My latest Best Translated Book Award adventure took me to Hong Kong and the surreal world of Dorothy Tse. I can’t recall having read any other work from Hong Kong so culturally this work was going to be a revelation (one way or another) and I can assure you it didn’t disappoint on that front.
Dorothy Tse is only 38 years of age and an Assistant Professor of creative writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. The very interesting website www.snowandshadow.comoffers up a raft of information about our short story collection, including an interview with Dorothy Tse.
What are one or two essential things Western readers should understand about modern life in Hong Kong that will help them to appreciate your writing?
I don’t think that having an experience of living in Hong Kong means that one would understand a writer from Hong Kong. Most of the time, a writer is an outsider in his or her own culture. There are qualities that are more important than nationality or identity that inform how a reader understands literature. I think a person’s moods or dreams may have just as much, if not more, influence on how someone may read my work.
On another section of the website Tse says: ” Using a language that is not taken for granted should be regarded as a good opportunity and not a detriment to writing. It is a language of distance and requires meditation.”
This is a work where the celebration of language, the cultural norms, the expected is all thrown up in the air and the outcome is a surreal, macabre world of a city sitting in between cultures. If you find the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa’s short “Gothic” tales slightly off-beat or bizarre then crank those up to volume eleven, add a little more and you wouldn’t even hold a candle to Dorothy Tse’s musings.
Our book contains thirteen short stories, opening with Tse’s first published story “Woman Fish”, which appeared in ‘The Guardian” in 2013. Basically it is the story of a man’s wife who turns into a fish:
He imagines waking from a nightmare to find his wife has gone out through the unlocked door alone, losing herself in the city’s lawless back streets, ending up auctioned off in an underground seafood restaurant. Or maybe she’ll be spotted by pimps and installed as a diversion in a brothel. He sees his wife flattened out, studded with glinting light bulbs on an enormous poster. But one bulb has blown and the filament sticks in his head, the scene before him gradually fading into darkness.
His wife has stopped eating. He fills a huge fish tank for her and sets it up in the middle of the sitting room. When she puts her head into it, he hears a gurgling sound and a stream of bubbles rises to the surface. But most of the time she sits motionless on a chair in front of the picture of a river that hangs on the wall. In her eyes, a torrent of ambiguous color surges past, gradually narrowing until it vanishes into transparency.
“The Love Between Leaf and Knife” is a story about a couple, Leaf and Knife, who want to prove they are better than the other on Valentine’s Day by ignoring the other’s pleading for attention (love). I won’t explain what they actually do in this tale, needless to say it contains leaves and knives.
Our collection is littered with characters who only have initials for names or names reflecting their character or actions. This is a bizarre world indeed.
The story “The Travelling Family” is narrated by a boy whose father, mother, sister and grandma all go on “holiday” together, but as the story unfolds each of the others finds their own place in life and disappear, leaving the boy alone:
Finally Mom burst into a flood of tears and I saw that she was crying fireworks and waterfalls, an elephant and a lion. I had never seen her weep such glittering tears. When she was slicing onions at home, the tears she shed where nothing special. Yet now the elephant and the lion paced before me, and the lion’s yawning maw gave me quite a fright.
These are stories of people outside of their boundaries, the mundane being held up to a glittering strange opposite of reality. Whilst it would be easy to think this approach may leave the reader scratching their heads, the style and approach actually make the work engrossing…what insane concoction is going to be presented next?…you don’t have to wait long…
The story “Head”, is about Wood and Flower’s only child, a son named Tree, he loses his head. His father Wood, offers his own head as a transplant. Whilst on the surface this seems an insane musing, the story of a father moulding his own son to such an extent that he simply becomes a replica of himself is a parallel interpretation that can be made. For example, Wood teaches Tree to like swings, it is only once the transplant is fully successful, Tree finds a girlfriend in Bean that he begins to lose his father’s looks”.
