Anni Leonard is a Chengdu-based writer who, for the moment, mostly publishes her work on her own blog. She heads the Chengdu Bookworm Creative Writing Group and was a managing editor and translator for the Bookworm’s literary journal MaLa (Issue 4). Her flash fiction piece “Underworld” will appear in the first issue of Spittoon Magazine (Beijing). She is active in the literary scene in Chengdu, and hopes to see much more come of current collaborations with Beijing’s Spittoon.
Loreli's Kerryn Leitch sat down with Anni to talk about her own work and the state of the Chengdu scene.
KL: Let’s start with you introducing yourself. Tell us a little about what type of writing you do.
AL: I’m one of those who has been writing ever since I was a kid; journals, telling stories. I read lots of fantasy and sci-fi so that background really influences what I write. I like writing young adult fiction, sci-fi-esque background (Wikipedia only gives you so much information) and fantasy when the mood strikes me. Mainly what I focus on in my writing is interactions between people and how people react to certain things in certain situations.
KL: How much does living in Chengdu influence the writing that you do?
AL: That’s an interesting question because—and I’ve talked to other writers and I know they say the same—there’s sort of lag in what you write about. Especially if you spent a lot of time moving from place to place—you write about a couple of steps ago. So, in my life, I grew up in Michigan then I moved to Shanghai with my family when I was 16, I was in Hong Kong for two years by myself and then I did my university in Manchester and right now, while I’m living in Chengdu, very rarely will a bit of Chengdu come into my writing. But I do write more about things that I did, or feelings that I felt in reaction to friends that I made or relationships that I had when I was in Manchester. I find that coming into my writing more now. Occasionally it does seep in. There is a story that I’ve been meaning to finish, actually, it’s really cool, set in a Chengdu xiaoqu apartment building, an older one. That was really cool but I never got around to finishing it.
KL: Maybe you do still need that distance. When it comes to writing fantasy and science fiction, so often it’s used in a subversive way. Do you ever feel tempted to do that, living in a Chinese environment? Knowing what’s good, knowing what’s bad but also knowing the restrictions on sometimes being able to reflect those stories for the people here. Is that ever a temptation?
AL: I can say for sure that I’ve finished writing a novel recently, my first one. It’s a sci-fi thing and I can definitely say that there’s an influence of my own observations of the Chinese government and that sort of wanting harmony and peace for all its people but also being a little bit controlling and darker and trying to find a way to put that into a young adult novel in a way that the reader can feel it there without being really obvious. I don't write essays. I don’t write a lot of commentary and that sort of thing. This is how I really feel. This is the truth of how it is in China, but always, observations about my life here and the way I relate to people, government or society will always find a way to seep into my writing, for sure.
KL: Do you tend to lean towards the dystopian or do you think because it’s relationship based it’s much more about human needs and values rather than great flaws with society?
AL: Now I’m thinking specifically of the novel that I finished writing. This is still a very juvenile novel. I started writing it so long ago. In that one I was only able to finish it when the focus was the relationship between the two main characters and not this world that I was creating, which is pretty bleak. Basically the great world wars destroy the Earth so all of humanity is living in space stations. It starts off in a high school in a space station and the whole story is about them having a field trip to Earth and then getting caught up in the bigger picture of warring factions and dissatisfaction with the government and they’re all involved in it but they’re teenagers. It’s more about “I’m a teenager and the world is suddenly blowing up and it’s not what I thought it was” and it’s all about them dealing with their feelings.
KL: While they’re full of hormones.
AL: Yes. Absolutely.
KL: Tell me a bit more about your choice of genre. I was a high school librarian for seven years so I have read an awful lot of young adult fiction. Why does that genre appeal to you?
AL: Besides having spent a lot of time reading it as a young adult myself, it is that you are able to influence a young mind and sort of show them a world that where young people are capable and teach them things without being overbearing. Show them an interesting story but then show them how to be independent – how to take care of themselves, how to deal with a hot guy who is treating them bad. Something like that just as an example.
