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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I Have Wine and Moon and Flowers: Reading Su Tung-P’o During a Pandemic

As we watch spring growth overtake last year’s dead bracken and grasses, there is both consolation and brutality. This year’s greenery melds with disease: the emergence of flowers entangles with the blossoming of a pandemic.

While the novel coronavirus rages through communities, our lives have shrunk down to fit the small rooms and little neighborhoods that we must now be still in. What do we do in this diminished space? What do we see?

 

6th Moon, 27th Sun: Sipping Wine at Lake-View Tower

 

1

 

Black clouds, soaring ink, nearly blot out these mountains.

White raindrops, skipping pearls, skitter wildly into the boat,

 

Then wind comes across furling earth, scatters them away,

And below Lake-View Tower, lakewater suddenly turns to sky.

 

2

 

Setting animals loose—fish and turtles—I’m an exile out here,

but no one owns waterlilies everywhere blooming, blooming.

 

This lake pillow mountains, starts them glancing up and down,

And my breezy boat wander free, drifts with an aimless moon.

 

Su Tung-P’o (trans. David Hinton)

 

As the great poet Su Tung-P’o knew so well, we see our own natures in everything. The outside world becomes a reflection of our own states; though if we can still ourselves enough as we gaze out, a depth opens and time becomes immaterial.

A master of reflection and stillness, Su Tung-P’o 苏童 lived nearly one thousand years ago and is considered one of great poets of the Song Dynasty. He led a brilliant and varied career as poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist. Due to his outspoken and opposing views on the government, he was jailed and sent into exile on three separate occasions.

After his experience in jail and subsequent exile, his poetry evolved and deepen and his surviving work reflect his delicate, painful relationship with loneliness and desolation.

 

Moon, Flowers, Man

 

I raise my cup and invite

The moon to come down from the

Sky.  I hope she will accept

Me. I raise my cup and ask

The branches, heavy with flowers,

To drink with me.  I wish them

Long life and promise never

To pick them.  In company

With the moon and the flowers,

I get drunk, and none of us

Ever worries about good

Or bad.  How many people

Can comprehend our joy? I

Have wine and moon and flowers.

Who else do I want for drinking companions?

(trans. Kenneth Rexroth)

 

To help alleviate the sufferings of a difficult life, he became the devotee of Zen Buddhism and his poetics reflects the practice of the “beginner’s mind,” the ability to meet each experience with equilibrium and a “spontaneous and crystalline responsiveness.”

 

At Seven-Mile Rapids

 

A light boat one loan leaf,

a startled swan two oars—

 

water and sky are pure clarity

reflecting deep. Waves smooth,

 

fish roil this duckweed mirror

and egrets dot misty shorelines.

 

We breeze past sandy streams,

frostfall streams cold,

moonlit streams aglow.

 

ridge above ridge like a painting,

bend beyond bend like a screen.

 

Here I think back to

Yen Tzu-ling’s empty old age,

 

lord and recluse one dream.

Renown’s empty then as now,

 

just mountains stretching away:

cloud mountains erratic,

dawn mountains green.

 

Out of his poetry emerges a beautiful balance, the ability to look at both joy and sorrow with gentle tranquility and wry amusement.

 

At Brahma-Heaven Monastery, Rhymed with a Short Poem of Crystalline Beauty by the Monk Acumen-Hoard

 

You can only hear a bell out beyond the mist:

the monastery deep in mist is lost to sight.

 

Straw sandals wet with the dew of grasses,

a recluse wanders. Never coming to rest,

 

he’s simply an echo of mountaintop moon—

light coming and going night after night.

 

(trans. David Hinton)

 

Su Tung-P’o’s poetry illuminates the beauty and loneliness running throughout ourselves and Nature. His work becomes a sort of map for this strange new world we find ourselves in: isolated yet surrounded, weary but still observing, cut off but yet deeply involved.

 

After T’ao Ch’ien’s “Drinking Wine”

 

3

 

This little boat of mine, truly a lone leaf,

and beneath it, the sound of dark swells:

 

I keep paddling in the depths of night, drunk,

pleasures of home, bed, and desk forgotten.

 

At dawn, when I ask about the road ahead,

I’ve already past a thousand ridges rising

 

beyond ridges. O where am I going here,

this Way forever leaving ever returning?

 

Never arriving, what can we understand,

and always leaving, what’s left to explain?

 

(trans. David Hinton)

 

Tides of Snow and Ice

This winter has been a continuous series of freezes and thaws: it’s the warmest winter on record, the tenth one in a row. A more usual winter starts with a deep freeze and then stays cold for months. Instead, snow falls, piles up and vanishes; rises up again and retreats, now falling as rain, swelling rivers and creeks. Rain and snow mingle together until everything runs with water; hillsides and flat-sides are coated in a deep, dark mud.

I stopped on my walk today, halted by a sudden flash of gold. The sunset rays were falling into a tiny puddle spanning the space between the root and trunk of a maple. The puddle reflected gold and silver on top and below was dark mud, black and brown, full of microorganisms and other tiny creatures unseen by the human eye. I briefly considered putting my hand to the shining surface. It beckoned, winking like a diamond, but pull of my walk was irresistible and I continued forward. 

Mud is for March and April, mud so thick and heavy that it can pull shoes off and make them disappear like a magic trick beneath the solemn and still brown. Mud in February is a strange slight, an awakening that shouldn’t be occurring yet. It’s all the more cruel because even though the temperatures rise, they inevitably dip into the single digits and everything freezes solid. Many times I’ve spotted squirrels and tiny birds on the creek’s ice, searching for openings to drink from.

During this particular thaw, the creek casts off ice, it’s center opening like a dark cut. The water sings as it cascades over the rocks, proclaiming it’s momentarily relief from the grip of winter. In Scandinavian folklore, there is a belief that given the proper offerings, a creek could teach a human how to play the most bewitching music. I crouch down near the creek, record a video of it singing on my phone and replay its music in the evening while lying on the couch. I should give something in return for the pleasure of its song and I consider. Perhaps some lavender buds I have stored away for a certain recipe, or a small pinecone I keep on a shelf to admire, or birch bark I retrieved from a favorite tree cut down years ago. 

The next day I return, and after waiting for a few dogs and their owners to pass by, I crouch next the side of the creek and sprinkle lavender buds into the small, clear stream. The buds vanish as soon as I drop them into the water– as if they never existed. I drop some more in and the same occurs; they’re gone before I can blink. The current flows by, washing over stones, fleeting by banks of mud, until it vanishes around the bend where the pine trees tower overhead.

As I gaze at the water, first downstream and then upstream, my own self quiets, stills, and momentarily dissolves into the landscape. The relief, though short, is palpable. Alone becomes together and perhaps that is what’s this practice of thanking the creek has been about all along.