DE: Your characters often have this sense of upheaval/being uprooted. They're struggling to make sense of their situation against a weight of memories that contradict where they are now. Is that fair to say?
ST: I don’t know if I could say that my characters’ struggles are necessarily rooted in a past/present dichotomy. You are right in that I have written many stories about characters struggling against the worst – a terrible situation, sometimes a trauma, that has happened. They are trying to move forward, and either manage to, or fail. Dolly in “Demolition”,[i] for example. What does it mean to have had to share your husband for decades with a stranger you refuse to know about? Should one construe such accommodation as love and patience, and therefore admirable? Or is it a character flaw, a failed feminism, a willingness to be trampled on? Dolly – elderly and conservative, defensive, heartbroken – is constantly in dialogue with this past. One could say she lives partially in memories.
But I have likely written as many stories about characters to whom the worst is about to happen. One of my favourites, “Independence Day”,[ii] is about a foster child whose fate is in the hands of a rural farming woman. So the future, and not the past, is a character’s tragedy. I think writing such stories is actually more exciting. One’s characters are moving inexorably toward a single, frenzied howl.
To the extent that I keep writing both kinds of stories, I would say no. No, the characters’ main struggle is not against the weight of their memories. If we must look for a common theme, I would suggest that it’s fairer to say that “the worst” features in some way or form in all my stories. And no, I don’t write the happiest stories.
DE: The transitory settings in which they interact also seem to feed into this: An empty swimming pool, a house that's about to be demolished, a tent set up by frat boys on a lawn. When you're writing, which comes to you first, the settings or the people that will inhabit them?
ST: With the singular exception of “Swimming Pool”, I think my stories come first from their characters. I didn’t even notice the transitory nature of many of the settings until you pointed them out! So almost always, first the characters and their desires, and then what they look like, where they’re from. It becomes much easier to figure out what settings they would likely – or unlikely – be in thereafter, and where I could put them.
DE: How directly are your stories based on lives of real people?
ST: I write motivated by circumstances, issues or emotions I am familiar with, and this almost always involves both places and people I know. But it’s never so direct. I don’t read something in the news or listen to a story from a friend, and want to mimic life. Sometimes, I think, “Hey, that’s an interesting relationship to write about”, or “I want to write about a similar situation”. But the stories often proceed to take a life of their own.
DE: Can you talk a little about the guerrilla writing project?
ST: Sure! Guerrilla Fiction is a series of five stories set in five direct municipalities/provinces in China, broken up into micro-stories and printed on postcards. The stories’ common theme is migration. On the other side of the postcard is a space for the audience to respond to pre-printed questions on where home is, when they left, and why they left. The postcards – both the English and Chinese language editions – are currently housed in a number of cafés in Beijing,[iii] and are open for responses. I collect these responses, and scan them up on the project website. I also work with the Spittoon Literary Collective. We encourage creative responses, which will be published regularly on Spittoon’s WeChat account page.
I have always been interested in the issue of access to art, not just in terms of who gets to create art, but who gets to consume art and under what circumstances art is made available to us. Guerrilla Fiction is free for the taking; its content was not subject to the whims of a publishing house; it tries to raise questions about how stories can be presented and where and when they can be consumed. Anyone can also write their own fiction (or non-fiction) in response and have the chance to be published writers. In that sense, it tries to democratise “art”. Of course, the literary arts is in itself is arguably non-democratic, because it is inaccessible to the illiterate, and restricts access by the virtue of its tool – language. But those are huge questions. We can talk about them separately!
DE: Did the 中文 and English responses differ? If so, how?
ST: Yes, although I admit that I’m short on Chinese language responses, and my opinion may be skewed because of the smaller sample size. My impression was that the Chinese language responses were a lot more literal and formal, whereas the English language responses involved fiction, drawings, scribbles and were generally more chaotic in presentation. There was a response, for example, written from the perspective of Alfred the Butler (from Batman), which cracks me up every time.
I wonder if this is a result of cultural difference – since most responses in Chinese were written by people who grew up in China – or a function of the medium. Perhaps a combination of[iv] both. In general, so few people use pen and paper anymore, so writing a response on a postcard feels like an assignment, or some equivalent high-inertia task that needs to be approached with formality. This could be further compounded by the high position of the written language in traditional Chinese culture, and its scholarly connotations. For comparison purposes, the Gongchanghuoyang (弓长火羊) WeChat cultural feed[v] featured Guerrilla Fiction in early March, and I found the discussion within the community much more free-flowing and personal. Hopefully, I will be able to collect more Chinese language responses in the next year, and gain more insight into these differences.