KL: We’re still trying to work that out ourselves, right? Tell me a little bit about the Chengdu scene but specifically how it impacts on you as a writer. Is it a collaborative environment? Is it something that inspires you?
AL: The biggest part of literary scene in Chengdu is the Bookworm writing group which I am currently the moderator of. That wasn’t always the case. I came to it two years ago without any clue what I was getting into—just knowing that I like to write and this group of people like writing. Since then, in these two years, the feedback people give, week on week (we meet every week), and the things that you learn about writing craft, I know I have improved so much as a writer thanks to this group. It’s a very diverse group with people from different countries and different age groups: this person did their Bachelors in creative writing but this person never did that ever, their background is in engineering or psychology or biology or something like that. Everyone has something different to bring to the table so I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the writing group.
KL: Does being the moderator ever put time constraints on you from doing your own writing as much as you’d like?
AL: The day to day of running the group doesn’t but my day job and little side projects that I get involved in does sometimes take away my personal writing time… But there are a few people in the group who meet up outside the Wednesday meet up. We meet up in a café like Comrade Chilli. We’ll put a little ad up in here for Comrade Chilli [Loreli aside: Comrade Chilli was excellent and we highly recommend checking it out if you’re down Chengdu way and your digestive system begs for a break from hot pot]. Not a Starbucks necessarily but somewhere with a nice environment. We’ll get our laptops out, sit there together and work on our stuff and in that way we force ourselves to make time to write.
KL: How many opportunities do you think are offered to people in the Chengdu writing community?
AL: For getting published, you mean?
AL: No opportunities are ever offered, as far as I can say, unless you want to do travel or opinion pieces for one of the local magazines. There’s also Spittoon. I would say the single opportunity that we have is the Mala Literary Journal. With the literary journal, the focus has shifted to more Chinese work in translation rather than the laowai writing about China sort of thing. Which is how it started. The literary journal had started as a writing group project but then evolved into what it is now and now that it is like that, there is less of a space for us to put our work out there for people to see. In general, there’s just not as much of an infrastructure for publication within China in general, I think, for foreigners who are writing and happen to live here.
KL: I have to follow up on the whole “laowai writing in China” thing, because just the way you said it as well, it’s somewhat stigmatised. Do you think that’s fair? There has been a lot of bad writing and there’s been an awful lot of semi-racist, very misogynistic writing of laowai and their Chinese experiences. Do you feel that there is an extra pressure about China that somehow you have to be better and you have to represent things in an honest way? When you’re writing about Manchester, do you feel less precious than when you’re writing about China?
AL: I think the answer to that is that I almost—not censor myself when I write about China—but I don't often write about China. I do, general, try to shy away from journalistic writing and blog writing in my creative writing. I’m not going to write, today I was sitting in my apartment and I wanted to go out but then I’d have to speak Chinese. I’m not interested in writing that sort of thing which is, to come back to what you said about it seeming unfair, sometimes it feels very unfair to be a writer living in China because I feel the expectation is that you have to write about China if you’re going to be coming out of China. It’s like, well that’s not true. I write science fiction, I write fantasy, I write weird stories about anthropomorphised goats in journalism.
KL: I want to read that one!
AL: It’s up on my blog! You know, I just want to write weird stories and happen to be here and that makes it a little difficult because it’s harder to find a network of where do I submit? You try online places and then there is thousands of submission every day so they are just like, who are you? They don't care, you know. It’s a frustration that I’ve always felt since I’ve been here.
KL: Do you have something you’re working on right now? What’s the passion project?
AL: I just finished a story that I liked a lot. It’s a 3000-word story and I was trying out writing a sequel to it but it wasn’t working. I had finished the novel and I also want to write a sequel to that but I have to digest some of the things about it. I always have half-finished projects going. Always. You caught me at a time when I’m not really working on anything in particular very passionately. I’m trying to shift my focus from getting an idea and thinking this is going to be a novel because those are hard and take a lot of time and I don't have a lot of time but I do have time to write 3000-4000 word stories. That was basically finishing that project. I had an idea. I wanted to write it. I wrote it and I think it’s done then I gave it to the writing group and they’re like, Yeah, I just think it’s part of something bigger. So I thought, yeah, let’s try this out, see if it goes anywhere. So, I’ve written a few scenes with the characters but they’re not really going as well as the first one.
