Philip Hand
Mum and me
DOOR Yan Ge
17-11-2012

I won’t write any more of my grandma’s story today, because today is the first day of Crossing Border. I was awake very early, or perhaps I didn’t sleep. That’s just how it is: insomnia, dipsomania, vendetta – the basic elements of the writing profession.

Starting today, I’m going to be a good person. When I was in the lift going down for breakfast, I ran into another girl who was up early. It only just gone half past six, and she was dragging her suitcase down to leave, going off to some other place. She was very pale, as if she hadn’t slept well. “Your scarf is very pretty,” I said to her. She jumped at the sound of my voice and looked at me in surprise, as if I were some dark spirit without any taste in clothes. I took no notice and smiled back at her.

Starting today, even if the sky falls on my head, I’m going to get out for a walk. So I went. There was no-one I knew in the lobby, so I asked the way to the Royal Theatre, and set out in that direction on my own. It was cold outside. An Asian guy stood at the side of the road smoking a cigarette. A group of children ran blithely across the square, like newly released angels. I went over a bridge, turned right, then headed straight on. I’d walked this route seven or eight times over the last three days here, and it had finally submitted to me. Following this set path today felt like a return to a familiar hometown.

Starting today, I’m going to be a more cautious person, like they used to say in the olden days: “inspect oneself three times a day.” I will consider my words and actions at all times. When I got back to the hotel, I got an email from the translator, Philip. It was only ten o’clock, and he’d already completed his translation of today’s column. “Are you actually a robot? Who sent you to invade the Earth?” I wanted to write to him, but after some consideration, I gave up this idea.

Starting today, I’m going to stop being solitary. I’m going to spend more time with other people. In the afternoon I finally found Wiam and Marek in the lobby. Let’s go out for a walk,” Wiam said. “OK,” I replied at once, hoping that she might pop me straight into her pocket and whisk me away. We went for an extraordinary meal at which I broke my ban on rice. I haven’t eaten any for eight years. We chatted for a while, Cairo, Prague… Like children returning on Halloween with their treats, we each opened our pockets just a crack, letting our companions catch a glimpse of the sweeties we had garnered. Candy is sweet, but it’s not everything.

Today I feel exhausted. But the carnival is here, and we had many things that we wanted to see. The Royal Theatre was thronged with every sort and stripe of person. I’m sure they all have their own stories, but I didn’t have time to ask every one of them. Marek was taking me to meet up with the other writers and translators, then we were shaking hands, doing readings, answering questions, laughing, speaking a Babel of languages our own and not our own. Afterwards, Nicky and I decided to go and see a band called Daughter playing. I didn’t know who they were, but they were telling me that they were all daughters to someone out there. Standing in the darkness, we couldn’t see anyone at all. Then a beam of light suddenly illuminated the stage, shining on the lead singer. She sang a slow song in a silky voice: mother, she sang, mother.

It sent my mind reeling, as if a lover had taken a knife and plunged it into my heart. Under the cover of darkness, I found myself crying. Nicky noticed and patted my shoulder. I found some tissues and quickly wiped my eyes.

“You’re such a sensitive child,” my mum once said to me. Eight years ago today, when of course I had no idea that I would come to the Crossing Border festival in The Hague, I spent the whole day with my mother in her hospital room. We didn’t talk much, but she held my hand. She was very thin by then, just a pair of large dark eyes still shining, looking at me like a deer, waiting.

At some point, I don’t know when exactly, she pinched my hand, and we both knew it was time. She took one last look at me and closed her eyes. I never saw her again.

All translations from Philip Hand
Grandma and Me 2
29-11-12

Dear Grandma,

I’ve decided to write you a letter to tell you all about it. No, you don’t need to get your reading glasses out, or to search for your torch for better light. I know you find reading difficult these days, so I won’t put you to that trouble. You just sit there, just sit in that green armchair you like, and I’ll sit facing you and read the letter to you.

Dear Grandma, what are you doing right now? I don’t know. The plane took off from Schiphol Aiport about three hours ago. In the cabin, the passengers have drifted into sleep. We are flying from west to east, chasing the rising sun, like Kuafu or Icarus. I’ve pulled the shade on the plane window down tight, because the bright sunlight was hurting my eyes. I don’t know what the time is, neither the time in Amsterdam nor the time in China. This point of time here, where I am, is so tiny and distant that it hardly exists. Grandma, up here in the sky I miss you, and so I decided to write you a letter.

