Hiding in Plain Sight11 min read

Yan Ge in Conversation with Nicky Harman

Editor’s note: Like Han Han and Guo Jingming before her, Yan Ge first captured the attention of readers after winning a top award in Mengya magazine’s 2002 New Concept Writing Competition. Unlike Han Han and Guo Jingming, however, Yan Ge has taken a rather different path in the years since, moving abroad and devoting herself to literary rather than commercial fiction. With five novels and several short story collections to her name, Yan Ge’s treatment of small-town life in fictional Pingle, based on her home county of Pixian in Sichuan Province, has drawn comparisons to “Lu Xun’s Lu County, Shen Congwen’s Fenghuang County, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, [and] Marquez’s Macondo.”
Yan Ge’s most recent novel, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, is published by Balestier Press on May 1. It is translated by Nicky Harman, an active promoter of Chinese fiction to the general English-language reader, and a mentor of up-and-coming translators, editing and curating Read Paper Republic, an online selection of Chinese literature in translation. We invited Nicky Harman and Yan Ge, who is chair of the China Young Writers Association, to discuss the genesis of this unique project. – Nick Stember

Nicky Harman: How did the story of the novel occur to you? I was struck when I read it that here was an author, young and female, who had chosen to make the main protagonist a philandering middle-aged man.

Yan Ge: Looking back, it probably was a strategic move rather than a spontaneous one. Having been writing and published since 17, I’ve always been a writer (it seems), while at the same time, I’ve always been a student. In my previous stories, there’s always a writer in it and the stories are always more or less about literary people or intellectuals. In 2011, after finishing a rather obscure novel, Orchestra of Voices, which imitated (or tried to) the structure of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 & 2, it became obvious to me that I needed to do something to get rid of this intellectual tone which had become a drag in my writing. In order to do that, I decided that I was going to write about this middle-aged laoban (“boss,” small-business owner) who was not well-educated and cursed a lot. To me, Xue Shengqiang is more of a teacher than a character. I’m trying to, by writing about him, living through his eyes, get rid of my perpetual identity as a Lit student. I thought it worked well.

I never thought about it like that. I was too hung up on the gender/age aspect! By the way, the swearing: we can come onto that later, but in your eyes, is his foul language a normal part of being an uneducated businessman or does it have some other meaning?

It took me so long to find the voice of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, or the voice of Xue Shengqiang, because it was by no means my natural voice. I remembered that I was struggling with it for the first half of the year 2011 and then I went to the states and I continued to struggle with it. I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times and none of these worked. Basically, in all of these versions, among other things, he never cursed, not massively.

So one day, in Durham, I was on my way back home from the campus and I passed a petrol station. And there came my epiphany! I went in and purchased a pack of cigarettes (White Marlboro, I will never forget). With that I went back home, sat by my table, clumsily lit a cigarette and started to imagine Xue Shengqiang’s life. And that was when it came to me that he cursed a lot. So I wrote another version of the beginning of the story with a cigarette dangling between my lips and tears in my eyes (from the smoke). But it worked. It was his voice and I was very happy. So I actually smoked a lot when I was working on The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. Chain-smoking in the middle of the night. Typing and cursing along with Xue Shengqiang. Sure enough, after I finished the book I returned to being a non-smoker.

That’s really getting into the role. But more seriously, I can understand now why you were so concerned that all this should come through in the English translation. I felt it was hard getting Xue’s voice, too. In the end I got there, but it took a while to come, and partly it came through my discussions with you, not only about his bad language but also about the family relationships.

A related question: You and I had only met briefly before I began the translation. Probably the only thing you knew about me was that I was a middle-aged female translator. Do you admit to being prejudiced? What I mean is this: Your writing is stuffed with colorful local obscenities. Did you worry that I would not be able to or want to swear or curse sufficiently colorfully in my translation?

No. Not at all. For so long I didn’t understand how translation worked. I thought that you, as the translator (a really good one as I learned before we even met), would just need to wave your magic wand and the whole thing will just turn into English. It took me a really long time, especially through talking/discussing with you and working through the novel, to understand how translation really works. I’m still trying to understand it! I would never have imagined it could be difficult. But I was just reading the proofs sent by the publisher the other day and I was very pleased with the final product. That fact that now I’ve almost forgotten the Chinese version helped me to get into the role of an innocent English reader, and as that reader I enjoyed the story, curses included. To translate is really to recreate. That’s something I learned from working with you.

