Into the North

Dongbei. 东北。In Chinese this means “The Northeast,” but it carries with it a whole host of connotations. It’s the place where the people are hardened from tough winters, where “bottoms up” really means you will finish whatever’s in your glass, and where the thick curled Chinese accent emerges. People from Dongbei I’m told rarely leave Dongbei and miss it whenever they do.

“Hangzhou’s too hot,” a taxi driver told me on the way from a train station.

“Yeah, but you went there in the summer,” I said. “Try the fall or the spring.”

He shook his head. “Too hot. Dongbei is better.”

Dongbei food is heavy, with meat and potatoes. Dumplings are everywhere.

I couldn’t wait.

Since this is my last big trip in China, I’m trying to give it the theme of “Hannah’s Believe it or Not” by seeking out unusual things. There is red seaweed, UFO sightings, chocolate dumplings, hotels built like castles. But more than that, there’s me, the person reading ghost stories on the train heading north, who leans into the window as heavy fog (and yes, I’m sure it was fog) shrouds the buildings and trees in dark gloom, who writes ghost stories as the lights go out.

Dongbei is where the wind howls. And in the North, I howl back.

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Hannah in the Attic

The sun drifted in through the triangular window of the attic as I pieced together the interview with Kaitlin Solimine (see previous post). I’d chosen to stay in the tatami room in a guest house with other writers for a couple days as we retreated from city life and let the quiet canal lanes accompany our work.

You could say its luck, you could say it’s my insistence on putting myself out there, but I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know artists through the Shanghai Literary Review. It started with a translation I did back in the summer, and became a doorway into a welcoming community of thinkers and doers. We’d sit around the dinner table every evening and have long, winding conversations about everything: optimization, the existence of ghosts, the history of fashion.

Down the lane, the touristy area of the canal, complete with coffee shops and neon purple lights in the evening. I walked through it only briefly, the sudden press of people around me a shock to the system after such calm and quiet. I’d eagerly return to the house, looking out on the garden below from above.

Honestly when I think back to that house along the canal, I’ll think of those sunlit hours in the quiet of my little tatami room. The slanted ceiling, the low table, the tiny wooden tables out on the small balcony, the comfy chair propped up by the orange lamps on the floor.

There, I could be a Hannah in the attic, a creature best left undisturbed, but who would venture out when the time is right.

Interview with Kaitlin Solimine on her new novel, Empire of Glass

(This conversation also appears on the Hangzhou Writer’s Association website).

For those of you who read my last post, you’ll remember that many literary happenings are coming into play in Hangzhou. One of which is the absolute privilege of being able to interview Kaitlin Solimine on her novel, Empire of Glass. We talked for over an hour about many things, and it was downright painful for me to edit it down to an article length, but without further ado, here’s some information about her stunning novel.

Empire of Glass is a fictionalized account of her experience living with a Chinese host family in the mid-1990s. She was a U.S. Department of State Fulbright Creative Arts Fellow in 2006-2007, and has received numerous awards for her brilliant prose (which you can read more about in her bio here). I was blown away by her diction, with lines like: “Autumn in Beijing falls like a knife slicing a pig ear — indecisively slippery,” flowing naturally throughout the narrative. Empire of Glass has a unique, experimental structure, being presented as a translation of a diary given to “Lao K” from her Chinese mother, Li-Ming. This diary tells the tales of Li-Ming and Lao K’s host father, “Baba,” while also raising questions about Lao K herself as she becomes a central character in the story. With the translator’s own story told in footnotes, the novel challenges the reader’s perspective, while also offering a nuanced look into Chinese life.

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Empire of Glass has been short-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. You can learn more about it on her website (link here) and purchase it on Amazon (link here).

Now, join me as I chat with Solimine about her novel, China, writing and more.