I want to tell you all about it, but it seems difficult to fit everything into this letter. I suppose I should start with – do you remember the crossroads where we live? The one with roads leading off north, south, east and west, where you once said to me, “If you sit at this crossroads for two hours, you’ll see all the people in the town go by,” – well, I was in the Netherlands for just five days, but I seem to have seen all the people and all the variety of the world: a figure chanting scripture emerging gradually from the mist, her wisdom as warm as the south wind; a lithe and gentle cat who takes our writings to their destinations, even into the most closed of hearts; the wild goose slicing through the autumn skies, who seeks to write our words on the pristine moon; the traveller who rests on a rock under the hot sun, the dust that settles on his backpack becoming a part of his baggage; the sailor who moors his beloved skiff among old seaside huts, whistling a melodious lovesong; and the spring oriole, just poking out her head to see the jade-green willows, still unaware that she has the world’s most beautiful voice; the timid piper with a rose in his buttonhole, leading children into the forest to learn the truths of our ancestors; and don’t forget the slender deer and the graceful laurel, who only have to pause by the side of the road to hypnotise you; and the doctor in her bright coat, holding victim hands, spilling words that become soothing medicine; of course, everyone remembers the magician and his assistant, dressed identically, speaking identically, but performing tricks that no-one has ever seen before: at the end of the show, all the audience can do is gasp. They have forgotten which of the two is which.

I’m not sure, Grandma, if you can understand what I mean? You say you understand? You’ll definitely nod. OK, so I continue: and there’s me. When we said goodbye, I gave everyone a hug. You understand, not just a shake of the hand, like in China. Everyone there hugs to say goodbye. But the secret that I will tell only you is: when I was hugging and saying goodbye to them, I dropped a part of myself, in the creases of their clothes, in their handbags, or in the strands of their hair.

Emptily, I sit in the aeroplane, gazing at my own palms, wanting the right words to describe this feeling to you. Right, just as you always say, “Fine, fine, you are my eyes. I’m old now, and I can’t get around, but you can go and look at many things for me.”  – That’s how it is, I deliberately hid a part of myself on those distant people, as we said goodbye. Because I want them to take me to see more worlds that are more distant, more beautiful, more tragic, more dark, even, ultimately, like the calm that comes before death.

Dear Grandma, I’ve written it all in this letter. I think that you will understand what I mean better than anyone – now I’m going to sleep for a while, and wait for the plane to land, then return home, then sit facing you and read out this letter. Thus, you will be able to see in the tears that I shed the secrets that I did not write down.

 

Your granddaughter, Yuexing

The Writer and Me
18-11-12

I have a hangover, so what you read here will not necessarily be in the right order.

 

Shortly before I finished my degree, I went to my father’s house for dinner. He asked me, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” “What am I going to do?” I asked in surprise. “Carry on writing, of course.”

He made no reply for a moment, then said, “You can’t do that. Writing isn’t real work. Either you should find a proper job, or you should stay on at university. Being a writer is just a hobby, you can’t make a living out of it.”

On the way to the pub, I told Ahmed about this. “I understand,” he told me, “I come from a family of doctors.”

We went and got some drinks.

 

 

Lacan’s account of the “mirror stage of development” is wonderfully poetic. A baby slowly, gradually, curiously pieces together the parts of her body by looking at herself in the mirror, and thus becomes a whole, becomes a person, becomes a self.

In other words, more abstractly, we obtain selfhood from the gaze of others. In other words, what we call the self does not have any fundamental solidity; it is simply a synthesis of information obtained from other sources.

The reason I’m writing about this is that I’m doing this column sitting in front of a big, sparkling mirror. To be honest, it’s extremely distracting.

 

 

The ideas below often make me shudder:

In my entire extended family, everyone who has been to university got their degree in Chinese. At some point in time, everyone decided that in addition to all the Chinese teachers, editors and reporters in our family, we needed a writer as well. So my grandma pondered on the question over many evenings, and selected for me a name which already had all the qualities of a good pen name. So my grandpa forced me to drag a copy of The Selected Classical Works around with me after school. It was heavier than a brick, but he told me that “no-one who hasn’t read The Selected Classical Works has the right to call themselves an author.” So after dinner every day, my mother patiently read with me. Song dynasty lyrics, essays by Su Dongpo… when we came to the emotional climaxes, she would even weep a little.

To some extent, I am not me, because I have never in my life stopped and thought about whether I really want to be a writer or not.

Even more scary is the fact that I really believe that I made the decision to be a writer myself.

 

 

I’ve calculated very carefully: much of the time, more than 40% of the time in fact, the reason I’m doing something turns out to be because other people want to look at a writer. On good days, this means that people want to see the writer called “Yan Ge”, so I have to go to a book signing event, or a reading, or an interview. On bad days, people just want to goggle at any writer. I’m terrible at seeing through people’s little stratagems, and I only realise when I get to the door of the restaurant’s private dining room that once again it’s a fucking theme party, the theme being “look at the lit chick”.

At the after-party, I told Philip about this. The music was loud, so I yelled into his ear, “I’m not a hostess club girl!”