KL: You feel satisfied with the journey they’ve taken?
AL: Yeah. Especially because, if I write anymore, I have to research and figure out things about how their world works whereas when you write short stories, and I think that’s why short stories is an excellent medium for science fictions because you can present a really hard-hitting concept and it’s consequences without having to go into too much detail about how the rest of the things work. If you’re writing a novel you have to make sure that the logic and the physics of your world function properly. If you have magic in this world you have to make sure it’s consistent how it works throughout the story. There’re a lot of things you have to be thinking about.
KL: What is your fantasy future as a writer? What is the ideal outcome of your career?
AL: The ideal outcome is that I can be in a place where I can produce writing and have people reading my work and liking it. I think that’s what I really want right now. I don't want to dream too big because I’m still developing myself as a writer right now and I feel like, not that it won't happen, just that there has to be a process to it. You know, I want to be able to build my readership myself. It’s really nice to be thinking of what’s my dream as a writer because, for me, that’s not something I ever actively thought about. It was on the backburner. I teach English here and it pays the bills and all that sort of stuff and I enjoy imparting knowledge on my students and all that sort of stuff but I’ve always written and I’ve always told stories and I know I’ll never stop doing that.
KL: Is China the future for you?
AL: Not to get into personal things but my boyfriend’s Chinese and so definitely looking to stick around and be here, doing whatever. Honestly, if I get married and I can be on a marriage visa and not work then I’d just spend all my time writing and have way more time to spend on finding ways to get published but that’s very far in future now.
KL: That’s about it but is there anything I’ve missed that you really want to get off your chest?
AL: No, I’m okay.
KL: Then we’ll look forward to the wedding.
AL: Yes. [Dissolves into laughter]
Matthew Byrne is a UK-born poet and the founder of Spittoon. Until very recently a fixture of Mado Bar, [RIP] Spittoon is now at Ball House. This monthly poetry free-for-all provides a space for Beijing's writers to assemble and get the fresh work on its feet. It's invaluable as a stage in a process, but Spittoon has also become a place for the community to meet, share ideas and take heart. The reading series has also recently mutated to include a monthly fiction night at Other Place [Spittoon Fiction] and a roving, pop-up edition called Spittoon Salon. No poetry or fiction in this space today, but I sat down with Matt to talk about the impending launch of Spittoon Magazine.
CW: With these questions, is it okay with you if we go backwards chronologically?
MB: Completely OK with that.
CW: I don't care what your feelings are on the subject. I was just being polite.
MB: OK, thanks Max.
CW: What's this Spittoon Magazine all about, and when can I hold it in my hot little hands?
MB: The first Spittoon Magazine will be a collection of the best poetry and fiction written in Beijing that we could find, printed with illustrations created especially for the work featured. As each issue is released, we will also release a selection of articles, interviews and translation pieces that explore the literary scene in Beijing and ultimately, China. We want to try our best to represent what we feel is a compelling and diverse literary scene, both with English speaking poets and writers but also, just as importantly, Chinese poets and writers as well. We are looking forward to building our distribution network in Beijing but also in other cities in China. We already have a Spittoon night in Chengdu where we will consider their writer’s for the magazine and distribute copies – It’s our aim to create Spittoon nights in other cities in China, and increase distribution for the magazine.
CW: Where and when did you have this idea? Was this always the plan?
MB: I had this idea sat at my desk in my office – it seemed to me a natural progression after the succession of the poetry and fiction events. There seemed to be a discernable wealth of talent in many languages that needed representation and a magazine would be the best instrument to make that happen.
When I was living in Manchester, I created a little indie poetry and fiction magazine called UNSUNG that was a distributed at a monthly poetry night. It was loads of gritty fun, so I suppose I wanted to replicate some of the thrill of having an object to distribute that consists of poet’s and fiction writer’s hard earned work.
