Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Somehow I never got around to reading Shen Congwen until just recently.
Unless you’re Chinese/Taiwanese, you have probably never heard of him. And yet in 1988 he almost won the Nobel Prize in literature. The Nobel Committee had essentially agreed to give him the prize when its members made an inquiry to the Chinese government: Where was Mr. Shen, they wanted to know. And more to the point, was he still alive? The Nobel Prize, you see, could only be award to living persons.
The Chinese government responded that they knew of no one by that name. And yet he was one of the most important Chinese writers of the 20th century. Further investigation revealed that Shen had died of a heart attack a short time earlier. Committee member and famed Swedish Sinologist Göran Malmqvist pleaded with his fellow members that an exception be made for an exceptional figure, but to no avail.
Some of you may have seen my jeremiad last week against the preferential treatment of so-called “legacies” in US university admissions. Legacy: one whose parent(s) or some other relative(s) attended the institution to which he or she is applying. As longstanding practice, most elite US colleges admit legacy students on a much more lenient basis than non-legacy ones. At Harvard, it is statistically nearly six times easier to get in as legacy than non-legacy.
I’ve been chewing over this idea of legacy. Of course the very idea offends many of us, offends our sense of fairness. Certainly it offends me.
On the other hand, the notion of heritage, of being who we are and accomplishing what we accomplish because of who our parents are, seems to me fundamental to human nature.
A few weeks ago, the world of young adult publishing was up in a tizzy over a then-forthcoming fantasy novel by a French-born Chinese author. Essentially, a few influential voices in the world of American YA literature read advanced copies of the book and accused the author of racist depictions of Africa-Americans.
Despite protesting that she had not grown up in the United States and took inspiration from indentured servitude in Asia rather than American slavery, and despite some readers pointing out that the allegedly black character isn’t black, the author asked her publisher to withdraw the book.
This storm in a teacup got me wondering: Should we not read literature by racist authors? Should we not read literature that condones racist attitudes? Naturally, considering this question led me to go back to another author, one whose racism was not in doubt: H. P. Lovecraft.
For different reasons — or are they so different? — three medieval Chinese poems have been on my mind.
(All translations, such as they are, are mine.)
A couple of months ago, reflecting on the present predicament of the United States, my father sent me this poem that I had learned in school, written in the tenth century by a deposed king now living under house arrest by the man who conquered his country:
I wrote about Jin Yong or Louis Cha earlier this year when the first installment of an English translation of one of his novels was published. Two weeks ago, Louis Cha died in Hong Kong at the age of 94.
As one commentator put it, the cultural cachet of Cha’s works in Asia is comparable to the combined impact of Star Wars and Harry Potter. His books sold perhaps 300 million copies worldwide during his lifetime, and that’s not counting the millions of bootleg copies that must have circulated during the same years — after all, his books were banned in Mainland China until 1984. Anywhere in the world where there are readers of the Chinese language, there are fans of Jin Yong, including just about everyone in my family.
And yet, his New York Times obituary is perfunctory. And the South China Morning Post, the paper of record of Hong Kong, carried an op-ed by one of his English translators on why he’s never been popular in the West.
As a would-be writer, I am often filled with self-loathing. It’s okay; it’s an occupational hazard. But today, a very specific failure weighs on me, the failure so far to keep a promise.
Three years ago, I traveled through Xinjiang, China’s massive northwestern “autonomous region” (of course it’s not actually autonomous) that is the historical homeland of the Uyghur minority, a Muslim Turkic population that prefers to call the area “East Turkestan.”
I traveled there to research the book I was trying to write. While there, in the old center of traditional Uyghur life, Kashgar, a kindly man whom I call “Yusup” in the manuscript asked me to make him a promise. “Tell our story,” he said. “Write about us. Let the outside world know what is happening in Xinjiang.”
And so far, as I have failed as yet to publish the book, I have failed to keep my promise.
Both the Washington Post and Rotten Tomatoes decided to remind me this week that it’s the tenth anniversary of one of the most influential films of our age, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Before those of you who are sick of superhero movies (or have always been too snobbish to enjoy them) start rolling your eyes, let me quote Roger Ebert (as the Post also does) in pointing out that The Dark Knight is a film that transcends its comic book origins to become “an engrossing tragedy.”
And I am hardly the first person to read into the film something beyond the surface of its plot and action sequences. At the time of its release in 2008, many saw it as something of a metaphor for America in the age of the Iraq War and the War on Terror. Gotham might be a stand-in for Baghdad, and Batman a stand-in for the U.S. military, his very presence by the its violent and extreme nature inviting escalation and challenge. In the end, Batman wins a pyrrhic victory through mass surveillance like the NSA. At the more obscure end of commentary,
the good folks over at Overthinking It (hey Mark) presented an interesting essay interpreting the film through the philosophy of Schopenhauer: Gotham as Will and Representation.
Yesterday, July 1, marked for me three years on the road.
Three years. That’s as long as Jesus spent preaching.
It so happens that I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s strange 1987 masterpiece of travel writing, The Songlines. The book begins and ends with Chatwin’s investigations in Australia into the Aboriginal practice of “the walkabout,” in which one would go walk and sing along paths or “songlines” that totemic ancestors once followed, sometimes for months at a stretch or even years. But halfway in, the book turns ruminative and begins to reflect on the meaning of travel itself and what it says about human nature. “Our nature lies in movement,” Chatwin quotes Pascal’s Pensées, “complete calm is death.”
John Polidori has been on my mind.
No doubt this is in part because I happen to be back in Romania, the country that originated the vampire myth. As I type this, I’m sitting only a stone’s throw away from the statue of Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” the 15th century prince of Wallachia and real-life Dracula with his fabulous mustache, that stands at the center of Bucharest’s old town.
It probably also has to do with my learning just the other day that someone decided to make a movie about Mary Shelley and how she wrote Frankenstein. Apparently the film is not much good. But Polidori was there, present at the creation, when she first conceived of Frankenstein. Or put another way, she was there, present at the creation, when he first conceived of his parallel invention.
In my attempt to read in both of my primary languages simultaneously, I recently read the short story collection Taipei People by the Taiwanese novelist Pai Hsien-yung, or Bai Xianyong in Pinyin transliteration. I’d grown up hearing about the book but somehow never got around to reading it until now.
The standard English translation of the book’s title is arguably not the best. I might have translated it as “Taipei’ers,” but for the unfortunate awkwardness of the apostrophe and cluster of vowels. Bai titled his book thus in clear allusion to Jame Joyce’s Dubliners, out of which the story “The Dead” remains the apparent gold standard for what the ideal short story looks like, at least according to the American academia.
And that is one reason that Bai Xianyong remains an interesting writer. Taipei People, written in the 1960s, is an exercise in applying Western modernism to classical Chinese literature, or in fusing the two, a point that Bai underscored by alluding to Joyce.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."