makes sense, given that the Premier has a lot on her mind just now, and barring a total windfall for the bookies she won’t be Premier when the awards are presented in May. Or maybe I just wasn’t invited this year. But I’m not bearing a grudge, and I was busy that day anyhow. For those who find it irritating to have to flick back and forth to read the different short lists on the Awards site, here they all are at the bottom of this post – the links take you to the NSWPLA website’s discussion of the title.

I haven’t read, or in the case of the plays seen, very much from the list at all. Speaking from the heart of my prejudice, I don’t much want to read any of the Christina Stead titles except Utopian Man and Night Street, both novels about eminent Victorians (the State rather than the era). I’m tempted by all the Douglas Stewart titles – this is where literary awards really do serve a purpose, by drawing attention to books like Tony Moore’s history of political prisoners among the Australian convicts, Death or Liberty, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed, at least by me. I’m glad to see Jennifer Maiden’s book on the Kenneth Slessor list, but I haven’t read any of the others. In the past the NSWPLA lists have led me to interesting poets, so I’m inclined to go in search of Susan Bradley Smith, Andy Jackson, Jill Jones (of whom I’m ashamed to say I’ve yet to read a book), Anna Kerdijk Nicholson and Andy Kissane.

Of the remaining lists, what can I say? I’m out of touch with writing for ‘young people’ (a term I understand here as designating teenagers), but my friend Misrule was an Ethel Turner judge, and I’m confident in her judgement. Though I’ve only read one from the Patricia Wrightson list,  I know the work of five of the six writers, and will be delighted whichever of them becomes several thousand dollars richer come mid-May. If the other books are as good as The Three Loves of Persimmon, it’s a vintage year. I’ve seen four of the six scripts produced for the big or little screen, and wouldn’t know how to choose between them for excellence – another vintage crop. I heard Ali Azadeh read from Iran: My Grandfather at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and it’s been on my TBR list since then.

Here are the lists:

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Peter Carey – Parrot and Olivier in America
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
Alex Miller – Lovesong
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Ouyang Yu – The English Class

The Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction
Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons – Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs
Anna Krien – Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests
Tony Moore – Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-1868
Ranjana Srivastava – Tell Me The Truth: Conversations With My Patients About Life And Death
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Brenda Walker – Reading By Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
Susan Bradley Smith – Supermodernprayerbook
Andy Jackson – Among the Regulars
Jill Jones – Dark Bright Doors
Anna Kerdijk Nicholson – Possession
Andy Kissane – Out to Lunch
Jennifer Maiden – Pirate Rain

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature
Michelle Cooper – The FitzOsbornes in Exile: The Montmaray Journals – 2
Cath Crowley – Graffiti Moon
Kirsty Eagar – Saltwater Vampires
Belinda Jeffrey – Big River, Little Fish
Melina Marchetta – The Piper’s Son
Jaclyn Moriarty – Dreaming of Amelia

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
Jeannie Baker – Mirror
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood – Clancy and Millie and the Very Fine House
Cassandra Golds – The Three Loves of Persimmon
John Heffernan – Where There’s Smoke
Sophie Masson – My Australian Story: The Hunt for Ned Kelly
Emma Quay – Shrieking Violet

Community Relations Commission Award
Ali Alizadeh – Iran: My Grandfather
Anh Do – The Happiest Refugee
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Ouyang Yu – The English Classm
Yuol Yuol, Akoi Majak, Monica Kualba, John Garang Kon and Robert Colman – My Name is Sud

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Ashley Hay – The Body in the Clouds
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
David Musgrave – Glissando: A Melodrama
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Gretchen Shirm – Having Cried Wolf

Play Award
Patricia Cornelius – Do Not Go Gentle…
Jonathan Gavin – Bang
Jane Montgomery Griffiths – Sappho…In 9 Fragments
Melissa Reeves – Furious Mattress
Sue Smith – Strange Attractor
Anthony Weigh – Like a Fishbone

Script Writing Award
Shirley Barrett – South Solitary
Glen Dolman – Hawke
Michael Miller – East West 101, Season 3: The Hero’s Standard
John Misto – Sisters of War
Debra Oswald – Offspring
Samantha Strauss – Dance Academy, Episode 13: Family