It is a rewarding year for Chinese author Yan Ge. This summer, her debut English-language short story collection "Elsewhere" was published by prestigious publishing houses in both North America and the U.K., receiving much critical acclaim.
Chinese writer Yan Ge. [Photo provided to China.org.cn]
In the collection of nine stories, she weaves a tapestry of narratives across ancient and modern societies, with settings as diverse as China, Dublin, Stockholm, and London.
It is an extraordinary feat for an author who previously was heavily immersed in the Chinese literary sphere. She spent the last 15 years writing in Chinese – with narrations in a Sichuan dialect most of the time – about a fictional town modeled after her hometown in China.
Yan's shift from stories deeply rooted in Chinese culture to ones set in cities around the world and told in her second language is a demonstration of her narrative versatility. Following the success of "Elsewhere," she is even more driven to delve into English literature, becoming an exciting bilingual author rare in fiction writing.
Writing in English
Before diving into the English literary world, Yan was best known for a series of novels on the fictional town of Pingle, with a highlight being her skillful uses of the Chinese language. But after two years of living in Ireland with her husband, she said she had acquired an "English writer persona," and begun to imagine stories in English. That was around 2017.
"As a writer, I feel like I have to take the real world into my literary world. I have to interpret and adapt that into my literary world before I could start making meanings out of my everyday life."
In practice, though, transitioning to English writing proved to be difficult. At first, Yan felt her Chinese writer persona was much stronger, and a sense of inadequacy in the English world gripped her. Yet when she finished writing "Elsewhere" and returned to her once-familiar Chinese writing, she felt disconnected and yearned to write in English.
Nowadays, she feels "more alive" writing in English. "All my concerns and anxieties, in particular my thoughts as an intellectual, are situated in the English world. My identity as a woman, my identity as an intellectual, and my identity as a writer, are compatible in the English world."
"Elsewhere," Yan Ge's English-language short story collection.
She takes the story "Stockholm" in "Elsewhere" as an example of how she could only write particular subjects in English. The story centers on a writer and new mother attending a literary event in Stockholm, where her experience is punctuated by the need to use the breast pump.
"I can't write about a woman and her body in Chinese unapologetically and without biases. It doesn't mean there is no stigma associated with a woman's body in the English world, but I can't feel it, because English is my second language. The stigma is thus kind of removed."
Writing against English (and Chinese)
Despite feeling a sense of inadequacy in the early days of writing in English, Yan has set out to do something bold: Writing against English.
She explained the idea of "writing against English" as introducing elements like literary, cultural, and historical aspects from her native culture and language into English. "In a way, what you're trying to do is you're trying to disrupt the realm of so called English literature."
"For somebody like me to write in English, it is not a personal choice or a coincidence. It is a post-colonial phenomenon," Yan, who is passionate about critical theories, said. "English as lingua franca is supposed to be a colonial phenomenon and for people like me, although we are inevitably writing in English, we're also compelled to write against English."
"I kind of feel that instead of trying to contribute to or knock on the door of what is the so called classic English literature and to be accepted by that center, what I am doing essentially, inevitably, is to try to establish my own center, and to rise into this diverse world of literatures in English."
That attempt is wondrously realized in "Elsewhere." Far from what might be expected from authors of Chinese origin or immigrant writers in general, the stories in "Elsewhere" are as diverse as can be: a group of poets living in earthquake-hit 2008 China, a Chinese woman who suffers a miscarriage while traveling with her husband in Mawlamyine, and a woman who meets a love interest in Dublin only to find him committing suicide.
Though a majority of the stories in the collection are heavily inspired by traditional Chinese culture and literature, Yan is by no means tracing the same story beats. As with her attempt to "write against English," she is, in a sense, writing against Chinese too. In the story "When Traveling in the Summer," she reimagines Shen Kuo, an ancient Chinese polymath, cleverly attempting to avoid assassination. More subversively, in "Hai," a disciple of Confucius seeks to overthrow his corrupt master and the corrupt institution he represents but meets a tragic end.
"For me, writing about these ancient Chinese stories is like writing a story that takes place in the outer space. I didn't write them to be faithful. I don't know what Confucius time looks like and nobody knows, that just gives me the license to do whatever I want essentially with that space," Yan said.
"When I write these stories, I pretty much try to disrupt people's expectation towards what China should be like and what a Chinese writer should write."
That sense of disruption and experiment is also reflected on Yan's prospects and ambitions.
She is now working on a speculative English novel, something she has never tried before. Though her friends in China have "snobbishly" questioned it as genre fiction – lesser than literary novels – she went on anyway. She even felt it is an ideal space to write for authors from minority backgrounds like her.
"It's like we need to occupy a space in this literary realm. I feel that is the space for people who don't know where we're from, where we're going, and where we belong. And that's where we go to: the third space."
And as her characters move around in different places across the world, she herself does not try to fit in any literary space either.
"When people think about immigrant writers [who write] in English, they think of all the names and all those typical and stereotypical literary spaces these writers created, pretty much in coexistence with white people. We kind of just write stories alongside all the white narratives created by previous and contemporary white writers."
"I kind of feel like I do not want to submit myself entirely to this, and I do not want to settle as an outsider in the predominantly white space. I just want to move around. And I think that sense of fluidity is my main identity as an English writer."