CW: What are the origins of Spittoon? How did this start?
MB: Spittoon started because I thought it’d be great to start a poetry night in one of my favourite bars in Beijing, Mado Bar– a moment for Mado bar everyone– the ambiance of the place seemed to work through a complex calculation of grunge and cats to arrive at the state of greatness it achieved. Apart from that fairly accidental decision, I feel Spittoon has helped to harness a lot of the energy that was already in Beijing into definable nights. Our poetry night run by myself and our fiction night run superbly by Chris Warren. I feel like the magazine is the next reasonable step down the road of developing Spittoon, by consolidating the content of the poetry and fiction nights and providing new material and translation.
CW: How has Spittoon changed since its inception?
MB: Spittoon was originally created as a poetry night and it was initially a challenge gathering up enough writers to read. Through the evolution of Spittoon Poetry, the different ‘stages’ with their variable time slots grew out of it, 7 minutes for regular slots and 15 minutes for feature slots that serve as more of an expose on the writers– getting to know their work more in-depth. Spittoon Poetry’s ‘Poetry-In-Translation’ feature has proven to be extremely popular, featuring work in Chinese, French, Spanish, Arabic, Afrikaans, Sinhalese and Mauritian Creole to name a few. The translation works by presenting the poetry in its original language followed by the translation, so the audience hears the music of the poetry but can also get a good glimpse into its meaning.
We’ve had a succession of translators who have put a lot of hard work into their translations, Ceci, Poornima, Chen Bo (Steve) and Judith Huang to name a few! The Spittoon Fiction night evolved under Chris’s management to consist of a ten minute fiction slot and 500-word limit ‘flash fiction’ slots.
CW: In weeks to come, I have a feeling we will be hearing more about Spittoon Salon– but what is Spittoon Salon?
MB: Apart from a budding hair styling enterprise, Spittoon Salon is our initiative to spread the word about everything Spittoon. The nights are organized by Simon Shieh, who is the poetry editor for the magazine, and they exist as targeted readings around Beijing and possibly beyond. We were lucky enough to have our first Spittoon Salon night in Xiding Daoist Temple in Haidian District, an absolutely beautiful venue that provided a wonderful backdrop for the poetry read on the night, centered on the theme of ‘water’. The salon readings will be a great chance to increase knowledge about the Spittoon collective and the distribution network for the magazine in the future.
CW: How's that going?
MB: Really well! We’ve got loads of great venues lined up on top of our two home venues: Ball House for Spittoon poetry and The Other Place for Spittoon Fiction (both based in Gulou).
CW: Pretty sure you're a creative writing MA and a life-long reader. With that in mind, how does Spittoon relate to other reading series (or, now, journals and zines) that you've been around, read, or been apart of? (On that note, do you think Spittoon represents any cohesive Beijing style (of writing)?)
MB: In my own mind, Spittoon is related to UNSUNG Magazine in its processes for submission but I’ve really enjoyed how we’ve developed the editing team, giving certain members certain tasks to lighten the load on all of us. Everyone seems to be enjoying it and I feel like we are all learning together. We’ve had to set up the process and infrastructure for the magazine from scratch, from editing to coordination on Trello, design on InDesign and all the learning that goes with that. We’ve had to assign each other roles and have assumed other ones naturally – it’s been a really enjoyable process.
CW: Back to the magazine: who's on the team?
MB: Our designers and lead illustrators are Rowena Chadowsky, who is one of the one in a billion who can set type by hand, but now she uses InDesign and Mike Manjarrez, who’s skill with pen and stylus (and sense of humour!) have made us very grateful that he’s with us. Our chief poetry editor is Simon Shieh whose efforts and hard work have helped to compound the future success of the magazine and our poetry editor is Kelly McNerney, whose past experience in editing and great eye for poetry has been invaluable. Our fiction editor is Chris Warren, whose drive and determination have brought greatness to the fiction section and turned the Spittoon Fiction night into a complete success. Then there’s me, Matthew Byrne who very much enjoys making magazines and literary collective stuff happen with these lovely people.