As a writer, you can’t help but feel that once you’re published, you’ve “arrived.” How does it feel for you writing this first book?
The path there is challenging and the fun part there is that, unless you just plan to publish one book, there’s no end to it really. It’s definitely more of a literary experimental book, so my goals around it were never really commercial success. So you know, my parents are always like, “How are the book sales?” That’s not how it works with literature! I’m not writing a spy thriller, so that piece of it wasn’t the point for me. What I really wanted was to have it published by a press I really respected, and for it to reach readers and start conversations.

Why did you choose this experimental and complex structure?
I was never really attracted to books in which the structure wasn’t critical to the book. I was always really attracted to narrative frames, diverse voices and different perspectives in a work that had some sort of structure that explained scenes of the book. There’s more nuance to it. In my MFA program, I thought about what it meant as a writer to approach a Chinese story when I’m not Chinese, and how I could show that I was aware of that. I was playing with that notion in the text itself.

Writers are often told to “Write what you know.” How did you approach a story like this, and would you have approached it differently if it had been set in American culture?
The weird thing for me is that what I “knew” was this relationship that I had with the family I lived with. It started with this question: “What do those relationships mean? Where were they productive, and where can they be really disjointed, problematic, or dangerous?” The fact that it took place in China and that I was not Chinese is such a critical part of the piece in general. There are questions of allowance and cultural appropriation. I think at the end of the day, when you say “Write what you know,” Well, you know things, but you also don’t know much even about your own identity, because identity is so layered and fluid. There’s a really important act of literature that happens when you write what you don’t know.

How would you compare those three different identities: Lao K as the teen in the book, Lao K the narrator, and then you the writer once known as Lao K? 
I think that was something I was questioning. I didn’t want to get too biographical in this book or in this work. People that know me wonder “How much of this is you and how much of it isn’t?” My brother even said “You had a red bathing suit in high school! Did you have those relations with Baba then?” I wanted it to have a kernel of truth in terms of who she was and who I am, but there are many differences. You take yourself, and then you put yourself into a fictional situation, and then see what happens. Any experience I think of examining one’s history, whether that’s personal or collective, is layered in that way, and we have to recognize that when we hold onto any things that we think of as being Truth, just how malleable they actually are.

Is there something that drew you China specifically?
I actually had a very ‘happenstance’ road to China. I wanted to learn Japanese, but Japanese class was full. So, they recommended I take Chinese. These home-stay programs were unique at that time, just living with a family for an extended amount of time. I don’t think it was necessarily China specifically at that point for me. I was so pure. I had never left the US. It’s kind of this terrible analogy, it’s like losing my virginity. It was so formative, and you’ll always remember it, and I’ll always remember China, the place where I first was a foreigner.

I can tell just from your writing in “Becoming Li-Ming’s Daughter” that the family left a big impact on you, especially with your relationship with Li-Ming. Do you think she lives on with you and your own daughter? How does she influence your life as a mother?
I think that was something I was investigating in that essay for sure. I think she was this worldly person, and confident woman who has never really lived that out in the way that a global woman today would. So there was something really beautiful, but also poignant in that. She didn’t have the same opportunities that I had, or her daughter has. She lost that. And so I think this was something I was exploring in the book: what would it be like to be as independent, as inquisitive as Li Ming was, or even as I am, or you are, or anyone who is going to China to do a different thing, but yet not have those opportunities, or to have history not on your side? I certainly learned a lot from her, or at least from my version of her.

So you know from my blog that I do a lot of traveling. I meet other travelers and other writers, and they’re always trying to understand or portray what they like to call “Real China.” How would you interpret “Real China,” and is there such a thing?
Well, no. There’s not. I mean, what is real? I think about my early romance with China and feeling like I needed to know the real China, and that the way to do that was by learning the language, or marrying a Chinese person, or you know all of these different ways of doing that. It was this little breaking down, realizing it’s a young, naive notion. You have all of these histories within these regions as well as cultural practices. You have all of the ethnic minorities. And this diversity of experiences is really what China truly is. That, to me, would be more representative than any one thing. You’ll never have one specific definitive version, but I think that’s what’s so beautiful about that journey, too. As you pursue that path, whether as an individual or as a writer, it will continue to challenge your understanding of not just China but of place, and of history, and of individual and of identity. It starts to ask bigger questions about yourself, too. But I think that’s why it’s so important to be outside of your comfortable places. I empathize with that journey, because I’m still on it in some ways.

