Hannah in the Attic: The Sequel

The last time I wrote in this blog, I mentioned that before starting my thesis, I’d be 1) going to Shanghai for the Battle of the Bards competition, 2) figuring out how to print a Hangzhou poetry anthology, 3) celebrating my birthday, and then you know, 4) starting my thesis. Since then, I’ve been to Shanghai and back (twice) having met new artists and friends and literary connections interested in collaborating with Hangzhou’s writers, I’ve already picked up the printed anthologies and put them in my closet away from the cats and their wandering claws, have celebrated not only my birthday but also Thanksgiving AND have put up Christmas decorations, and have, you know, actually started my thesis.

Things move fast in the world of Hannah.

But this past weekend, I let things move slow as I joined other writers in an Air BnB meant just for art retreats to get away from the bustle, learn about some writing tactics, and then of course write.

The last time I went on a retreat, it was this October with some people I’d met through the Shanghai Literary Review. It was relaxing in its own right, but was more of a working retreat in which we disappeared to write for hours on end, and then resurfaced in the evenings over hotpot to dish about how it went. This retreat was very much focused on writing, and everything we did was to inspire more writing and give us new angles and ways to approach our projects.

But of course, like the last time I went on a retreat, I gravitated once more to the attic, where I would fall asleep to the slanted roof. There’s something about being the shuffling ghost overhead. Perhaps not something good, but something nonetheless.

At this retreat, we did games that seemed silly, like making up a song using random words to describe the day, to more intriguing poetic exercises such as writing a madrigal and setting out to write 30 haikus throughout the weekend. We huddled around candles in the evenings, passing around wine bottles and Irish cream whiskey, as ideas ricocheted off the walls and into our heads. We gave each other Tarot card readings (with cards based off of Native American animals) and when we invited to cook to stay for dinner with us, I gave him his reading in Chinese. (Side note: he was the fox, while his wife was the inverted wolf). I met someone who had just finished translating the script for the staged version of “The Three Body Problem” which I’ve been reading (and when she saw the book on the table, she just moaned “I just can’t escape work!”), and I met some other grad students, as well as a meditation instructor who gave us guided meditations every morning.

And yes, we wrote. For long, quiet stretches, curling toward sources of heat like cats in the winter. I came to the retreat with a specific writing problem I wanted to face, and by the end of the first day, found myself feeling more confident about it and where I was headed.

With December well under way and the end of the year approaching, I guess it’s just about time to think about my resolution for this past year. I kept it simple: “Do better,” because there was no denying that I already knew what I needed to improve.

And you know what? With the retreat still humming in my ears and my pen on the move once more, I really think I did better this year. Lumbering in the attic and all.

Advertisements

Batten Down the Hatches: The Thesis Saga

The date has been set. The time has come. After all of the preparation and all of the hours at work, I’m ready.

I’m actually going to start writing my thesis.

Well, at least I will on Tuesday. First, I’m going to go to Shanghai for a “Battle of the Bards” poetry competition and a translation master class, and then I’m going to figure out how to publish a booklet of poetry for the HZ Writer’s Association, and then I’m going to veg all day because it’ll be my birthday on Monday…and then I’ll start. So, I’ll get there eventually, right?

Right.

“Eventually” has taken a long time up until now, though. Just last year, I was doing my thesis proposal, quickly realizing that since I hadn’t been able to read all of the materials in time, I was in no shape to spit out a paper. Since I’m on a 3-year scholarship, though, I didn’t have to just yet, and so for the past YEAR I have been re-collecting and actually reading the materials in greater detail.

And then, right when I was at the brink of insanity (actually laughing out loud at how some scholars can take a simple idea and make it pedantic beyond comprehension…seriously, I’m reading a science fiction book IN CHINESE and can understand it better than some English scholarly articles and their muscle-flexing thesaurus skills) I thought “enough of this” and made a comprehensive outline, slapping my sources into categories and said “I’m coming for you.”

On Tuesday, that is.

You want to know what my thesis is about? No you don’t. It’s complex. It involves translating E. E. Cummings’ visual poetry. I’ve read about oracle bone Chinese script. I’ve discovered that celebrated poet Ezra Pound sometimes signed letters as “Ez’ Po”. I’ve discovered some genuinely hilarious scholars low-key sassing each other in their “he said this but I disagree” sections, and I found a scholar who called Cummings’ letter-writing skills “linguistic jabberwocky.”

All you really need to know is that I’ve got my thesis cornered now, and am ready to batten down the hatches for the next round. What is that, you (maybe didn’t) ask?

Actually writing it in Chinese.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Begin at the End

“You know, I don’t think it’s actually the end of the Great Wall,” my couchsurfing host in Changchun said when I told her my next stop during my trip. “It’s the beginning. “Longtou” means “dragon head,” which would be the beginning, right? It’s not the tail.”

I had to pause to take it all in.

I had planned for my last stop on this final backpacking trip to be at Shanhaiguan’s Laolongtou (老龙头) Great Wall portion. It seemed metaphorically correct: to end at the end of the Great Wall, where it met the sea, and where I would at last have accomplished visiting all of China’s Provinces. It seemed backwards in a way, for me to have traveled all these five years to only end up at the beginning, like a lost child who ran toward an exit, only to crash into the entrance instead.

But then, since I find meaning in dust motes and can poeticize anything, I thought “isn’t it fitting, to have an end be yet another beginning?”

I walked along the stone crenelations days later, having reached this end of the Great Wall. I once looked out at the other end, which faced a vast and harsh desert that was part of the Silk Road. I had tried to put myself in the boots of those sentinels who watched that gaping desert, watching the sand swirl into the sky. Since the time I went to Jiayuguan and the time I stood here at Shanhaiguan, I’d seen a lot in between. But now, I was at the end, listening to the waves roll along the shore and crash against the stone wall jutting into the sea. It was as different a scene as I could possibly find from the other side of the Wall all those years ago. And yet, looking out into the vast expanse of seawater, I took in the horizon like a blank page.

Yes, I had reached the end of something grand, and every inch of it along the way had been exhilarating. Yes, things would be different after this, as I would no longer be scheduling in as many China backpacking trips as I once had before. Yes, I would walk in a different direction now, with new boots and a smile.

But no, I don’t think things at are an end. Why, I’ve only begun.

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.

51yGGwojVSL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

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.