CW: What are your goals/plans/thoughts on the future of the magazine? Or for the future of Spittoon at large?
MB: I’m on the verge of thinking about maybe considering deciding on deliberating making my mind up whether I should make it my life’s work or not. It feels like there’s a real chance to set up Spittoon nationally, having a poetry/fiction set up in significant cities that are consolidated together by Spittoon Magazine and a burgeoning web presence. We achieve integration with foreign writers and Chinese writers together through translation– perhaps what we do could have an educational aspect in the future, we’re willing to partner with any organization that are willing to partner with us! After a certain amount of time the work that we’ve done could be exported around the world – it would be an honour to portray China’s literary scenes in the favourable light they often deserve.
CW: What's the biggest challenge you guys have run into?
MB: We’ve had to learn everything from the ground up. InDesign has been a big challenge for us but everyone, particularly Rowena and Mike, have really risen to the challenge. Finding a printer was hard and negotiating things like paper price, thickness, colour, getting things illustrated, negotiating meetings… it was and still very much is a load of stuff.
CW: You writing anything right now?
MB: Well, you know. I wrote a short fiction piece that I quite enjoyed writing recently about an Anglo Saxon village. It was fun to let my imagination wander round that little world I made for myself during a particular down time at work. I’ve got a lot of poems flying around my mind right now; it’s just a case of getting them down on paper. Lucky there are groups like Simon Shieh’s poetry group and other groups that provide the opportunity!
Judith Huang is a Singaporean writer and translator living in Beijing. She is the three-time recipient of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award, with works appearing in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha, and elsewhere. She is the translator of four volumes of poetry by Singaporean Cultural Medallion winner Yeng Pway Ngon, published by the Literary Centre of Singapore.
Ants was first read at Spittoon Fiction in August, 2016.
An interview follows the work.
The first thing you notice about this place is the ants. Ants on the walls. Ants on the floor. Ants on the ceiling, between the crack between the lights. Ants in the kitchen, ants in the dining room, ants in the living room, ants in the bedroom. Ants on the flowers you pick. Ants on the cup you put down. Ants on the soles of your slippers. Ants on the seat of your chair. Ants on your arm when you lean against a tree. Ants, reddish brown, tiny as a fullstop with tinier feelers. Ants, in a line, bringing reinforcements. Ants, mulling around a puddle, feeling it out, and then winding around it. Ants. Ants. Ants. Ants. The ever-present soldiers of rot, of decay, of furor, of the ever-looming ever-present near-ubiquity of death.
The death of an evening, the death of a week, the death of a year of Mondays through Sundays. The death of you, the death of me, the death of the forest, the death of the city. Ants, heading a pity-party daisy-chain hailing the fact that everything’s rotting, quickly so quickly, in the fulsome decay of the tropical sun.
Bury your grandma, and within a minute you can be sure she’s a feast, a feast of her eyes, her ears, her nose, her hair. Ants at her neck, ants at her throat, ants on her tongue, ants in her vagina, ants knocking at the unlockable door of her teeth. Nothing stays, not the condos, not the semi-Ds, not the bungalows, not the HDBs, everything is one fecund, rotting, shifting, collapsing thing.
Ants move in and build a nest. They knock down and they build up. They are building museums one day, and catacombs the next. They are building MRT lines, they are building library skyscrapers, they are building roads that lead nowhere and everywhere at once. They are building shopping mall after shopping mall after shopping mall. They are building hipster coffee shops, they are building sky gardens, they are building infinity pools, they are building lego sets, they are building simulated high-tech break-neck metropolises, they are building high-end luxury villas for the billionaires of the world to unite in the carefully constructed tax havens of the cove.
Ants, everywhere ants, they are tearing them down, they are going to town, they are knocking down schools, they are tunneling through libraries, they are demolishing skyscrapers to make room for even higher towers of glass bridged by bridges of glass, they are unearthing your ancestors to build high-rises on the wounded exhumed lands of the dead. Oh restless land, heaving with the absolute biomass of ants, ants, ants, building your carefully commissioned babies new cribs in the sky, building a sky high fantasy eye to eye your sky as it wheels by.