I was also struck by how well you captured the voice of squabbling middle-aged siblings; their resentments, and I guess you could say the “subtexts” of their relationships. Looking back over the comments you made on my translation, I realized how often you had to remind me, for example, about the hostile feelings that Dad harbors for his mother. There is one sentence where Dad is imagining the day when Gran will die, and you reminded me that there is one part of him that actually wants his tyrannical mother to die! And in other instances, you wanted me to ensure that when Dad refers to his brother, whom he detests, the way it’s written shouldn’t imply any intimacy between them. My question is: do you think cultural differences made it hard for me to understand these relationships, or is it something particular about the way you write?

I was actually telling my husband that maybe I write too subtly, and sometimes it is unfair to my readers. It makes it impossible for them to find out what is hiding behind the story (a whole generation of writers being brainwashed by Hemingway and all of his allusions, and God knows I’m one of them.)  So yes, I think I hide lots of things behind the scenes. On the other hand, it is particularly complicated when it comes to relationships with family members. For instance, Xue Shengqiang probably wouldn’t have admitted himself that part of him actually wanted his mother to die. I do think it is also part of Chinese culture, especially in conversations, that the things left unsaid are often more important than things being said. That is why you hear a lot in China that people think Westerners are surprisingly straightforward.

Right. But it’s actually all there in the plot – if the reader reads carefully. For instance, Gran reveals two of her secrets at the end of the book. I gave the proofs to my husband to read and he only got one of them. But if you look back, the second one, it’s hinted at all the way through the novel.

I love putting riddles into my stories and I don’t expect readers to solve them all. I’m a believer in rereading. So I do hope my readers will read the story again after a few years, and get a different and maybe deeper meaning out of the story.

Why did you decide to have an absent narrator?

It was pointed out to me that I was obsessed with unreliable narrators. And in all of my novels, there is always an unreliable narrator. In the case of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, I thought it would be interesting to have an absent narrator (who is also unreliable). I decided this before anything else. The storyteller tells the stories of others; meanwhile his/her own story is told by others.

That’s interesting. I think that’s very true of your novella White Horse, where the narrator is quite off-kilter, and that adds to the weirdness of the story. I’m not so sure it works like that in this novel. The narrator sounds eminently sensible and reliable to me.  

White Horse is a special case where the character/narrator is clinically insane. And the narrative voice is intensely jittery. Overall, in my stories, the notion of the unreliable narrator is mostly a reminder. Any narrative is ultimately subjective. Hence none of my narrators are reliable, regardless of their actual mental state.

To me, the narrator, even though she’s in hospital with a mental breakdown, sounds the sanest of them all. But I’ll be interested in how other readers react.

Rather than picturing the daughter who narrates The Chilli Bean Paste Clan as crazy, I see her as a distant and cynical person. A cold observer of the family. That’s how I saw (or heard) her when I write this book. Of course, her family thought she was crazy – enough so to put away in a mental hospital.

More generally, do you think that being translated can ever harm a writer?

Being translated is definitely a good thing for a writer. A translation can be different from the original and in some cases, it could turn to a different story. But personally I don’t believe in the original text being the one true story. After a story is finished, the writer’s interpretation is over. And it’s there for others to interpret.

That’s very gracious of you. Cynically, I think translators can distort a story, but this happens far less now. Translators are ethical nowadays!

I think so, too. Nowadays there are many ways to get to the bottom of  a story as long as you want to. And as a writer, it is really heartening to think that there are other versions of Pingle Town and other versions of Shengqiang and other characters living there in different languages. It feels like lots of parallel universes.

When I was translating Jia Pingwa’s Happy Dreams, I found it quite hard because the people were so deeply rooted in one place. I wanted to re-create that sense of place, but without being able to make the eponymous Happy a Glaswegian or a Liverpudlian bin man, I worried that I was “flattening” him somehow. It comes down to the power, or impotence, of language, I think. In your novel, the dialect is the essential way in which those characters express themselves. Dialect isn’t important per se (i.e. as a bit of local color), but as a means of personal expression.

I sometimes wonder the same, that the particularities in fiction might not be translatable, because to lose the particular place of theirs is like uprooting them from the meaning. But recently I realized that the very premise of reading fiction is to imagine a new world, a new world with possibly new rules, new maps, new histories and even new languages. A reader must be able to empathize. And in translations, a reader would need to empathize more, but fundamentally, the reading experience is similar.

It is really a showing of one’s personality rather than one’s knowledge of colloquial language. So I think (I imagine) that to translate is to extract that personality and replant it in a different soil. ∎

Read the first chapter of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (Balestier Press, May, 2018) here.