“Blessed Bodies” opens with:
Y-land had no marriage system but was famous for its prosperous sex industry. Even bartering was allowed: when the male clients could not afford to pay, they could obtain sexual services by trading their body parts. At the moment of sexual arousal, a man would stand in the doorway, peeping into a dim room when a woman reclined on the bed. Once she adopted the desired position, he no longer cared about his arms or legs. But with the ebbing of arousal, the man would open his eyes to see what had once been his limb – first amputated, then frozen, bottled, and removed. Only then would he be astonished at the impulsive decision he had made.
Yes, sounds like something from a David Lynch movie, but the essence of the opening is men being unable to contain their desires. Our tale, of course has tragic consequences.
A number of these works contain, what most Western readers would deem, far too extreme musings, death, decapitation, metamorphosis and more are all presented suddenly as part of a fractured reality.
“Bed” muses on the extreme need to sleep but being unable to find a bed of one’s own.
“The Mute Door” uses another simple inanimate object, this time instead of a bed simply a door, to push the reader into a world where what we take for granted is questioned:
The door is constructed in such a way as to conceal the fact that it does not exist. Precisely because entering and departing leaves no trace, it becomes necessary to suggest it by means of this pantomime. Thus all doors are symbolic, and we can only grope our way blindly. Nothing limits us, nothing protects us. Decisions are impossible.
Among all the doors that I have come across, it is only the invisible doors of mime artists that capture the essence of a door. Whether is streets occupied by the language of colonizers or in a red square in the month of June, mime artists can always silently create a house that is theirs alone. All that is needed is a pair of hands and a posture that implies the actor is walking close to a wall, and an enclosure instantaneously appears and disappears, in accordance with the actor’s abrupt footsteps and sudden spins. No groundwork is necessary for a house like that, no foundation on rock – this house is built from the poetry of the body and the mystery of bones and flesh in motion. The room has no boundaries, nor does it have cracks to let anyone in. It dawns on the audience that a door is no more than a fish slipping constantly out of their grasp. One of the sayings of mime artists is, “A door is not outside of you.”
This story contains “The Displacement Apartments”, where once you leave your own home you can no longer recognise your own front door. Our story contains a pizza delivery guy, his first day on the job, frantically looking for apartment 3.14 in the Displacement Apartments complex as he needs to deliver the monthly special, “The March Lion”, (not the “Loch Ness Monster Special”). Another story where on the surface it may just seem trite or surreal, however it covers the age old theme of displacement, not having a place like home or even a place that feels like home, just roaming around with everybody else, lost. For Hong Kong to be moving from British to Chinese rule, there is an obvious parallel here for the reader to interpret as they see fit.
Our collection is full of references to not belonging, to having an unsure culture, displacement, chasing a sense of meaning or fulfillment. With recurring images or themes throughout, for example we have doctors with gleaming white teeth, there is plenty of fodder here for an in-depth study of the sub-plot in Tse’s work.
Our collection ends with the title story, “Snow and Shadow” where our characters (outside of the title characters, Snow and Shadow) are J, Q and K and the future is told by soothsayers with poker cards (J = Jack, Q = Queen, K = King???). This madcap tale is a blend of just about every fairy tale you could imagine, with dwarfs, mirrors containing beauties, sleep, peeping, long hair, even a Dumbo. But this is no tale for children’s bedtime reading.
Our book opens with a short introduction by translator Nicky Harman where a few of the challenges in translating this work are discussed. I can imagine that it wouldn’t have been an easy task with the strange jumping of reality into a dreamlike (or nightmare like) world the norm, with names not having relevance beyond the actual function of the name (eg. Tree). This work flows smoothly and although extreme in nature does not feel stilted in any way, to me pointing to a smooth translation indeed.
This collection was a revelation to me, of a world where the expected is not accepted, where the unexpected will just about happen in every paragraph you approach. Expect mice to live in people’s hair. Bizarre, surreal, fractured, insane and then some, a welcome addition to my world of reading. Thanks Best Translated Book Award judges for bringing this to my attention.