Philip blinked mysteriously, and said to me: “I know, that’s just the way China is. Sometimes when these people can’t find a girl writer, they go and haul in a foreigner to look at.”

We’ve both been there, it seems. We clinked glasses and drank.

 

 

Public zoos are very important things, sociologically speaking. Animals have vanished from the modern human world, and been replaced by zoos. A zoo is a place where people bring together and categorise creatures for viewing and enjoyment. When you divide up animals by their habitats and spectate at them, what you see is a surrendered, totally marginalised other. And from the perspective of the animals: their air, their vistas, their space, their food – everything, all the movements that their limited freedom allows them – through these, they become accustomed to their zoo. They even gradually start to feel the need to be watched, the need to be imagined, the need to be symbolised, the need to be thrown food by a screaming kid.

While I’m on the subject, I must just say that my favourite animals are elephants.

Mum and me
17-11-12

I won’t write any more of my grandma’s story today, because today is the first day of Crossing Border. I was awake very early, or perhaps I didn’t sleep. That’s just how it is: insomnia, dipsomania, vendetta – the basic elements of the writing profession.

Starting today, I’m going to be a good person. When I was in the lift going down for breakfast, I ran into another girl who was up early. It only just gone half past six, and she was dragging her suitcase down to leave, going off to some other place. She was very pale, as if she hadn’t slept well. “Your scarf is very pretty,” I said to her. She jumped at the sound of my voice and looked at me in surprise, as if I were some dark spirit without any taste in clothes. I took no notice and smiled back at her.

Starting today, even if the sky falls on my head, I’m going to get out for a walk. So I went. There was no-one I knew in the lobby, so I asked the way to the Royal Theatre, and set out in that direction on my own. It was cold outside. An Asian guy stood at the side of the road smoking a cigarette. A group of children ran blithely across the square, like newly released angels. I went over a bridge, turned right, then headed straight on. I’d walked this route seven or eight times over the last three days here, and it had finally submitted to me. Following this set path today felt like a return to a familiar hometown.

Starting today, I’m going to be a more cautious person, like they used to say in the olden days: “inspect oneself three times a day.” I will consider my words and actions at all times. When I got back to the hotel, I got an email from the translator, Philip. It was only ten o’clock, and he’d already completed his translation of today’s column. “Are you actually a robot? Who sent you to invade the Earth?” I wanted to write to him, but after some consideration, I gave up this idea.

Starting today, I’m going to stop being solitary. I’m going to spend more time with other people. In the afternoon I finally found Wiam and Marek in the lobby. Let’s go out for a walk,” Wiam said. “OK,” I replied at once, hoping that she might pop me straight into her pocket and whisk me away. We went for an extraordinary meal at which I broke my ban on rice. I haven’t eaten any for eight years. We chatted for a while, Cairo, Prague… Like children returning on Halloween with their treats, we each opened our pockets just a crack, letting our companions catch a glimpse of the sweeties we had garnered. Candy is sweet, but it’s not everything.

Today I feel exhausted. But the carnival is here, and we had many things that we wanted to see. The Royal Theatre was thronged with every sort and stripe of person. I’m sure they all have their own stories, but I didn’t have time to ask every one of them. Marek was taking me to meet up with the other writers and translators, then we were shaking hands, doing readings, answering questions, laughing, speaking a Babel of languages our own and not our own. Afterwards, Nicky and I decided to go and see a band called Daughter playing. I didn’t know who they were, but they were telling me that they were all daughters to someone out there. Standing in the darkness, we couldn’t see anyone at all. Then a beam of light suddenly illuminated the stage, shining on the lead singer. She sang a slow song in a silky voice: mother, she sang, mother.

It sent my mind reeling, as if a lover had taken a knife and plunged it into my heart. Under the cover of darkness, I found myself crying. Nicky noticed and patted my shoulder. I found some tissues and quickly wiped my eyes.

“You’re such a sensitive child,” my mum once said to me. Eight years ago today, when of course I had no idea that I would come to the Crossing Border festival in The Hague, I spent the whole day with my mother in her hospital room. We didn’t talk much, but she held my hand. She was very thin by then, just a pair of large dark eyes still shining, looking at me like a deer, waiting.

At some point, I don’t know when exactly, she pinched my hand, and we both knew it was time. She took one last look at me and closed her eyes. I never saw her again.

Yan Ge and Me
16-11-12

From the start, my grandma has always hated my using the name Yan Ge. Ten years ago, when I published my first book, she pointed at the cover and asked me, “Why are you calling yourself Yan Ge? What’s wrong with your real name? Isn’t it a perfectly good name for a writer? Why would you want a pen name like this?”

Of course, she would say that. She gave me my name. “Dai Yuexing.” My real name. It comes from the poem Returning to My Farm by the Jin dynasty poet Tao Yuanming: “I weed the fields before dawn, and I carry my hoe home under the moonlight.” Dai Yue Xing means walking under the moonlight.