Ants, eating away at the prophecy of the old man, tearing away at his legacy to make it more perfect, more cunning, more insidious than ever before. Ants, working to put together the labels on museums, the programs for concert pianists, how it will be legato in this era and staccato the next, determining which species of trees we will grow on the sides of the roads in robust and cacophonous harmony.
Ants - laboring to the rhythm of the silent obese queen, issuing orders through pneumatic pipelines. Ants on my bed, feeding the gifted with royal jelly, keeping the drones in their amniotic sacs even as poets emerge in full chorus, on cue, in your third generation.
Ah, ants, you have crawled over my crevices, you have exhumed my graves, you have stalked up my banana ghosts, wafting like frangipani hosts in the middle of a wet petal. Every damn where, ants, what have you done with my grandma, all you’ve left of her sweet old face is the brittle bone, the hole where her nose used to be, the hole where her lips used to be, the hole where the head of my father first emerged into this world, obliterating all love of and knowledge of history with the hard forgetting light of life.
Ah yes, ants, tap dancing on the way to infinity on a closed loop with no possible feedback, ants, in the musical of the life of our founder, the founder of the colony, the founder of the party, the founder of every last drip and drop of our nether end, ants, saying nothing original, only a soup of letters to feed as pap to the embryos that hatch every year into batches of prepaid preconceived dots joined to dots joined to dots that are our offspring, that are our past and our present and our future, a blank after blank of ants after ants after ants.
Ah doyennes of recycling! Multitude of multitudes! Ants from end to end to end to end, beginning at the very moment of the end, poised on the cusp of every last future, zigzagging around this and then that corner of the world, sending scouts out and then flooding in armadas of puny heavy-lifting champions.
Ah yes, we are ants, flying in pairs on the wings of love to an inevitable descent by the moon of the fluorescent light, waiting for our chance to replenish the genetic stock of the colony. We are ants, sniffing out the trail of opportunity, the chemical trail left by ants of yore. We are ants, never resting, never sleeping, questing continually on our equatorial island for the very edges of time, stretching its form to the limits of regularity, building to the very edge of space. And when we have flown beyond our inevitable tower, a satellite fixing its gaze upon the pinpoint of our origin, may we look back and gasp, and see on the swarming dot of our land the heaving mass of ants, ants, ants.
MB: I love bugs. You like bugs?
JH: I like bugs, obviously, as a departure point for writing. They are so other that they are often the inspiration for science fiction aliens. And the whole superorganism thing just freaks Western individualists out. Which is kind of fun. I think Westerners think that Asian people may have some kind of hive mind that they don't, and that scares them. By the way, naked molerats are also part of a superorganism but they are not bugs.
And as for the other kind of bug, their existence feeds my paranoia. I don't like the fact that I may be bugged. Of course I have already given away all my information in exchange for free services anyway. But bugging is not cool.
MB: With ants you're using a series of devices to look back at Singapore. Where did you originally write Ants? (Was being wherever you were important?)
JH: I wrote Ants in two and a half intense bouts of writing while I was back in Singapore for a few days this month. It was very important that I was in Singapore when I wrote it because being physically there prompted me to write it: it stemmed from my observation that wherever you go in Singapore there are ants. This is a real thing. But it is not a thing that you would observe if you were a Singaporean living in Singapore all along, because to you that would just be normal. But as an overseas Singaporean returning to my country I saw it as odd and different. That was the point of departure for me.
And of course the whole piece is really about Singapore, although I'm sure anyone in a modern metropolis would also find it resonating. It is a celebration and condemnation of Singapore in the same breath. Being on home soil gave me this vibration, this energy, this sense of connecting with the place's spirit, which is a restless, heaving thing, constantly in the middle of remaking and also constantly, physically, overturning and rotting. Because in the tropics everything is always in imminent danger of collapse from termites and rot, and your neighbours are always renovating. The drilling never stops.
MB: Would you prefer to be at/inside of a given location while writing about it, or is the distance productive?'