DE: You also do some painting and photography. Do you see your writing and visual work informing each other, or are they totally separate things?
ST: I don’t think I would go so far as to say that they inform each other. Fiction, at least, comes from a different place. Stories form rather discrete worlds of imagined people, each with her or his own system of beliefs and desires. Because characters spend so much time speaking to each other, I find it difficult to conceive of stories that I write informing or being informed by anything outside the world of that particular story. Photography is an equally separate endeavour, driven by an obsession with cataloguing, a neurotic fear of forgetting, and the drive to push myself to keep seeing the world differently.
In contrast, painting and poetry come from similar places, in the sense that they arise from images, emotions and visual balance. My poems and paintings also often have similar themes, rooted in pet social and environmental concerns. Because they occupy common spaces, I think it easier to place them in dialogue. In “Rothko for Brokes”, for example, I used really crap material to try to achieve mini Rothko replicas, and priced each painting based on a liveable wage per hour. (My views on Rothko’s merits/lack of being a totally separate matter.) I’m sure I have previously written poetry about brokeassedness and desperation. That said, I don’t make art with any intention of putting art in dialogue with poetry. I just do what interests me.
DE: Are you working on anything new?
ST: Yes, always. I am usually working on a poem or story. I am currently writing a poem that can be rapped, with the same rhyme and rhythm scheme taken from a professional album rap (I am riffing off Raury’s “NEVERALONE”). Come April 2017, I will be writing a month’s worth of Twitter poems (poems that fit into 141 characters). I am working on a series of Chinese ink paintings. On the backburner is a long-term visual/writing project using found text from art gallery write-ups, which are collaged, then cancelled out with marker to leave words that form blocks of poems or poetic text. I continue with my Beijing photography project, which catalogues buildings and people in this wonderful city. I’m planning my next photography project, which involves fashion photography using only second hand clothes and/or fearsomely unwearable things. Yah, I’m looking for models, if anyone’s keen to look good in an ugly sweater.
By Samantha Toh
"So this is where you live now," she said, looking over the barrier through the smog. They were on the twentieth floor, at the very top of Jack's apartment block. Down below, the city, in patches of brown and green and grey, stuttered with the sound of cars jammed close.
"I'm a lot happier here," Jack said, then climbed into the empty swimming pool.
She remembered getting off the plane that afternoon. She saw the big words that said KARGO in dark blue. The tropical air seemed to obstruct any possibility of a breeze, and it was worse on the people-lined streets. But she had flown in to see him and say a proper goodbye.
"So you have a date set?" she said.
"No, but it'll be early next year," his voice said.
"I guess she's been waiting for a long time."
She peered into the swimming pool. The tiles were off-green, and with the absence of water she could see the scum clearly, growing in the gaps between them. Jack, standing by the edge of the deep-water drop, looked small. He waved his arms.
"Come in," he said. "It's cleaner down here."
She hesitated for a moment, then climbed down the ladder. Jack was right. There was less scum on the bottom. The tiles were a darker shade past the shallow end and sloped like a baby hill. When she looked up, all she could see was clouds stained with dusk, a purplish blue. Deep in the pool, she felt disconnected from everything, as though they were not part of a building, and there was no need for a difference between ground and sky. She wrapped her jacket closer around her, sweating.
"I like this," she said.
He walked away from her, stepping carefully on each tile. He hopped over every other one, then turned to face her.
"You look like a little boy doing that," she said.
"I can do this now that I feel free."
But his comment was not pointed, so she was not angry. In the back of her mind, she was glad they were no longer fighting and that they did not have to use words like "betrayed." She said, across the hollow expanse of the pool, "Where does she live?"
"Is that far?"
"Nothing's too far with a taxi," he said. He sounded rich, taxi, although he lived in this old grey building with the leaking bathroom and one incontinent neighbour. He had told her, on the way up to the roof. She wondered if he was giving up too much to be here, but she did not voice it. He said again, "She's been waiting."
"I know," she said. "Four years is a while."
He sat down in the middle of the pool and motioned for her to come over. She did, and as she approached, observed that his shoes were new, a russet leather with coffee laces. He had never used to wear such fancy designs before.
"I'm slightly worried about you," she said.
"That's sweet," Jack said, looking up. In the sky, a sheet of birds flapped back to where they made their home. "You know, I've got savings. I sold the cars."
"We used to fight about the cars."
"They were stupid fights," he said.
