A Haunted Halloween

As many of you might know, I have been talking on and off about a passion project: creating a bilingual guide to Chinese ghost stories from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊斋志异). And this year, just in time for Halloween, my friend Addie and I fulfilled this dream and made it happen with our graphic novel(la) Haunted (or 闹鬼, nao gui for the Chinese version).

But why ghosts? And just generally, whyyyy?

As we talked about at our book launch last month at Madame Mao’s Dowry, sometimes the ‘why’ is just because you like something. And that’s just it for the Chinese ghosts and me. I think the stories are funny! They’re quirky! They’re scary! And I love the fact that while one story might tell you about a ghost that paints the canvases of skin to look human and rips out hearts (hear my retelling of the story here), and then another will tell you that, you know, if you find a drunk fox in your bed, he just might be a fun drinking companion. Some are convoluted and involve many plots; some plots as straightforward as “This weird guy lives in his ear. Crazy!”

I just really wanted others to enjoy the stories and so arranged 13 of them in the form of a journey throughout one day in the ghost world. The overly optimistic travel guide begs you to see more, but also warns you about how dangerous it all is. But isn’t that how it goes? What might excite you might also not be safe. (As I’ve mused before: “bravery” and “stupidity” are both the result of taking a risk — just some are not as successful as others).

Haunted4

Pu Songling’s original collection goes back to the Qing dynasty and has over 400 tales. Some of them were coded critiques of contemporary society. Some of them, Pu’s petty revenge against figures he didn’t like at the time, which is something I think many writers can relate to.

Probably my favorite story of the bunch is “The Tiger Guest” which is about a man who is a tiger in disguise but spends his time at poetry readings, mauling mediocre artists and enslaving them in the afterlife.

Haunted5

I’m also a fan of “The Editor” (for obvious reasons) which is the story of a writer possessed by a ghost who… improves his writing. As I’ve written about before, ghost stories are important, and we need to encounter the strange to better understand ourselves and the world around us. But also: fantasy is fun! (Mainly that, to be honest).

In the end, I chose the stories that entertained me the most and offered the most variety. Then Addie did some sketches and we played with how the ghosts might look or move. From there, we culled the list even more to match what Addie also felt inspired to draw. To put them all together, I arranged them in the form of a journey into the ghost world in the course of one day. And then I wrote them in Chinese and had a translator friend of mine edit them to make sure they were bonkers for the right reasons.

It got pretty crazy right before the deadline we’d set for ourselves mainly because neither of us had done a project like this before and as it turns out, graphic design is hard! We hadn’t gone in thinking it would be a graphic novel, but in the end, the colors and art demanded more space and the format really let them shine.

Anyhow, we’re proud of our little book and hope others will read it! If you want to check it out, here is our Etsy page.

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.

Literary Shanghai

WeChat Image_20170703111434

There are four main things I seek out in Shanghai: good Western food, flights, friends and books.

Of course there are books in Hangzhou and even English language bookstores, but what Shanghai has that Hangzhou doesn’t (yet!) is a strong, prolific international literary community.

(But we’re working on that!)

I’d submitted a translation of a contemporary Chinese poem by Zhou Jingzhi to the Shanghai Literary Review and hadn’t expected much since it was my first translation attempt. But they accepted it, and in the following months, I worked with an editor to make it even better. I’d actually never worked with a proper editor before and was lucky that we had a good rapport. He made sensible suggestions and the end product indeed felt better than the one I’d submitted.

I came to the launch party excited if anything to meet the person behind the emails and other writers. As soon as I walked in and introduced myself, the head editor came over with a huge smile and said “It’s Hannah! We’re so happy you’re here! Welcome, Hannah!” And the translation editor came over to welcome me too, and in the course of the evening I met editors, painters, poets, and more.

WeChat Image_20170703111442

The editorial staff gave me and other contributors a bouquet of flowers, a keychain, and a free copy of the magazine.

Later we ate the cake they had ordered (though were also loathe to cut because of its impressive design).

I really do hope that the magazine takes off and does well. The editors were trying to create a more international magazine that could even find a place with lit magazines in New York.

Whatever happens in the future, I will at least revel in the glow of an evening schmoozing with my kind of people: the kind who find meaning in dust motes and with enough words to fly.

And now, as I disappear into the west, I carry that glow, along with a bouquet of flowers and a book of good words.