JH: You know, the last time I was living in Singapore, and was thinking of leaving again, a friend who is also a writer said, "Just do it. Sometimes you have to leave Singapore to write about it", and I think he was right. Sometimes when you are in the middle of a place it doesn't seem strange enough to you to spark an occasion to write about it. It's just what's normal. It's just like being a writer in China makes people think you're writing about China, but really I don't think I'm writing that much about China. Of course the details of living in China seep into my writing, for example slipping in state-owned enterprises into scifi stories about morality-regulating cute animal companions, but it's harder for me to get the big picture about the country when I'm actually in it.
I think writers, like historians, need a certain distance before they can write about something. But on the other hand sometimes the immediacy of the place impresses itself upon you when you are in it, so you channel the spirit of the place, which is what happened with the writing of Ants. Maybe that's the ideal - to have been away from the place for a while, and then suddenly intrude upon it, so it both impresses you with its newness and its familiarity. This is especially so for Singapore for me though, because I have an ongoing lovelorn quarrel with the place.
MB: At first I thought this ant business was just about decay and the omnipresence of death, but then you get the idea that the ants are a constant, which makes me think there's something that's outside the reach of decay? (Then, later, the ants appear to be standing in for humans. Any comment on mixing metaphors?)
JH: It is a cliche, but the constant is change. One thing giving way to another. And the inescapability of the ants. The ants are change. And death is the ultimate change. What endures is change.
The ants were always a metaphor, it's just that the vision of the piece telescopes from the individual's point of view to the satellite's point of view, and then what you see the humans as ant-like, and then finally the island itself is an ant. It is not so much a mixed metaphor as an extended one, like a conceit.
MB: I saw you post the entirety of this text on Facebook. What's that about? (Are you excited about the potential for direct sharing or is the context in which a work appears just generally not that important? Or is Facebook the perfect context for this work?)
Actually, because I haven't really been using Facebook for the years I've been in China, posting writing on Facebook is kind of a losing proposition for me because the Facebook algorithm has pushed my posts far, far down the pipeline on any of my friends' feeds. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I get a measly handful of likes. It's really sad. I don't think it's much of a statement for me to post my writing on Facebook because the moment I've done it, I'm immediately incredibly insecure that nobody is going to like it, and then I'm stuck in a horrible feedback loop where I keep checking Facebook to see if anyone's liked it, and if they haven't, I'm like oh no! I'm a failure. So yeah. It’s not like I have a comprehensive social media strategy or anything.
But there ARE pieces that should be perfect Facebook poems, like my poem "Things Facebook thinks I'm interested in", but I haven't, ironically, posted that on Facebook. I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. On the one hand, Facebook listed “Communist Party of China” and “People’s Action Party” as my Lifestyle and culture interests, so obviously they have some kind of oracular insight into my inner soul, on the other, how can I love a site that constantly curates my acquaintances’ professional, artistic and romantic accomplishments to serve up as fodder for my self-loathing on a minute-to-minute basis?
If Facebook parses my poetry accurately for marketing info, and somehow knows that what I need most in my life is Masterclasses by Aaron Sorkin, does it mean it knows me better than my best friend? Does it mean that Facebook IS my best friend? And should that mean I should post more often? Sometimes life on the other side of the Great Firewall is good. However, when I do manage to draw some comments my friends always end up on some groan-worthy pun contest, so there are upsides to posting writing on Facebook.
[e.g. on Ants:
EB: What drugs were you on?
EB: Then you'd love that attraction that used to be on Sentosa. What was it called? Antasy Island?
EB: I heard they closed because of some antics.
JH: I guess now it's an antique.]
Also “Ants” got me some killer recommendations for insecticide, because of course some of my pragmatic Singaporean friends wanted to help me out with my ant problem.
I do have a Wechat channel (plug!) but that's another story.
MB: Is there any relationship between your work as a painter and your work as a writer?