Jack sat cross-legged in the middle of the pool. She looked at the top of his head, the skin showing at the crown where he combed his hair forward. Patches of white showed at the roots. They were in their 50s now.
"You know, I'm glad you found someone," she said, looking down at him.
"You didn't fly in just to tell me this."
"No," she said. "I just thought of it, just now. I flew in to see what your life would be like. I've never been here before. You know this."
"So you've been here for how long again?"
"Just today. Short flight from Thailand. I was there four days, just travelling."
"So you know my life will be humid," he joked.
"But what else?" she said, looking into his face. He did not answer.
She thought hard, but could not imagine him in this exciting city, standing out with his thinning blonde hair. She thought of them living in the Menlo Park suburbs. It was different - the air was dry and it was quiet save for the passing Caltrains. When she shouted at him, her shouting had felt particularly loud, as though they were the only people in the world. Here, she saw the people crammed on buses and heard the deafening sounds of cars and horns. The street markets had people jostling. There were long lines for food. But he must prefer the weight of the noise here, distributed among other people. A lightened burden was bearable. Only their glances would brush him, rest curiously, then fall away.
So she was happy for him. The disgust she had so often associated with him came away like dust. She felt relieved. She remembered looking at him from the patio, her fingers digging into a magazine. He was always pottering about the yard, poking about the koi pond, and skimming rocks on a weekend afternoon, aimlessly. Without direction, he had been unattractive to her, and he had been aimless for a long time. She did not know where they were going, why they were unhappy all the time, and even after the girl, it had never been about the girl. Now it would be over. Now her mother would not call her up on the phone, spitting at her. Nobody would stare at him, secretly thinking him a loser. "What is Jack planning to do?" Overweight, ageing, jobless. The talk had been hard to bear. She had really loved him once.
She stood right by him, feeling the warmth rise off his body. A layer of fine sweat covered his skin. She realised with a pang that the girl had known him in his current state and liked him for it.
"I really am happy for you," she said suddenly.
"Oh," Jack said.
"Don't look so shocked. I'm not going to kiss and make up."
"No," Jack said. "I'm sick of infidelity movies, you know that right? That's never how it ends."
"I know," she said, then turned, so her feet were on the edge where the slope started to bend downward. They were both staring down into the deep end.
Taking his hand, she quietly said, "We've both been there."
The walls of the swimming pool loomed above their heads. In her hand, his felt big and clumsy. The night grunted with the remnants of cars. In a few hours she would be flying back home. It would be improbable that she would see him again. They had been together for 19 years.
"What now?" she said.
"Are you scared?" Jack said.
"No," she said, closing her eyes. She felt the slope of the deep end with her feet, the edge where the floor fell steeply. "No, I don't think so."
First published in QLRS Vol. 11 No. 2 Apr 2012.
[i] Spittoon Literary Magazine Issue 1 (Autumn 2016).
[ii] Literary Laundry Vol 1.1 (http://web.literarylaundry.com/journal/volume-1-issue-1/prose-fiction/independence-day).
[iii] Living Room Coffee (碳儿胡同23号); Rager Pie (分司厅胡同10号); Ball House (鼓楼中楼湾胡同40号); Metal Hands (五道营胡同61号)； 好食好色 (菊儿胡同7号院内).
[v] Available here: http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/nwBxlnRpZpCSqn3physozg
February 27th at The Bookworm, Sanlitun, Beijing
DE: What are some of the challenges in translating poetry?
PW: A poem might describe a very, simple mundane thing but to me poetry is like dance with a strict choreography. If you’re used to dancing in a certain style, to a certain music, translation is a bit like trying to do that dance to a different music. And it’s very difficult to translate those moves to a different tune. Poetry in particular is full of images and metaphors that are very culture specific. For example, we have this word in Sinhalese called haal-paruwa. It’s a bad word, used to insult men saying that they’re impotent, but not directly. You simply say that what comes out of you is the same color as the water I throw out after I wash my rice.
DE: (childish giggling)
PW: That is a very crass reference, but you just have two words for that in my language. But imagine if I have to translate that and unpack that metaphor. You need two lines for that. And it loses its punch. Then there are emotions that can only be explained precisely in a certain language. English speakers had to borrow the word Schadenfreude from German, to express the pleasure derived from another’s misfortune. We have a word for the exact opposite feeling – muditha, which goes beyond empathy. There is no word in English that lets me convey that feeling. To me, poetry is a very sensory experience, but this creates a stumbling block for a translator. Do you know what a frangipani smells like? Or the taste of coconut sambal? Does an unappetizing footnote saying it’s a mix of grated fresh coconut flavored with dry fish, lime, onion and chili make a reader’s mouth water the way a memory of it does? And if you’re translating literature that comes from a very small place that are not part of the global mainstream pop culture. Sri Lanka is not what you see in Bollywood, for instance, and even Bollywood is not really what is in India. Perhaps it’s harder for people to relate to many culture-specific references and poetry doesn’t necessarily give you a lot of space to explain at length.