Thanks to Kaitlin Solimine for her interview! Be sure to check out her novel, Empire of Glass.

Literary Hangzhou

As far as artistic cities goes, Shanghai pretty much takes the cake. It’s had (for better or for worse) some of the most integration of international cultures, and Chinese literary giants like Mao Dun, Lu Xun, and others lived there for a spell (much like modernist writers and New York/Paris).

But I’m pleased to say that literature is in the air in Hangzhou!

Right after I come back from my next trip, the Hangzhou Writer’s Association (website here) will hold an Africa-themed poetry night, which came into being when I went to a friend’s party and got to chatting with another poet. She had the idea and a venue, I had the poets. Done and done!

But before that, something even more exciting: I will be conducting an interview with writer Kaitlin Solimine (writer website here) about her debut novel Empire of Glass. It’s a mind-bending novel about China that uses experimental forms, but still tells a story with a lot of heart. I won’t say much more, since our Q&A will be forthcoming, and besides, you should go out and read her novel yourself! Until then, enjoy some of her writing in this essay she wrote (link here) about her connection to her Chinese host mom in Beijing.

Although in a couple of days, I’ll be kicking back with the Shanghai Literary Review community, I can say without hyperbole that it’s exhilarating to be surrounded by literature, especially considering that our little Hangzhou-writer’s-community-that-could is starting to take off. Sometimes if you want something to exist in the world, you have to create it yourself.

Stay tuned for Kaitlin Solimine’s words on her book, writing, China, and more.

Last Stops

All right, so my last big trip is coming up. Where will I be going this time? To China’s northeast (dong bei) region, hopefully in time to catch some fall foliage!

I will say that there are some marked changes between this trip and the last. One being TRANSPORTATION. Remember how in Qinghai, there were vast stretches of uninhabited land that was virtually inaccessible? Not so with China’s east coast! I was checking train tickets, and assumed that they would be slow ones that took well over 20 hours. But…surprise! There’s a high-speed train that gets there in 8. Just…high speed trains. Everywhere. The other, more subtle difference, is that I’m personally more restricted by budget and time. Much of this is because I’m a student, and so most of the trips I’ve taken in the past 2 years have had to undergo some creative gymnastics to even happen, such as volunteering in certain areas for a stretch of time. This time, I’ve been pretty choosey about what I’m seeing, and have definitely picked up some spare work to raise up some funds for what I assume will be an ungodly amount of dumplings. (Those files may have taken me a full week to translate, but it’s all for you, 饺子!)

But that’s not why you’re reading this. The real point: just where will I be going?

Like my trip in the summer, I’ll be starting with the Shanghai Literary Review people (who probably think I travel all the time now). For China’s National Holiday week, they’ve rented a villa in the water town, Zhujiajiao, to have a writing retreat. There will be activities, writing, and probably some BBQ. I’m not actually staying the full week with them, but for the last couple of days.

After that, I hop on a train and head to Panjin, Liaoning province, which is where seaweed grows red in their wetlands area. I’m coming at the tail end of the season, but have heard that the colors are at their best near the end. It’s always possible that I’ve miscalculated, which happens, but the wetlands sound nice anyway. Once in Liaoning, I’ll hop on over to Dalian, which is a big sea-side city that I’ve only ever heard people gush on and on about. I don’t think I even know what makes it special. I’ve read that people have seen UFOs, floating cities, and glowing beaches, but I’m guessing they were referring to the seafood.