JH: Well I did write poems at the places where I painted some of the paintings I’ve made, and it’s interesting to juxtapose the two different types of art produced from the same inspiration. And then I’ve tried illustrating my own writing, for example I did a sketch of the Turtle Man from my flash fiction The Turtle. But I would say it is an evolving relationship. One thing that they have in common is that, as you pointed out before, both forms of my art are quite narrative. That’s why I think of myself sometimes more as an illustrator than as an artist. But I’ve illustrated more of other people’s writing than my own. (See http://www.judithhuang.com/art.html)
MB: You've done some translation. Does the act of translation (or the preparation that goes into it) inform your writing?
JH: I translated four books of poetry by Singaporean Cultural Medallion winner Yeng Pway Ngon, which were published by The Literary Centre in Singapore, and more recently I’ve been working on translations of 徐钺 and Xiao Shui.
Translation opens whole new vistas of literature to me as a writer. It is hard work, and a very collaborative process, which makes it quite different from writing your own stuff, but it makes you very aware of word choice and grammar, as well as all the cultural connotations of certain words that may not be translatable. One of my friends is in the middle of translating “Ants”, and because she’s mainland Chinese and not Singaporean some of the Singaporean terms and contexts needed to be explained to her.
When I had poems translated from English to Chinese there was a similar thing – how do you translate something like “Chinatown”, for example? Chinatowns are known by different kinds of names in Chinese depending on exactly which one you mean – Boston’s Chinatown, Singapore’s Chinatown (Niu Che Shui), New York’s Chinatown. When Felix Wong translated my poem “Chinatown Bus” (which refers to the service between Boston and New York) he chose to translate it as “風X巴士” which was wittier than my original title because one of the Boston Chinatown buses was the Fungwah bus, but then having the Phoenix in there also referred to the chicken feet in the poem, and the X conveys the idea of crossing from one city to another. So translation opens up a lot of space for wit.
MB: I know this is Ants we're talking about but can you tell me about how Caliban came about? When and how did you decide to write it, how long did it take, etc.?
JH: Caliban came about in one blurt as well, like Ants, with perhaps one or two stanzas composed later in the same vein. Probably one and a half blurts. So it maybe took about 30 minutes, and then lots of tinkering afterwards. I wrote it on a plane, between Boston and London, and suddenly this Shakespearean iambic pentameter epic as you say, fanfiction just came tumbling out. I had been reading a lot of Shakespeare that semester, and my favourite play is the Tempest, with its bitter warped magical beneficent hallucination of colonialism, and I had also been trying to write a series of poems about sidelined characters in canonical works, just imagining their interiority, but things really coalesced with this one – all that postcolonial theory, just the experience of being about to land on the metropole as someone from a former British colony, thinking what if Caliban were uber literate and the empire writes back. I wanted to address the continued legacy of white-worship and adulation you still see in former colonies, which you see here in China, which was not a colony (except Hong Kong and parts of Shanghai), how we are still very much not postcolonial in our minds.
As an interesting addendum, Caliban was heavily plagiarized by another poet to describe the experience of Vietnamese boat people, which I think is kind of a strange alternate universe life the poem took on.
And as an additional addendum, I read Caliban out loud to my Nigerian-American friend while I was in Nigeria and felt thoroughly ashamed of appropriating the language of darkness and blackness while I was “white” there. He didn’t feel that way but I did while reading it out. Which just goes to show how the text shifts according to context.
MB: You frequently read your work aloud in Beijing. Does that inform your process, influence your work at all? (How?)
JH: Yes. I think Beijing, and particularly Spittoon, which Matt does such a great job of organizing, is kind of a safe space for me. I feel that the atmosphere is friendly and experimental enough for me to try out things, even raw things, things which are not completely formed. I first started out reading old work that I was very confident about, but now I’ve been testing out new things, and having a space to read it aloud gives me insight into the work and how it can be improved. I also get feedback from some of the writers who have become my friends, and I think we have a bit of a community going which is thrilling.
MB: What are you working on now?
JH: I am working on, or probably more accurately, sitting on a poetry manuscript. I am also working on a science fiction short story, flash fiction, creative non-fiction and trying to sell postcards of my paintings – which I will be selling at Loreli’s Art Market, btw, as well as produce more paintings. I’m on a roll!