DE: I also wondered if there might be structural or grammatical challenges. When I looked at the original Sinhalese of “Her Story,” it looks like there’s a fat column on the left and a thin column on the right. Your translation looks physically different.
PW: That’s true. I especially think in old poetry they were very strict in terms of, not just the number of syllables they used but in terms of rhyming the last word. Just like in English poetry there might be like this rhythm and meter. Sri Lankan poetry, poetry in South Asia has this thing called shabda shaastra or the science of sound. It’s not just that you have to have five syllables. The five syllables in each of the lines should have a similar or compatible sound because Sinhalese is a phonetic language. So it’s not just enough for you to have the same kind of stress or the number of syllables, but also sounds that go together. That’s all very, very difficult to preserve.
DE: When you’re translating is that something that you try to stay faithful to? Is it even possible?
PW: I think it’s very difficult to translate it that way. I sometimes try to rhyme, but if you see my translations they’re more like free verse. I haven’t been able to stick to those rules.
DE: You’ve mentioned to me before that many publishers, especially English language publishers, are reluctant to publish works of translation. Why is that?
PW: This comes from my own experience. Publishers are particularly afraid that the readers aren’t familiar with the names of the authors or actual subject matter that is being translated. Yes, there is a lot of post-colonial literature that is written in English by people in South Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and so on. Buthere’s what one publisher told me when I interviewed him at the Galle literature festival in Sri Lanka: He said people pick up a novel with names, places or scenes that are familiar to them and a work in translation takes you to a completely unknown place.
DE: Isn’t that the good thing about literature?
PW: It is absolutely the good thing about literature. But if you are a publisher who wants to sell copies you want to sell a product that is tried and tested. There are small independent publishers who might take a risk, but if you want to break into a bigger publishing house it’s much harder to do that with works of translation unless you’ve already got a novel or other things published under your name.
DE: I also wanted to ask you a question or two about this poem “Her Story.” I was curious about the narrator who observes all stages of the woman’s life. What is your sense of who or what the narrator is?
PW: This particular writer has many works written from this omnipresent eye. For me, it feels like this narrator has very diverse feelings about this girl. At times there are feelings of lust, craving or desire. But at other times it is as if she’s your own daughter; very sympathetic feelings. I think this is simply to show how a woman’s life changes. Especially in traditional society a woman was more valued for what her uterus could produce as opposed to her as a person. They were just the ones who served your dinner, who made sure the children didn’t get sick. But they weren’t necessarily observed or considered as a presence. I remember my PE teacher in school used to say “you know it’s a girl’s school when you see the girls. You know it’s a boy’s school when you hear the boys.” I think at the time the writer wrote this, to actually lay your eyes on a woman and to observe her life, to acknowledge her own existence was something interesting or important.
DE: So this poet was also a Buddhist monk. From my own limited understanding of Buddhism there seem to be Buddhist themes in it as well.
DE: Impermanence and “the end of her worldly sorrows.”
PW: Although this writer was a Buddhist monk in his early life, he disrobed and went into politics. He was a very active voice in the independence movement. We had a non-violent independence struggle. A lot of people talk about Gandhi and non-violence in India, and ours is overshadowed by that. The origins of our print media can be traced back to these times as well. Newspapers and pamphlets originated to get people to resist the British rule. I think that’s one of the reasons that motivated him to disrobe. But I think his Buddhist education is visible throughout most of his work, not just this one. In this particular poem, he’s talking about the impermanence of life. But it’s not a Buddhist view to think that this life is a test and then you have eternal bliss in an afterlife. I think what he’s trying to say is that you’ve suffered in this life and then you come back to suffer again in this cycle of Samsara, or rebirth. That’s the sense I got.
DE: Finally, I’m fascinated by this erotic poem you translated. How do you pronounce the name Andare?
PW: That was the time when there was Portuguese colonization in Sri Lanka, so a lot of locals had names that sounded Portuguese.
DE: So this name could be a partially westernized?
DE: I was curious, erotica is usually understood to be written with the intent to create arousal, but this poem seems to be something quite different.
