Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

A Writer and a City, Part 1

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.

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The Delicate Balance of a Crescent Moon

Spring is turning towards summer now. It began so delicately with a soft green — the hue of a tender rumor murmured only in off moments — but then the green rumor became bold, became the truth, and over the course of seemingly a night the grass is long, the trees are full, and the peonies are about to bloom. Every night I smell smoke and charcoal, my neighbors busy with their grills. They mow their lawns, weed their flower beds, dump their mulch, and then go to their backyards to cook up dinner.

I do none of these things. The rhythms of suburbia are pleasing to watch with their precise, ticking movements but they are less pleasing to indulge in. There’s a deep pressure to conform, and so I recede to the sanctuary of my old deck, watching the birds and bumblebees pass through my yard.

I’ve been toying with the idea of sinking a spade into the ground, ridding one area of hideous orange daylilies and planting a few tiny bits of bleeding heart and bluebell, gifts from a friend. It’s been years since I’ve played in the dirt, dug around, sorted things out, grimaced at the grubs and bugs that emerge from the dirt. Intolerable joint pain cut off many activities, and gardening was the first to go. But this year, after so many years of pursuing healing and wellness, I am feeling better and I think it might be time to poke and prod at the earth again. To see what I can do about weeds and debris.

But then again, this might not happen. The doctor told me yesterday that my body was “currently struggling with inflammation due to increased activity,” that I need to take it slower, that I needed to continue working on a low-inflammation diet.

Dreams of gardening haze in and out. It might happen this weekend, but it might not until later. Depression surges forward and I struggle with it. Life is hard with fibromyalgia and chronic pain, and there are always so many small, difficult choices to make. I chose to increase my exercises by a small amount last week; my body responded with intense shoulder pain and a flare up of inflammation throughout my system — primarily in my hands, shoulders, back, feet. It is just this way and I walk slowly through it, sometimes crying but mostly not, because life has been like this for years now and slowly, as time passes, the tears dry up.

Pain makes us discard some goals and pick others up.

There is a waning crescent moon in the sky, a thin sliver that sets in midafternoon and rises in early morning. It will soon be a new moon and then we will pass into summer.

The Melancholy of Tender Green Leaves

I’ve always thought that autumn was the most melancholy season with the its dying flowers and falling leaves, weeks of sweeping rain, and the ever plummeting temperatures but over the last few years of my life, Spring has stepped forward as a possible contender.

There is something brutal in the racing green, the tender spring flowers leaping forth before they’re smothered by the emerging foliage of tree and brush overhead. Birds and animals are racing too, hurrying to carve out territories, find a mate, build a home. Rainstorms and occasional snowstorm cause the river to overflow its banks and  the parks flood, ducks go floating by in puddles turned to ponds. Spring is the rush season.

Over the last few years as I’ve struggled with chronic joint issues, Spring has been a merciless time, it’s hurling push more like a joke than anything else. In the beginning years of unrelenting joint pain, I shut myself away, ignoring the season and reading instead. But even under the weight of immense pain, being locked away became boring and unbearable and so I sat outside last Spring, unable to walk but content to look and listen. I settled into my chair every early morning and watched the treetops, noting the first emergence of light green, the tiny buds unfurling, and finally the spread of a gorgeous green canopy, all the more momentous because I had watched it emerge every day over the course of weeks. I listened to the birds too noting who was new, local, or just passing through. At last came the buzzy bumblebees, ponderous and loud, like dizzy helicopters on a mission to gather pollen.

This Spring I graduated from sitting in my backyard to walking through my neighborhood, joint pain eased over time due to correct diagnoses, correct treatments, and my own on-going work with drawing boundaries and practicing self-care. I take walks in deep gratitude, admiring the greening grass, the children and dogs passing by, and my neighbors’ tulips, daffodils, and blooming magnolias.

But as Spring works hard to cover-up winter’s pulverizing blow, I find that I cannot forget the past. Time is passing and each day shoves us forward whether we’re ready for it or not. Some go forth happily but for many, going forth is complicated, complex, and more painful than easy. And so there is a melancholy in the soft green leaves backed by the dark bark of trees, in the bright tulips springing forth out of the dank heavy mud, and in the cold breeze that causes magnolia petals to fall just after blooming. Already everything is passing, clearly illuminating the transient nature of life which sometimes is sweet and other times too painful to behold. Holding both of these emotions at once is the place where poetry emerges and who better to linger in this in-between state but Li Qingzhao, the great immortal poet from China’s Song Dynasty. Below are a few of her ci poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. 

The Day of Cold Food

Clear and radiant is the splendor

Of Spring on the Day of Cold Food.

The dying smoke of aloeswood incense

Floats above the jade burner.

My dream is broken and hidden

like my flower hair ornaments

Buried in a pile of cushions.  

The swallows have not come back

From the Eastern Sea, but already

People are gathering wild flowers and herbs

In the meadows. The plum blossoms by

The river are gone. Catkins

Appear on the willow branches.

And then—in the orange twilight—

Fall widely spaced drops of rain.

 

浣溪沙·淡蕩春光寒食天
朝代:宋代

作者:李清照

淡蕩春光寒食天。玉爐瀋水嫋殘煙。夢迴山枕隱花鈿。
海燕未來人鬥草,江梅已過柳生綿。黃昏疏雨溼鞦韆。

 

 

I Gave a Party to My Relatives on the Day of Purification

 

Tranquil and serene, the night

Seems to last forever.

Yet we are seldom happy.

We all dream of Ch’ang An

And long to take the road back to the capital,

And see this year again the beauty of Spring, come with

Moonlight and shadow on the new flowers.

Although the food is simple, as are the cups,

The wine is good, the plums sour.

That is enough to satisfy us.

We drink and deck our hair with flowers

But do not laugh,

For we and the Spring grow old.

 

蝶戀花
  
   上巳召親族
  
  永夜懨懨歡意少,
  空夢長安,
  認取長安道。
  為報今年春色好,
  花光月影宜相照。
  
  隨意杯盤雖草草,
  酒美梅酸,
  恰稱人怀抱。
  醉里插花花莫笑,
  可怜人似春將老。

 

Fading Plum Blossoms

 

Spring is hidden in my studio,

Daylight locked out of my window,

My painting room is profoundly secluded.

The seal character incense is burned out.

The shadows of the sunset

Descend across the curtain hooks.

Now that the wild plum I planted myself

Is blooming so well this year

I do not need to climb the waterfall

Seeking wild plum blossoms.

No one comes to visit me.

I am lonely as ever was Ho Sun in Yang Chou.

I know that although my plum blossoms

Are lovelier than all others

The rain will soon scatter them away.

The sound of the horizontal flute fills the whole house

With a melody of dense sorrow.

I will not feel badly when their perfume dissolves

And their jade snow petals fall.

When they have all been swept away

The memory of my love for them will remain.

It is difficult to describe the beauty of their shadows

Cast by the pale moonlight.

满庭芳
  
  小阁藏春,
  闲窗销昼,
  画堂无限深幽。
  篆香烧尽,
  日影下帘钩。
  手种江梅更好,
  又何必、临水登楼?
  无人到,
  寂寥恰似、何逊在杨州.
  
  从来,
  如韵胜,
  难堪雨藉,
  不耐风揉。
  更谁家横笛,
  吹动浓愁?
  莫恨香消玉减,
  须信道、扫迹难留。
  难言处,
  良窗淡月,
  疏影尚风流。