“Dai Yuexing is a wonderful name! It’s perfect for a writer!” She pointed at the cover of the book and the name “Yan Ge” with disgust.

She didn’t know the trouble that name had caused me. All throughout my childhood, I hated being the wretch singled out as the teacher called out from the register: “Dai Yuexing! Is Dai Yuexing here… … Oh, it’s you. What an interesting name you have. Come and do this sum.” And so on and so forth.

How I wished I was just a Jane Smith or Jo Bloggs, a name that could hide in the middle of the register, that no teacher’s eye would ever light on. So I called myself “Yan Ge”, and introduced myself to people like this: “Yan Ge, Yan as in colour, Ge as in song.” It was all very simple. But Grandma wasn’t buying it. She said, “What is this colour, what’s this song? What on earth does it mean? It doesn’t have any significance at all!” With a frown she threw the book down on the table, and sighed as she looked at the words “Yan Ge”.

But in the end she grew used to it, and as the days passed, she would even occasionally mention it to other people: “Oh, yes, I’m Yan Ge’s grandmother.”

But she never imagined – and I never imagined – that there would come a day when no-one in the world called me Dai Yuexing any more. In English-speaking countries in particular, “DAIYUEXING” has turned into an unpronounceable string of letters. So I’m left with no choice. All I can do is tell people: “Call me Yan Ge, or even simpler, Yan.”

This afternoon, we talked about language, we writers and translators. We talked about syllables and the meaning that syllables represent, and about the gap between them. “Language is just form; it has no substance.” Saussure made this bold and tragic proclamation many years ago.

Of course, my grandma doesn’t know about Saussure. She doesn’t even know anything about my turning into “Yan”. It was too long ago now. I can’t explain to her my unhappiness, vexation and disappointment.  Like a witch in a primitive society, I turned myself into “Yan Ge” or “Yan” over and over, so often that as I played her, I turned into her. Saussure never could have guessed that with just two syllables, I could change my own substance.

Like other children far from home, I only tell my grandma things that would make her happy.  I will tell her that The Hague is a very beautiful city; I will tell her that every person I’ve met here is friendly, warm and brilliant. What I won’t tell her is that when I woke in the early hours in this strange hotel, I saw an email from my father. He says he dreamed he and I were out walking by the seaside, then he couldn’t find me and he awoke with a start. He couldn’t get back to sleep.

Later, I actually did go out for a walk. It was not yet eight o’clock, and there was thick fog in the streets, as if there was no-one else – just Yan Ge and me. I had no choice but to go on living with her.

I walked a long way before turning around.

Grandma and Me
05-11-12

My grandma is 85 years old. Before the revolution, she was an actress in a national theatre company. After the revolution, she came back and taught Chinese, music and art at the only primary school in our town. She has lived alone since my grandfather died, and every evening she goes for a walk around her apartment building. She likes to write poetry and to read. Last weekend I went back to see her, and told her about going to the Netherlands.

“The Netherlands? You mean in Europe?” she asked me.

“That’s right,” I said.

“Are you going on your own?” She looked at me worriedly. “Isn’t anyone going to go with you?”

“Oh, for goodness sake!” I laughed. “Of course I’m going on my own!”

“Yes, I suppose so,” she said, as if she had suddenly realised. “You’re grown up now, you can go to a lot of places on your own.”

These last two or three years, she’s always forgetting how old I am, forgetting that I’m an adult, that I left primary school, secondary school and university long ago.

“What are you going to do there?” she suddenly asked me, as we ate tangerines and enjoyed the afternoon sun.

“There’s a literature festival,” I explained. “I just told you.”

“Literature festival.” She broke off a segment of tangerine and squeezed it between her fingers, thinking about these two words. “What is that?”

“Mm,” I thought for a moment. “It’s when everyone gets together to talk, a bit like when you meet up with your poetry friends at the tea house on Tuesdays.”

“Oh.” She chewed her tangerine. “So will you be reading poems?”

She’d stumped me. “I don’t know,” I said, “maybe. I’ll read my stories.”

“I see,” she nodded. “You make sure you read nice and loud, like when you read poetry.”

I laughed, watching as she narrowed her eyes and broke off another segment of tangerine, and said, “I know.”

We sat together for a while. When the sun sank past the apartment window, and the room became dim, I said: “I should be going.”

“Fine, fine.” She quickly got up to see me off.

“Oh,” she pursed her lips, “I’m so old now, I don’t understand what you all do. When I was young, in Shanghai, I was quite fashionable.”

I hugged her, her snow white head against my chest. I don’t know when it started, but my grandma shrinks with every passing year. She used to have an actress’s height and figure. She played a Tang dynasty government official and woman poet from the Song dynasty.

“After I get back I’ll come and see you and tell you all about it,” I said.