Interview _ Flair Donglai Shi

Flair Donglai Shi 施東來 is a DPhil in English candidate at Oxford University, a critic in comparative literature (Chinese and English), an occasional short story writer, and a translator.

When did you start writing?

This simple question is also perhaps the hardest. Since I started my university journey, my academic language has always been English. Yet before that I was living in my hometown, a somewhat remote small city deep in the mountainous province of Zhejiang 浙江, China, and my only language was Chinese.

When I was young I was definitely more interested in writing than reading. I got top scores in my Chinese language and literature class but I rarely read outside the curricula. At that time, around the early 2000s, there was a culture of increasing openness in China, and the sentimental, individualistic and urban popular writing was having its moment in the country. So I started writing around themes of loneliness, isolation and dislocation and published a number of short stories in newspapers and anthologies with the help of my teacher. Most of them are lost now but I still have the original manuscripts in my old notebook.

After I started studying in the UK around 2012 I started writing in English, but mainly for an academic audience as that is the mode of writing in English I am most familiar with. I published a couple of short stories in English also, one called “Strawberry Candy” and the other called “China Boy”, in which I play around themes about sexuality and disempowerment. It is really much harder for me to write beautifully in English than in Chinese and sometimes I would just translate my creative writing from Chinese to English in order to preserve that original sentimentality, because I find that I always become too concerned about getting the sentence “right” in English to be able to prioritize my creativity.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

There is a trend in academia nowadays to challenge the divide between creative writing and academic prose, but in practice this remains unwelcomed. As graduate students we do not have the freedom to write without the standard restrictions on style and structure, and very few academics nowadays produce essays in the manner of George Orwell, D. H. Lawrence or even Virginia Woolf. Most of our essays are so jargon heavy and ideologically entrenched they stop being accessible and influential and become some kind of self-indulgent soliloquy instead. Sometimes I would think the people in the humanities in Western higher education today are like construction workers trapped in a room they built around them, and now all they do is try very hard to find cracks in the wall so that they can write something to fill that blank, and thus to make the room more sealed off from the world. I find this very suffocating sometimes, especially when the election of Trump and Brexit explicitly tell us how higher education has failed to take into action what it preaches.

As a literary scholar, I perceive two kinds of criticism to be worth doing. The first is theoretically informed political reading, such as postcolonial, feminist, or queer readings of the classics, which can offer new perspectives for us to see the structures built around a cultural product. This is more of a cultural history kind of reading. The second form of reading is perhaps a traditional one, which is that we should also read what we perceive to be good literature and promote it by making a sound case for its unique contribution to the wider world. These two modes of reading and essay-writing may sound quite commonsensical, but I think in this era of niche-market obsession, many of us under institutionalized pressure tend to forget about why we entered the field in the first place and choose to prioritize the theories over the literary works themselves.

As for my occasional creative writing, I view them in an old fashioned Freudian way. They are the excesses of the Repressed that I cannot control through rationalization. They are the spills of your carbonated drink that just have to come out when you shake the bottle too hard. I only write short stories when real life interactions with people get too boring and unfulfilling; I only write poems when I want to make a negative comment on something but cannot do so in “normal” language. Literature, in this sense, is exactly what cannot be spoken or written.

Who or what has had the most influence on you as a writer?

My favorite Anglophone writers are George Orwell and J. M. Coetzee, and my favorite Chinese writer is Yu Dafu 郁達夫. Orwell is just a genius. He uses very comprehensible language to tell very clear stories that are easy to follow, and yet every time you finish them you literally feel there is something larger climbing out of the book to challenge your world views. J. M. Coetzee is similarly simple but his writing presents much more ambiguous ideological positions and do not read as sharp as Orwell’s, due to the lack of satire I suppose. As a non-native speaker of English I find these writers really easy to read, and the easy language actually helps with clarifying some of the bigger thematic concerns of the stories for me.

Yu Dafu was a writer from my province writing in the 1920s and 1930s when China was in a semi-colonial semi-feudal state. I like many writers from the Republican era in China (1912-1949) since many of them come from the South and the overseas experiences they had in the UK or Japan really speak to me. I find this transhistorical resonance really striking and sometimes unsettling, as it always propels me to think whether we have really made any progress at all.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Ultimately, literature as cultural products and literary criticism as processes of critical thinking are all very subjective practices. My transnational journey between East Asia and the Anglophone world has increased my sensitivity to themes of movement, displacement and isolation, whereas my queer identity and the alienation and discrimination I suffered because of it implanted in me a spirit of rebellion that is quite hard to control. Yet I think what literature does is much more than this self-centric mode of identity politics. It is about empathy and transcendence. Solidarity cannot be built by an emphasis of the self.

