There are many things to say about 2018. It was weird and piecemeal and full of ragtag moments like most years are; nothing makes much sense while we’re living it. But as I’ve spent some time looking back, shining lights begin to emerge. 2018 had its fair share of dark moments but it’s the illuminating ones that shed a soft, pleasant glow and give me some hope for next year. Two stars that stand out boldly in my 2018 are a writer and a place– Eileen Chang and New Orleans. Both were entirely new to me until I read and visited them this year and both gave back to me pieces of myself, pieces that wandered lonely and at odds until I met one in text and the other one in person.
I’ll start with 張愛玲 — Eileen Chang. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang rose to prominence in in China during the 1940’s. She wrote primarily about life in Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in her essays, short stories, novels, and screenplays. She was an extremely popular writer and it’s not hard to see why– her prose carries the reader away. It is beautiful within itself; it creates romance and sensuality and somehow this sharpens the cruelty of her characters.
I began reading her writing this summer, starting with Love in a Fallen City (trans. Karen Kingsbury), a book of her collected short stories. The first story is entitled “Aloeswood Incense” and in it, we meet Ge Weilong, a girl who wishes to stay in Hong Kong and keep up on her studies. Her family is moving to Shanghai and so she appeals to her estranged aunt Madame Liang for help. Liang considers.
One of Madame Liang’s delicate hands held the banana-leaf fan by the stem. As she twirled it around, thin rays of light shone through the slits in the leaf, spinning across her face.
“Miss,’ she said, ‘it seems you’ve thought of everything except my own position in this matter. Even if I wanted to help you, I couldn’t. If your father finds out, he’ll say I’ve seduced a girl from a good family and stolen her away. What am I to your family? A willful degenerate who ruined the family honor—refused the man chosen by my brothers, went to Liang as his concubine instead, lost face for a family that already on the way down. Bah! These declining old families, they’re like out-house bricks, pure petrified stink. You were born too late—you missed all the fuss, and didn’t get to hear what your father said to me then!’‘
“Father’s got that stuffy old bookish way of thinking, and he won’t change for anyone. He doesn’t know how to moderate his speech—no wonder Aunt is angry. But it’s been so many years, and you’re a generous, fair-minded person—would you bear this grudge against the younger generation?”
“Yes, I would! I like to chew on this rotten little memory! I won’t forget what he said to me then!’ She waved the fan, and the yellow rays of sunlight filtered through it onto her face, like tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.
Her fiction is full of rich, revealing dialogue and wonderful touches of details like the above “tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.” Such writing translates well to screen: she wrote ten scripts and eight were made into movies.
With her splendid, icy prose that cuts like a hot, tempered blade (and since this is a translation, I wonder what reading her in the original Chinese must be like), Chang is an author that I’ve been searching for a very long time. There are times in her writing that her magnificent intelligence vaults above and beyond itself and enters into that other strange, wonderful world that is genius. The excerpt below is from her short story “Jasmine Tea” which centers on a lonely and abused young man, Nie Chuanqing.
He left his hands where they were, pinched by the lid of the trunk. His head drooped, as if he’d broken his neck. His gown of lined blue silk had a stiff standing collar, and the strong, hot sun shone down inside it, warming the back of his neck. He had a strange feeling, though, that the sky would soon be dark…that already it was dark. As he waited all alone by the window, his heart darkened along with the sky. An unspeakable, dusky anguish… Just as in a dream, that person waiting by the window was at first himself, and then in an instant he could see, very clearly, that it was his mother. Her long bangs swept down in front of her bowed head, and the pointed lower half of her face was a vague white shadow. Her eyes and eyebrows, so clouded and dim, were like black shadows in moonlight. But he knew for a certainty that it was his dead mother, Feng Biluo.
He hadn’t had a mother since he was four years old, but he recognized her from her photograph. There was only one photo that showed her before her marriage, and in it she wore an old-style satin jacket embroidered with the faint shapes of tiny bats. The figure in the window was growing clearer now, and he could see the bats on the autumn-colored silk of her jacket. She was waiting for someone, waiting for news. She knew that the news wouldn’t come. In her heart the sky was slowly darkening—Chuanqing flinched in pain. He couldn’t tell whether it was really his mother, or himself.
But the nameless anguish pressing down on him? He knew now that was love, a hopeless love some twenty years in the past. A knife will rust after twenty years, but it’s still a knife. The knife in his mother’s heart now twisted in his.
With an enormous effort, Chuanqing lifted his head. The entire illusion rapidly melted away. He had felt, for a moment, like an old-time portrait photographer, his head thrust into a tunnel of black cloth: there in the lens he’d caught a glimpse of his mother. He pulled his hands out from under the lid of the trunk; pressing them to his lips, he sucked fearfully at the red marks.
Chuanqing knew very little about his mother, but he did know that she had never loved his father. And so his father hated her. After she had died, he turned his fury against her child; otherwise, even with the stepmother egging him on, Chuanqing’s father wouldn’t have become so vicious towards him.
After finishing Love in a Fallen City, I went to Written on Water, her book of essays. There’s a warmth in her essays, a friendly voice compared to those in her short stories and I was delighted to read her takes on apartment living in the city, her views on fashion, culture, film, and art. She takes essay writing to a new level and I’m still working to understand how she used the essay form to her own ends and gave it such satisfying endings. Below is an excerpt from “Note on Apartment Life.”
I like to listen to city sounds. People more poetic than I listen from their pillows to the sound of rustling pines or the roar of ocean waves, while I can’t fall asleep until I hear the sound of streetcars. On the hills in Hong Kong, it was only in the winter when the north wind blew all night long through the evergreens that I was reminded of the charming cadence of a streetcar. People who have lived their entire lives amid the bustle of the city do not realize what exactly they cannot do without until they have left. The thoughts of city people unfold across a striped curtain. The pale white stripes are streetcars in motion, moving neatly in parallel, their streams of sound flowing continuously into subconscious strata.
There is something exceedingly special about Eileen Chang. To read her stories is to be drawn into a special place that is both beautiful, terrifying, and completely intoxicating. I cannot recommend her highly enough.
Cover Image: a Polaroid taken of a screenshot with downloaded image of Eileen Chang’s photograph– a sort of copy of a copy that mirrors the reading of a translated work.