Daring, informative – but not universal

Xue Yiwei’s fiction rarely focuses on dramatic events. His great gift is in tracing the arc of complex interpersonal relationships, often through dialogue. He is also adept at using interior monologue and reminiscence to flesh out the emotional lives of his narrators. These are often, like Xue (who was born in 1964), men who grew up in Chairman Mao’s China and later emigrated to Canada. But Xue does not write autofiction, and all his characters are otherwise distinct from one another.

While Chinese émigrés are often central to Xue’s narratives, his broader casts tend to be cosmopolitan. Celia, Misoka, I is a case in point. Having appeared in Chinese in 2016, and now translated by Stephen Nashef with suitable understatement (Xue is not a showy writer), this triple character study wears its cosmopolitanism on its sleeve, or rather in its title. Celia is a white Canadian woman with a doctorate gained decades ago from the University of Toronto. Misoka is from Japan, confined to a wheelchair and described as young enough to be Celia’s daughter. The narrator is a Chinese widower who emigrated from China with his wife to provide a better future for their daughter, from whom he has since become estranged. Not a lot happens in this novel, and it is a pleasure to look on as the trio bond and gradually learn about each other’s histories during a few months of meetings by a frozen lake outside Montreal. Each is drawn there for different reasons. The narrator goes to keep alive memories of a time when he took his daughter skating; sometimes he brings her skates along with him. Misoka goes to write and think. Celia goes for exercise, armed with a “pair of skis and ski poles”.

Xue has many influences. James Joyce, Victor Hugo and Shakespeare (whose sonnets were the subject of Celia’s dissertation) are all invoked, and there are echoes, of Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino and various European existentialists, as well as numerous Chinese authors. Xue, who previously taught in Hong Kong and has been based in Canada for two decades, speaks fluent English, but he continues to write in his native language. Only two of his previous books and a collection of miscellaneous short pieces by and about him, Xue Yiwei and His War Stories (2016), have been published in English translation: Shenzheners (2016), a Dubbers-like collection of short stories, and the novel Dr. Bethune’s Children (2017). The latter features a narrator fascinated by the fact that the real-life Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, who helped to bring modern medical practices to rural China, is now largely unknown in his homeland while remaining a household name in China, having been singled out by Mao in a famous encomium. Highly regarded in some sinophone circles, Xue remains largely unknown outside them, even at a time when Chinese authors – from Mo Yan and Liu Cixin to the emigrés Jung Chang and Ma Jian – have been achieving global recognition.

This is regrettable but understandable. With a few notable exceptions, the Chinese novelists who break through in the West tend to produce books that fit into one, or both, of two categories: Daring Works and Informative Works. The former tackle taboo sexual or political topics of the sort that get the attention of censors in the PRC, or that are boldly ambitious in other ways. (See Liu Cixin’s grandly imagined Three-Body Problem sci-fi trilogy.) The latter offer a story-behind-the-story perspective on famous events (Jung Chang’s Wild SwansMa Jian’s Beijing Com), or ethnographic portraits of life in a city or village (Mo Yan). Those writers who break through also tend to situate their fiction exclusively in China and feature characters who are ethnically Chinese.

Xue’s writing fits into neither category. He tends to deal with grand historical themes glancingly or obliquely, if at all. He has had trouble with censors, but not much. His translated works are not ambitiously high concept. His work is, however, daring in another sense: in its refusal to open a specific window on China and in its cosmopolitan casts. Xue has made it clear in interviews that he sees himself as writing for the world. And he is not afraid of difficulty, or of drawing on his vast range of reference points, always placing his trust in the reader to stay with him as he flits between different settings and literary traditions.

Celia, Misoka, I is a dreamy, gently beguiling novel, and an excellent example of how Xue operates beyond borders. The most moving section is the description of a doomed cross-cultural relationship that took place in 1974 between a Japanese exchange student and a Chinese youth. Misoka passes this tale on to the widower and he presents it to us, perhaps with embellishments. (He can be an untrustworthy narrator.) The contrast in the lovers’ nationalities is matched by the multicultural history of their secret meeting place: the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, a once grand complex of marble structures and elaborate lakes and gardens, which was Partly designed by Jesuits and largely destroyed during a British and French invasion in 1860. It was further demolished four decades later in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising – a campaign to drive foreigners out of China. The narrator, we learn, frequented the same site during his student days, when he was “haunted” by “solitude and homesickness”, and came “to know its every path, its every rock, its every secret”.

Unlike Xue, the Chinese-American writer Gish Jen has in recent years established herself as a prominent author in the West. Also unlike Xue, she was born in the United States (in 1955) to Chinese parents, and she writes in English. But the two authors share some similarities. One is a desire to resist being pigeonholed in terms of style and subject. Another is a marked cosmopolitanism, a refusal to be a lens onto one specific community. As Jen commented in an interview in 2000 for the journal Plowsharesshe has long “hoped to define” herself “as an American writer”, with the sense of different cultural backgrounds this implies.

Jen’s latest book, Thank You, Mr. Nixon, features characters tied to very different places: the US, Hong Kong (before and after its time as a British colony) and the Chinese mainland. Like Shenzhenersit is a set of (eleven) loosely interconnected stories, and its opening, title tale presents us – like Dr. Bethune’s Children – with a Chinese narrator addressing a dead North American who is very famous in China. “I don’t know if you will remember me, especially now that I am in heaven and you are in hell”, writes our correspondent to the former American president, now to be found at “Ninth Ring Road, Pit 1A.” The letter-writer claims to be one of two “little girls” to whom Richard Nixon talked on his visit to meet Chairman Mao in 1972. She informs him that much of what he saw in China, which he foolishly took to be ordinary, was anything but. He thought nothing of running into a girl with a “beautiful coat” like hers – not realizing it had been specially made for the occasion. “Really”, she continues, “the whole China you saw was a tailor-made China – a Potemkin China, you might say, not that anyone would have said it then. That is only how we talk in heaven, where we know all kinds of things.”

The stories that follow move back and forth across the Pacific, and slowly forwards in chronology, and often feature members of the widely dispersed Koo family, originally from Hong Kong. It also moves forwards in time. The second story, “It’s the Great Wall!”, describes the excitement and frustrations felt by a mother, and those around her, on her return to China. It is set at a time after Nixon’s trip, when the “bamboo curtain had parted”, not “all that wide, really, but wide enough for tour buses to get through”. A later story, “A Tea Tale”, written in the form of a business-school case study, complete with numerous digressions, recounts the efforts of the white American owners of “a successful independent coffee shop in a small Cincinnati suburb” to “ expand their tea offerings” at a time when consumers in the US are thirsty for produce from China, as the country continues to emerge into the market. They attend a “World Tea Expo” and cultivate a connection with “Song, owner of the Heavenly Cloud Tea Company, based in a remote part of Yunnan Province” – but things do not go as planned.

In the final tale, “Detective Dog”, several characters from earlier stories reappear. We are now in the near-present: there are references to Covid and the recent crackdown in Hong Kong. A boy, Bobby Koo, who lives in New York, is attempting to unravel various family mysteries. The darkest and most moving story in Thank You, Mr. Nixonit presents a portrait of the slippage between different times and different cultures, and of the losses and gains of migration, as the world changes and a family evolves.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom teaches Chinese and world history at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author, most recently, of Vigil: Hong Kong on the brink2020

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