What has been your most significant achievement as a writer so far?

I wouldn’t even consider myself a writer. I have won a small prize for my story “Strawberry Candy” and that’s pretty much all of the external recognition I have got so far in terms of creative writing. For me, a writer is someone who is writing for a living, or someone for whom creative writing is one of the many important professions they do to engage with larger society. While my original idea about entering academia was indeed to give myself a foothold in a university environment so that I can have the stable income to be able to write creatively, now the pressure in academia to keep up with new developments in the field and article publishing has pushed me out of that romantic dream of writing. Maybe one day I will be less stressed and more able to pick up that passion for creative writing again.

How did you get involved with Journeys in Translation?

I saw the project on Facebook, and was especially attracted to the form of “but one country”. The theme of the collection is topical and powerful and since there was no Chinese translation, I thought I would give it a go.

Which were the easiest aspects of the work you put into the project? 

Since I could pick any number of the 13 poems in the collection, I deliberately picked the ones with simpler language and more straightforward themes. I left out the ones with a lot of technical terms or foreign words since they demand the translator to actually know more than English and the target language. The poems are relatively short and their clear structures made it much easier to translate.

“but one country” is no doubt my favorite but also the most challenging, mainly because of its form. The grammatical genius embedded in the symmetrical visualization of the earth presents a particular problem for Chinese grammar, which often lacks the relational clarity of European languages and their numerous inflectional schemes. However, I suppose the loose grammatical structures of the Chinese sentence makes it easier than English to construct this symmetrical continuity. My method is really to prioritize the form of the original because that was what caught my eye in the first place, so I made sure each line should have one more character than the previous one. Apart from this, I have also tried to build more rhyme into the Chinese translation compared to the English original, such as the ending sounds of guo 國 and wo 窩, li 裡 and li 裡, nu 怒 and fu 覆, which I hope improves the readability and thus affective power of the poem. Yet I still think my translation has not reached the level of visual magic that the original has, and I would love to see a different Chinese translation of the poem.

As for the other ones, particularly “Children of War” and “Come In”, I have tried to create more rhyming effects for the Chinese versions as well. This search for rhyme often led me to look for the right character in a list of homophones for a particular translation, and sometimes I do sacrifice fidelity and choose words that are quite different from the original. For example, in “Come In”, I found the Chinese word for “blanket”, maotan毛毯 especially jarring in the stanza and opted for “warm curtain”, nuanlian 暖簾 instead, so that it can rhyme with “shoes”, xie 鞋. So these translating experiences actually made me realize how much prioritization translators have to perform in their job, and aspects of the original always have to be sacrificed in order for creative energy to grow in the translated version.

Rod Duncan’s “but one country”, Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) p.123. Translated into Chinese by Flair Donglai Shi.

What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?

It is immensely valuable as it opens up space for global circulations of politically informed aesthetic practices. It effectively appropriates poetic power for an affective form of activism that pushes people to think critically about the roots of suffering in our world.

I find the first person point of view of “Children of War” very powerful, especially when combined with its resignation about the perpetuation of violence as it enables a possibility of identification through shared memories about entrapment and disempowerment. In a way, initiatives like this are really demonstrations of applied poetics, applied translation studies and applied theory. However, there is also a very obvious drawback to this project due to its Anglophone centric modus operandi—English poetry being translated into less powerful languages, and thus securing its hierarchical power as the centripetal source; I hope our journeys in translation should be larger and more diverse than that.

I am currently editing an academic book called World Literature in Motion, in which we devote an entire section to studies on markets of translations between languages other than English and French, for example, from Korean to Russian, from Chinese to Hindi and etc. For me, merely critiquing Eurocentrism does not go beyond Eurocentrism, only by bringing in other languages and literary traditions can we really provincialize Europe at a deeper level.

Editor's Note:

Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.

The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land: Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.

So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. Currently, over 20 people from all over the world are working on the translations. More translations and more languages are on the way.

In Leicester, Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody's Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.

Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.


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