Once out of Dalian, I’ll then go to Jilin. Now, initially, I planned on going to Changbaishan, which is a gorgeous ecological nature spot. It has a dormant volcanic crater lake on top of a mountain, which also serves as a border between China and North Korea. Plans have changed (and you can probably guess why). While I’d never planned on actually going to the border between the countries, given the recent political climate, I think I’ll just stay far, far away. Oh, and also because the recent nuclear missile tests out of North Korea have triggered seismic activity around the mountain, and some even say the volcano could erupt again. If you just read that last sentence and thought “Holy shit,” buddy I’m with you. (Also, fun fact: there’s a bunch of lore about a loch ness esque monster inside of the volcano…metaphor for North Korea? Let’s hope not). The likelihood of any of those doomsday scenarios happening? Pretty low. But, there’s no reason to tempt fate.

Luckily, Jilin is a big province, and so I can go there without being in close proximity to the world’s most insane country right now. (Seriously, Mom, don’t worry! So long as I’m well within Chinese borders, there’s no safer place in the world than China when it comes to NK). Sadly, the biggest and best thing to see in the province is FOR SURE Changbaishan, but I’ll also check out Jilin’s meteorite museum, go to some national parks to catch the red leaves, and (you guessed it) eat lots of NE food. Best part? There’s actually another lake with a loch ness esque monster allegedly inside. I’m starting to think the NE is totally bonkers.

I’ll finish out my trip by going to the end of the Great Wall, which tapers out into the sea. A perfect spot for brooding, and also to end what has been a wild ride of traveling in China!

Stay tuned for more info as the trip unfolds. And, if you want to know more about specifically traveling in China, you can check out my other blog here. It’s both in Chinese and English, and is all about China travel (as the name suggests).

The End of the Tours

As many of you might know, I’ve almost been to every single province/territory in the Chinese Mainland (and have also been to the “One party, Two Systems” areas like Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, aka the “Don’t mention them if you don’t want to get in an argument” regions). In one month, that “almost” will change into “have,” as I hit the last provinces, Jilin and Liaoning and complete years worth of tours and circuits.

Had I planned to go to every province when I did my first backpacking trip in Spring Festival, 2013? Of course not! But, here I am, and man it’s been a ride. I’ve been up in the mountains, out in the deserts, swimming in the ocean, hitchhiking on a wagon, and even biking in a valley. I’ve stayed with nuns, worked at a beach-side hostel, and even visited Chinese Hell.

What lays in store for me next month? Well, I’m not going to pretend that it’s going to be the best of my trips, because I’ve already had great trips. And true, it might have made more sense to have saved Tibet for last, but I’m happy that my last major trip is more akin to what I’ve done in the past: just me and the road.

Be excited.

30 Days of Poetry and Beyond

Well, Hangzhou’s whirlwind month of poetry has come to a close now. ‘Good while it lasted,’ I couldn’t help but think as I planned for our first poetry slam in a couple months at the end of this poetic venture. Our wechat group had been alive and buzzing with new original works for the past month, but I knew it would come to an end sooner or later. Would it continue? That’s the question Katie and I ask ourselves all the time about this little poetry group that could: will it stay alive after we leave Hangzhou? Or, as with many start-ups in China, will it die the moment the founders leave?

That night, it would come alive in person, whether I soliloquized about it or not. I schlepped the our poetry box and duffel bag full of English books onto the subway, (getting more than a few strange looks, but that’s nothing new) and made my way to Underline Cafe.

When I got there, I was met with several pleasant surprises. First, we had a good turnout, who was there ON TIME (for once). Then, I had some friends who had been meaning to show up actually show up to the event, AND share their own works that they’d never shared in public before. THEN there were people I’d never met who’d done the 30-day poetry challenge who were excited that an group like ours even existed in Hangzhou. THEN I was approached by people asking when submissions would kick off again, when we’d meet up again, and that they’d share more original work next time. A friend of mine from the Shanghai Literary Review came all the way to Hangzhou, and actually won second place in the slam, and by the end of the night, we had more members in our group.

It’s hard to say what will happen in the future. I might be participating in a mental health awareness event by reading an original poem. We might be having a “black history month” event in the near future. Our website might get more traffic. A couple of years from now, who knows? It might grow, it might die. But one thing’s for sure: god, will it live.