PW: Andare is more known to be a humorist poet. As I said we don’t know whether there was an actual historic person called Andare, or it was a bunch of poets who were writing with this pen name. So I chose this simply because it uses interesting images to describe a woman’s body, like coconuts, bitter melons, jackfruit. These are not images or comparisons that we see in say English poems, per se. You’re right, I wouldn’t exactly call this erotica. But Sinhala literature is very, again, a little conservative. So in that context this is slightly erotic because it creates such explicit images of this woman’s body.
DE: They’re really funny and wicked putdowns. You usually don’t think of very old, venerable writing as being so funny.
PW: That is why this guy’s writing stands out, because a lot of the other poems that you see from that period, and before that, most of them have religious motives and poetry was used to propagate Buddhism and discipline people. Whereas, here is this man telling, “Oh, you’re like this old baboon and killing my desire.” So that stood out for me.
DE: I’m also intrigued by the idea that there might not have been one Andare, that it might have been different people using that pen name as cover. It seems like if you wanted to poke fun at the powers that be it could be a useful thing to be able to take on this pen name. What do you think?
PW: I think, like with many emperors, the level of tolerance really depended on the temperament of the man or woman in power. If you look at the history of Sinhala literature there are periods where it flourished because there was not much censorship, and there were periods where it was just squeezed and everything was just like a soothsaying poem to the king. Especially during those times I think, poets adopted this technique of having a pen name, a collective pen name, and writing these absolutely damning poems in a way that they couldn’t be found.
DE: Have any modern or contemporary poems been written under the pen name Andare?
PW: Yes! It continues to be a popular pen name, even among bloggers back home. In our universities there is this tradition of writing poems on the walls of classrooms or in our dorms. And sometimes, when you want to write something scathing and critical, one would just sign it as Andare. So there is this tradition. He’s not just one poet, he’s like a phenomenon of someone who can say something really critical and get away with it.
POETRY IN TRANSLATION
Literotic from an 18th century Sri Lankan court jester
Many humorous poems in Sinhala literature are attributed to a court jester named
Andare, from the late 18th century. It is not clear whether a historic person of that name really existed or whether it was a pen name assumed by a group of poets who
wrote some of the earliest forms of literotica found in Sinhalese and poems critical of
As the story goes, one day, an inebriated Andare saw a woman bathing at the royal
well, and said….
Your hair like scorched coconut fibers
The stomach protruding like a jackfruit full of infertile seeds
Breasts hanging like yellowed, dried bitter melons
Woman you look like an old, toothless baboon,
Slowly chewing away at the young shoots of my desire
He didn’t realize it was the queen he had insulted. When summoned to the court and
threatened with a beheading, the quick-witted poet said his lines had been
misinterpreted and that what he really meant to say was…
Your hair like golden rice paddy waving in the sun
the waist a sculpture of fragrant sandalwood
Your breasts full and glistening like sweet orange coconuts
with nipples blossoming like lotuses
Woman when I look at you I see you radiating like a goddess
By Sagara Palansooriya
I saw her
When beads of sweat were rolling down her tiny forehead
As she stuffed sand into coconut shells in the burning sun
She didn’t even know that I had set my eyes upon her
She glistened like a dewdrop on a full moon night
Her eyes – the wellspring of innocence
Her softness felt like petals of a frangipani flower
The sun and the moon liked to peak into her thatched roof hut
And listen to her laughter that rang through the mud walls
Flowers withered when the light of her eyes fell on them
Her lips were the fiery red of the setting sun
Her sweetness oozed out into everything she touched
The bees, intoxicated by a mere look from her, perished from the jealous stings of
Later I saw her in the cusp of youth,
A star that has dived into the milky way
With flecks of sand stuck to the soles of her cracked feet
Old women used to say that wild flowers blossomed when tears rolled down her
And the sound of paddy heaving in the wind carried her tender voice to the corners of
I laid my eyes on her again when she was making passionate love
She was now valued and respected, not for her self but for what her womb could carry
I saw her again, after a long while
She was a mother of four
Although the charm of her youth had slowly disappeared
She looked like an imposing Sal tree with her branches full of flowers
The last time I saw her
Only a few were weeping around her corpse, wrinkled like a sun-dried date
I wished for an end of her worldly sorrows
And turned my heart into a graveyard in her memory
(Translated by Poornima Weerasekara)
About the Poet
Sagara Palansooriya (1908-1961) is regarded as one of the best modern poets in
Sinhala literature. A monk in his youth, he disrobed and went into politics, and was
part of the independence movement against the British in the early 1990s. His work
focused on the rural landscape in Sri Lanka.